Re: Applied Evolution

Tobias Schmid (florian.schmid@STUDENT.UNI-TUEBINGEN.DE)
Tue, 26 Sep 1995 10:41:18 +0100

On Mon, 25 Sep 1995, Nick Corduan wrote:

> It could be said, for instance, that American
> culture is the product of cultural breeding betwen the mishmash of European
> cultures and native American cultures and African cultures. IT could even be
> said, I suppose, that European culture was also a byproduct of the culture of
> its neighbors in the Near East, etc...

This example suggests that cultures are clearly identifiable entities
just like organisms. On the other hand, Nick agrees with Anthony that:

> > The problem, then that you rightly
> > bring out is where people see separate cultures as isolated entities, with
> > no connection to the myriad other factors of life, like our common
> > bio-evolutionary region. This is the common problem that all sciences face,
> > of course, the fact that no area of the world, or our inquiry, can never
> > honestly be isolated from another.
> *This* was the point! <BG>

But the evolutionary paradigm is doing exactly this: it makes us see
cultures as entities which are, although not isolated, something discrete.
Only discrete entities can "breed". Nick's example relies on the notion
that there were several "authentic" European, native American and African
cultures that somehow were blended together in the big melting pot to
yield a new entitiy: THE American culture. (Having spent a year in the US
I could never discover anything like this...)

In this I see a central systematic problem of the evolutionary paradigm.
It insinuates an independance of cultures which just cannot be supported
by ethnographic experience. (I don't dare to write "findings" or even
"facts".) As we become aware of the historical and geographical
interconnectedness of all cultures, modern and not-modern, the
evolutionary paradigm fails to provide the conceptual material to describe
this experience. The picture of the melting pot fails, because there were
no ingredients in the strict sense of the word.

Still, as has been pointed out before by others, evolutionism and
ahistorical perspective are not an exclusive alternative. One can think
historically without embracing evolutionist notions. Modern sociological
theory (e.g. A. Giddens) offers alternative perspectives to both.

An interrelated problem with evolutionism is that it separates human
agency from humans. If we speak of the breeding of cultures, we forget
that there were real people meeting each other, spending their lives
together and interacting with each other and thus creating something that
might be labelled "American culture". If this phenomenon is described as a
breeding of cultures, there is no way left to conceptualize the
intracultural differences.

Cultural theory (big word...) not only has to conceptualize the fact that
the living together of German workers with Irish farmers, Native Americans
and Yankee factory owners yielded something that is American culture just
as much as the result of the interactions between Mexican farmers, French
and British estate owners, and African slaves. But it also has to talk
about the fact that there were workers, farmers and factory owners among
the immigrants from most countries and that this diversity within the
immigrant groups must be acknowledged if in talking about their cultures.
This argument can be extended accordingly to all cultures: Trobriand
culture is composed of the interactions of people of various backgrounds
as is Nuer culture, Kwakiutl culture etc. The evolutionist paradigm does
not allow to take notice of this phenomenon. Therefore it is not an
adequate theory as a foundation of cultural anthropology.

Well, that's enough for today. I thought the evolutionists among us
needed some opposition.


Tobias Schmid

Eberhardstr.25, D-72072 Tuebingen, Germany