Darwin-L Message Log 1:244 (September 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.

<1:244>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Tue Sep 28 20:29:52 1993

Date: Tue, 28 Sep 1993 21:32:14 -0400 (EDT)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: Evolutionary/cultural theory vs. evolutionary/cultural history
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

My esteemed colleague and friend Dr. Gerson writes concerning cultural

>...individual people qua individuals do not appear in [the] picture; i.e.,
>social science does not deal with individual people and their properties.

And further:

>When I said there's more to culture than the socialization of children, I
>meant that explaining the properties of individuals is not the point,
>because that is not what anthropology and sociology are about.  Nor is
>cultural evolution a matter of individual performances.  Rather, it is a
>matter of institutionalized or conventional or standardized performances.

But explaining the properties of individuals as individuals *is* what history
(evolutionary or cultural) is about.  The American Revolution is an
individual thing that happened only once, and to "explain" it (that word
becomes problematic here -- "understand" might be better) we tell its
history; we produce a narrative.  Likewise "Vertebrata" is an individual, a
unique whole entity (a clade) that has happened only once.  To understand the
Vertebrata we likewise tell its history.  Similarly with the Indo-European
languages, which also constitute a unique historical individual; all the laws
in the world wouldn't allow someone to put first-century Latin in at one end
and get modern French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, with all their
vocabularies, dialects and geographical distributions out at the other.
(Unless one is fond of Leibniz's omniscient calculator, I suppose, but that
seems sufficiently far removed from the real world to be irrelevant.)  To
understand the evolution of Indo-European, we tell its history.

Many evolutionary biologists (in particular systematists, students of
evolutionary history) are not necessarily interested in how organisms "in
general" evolve; the whole point of their work is to find out how _some
particular organisms_ evolved, whatever they may be; in other words, the
point is to find out the organisms' history.  And for me as a student of
evolutionary history such historical accounts are in no sense incomplete or
partial because they "fail" to discern general evolutionary laws; that was
not their aim.  Indeed, from the historical point of view one might say that
evolutionary _theory_ "fails" because it doesn't tell us the history of one
single organism.  (Remember Darwin's evolutionary tree in the _Origin_ is a
hypothetical tree, not a real one.).  As someone (Haldane?) said,
evolutionary theory is fine as far as it goes, but "how we come to have
horses and tigers and things is outside the mathematical theory" -- it is
instead in the domain of historical narration (or at least historical

What do cultural/linguistic/social _historians_ think: is sociological or
anthropological _theory_ of any use or interest to them?  Do they use this
theory in their historical reconstructions?

Bob O'Hara, Darwin-L list owner

Robert J. O'Hara (darwin@iris.uncg.edu)
Center for Critical Inquiry and Department of Biology
100 Foust Building, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina 27412 U.S.A.

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