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What we really know about the past

Monthly Archives: February 2012

Cultural Evolution. Sort of.

So, the problem with attempting a two-part blog entry is that when it comes time to write the second part, I kind of forgot why I got all fired up in the first place. So, please bear with me as I recap some of the last entry  in an attempt to get us all set up for this week. Yes, I know you can go read it yourself, but in case you already have (or are to lazy to) I’m going to give you the Too Long; Didn’t Read version.

Basically the early scholarly attempts to explain cultural variation were deeply rooted in evolution. At least some of them were, as  evolution was kind of a big deal. A shinny new tool of science that we could apply to everything! I had an inspirational prof/boss who called this the ‘child’s hammer premise’  (I made that title up- but it was his idea). Basically, when you give a scientist a new theory or methodology it’s akin to giving a child a hammer. They’re going to hit everything with it just to see what happens.

We have a bunch of them now

The idea of evolution was a giant, shinny, heavy hammer. We have been hitting everything with it, to varying degrees of success, for years now.

I should point out that I’m not talking about evolution in a strictly biological sense. I’ll bold this so you get it- Cultural Evolution is not the same as biological Evolution. We are all here because of some biological evolutionary processes, there is no real debate about that in the sciences. But, as with everything, things are always more complicated when you scratch just below the surface. Evolutionary models would seem ideal to predict cultural change, but culture- as you are no doubt aware- is pretty damn complicated. So we need complex answers; evolutionary models for culture change is one option. In most cases we probably need more than one answer.

Now if the point of my last entry was to demonstrate that the language we use- indeed the very ideas we use- have their roots sunk firmly into a eurocentric and racist past- this weeks entry is to remind us not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Though it’s true that the origin of evolutionary models for cultural change are rooted in the same ideas of progress that saw the western world at the pinnacle, it’s probably got more to do with the culture that these ideas were born into  than the men that birthed them. So let’s try to find the baby in all that dirty water shall we?

First thing first. Modern cultural evolutionary studies are not based in the ideas of unilinear evolution we spoke about last week. Instead they are routed in multilinear evolution. Which is basically “a theory of cultural evolution that sees each human culture evolving in its own way by adaptation to diverse environments: different ‘pathways’ of evolutionary development followed by different societies.” That’s a direct quote from the Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology by the way- I have have always love that title.

Though there are still assumptions made about ‘stages’ of development,in multilinear evolution, but they’re not as simple and hierarchical. I won’t go into details, you can go read about it yourself. The main idea I want you to get out of that quote is that these are not seen as stages progressing to an ideal. They are ways of adapting that are specific to the context of that culture.

How does of all of this apply to questions about culture, you ask? Well let me tell you about a relevant conversation I had just last week.

I was talking to a friend of mine about how certain cultures can be used as comparisons for others. Two examples: the culture(s) responsible for the vast mound sites all over the eastern United States are frequently compared to different chiefdoms from Hawaii, and First Nation groups from the Northwest Coast are frequently used as comparisons to other archaeological cultures across the globe.

I think there are two reasons archaeologists do this. The first reason is that we often need more data than just the artifacts in order to make our interpretations- so we look around for things that are similar. This is especially helpful to us if we have some sort of historic or ethnographic record to work with it. Recently we have also been using oral histories to help us add to our interpretations.  The second reason is kind of a pet theory of mine, and one that I am nowhere near ready to talk about in full. Lets just say that we might just be hard-wired to think that way. I have a friend doing here PhD in Cognitive Science and she and I have spoken a lot about how it’s possible humans are hard-wired to understand things via analogy. It’s based on work by Douglas Hofstadter. But right now it’s a simmering concept on the back-burners of my brain. We’ll have to see what happens when I bring it to a boil.

So we like (or need) to use analogy when discussing culture. That’s a pretty easy concept to grasp. What’s the big deal?

When we start to use cultural analogies in our interpretations we run into some serious problems. Which allows me to return the conversation I was having early this week. My friend and I were talking about Göbekli Tepe, which has been interpreted by the archaeologist responsible for the majority of the excavations as one of the earliest religious centers ever found. This is (of course!) debatable, and one of the arguments against relies on analogies with Northwest Coast architecture. This led to my friend asking why Northwest Coast people were at the same stage of cultural evolution as these Neolithic people despite the huge time difference. I should note that I am both paraphrasing and simplifying her question. She’s pretty damn smart and gets that things are not a simple as that question makes them out to seem- so if you’re reading this I’m sorry for over simplifying- but it’s a good example of what I’m talking about. It would seem like these two groups are in the same ‘developmental stage’, but only if you think that all human development is linear.

One of the ways we can look at these two cultures is through an evolutionary framework. As I said above, modern evolutionary interpretations tend to focus on adaptive responses to various pressures. Groups of humans have to respond to about a hundred and fifty-four thousand different variables all the time. It’s true. I counted. Don’t ask me to show my work.

A cultural evolutionist is interested in how successful, or even unsuccessful, certain cultural adaptations are to these pressures and how these adaptations are adopted and reproduced in certain cultures. Modern cultural evolution isn’t interested in the movement from primitive to modern. That may be how it started, but it’s not really the point now.

So now comes the part where I tie together the various threads of this 1800 + word discussion into an answer to a question my friend probably forgot she asked.

The reason we compare cultures that are separated by 10,000 years isn’t because we think that they are at the same ‘stage’ of evolution. It’s that we think they have responded to environmental, demographic, and the other 153,998 daily pressures in similar ways. We use these comparisons in an attempt to understand the archaeological data we find. The fact that one group existed 10,000 years ago, while the other is much more recent is almost inconsequential. It’s certainly not meant to imply that the descendants from the 10,000 year old group are 10,000 years more advanced. Instead it’s based on the idea that the pressures both groups needed to adapt to were similar, and their adaptive responses were consequently similar. Much like convergent evolution in biology.

The time frame really doesn’t matter. It’s the adaptations we are interested in. Please don’t get stuck in the idea that because a group of African BushmenAboriginal Australians, or Khalkha Mongols share (some!) similar adaptive responses as neolithic groups, they are some how ‘less developed’.  That’s basically like saying humans are more evolved than Chimpanzees. We’re not of course. That’s just a hold over from the older unilinear ideas of evolution; one where we placed humans at the top- like some how the whole of evolution was an attempt to produce us. Don’t be so egoistical. Nature really doesn’t care that we evolved the way we did.

Evolutionary models an help us understand why human cultures look they way they do, at various points in space and time- but they’re not meant as a judgment about which culture is more advanced (read:better) than another. Don’t confuse evolutionary change with the western idea of progress. They’re really two entirely different things.

I should note here that there are many great and completely legitimate criticisms of cultural evolution as a model for understanding cultural change. If I started talking about them, I would have to write a thesis. And both you and I would probably get bored in about half a page. So remember: everything is probably more complicated that it seems at first, including what I just wrote.

Wow. That was long. Good job for making it here. Next week I’ll attempt something a little bit more light-hearted. Maybe I’ll talk about cats.