Social Evolution

Fri, 13 May 1994 15:07:24 -0700

I usually just lurk on this list, but I feel the need to comment on a couple of
points that have been raised in the thread on social evolution.

First, Bob Graber writes:

...where ten thousand years ago all humans lived in small, politically
autonomous communities, today we all live in populous states. There is an
obvious, overwhelming, physically identifiabletrend in social evolution
from small societies to large ones. To deny this, or to deny that it is
central to understanding many of the transformations in human culture, is
politically-correct, self-inflicted ignorance.

While I would quibble with the assertion that all humans now live in populous
states (as a previous poster already did), I agree that there is a trend over
the last ten thousand years in the average size of polities (I am not sure that
I want to call the large and often extremely heterogeneous groups of people
that are integrated in modern states either 'societies' or 'cultures'). I do
not think anyone disagrees that this trend has occurred, although in most
places it has been more wave like than linear (i.e., large polities form, then
disintegrate into small polities, then large ones reform. Through time the
size of the groups integrated during periods of relatively great political
integration have often enough been larger than those integrated in earlier
periods that the average size of polities has increased). But this is another
minor quibble.

The real issue is whether the trend toward larger polities, and the many
other cultural and societal changes observable in human history and prehistory,
are best understood by analogy to biological evolution. I don't think so. At
times, the adoption of models based on biological evolution seems like wishful
thinking on the part of those who desire to make anthropology more scientific.
The reasoning goes something like 'anthropology needs to be more scientific',
Darwinian evolution is scientific', therefore 'Darwinian evolution is the only
scientific way to explain cultural/societal change'. I have exaggerated a bit,
but there are arguments in the archaeological literature that are almost this
blatent. I do not object to anthropologists exploring the usefulness of
biological evolution as an analogy, but those who do have rarely (if ever)
demonstrated that it is even plausible given what we know (or think we know)
about the way cultural practices arise and/or are transmitted.

I agree with the goal of making anthropology as scientific as possible, but
those who argue that we must adopt models derived from biological evolution
often have a very narrow view of what science actually is. That Graber shares
this narrow view of science is suggested by his opposition of 'positivists'
and 'post-modernists', with no room in between for anyone who disagrees with
him. Positivism does not equal science. It is one relatively narrow and
largely discredited approach to science.

Further, I am very, very tired of hearing ideas characterized as
'politically-correct'. How does making this charge advance the discusion or
clarify the issues? What political interests are involved and who is enforcing
the supposedly 'politically-correct' ideas? To merely make the charge that
someone else's ideas are 'politically-correct' is an intellectually dishonest
and/or intellectually lazy attempt to avoid considering whether the ideas
actually are correct or not.

Next, Karen Eva Carr wrote:

Seems to me that counterparts to mutation = any new practice or custom or
invention. Thus ... when one person decides to take a partner along when
going sealing, that is a mutation. When all the people who take partners
live and the ones who do not take partners die, that is a successful

This seems like a good demonstration of one of the things that I think is wrong
with biological evolution as a model for cultural/societal change. The
biological analogy implies inheritance of traits, and something akin to natural
selection. Thus, if one person took a partner sealing, and was more
successful, his descendants would do the same, while the contemporaries of the
innovator and their descendants would not. Those who took partners would be
more successful, live longer, and have more descendants, who also would take
partners. Eventually everyone would be descended from the first person who
took a partner, and they would all go sealing in pairs. If that was the way
cultural traits spread through a population, the biological analogy would work
fine. That is not the way the world works however. More likely, one person
would take a partner sealing, the two-man team would kill more seals, everyone
would talk about what a great idea it was, and within a season or two everyone
would be sealing with someone. A few people might hold out, but if they came
close to being selected against (i.e., starving to death), hey would change
their ways.

Simply put, the ways that cultural traits spread through a population have no
analogy in biological evolution. This is even clearer in Karen Eva Carr's next

Thus for example making VHS players has turned out to be a successful
mutation, while making Betas has not.

Do we have any example of Beta manufacturers failing to reproduce because of
bad business decisions? If not, then the biological analogy does not apply.

I suppose that is enough flame bait for one post. Just to clarify my position
let me say that I am not against using analogy to biological evolution as a
tool for thinking about cultural change. But it can only be a starting point.
We need to consider carefully the rather striking differences between the ways
that genes mutate and the ways that new cultural traits arise, and between the
transmission of genes and cultural practices. We also need to be careful about
assuming that anything like natural selection applies to cultural traits. In
some cases it may, but in many cases people will simply change their behavior
rather than be selected against.

Most importantly, we need to guard against the narrow (and common) view that
only models that stress adaptation and analogy to biological evolution are
scientific. Both sides of the debate seem at times to accept this assertion,
leading those who do not find biological evolution a useful model to argue
against science itself (usually narrowly conceived) rather than to argue
against the analogy. Science is using data in the attempt to develop theories
and or models that approximate the real world as closely as possible. It is
not the least bit unscientific to doubt that cultural change is anything like
biological evolution, nor is it unscientific to stress the particularities of
societies rather than search for universal generalizations, or the ways that
our current political/cultural/societal conditions shape our theories and our
data. It is also not unscientific to point out that those who say 'I'm
scientific and you're not' usually are not doing good science (or at least not
as good as they think they are).

That the average size of polities has increased through time is an interesting
fact that deserves explanation. But demonstrating that it occurred is not the
same as demonstrating that biological evolution is the only (or best) model
for understanding that change.

Jim Allison
Northern Arizona University