The left does not evolve

Fri, 13 May 1994 01:28:00 PDT

Matthews writes:
" Cultural evolution is unacceptable because it roots this
understanding in factors outside of the control of people and into nature
and structure. These are constructed categories built by people to serve
given and immediate historically situated ends, and that they persist,
that they are apparently successful adaptations, is reflective not of
selection but of their service to the dominant interests."

While I do not agree with Matthews rejection of science, he has raised a
valid point that has come up from time to time in different guises; namely
the ability of humans to evaluate, act upon and alter their conditions in
order to achieve goals that they have defined. Matthews seems to take this
as a charter to shy away from science, but in so doing he prejudges the basis
uponwhich we make sense of ourselves without demonstrating that the presumed
basis for a historically situated discourse is a solid one. Let me suggest a
simple test case. Consider a group such as the Netsilik eskimo. To what
extent can one make sense of what they were doing by reference to "nature and
structure" and to what extent can what they were about only be understood by
reference to "dominant interests?" Clearly, many aspects of their society
and culture directly relate to the problem of how one survives in their
arctic environment. Roughly, survival depended upon a highly constrained
yearly round of activities where the external conditions also dictated
the number of persons needed to live togehter and work communally.
E.g., a Netsilik cultural istitution such as sealing partners can be seen as
a solution they found to the problem of how to get enough males cooperating
for winter time seal hunts--without such cooperation they would and could not
have survived. And however the institution initially came about, its
continued existence seems best accounted for by the simple argument that
failure to continue with the institution of sealing partners would (using
traditional means for hunting seals) lead to starvation. In other words,
regardless of how this institution might have played a role with regard to
"dominant interests", the latter has little to do with either why this (or a
structurally equivalent institution) institution should exist and be

This does not negate the possibility that in other aspects of Netsilik life
where external constrains are not so overwhelming there may be aspects which
can be best accounted for by reference to "dominant interests."

Perhaps if we view behaviors as having constraints (in the sense of
consequences which affect the people involved) which range from minimal to
extreme, we might find simultaneously a gradient in terms of the
degree to which the behaviors seem to be driven by more historically
contingent factors versus driven by exogenous factors.

D. Read