William M. Loker (wloker@RA.MSSTATE.EDU)
Thu, 19 May 1994 14:41:21 -0500

Dear fellow anthros -- I have been lurking on this list for about three
weeks now. I am both dismayed by the volume and length of postings and
attracted by the topics discussed. Reminds me of why I became an
anthropologist (which in the rush of grading papers, preparing classes,
hustling funds and generally trying to make ends meet, I sometimes
forget...). The discussions on
relativism and social evolution have both been of extreme interest.

Relativism is of interest because it is an unavoidable topic for the
ethically informed anthropologist. and also because (and partially in
reply to Moffat's request for info on ways to make intro to anthro
more interesting) in my intro class we did a
series of "contemporary issues" forums/fora in which students made
presentations on selected topics. One of the topics was the issue
of cultural rights, that is, do all groups have a right to their own
cultural traditions and beliefs free from outside interference? This
discussion necessarily evolved (:->) into one regarding the existence or
not of universal rights such as cultural rights and the issue of how to
deal with morally repugnant (from one's point of view) cultural
practices. To have these issues aired so eloquently and inconclusively
on anthro-l convinces me that this is a topic that should continue to be
disucssed in my intro to anthro class.

The discussion of cultural/Social evolution has fascinated me because
it is a primary interest of
mine. I think all posters on this topic would benefit from reading
Durham's _Coevolution_ if they have not already done so. CUlture and
organisms both evolve because both entail heritable traits passed across
generations (and in multiple pathways in the case of culture). Cultural
evolution is distinct from biological evolution in part because the
mechanisms of inheritance are so different (ideas encoded linguistically
versus genetic information) and because the passage of cultural
information is not directly or necessarily linked to survival and
reproduction. (People who do not reproduce can still pass on cultural
information). Therefore culture is not necessarily acted on directly by
natural selection the way gnetic informaiton is. Our challenge is to define
more clearly
the mecahanisms and processes by which this occurs -- to come up with
theories of cultural evolution that may *draw on* models of biological
evolution, but which will surely be distinct. I think analogies like
mutation-innovation are of very limited utility. And one of the
primary distinguishing features of cultural evolution is the importance
of choice and intentionality in c.e. which is totally absent from b.e.
Again, Durham (and Boyd & Richerson) have expressed this much more
eloquently than I have or will....

My real point in coming out of the lurkers closet is to open another can
of worms. A colleague at an economic development research institute
where I used to work (IFPRI) wants to know what definitions
anthropologists have come up with for the term "sustainable" as in
"sustainable development." How about it, anthro-lsters, anyone have
thoughts on this topic? What is sustainability? At what level does it
operate(farm/firm? household? ecosystem? region? globe?) Can it be
measured? How? Is it an ecological concept or a social concept or
both/neither? Reply to me personally if you choose (I will
post to the entire list if desired). Or post to the list ingeneral if
you think its an issue that should be discussed on this list.

Sorry for the length of the post --
Bill Loker, Missippi State, Soc/ANTHRO