Evolutionary Developments (excessively long)

John A. Giacobbe (Catalinus@AOL.COM)
Fri, 29 Sep 1995 02:15:04 -0400

with the formulation and application of an evolutionary perspective to
anthropological research (and I will include all the four fields in this
I have my own take on things, and will try to continue the worthy discussion.

To preface this, I would like to mention that I am relatively new on
list, and these types of discussions are exactly the type of Aristotlean
dialogue I had hoped for in such a forum. I would like to complement the
listowners and members for advancing the progress of human thought, and
generally appearing to have a good time of it.

Matthew Tomaso has brought up a viable critique, when he mentioned:
>While I certainly agree that evolutionary models (that is, models about
>change) are of potential use in archaeology, I would like to propose a
>challenge. Let's put one of these models on the ground with an
>hypothetical, or even real, example. Year after year, I see elaborate
>arguments about the viability of evolutionary paradigms, but rarely have I
>seen anything particularly enlightening come out of their application. I
>suspect that many other listmembers would feel more at ease with this
>discussion, especially those of us interested in social realities like
>ideology, identity, agency, consciousness, and discourse, if we were able
>to point to something (anything) specific that this approach can yield and
>which can not be given (as easily) by any other approach

Heartfully spoken, Matt. I understand the reluctance to embrace a new
theoretical perspective when little practical application has been offered.
Before I attempt to enter this arena, I would like to note something that
John Staeck recently mentioned:

> ...evolutionary archaeology (or whatever) need not be perceived as the
> end-all or be-all of research that I think some people fear. Though some
> evolutionary archaeologists touch on issues of style and the individual I
> would suggest that there may be more effective ways of investigating
> such issues. Like all theoretical perspectives, evolutionary archaeology
> can be perceived as a tool which is best suited to investigate some
> problems...

This may be the heart of the reason evolutionary theory sparks such
impassioned views. So much was offered by evolutionary theorists early
proponents, that when it failed to be the grand unifying theory, it was
rejected in toto. I do not believe evolutionary theory can begin to grapple
with complex concepts such as those Mr Tomaso mentioned, primarily
because of the data required to elucidate them. "Power, ideology, identity,
agency, consciousness, and discourse" leave little or no remnants in the
archaeological record, and even within an ethnological investigation, can
seldom be translated cross-culturally (see Margaret Meades early Pacific
I believe we should start with less lofty goals, like the explanation of
changes in the frequency of ceramic types, or the evaluation of the effects
of changes in subsistence strategy on the fitness of a group. The former
has been attempted by a researcher named Lourdes Aguila in southern
New Mexico with a study of ceramic type and attribute variation over time in
a series of prehistoric Jornada Mogollon (circa 700-1400 A.D.) settlements.
Ms Aguila used a combination of archaeological contextual associations,
geologic analysis of changes in ceramic composition and manufacture, and
ecological models that analyze populational diversity, to elucidate cultural
evolutionary change over time. While it is difficult to paraphrase this
excellent work here, Ms Aguila demonstrated cultural evolution in this group
of Mogollon, and was able to offer some explanations involving changes in
resource acquisition, shifts of trade and population migration, and even
alterations in local micropopulational style preferences. It worked!

Now to dip into the theoretical conundrum, Mr Rob Quinlan has mentioned
some very valid points with regard to the viability of applying Darwinian
evolutionary theory to cultural traits, when he mentioned that:
> Some folks like to draw the analogy between cultural ev. and organic ev.
> by comparing the change in allele frequency over time to the change in
> cultural trait frequency over time, but the comparison is not apt. The
> problem is that alleles are perfect replicators (more or less) that are
> inherited in particulate form from generation to generation. That's what
> makes organic ev. work. Cultural traits, on the other hand, are not
> replicators nor are they inherited in particulate form. .... Along this
> what qualifies as a cultural trait?

I believe that the main difference between cultural and biological
of evolution lies in the nature of each's mechanism of transmission.
Biological transmission of trait expression occurs in the reproductive act
information resides in genetic material stored in DNA. Cultural transmission
of trait expression occurs through social mechanisms of communication,
with trait expression information residing in the collective consciousness of
the population as accumulated experience.
The processes of biological evolution require some redefinition for use
cultural definition, however, sufficient analogy does appear to exist to
transpose one theory for another in many aspects of anthropological
investigations. Robert Dunnell considers that the processes of natural
selection, gene flow, gene drift, and mutation all have clearly analogous
processes in both biological and cultural evolution. He considers that the
specific origin or invention of new elements is not important, and equates
mutation with the act of invention and innovation. This analogy may be
taken further. Gene flow and gene drift exhibit a clearly analogous
relationship with cultural diffusionary processes. Natural selection appears
to have the same adaptionary stimulation within both cultural and biological
evolutionary models.

Mr Rob Quinlan has some further points worthy of comment:
>One last little quip. I find coevolutionary approaches dissatisfying,
> they remove people from the analysis. For example, in Boyd &
> Richarson's stuff you've got genes, culture, and environment. Where'd
> the people go? Individuals are the level where selection is strongest,
> because their genes are locked together in one body (a vehicle if you
> like). For me, the interesting thing about cultural ev. is the relationship
> culture to the individual. How do individuals use culture in their
> for existence?

Emotionally and spiritually unappealing as this may seem, the role of
individual may not be the primary vector of evolutionary influence when
culture comes into play. In humans, the adaptive strategy appears to focus
around the group, and fitness may be largely measured as the success of
the group, in that if the group is successful, the individual will generally
successful enough to pass on their genes. Altruistic behaviors, like other
human communal behaviors such as large-scale agriculture and water
control systems, function to increase the fitness of a group. If the group
succeeds, then the majority of that groups genes will continue to persist in
the gene pool, even as an individuals may not entirely do so.
I think we must consider that culture has moved the unit of selection
from the individual to the group. While this does not appear to apply to
modern cultural systems, in that their extreme population mobility and the
overall size of the practically accessible gene pool may act to obviate
selection processes.
Selection is primarily manifest as natural selection, although some
sexual selection and perhaps societal trend selection (can someone think of
a better term for peer pressure?) has an influence on character
transmission. Selection is the factor that decides how much influence a
particular trait expression will have on the overall adaptive strategy.
Selection acts on the group rather than the individual in cultural evolution.
Criteria for selective value include, efficiency of energy capture, survival
reproductive success, and even perceived satisfaction of needs and wants.
The most important aspect of selection is its benefit to the survivability of
culture group. I would think that the environment is the primary source of
selective pressure, and is the ultimate test by which adaptions are
measured for their selective value. As well demographic conditions, such
as population size, geographical distribution, and life table dispersions are
also a source of adaptionary influence. Population parameters and
interactions with the environment are the principal influencing factors
towards adaptive success.

Well, I imagine I have caused most of you to bloat with food for thought,
and you couldn't even take an after dinner mint, so the rest of my ramblings
will have to await your comments to these opinions of mine.

Thanks for your time,

John A. Giacobbe
Western Archaeological Services, Inc.