Darwin-L Message Log 1:263 (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.

<1:263>From ARKEO4@FENNEL.WT.UWA.EDU.AU  Wed Sep 29 19:31:09 1993

Date: Thu, 30 Sep 1993 8:35:40 +0800 (SST)
Subject: RE: Cultural change and historical ("Darwinian") explanations
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

On Wed, 29 Sep 1993, Peter D. Junger raises an issue which I believe is of
*central* importance to those people interested in DOING cultural
evolutionary studies:

>   But I would like to say that a major problem in understanding
> how various legal institutions (such as heritability;-) function within
> a "legal system" lies in our tendency to see legal institutions and
> systems either as being intentionally designed to function the way that
> they do or as being deducible from first principles (or reducible to
> differential equations) without regard to the direction of time or the
> environment in which they developed.
[ . . . ]
>   And it does not require one to have much of a theory as to what
> those "Darwinian" or "evolutionary" processes are for them to function
> as an antidote to the equally empty "theories" that cultural
> institutions are the product of human design or of logical deductions
> from first principles.

While we might have very abstract arguments about the minutia of the THEORY
of cultural evolution, all of the "negative" statements about it leave the
practictioner in a bit of a bind -- being told that one's method of study
is somehow inherently flawed doesn't get us very far, does it?  Being told
that, ultimately, there is nothing to explain in my area of study makes me
want to take up something useful for a living.

Like Peter, I am ATTEMPTING Darwinism in my work simply because the options
stink.  ALL of the other approaches in the social sciences seem inherently
flawed and, worse, totally incoherent when viewed from the point of view of
a person interested in looking at human culture in terms of a natural,
mechanistic (dare I say it? -- scientific) notion of causation.

The problem boils down to a fairly simple one -- is the PATTERN seen over
time and space in culture explainable in what most of us would understand
as scientific terms.  Are the OBSERVABLE SPECIFIC DIFFERENCES (NOT the
general, underlying similarities) explainable?  WHY should the SPECIFIC
subsistence systems, kinship systems, ethical sytstems, etc etc found
around the world have the forms they actually have?  Why should we have
been basically hunter/gatheres for about 99% of our history?  Why should it
have ever changed??  Was the reason the same in each case, or was each case
unique and is it understandable ONLY in terms of the specifics of the place
and time?  Or to move to the apparently trivial: Why should the ceramic
paste used to make pots change at a given point in time?  Or why should
flakes and cores of different dimensions be found in different areas in a
settlement?  General comments on whether culture fits somebody or another's
definition of "hereditable" seem to pale into insignificance in the face of
these larger, more important questions (no kidding!).  I treat culture AS
IF it WERE hereditable because it is *necessary* for me to do so if I am to
even ATTEMPT an answer to the questions which are of concern to me.

We (or at least *I*) want answers to real problems about real events; I
honestly DO want to know WHY we have the cultural patterns we HAVE, and not
OTHER patterns. These are very important questions in my corner of academe
and discussions of the minutia can raise more than its fair amount of
steam: You should hear the arguments that can develop around the reasons
for a change in the design on a pot, or why shell came to replace grit as a
the temper in the paste!  I am sure that a lot of these arguments would
seem rather silly to an outsider and they would find it kind of amazing
that a dispute could even exist.  But then again, most anthropologists I
know are certain that the reason WHY peococks have long tails is to attract
peahens.  And they would likely be very surprise to find that there could
be any disputes ongoing in the discussions about sexual selection (and the
heat generated by problems like the cost of miosis would leave them

The simple fact is that "explanations" for cultural change and, more
importantly, for the observable specifics of cultural behaviour that have
been dished up so far seem pretty lame. At least I end up feeling queasy
with the idea that cultural change occurs because "it is time for it" or
because "culture has reached that appropriate level of development" or
because "it was adapative" or because "some genius thought of it" or
because "it was in the interests of the ruling class" or (. . . well you
get the picture).  Those of studying culture itself are not doing our work
in an intellectual vacuum.  We have to compare the alternative paradigms
(yuck! how I have come to hate that term!!) in chosing the method and the
theory we choose to adopt and APPLY. In intellectual disputes, too, fitness
is a relative term.

contemplating a life doing something useful . . .

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