Re: Social Evolution

Tracy Brown (tbrown@ACPUB.DUKE.EDU)
Sun, 15 May 1994 17:11:00 -0400

On Sun, 15 May 1994, Dave Rindos wrote:

> On Sat, 14 May 1994, Tracy Brown wrote:
> > First, if history has been comprised of a series, or wave,
> > of formation and disintegration of states, how can it be argued that there has
> > been social evolution?
> Why not?

If by evolution, you mean change (as you explain below), then I would
obviously agree that there has been social evolution. I would not however,
argue that progress has occurred with the formation of states, which (if I
did not misunderstand) was the implication of the post that this statement
was originally made in. A historian from Portland (can't recall her
name) wrote in several times last week, also arguing for a progressive view
of cultural change. Again, if I misunderstood her intentions, I apologize.

> > I seriously doubt that the size of political
> > entities that people live in can be taken as a criteria of social
> > evolution.
> Agreed. And to go further, there are no 'critera' 'of' or 'for' social
> (or any other kind of) evolution. There is only evolutionary change. Is
> it not a reasonable task to attempt to understand HOW and WHY cultures
> changed in the ways they did (rather than changing in some kind of
> hypothetically "different kind of way").

Of course it is a reasonable task to understand how and why cultures
change. I never said it wasn't. What I said was:

> > I find the whole idea of social evolution questionable at
> > best, especially if by evolution we mean progress.
> ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
This was meant to be a big "if." I never said that all people interested in
culture change hold this to be true.

> But evolution has NOTHING (nada, zip, zero) to do with "progress" (honest!
> would I lie about that??). Furthermore, finding a concept "questionable"
> tells us little about its factuality.

I know evolution has nothing to do with progress, I was just wondering
if everyone else understood that. As for the last statement: finding a
concept questionable tells us that its factuality is doubtful.

There is absolutely no progress in
> biological evolution. There isn't even an increase in complexity (save for
> the artifactual appearance of such increases in complexity which arises
> from the trivial observation that if you start of with something composed
> of a few elements, and if the number of elements increase (in some
> cases!), then the result may be *described* as 'more complex.').
> Does the fact that there is no progress or direction in biological
> evoltuion mean that the theory of biological evolution is questionable?
> It fact it *would* be a good argument against biological evolution -- IF
> and ONLY IF biologists actually *claimed* that biological evolution is
> progress and increase in complexity. But they don't.

I never said the theory of BIOLOGICAL evolution was questionable. I
only claimed that a theory of cultural change that involved some claim to
progress was questionable.

The same is true
> with CONTEMPORARY cultural evolutionary theorists -- nobody is making the
> kinds of claims being rejected here (and if they are, they shouldn't be!

They aren't? Unless I am reading a different Anthro-1 discussion list, it
seems as though that has been implied in several of the posts here. Which
answers the next question:

> Is there ANYBODY on this list who actually SUPPORTS a Spencerian,
> progressivist, directional, and telelogical 'evolution'? I would rather
> doubt it (but I may be wrong).

> What in the world does a perfectly reasonable rejection of an outdated
> model (late 19th Century Spencerian evolutionist theory) have to do with a
> reasoned evaluation of modern approaches to the subject (late 20th Century
> cultural selectionism)? Would we condemn modern astronomy because the
> earth is NOT the centre of the Universe? Would we claim that modern
> astronomers are talking nonsense because we have NO evidence that the
> planets move in neat circular orbits around the earth? And then (in a
> *not very nice* next step), would we wonder about their *motivations* in
> adopting such a clearly outdated and disproven theory....

No, we probably would not wonder about an astronomer adopting an outmoded
theory. I think, however, adopting the idea that culture or history is
progressive is a bit different than this. This, is not, in other words, a
fair analogy.

> Do you honestly believe that scholars working in the modern cultural
> selectionist school actually are arguing "for" "social evolution" (in the
> sense of progress, etc.)? Again, none of the ones I read do this. As
> I've noted before, it seems we spent a LOT of time arguing AGAINST just
> such notions! To little avail, it sometimes appears.
I don't know about scholars working in the modern cultural selectionist
school. I was not talking about them in my post. I was talking about the
posts that have been made to this list, some of which -- as I have noted
over and over here -- seem to believe that culture are progressing through
time. I seem to have touched a nerve. I was not making sweeping
generalizations, which I think -- if you read my post carefully -- is clear.

> > This, for me at least, is the most important question to ask, not whether
> > or not biological evolution is a good metaphor for social evolution.
> Biological evolution is NOT a metaphore of any kind for cultural
> evolution. It is not an analogy either. The kinds of PROCESSES
> underlying cultural and biological evolution are homologous, similar in
> nature, but not in kind. But that is a topic for a different time....

Dave, you are right. I agree with you. But, unfortunately, some people have
been using biological evolution as a model for cultural evolution on this
list. Perhaps they are misinformed (or, again, I may have misinterpreted
them). Speaking of misinterpretation, you seem to have misunderstood my post.
Perhaps you have not been reading all of the posts about this specific
thread (?).
Tracy Brown