Evolutionary Envelopments (also excessively long)

Matthew S. Tomaso (Tomaso@MAIL.UTEXAS.EDU)
Fri, 29 Sep 1995 10:15:53 -0500

For John Giaccobbe and interested others:

Please do not be offended by the aggressiveness and didacticism of the
following note. As always, I appreciate and respect your views, and I hope
you will react to mine in the spirit of academic discourse, not as an attack
on you personally. I don't like pulling punches, so to speak. And I think,
at this point, I ought to get to the heart of my criticism before we all get
so fouled up in our semantics that we can't recover. I think that by
playing devil's advocate to the hilt, I might get you to see at least some
of my original points.

1. Cultural evolutionism, even the kind you espouse, is, by no means, a
new approach in anthropology. It is, in fact, the oldest. If you want
references to this effect, please ask, I can cite a few dozen, going back
well into the 19th century, off the top of my head. I could extend this
even farther back, but I'm afraid the concept of evolutionism gets
stretched a bit too far....

2. Let me first explain to you that I began my career in archaeology as a
cultural evolutionist in the tradition of Steward and White - applying
ecology in all that I did. I did this for about 5 years, but for the last
four years, I have begun to broaden my horizons. One of the reasons I've
partially shelved this approach was because I realized that, with few
exceptions in socio-cultural anthropology (the materialists and
functionalists - Harris, White, Malinowski mainly), the biological model of
culture (ie. Spencer, Morgan, Marx) had been buried with the advent of the
linguistic analogy and Boas. While Boas, of course, must be historically
situated, social and cultural anthropology has moved so far away from
anything like a biological model of culture (over the last 70 years) that
most materialism (ie White, Harris, Steward, Binford,) is seen as
anachronistic ( I disagree with this, by the way). Whether or not this
critique is relevent or valid (I don't think it is), I realized that the
biological model, inevitably, no matter how many times I repeated to myself
that it shouldn't, leads to Spencerism. For example, as you state:

"Selection acts on the group rather than the individual in cultural evolution.
Criteria for selective value include, efficiency of energy capture, survival
and reproductive success, and even perceived satisfaction of needs and wants".

Please note that I am not arguing that you make value judgments when you
take this kind of selectionist stance. That is an argument that is only
used by people who really don't understand Darwin. Also, one could argue,
profitably, that the linguistic analogy inevitably leads to similar problems
- like the vast difference we see between preshitory and history. However....

There is simply no room for human agency here. In culture, selection is
made mainly by groups of participants, not some imagined universal
equation, the superorganic, culture (the singular noun) or local cultural
ecology. How, may I ask, can you boil down the culture-cides of the
American colonial period to selection? Before you answer, consider whether
there really is any difference in saying that human agency determines the
course of history or saying that cultural selection does. I don't see a
real empirical difference, rather, I see a methodological one. The former
statement ('human agency > history) allows you to go beyond reductionism by
allowing you to seek out the complex webs of causality (ie - the
decision-makers <agents, identity>, their influences <ideology, gender>,
their mistakes and successes <behavior, practice, consciousness>, etc),
while the latter tends to conflate cause and effect (a problem in any
evolutionary paradigm), assumes some sort of collective unconscious (eg the
superorganic or Kluckhohn's 'configurations'), and finally, brackets off the
possibility of individual variation within the social body as a causal
mechanism. What possible practical use could this notion of cultural
selection serve in anthropology? - it denies the reseearcher any right to
engage in active participation in political causes as a scientist and
professional (in fact, it raises the status of the researcher above that of
his/her subjects), it reduces culture to a meaningless category or black box
in which selection and adaptation occur, and finally, it rationalizes
culture-cide as a 'natural' process. Of course, we can weave ideology and
anything else into our evolutionary models at will, but the farther we get
away from the original biological applications of the evolutionary model,
and the greater the quantity of adjustments we have to make to engage issues
of culture, the less valuable and distinctly evolutionary the model becomes.
It starts to look more and more like history.

Cultural Evolution is fine if the only things you are interested in are
ecology and human-environmental interaction. These are important
considerations, perhaps the MOST IMPORTANT considerations, but they are not
the whole ballgame. All human realities are multicausal realities. To deny
the possibility, for example, that decisions regarding the production of
certain ceramic styles have to do with ideology, agency and consciousness,
is to miss the entire point of the notion of culture. I do not accuse you
or any other evolutionist of doing this, but I would like to see somebody
admit the limitations of their approach! To deny agency and ideology is to
deny, at least ( just to be controversial and probabilistic), 50% of the
story and about 90% of the conscious story. Thats okay, but that's not

Matt Tomaso.
Anthropology. University of Texas at Austin.
Phone/Fax 512-453-6256