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What we really know about the past

Monthly Archives: February 2012

Happy Birthday Mr. Darwin and Thanks For All The Debates

So, on this day 203 years ago, Charles Darwin was born.  He was the fifth child of a wealthy doctor and the daughter of an industrialist. Not exactly a destitute come-from-nothing story. The family had a history of forward thinking, as both his maternal and paternal grandfathers were strong supporters of the abolitionist movement, which sought to end slavery.  His paternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was also a natural philosopher of some standing. It would be a better story if he had some mythic origin story, with trials and adversity surrounding his birth, or if he overcame repression and diversity to change the world. But given his social standing and family history it’s actually not that surprising that Darwin ended up being the researcher he was.

Not exactly a romantic beginning for a man who’s name would become a rally point for some of the most heated debates in the last 200 years, but there you go. That’s science for you. Regardless, his theories have been the sources of some serious debates, both within academia and in the public in general. The debate against evolution is not new; go read about the Scopes Monkey Trial if you don’t already know about it. Then try to remember how long ago 1925 was. It’s a good example of how long it takes knowledge to become generally accepted. I’m surprised we’re still not arguing about if the sun orbits the earth. Though the Catholic Church apologized for there treatment of Galileo in 1992. So maybe a a 26-33 % public ‘belief’ in evolution isn’t that bad- given it’s only had 150 years  to disseminate to the public.

I should note that, in my opinion, calling it a ‘belief’ in evolution is fallacious. If you see the world through a scientific lens, then you pretty much understand that natural selection is the reasons all of the life on earth looks the way it does. In my opinion, the people who don’t ‘believe in evolution’ don’t have a scientific world-view- which I’m not making a judgment about. I just think we should call a spade a spade.

But I’m not here to argue about creationism or evolution or science. I’m here to talk about evolution’s contribution to archaeology.

Let’s ignore the whole human ancestor thing, as that’s mainly focused on biological evolution and I think it’s fairly self-explanatory how evolution informs that particular argument (WARNING: that link takes you to a clip from South Park and it has many, many swearwords in it. You’ve been warned).

Instead I want to talk about cultural evolution. Because the whole biological aspect of human evolution thing is as simple as this:

Okay. It’s not anywhere close to that simple.

It's probably not even this simple


But I’m not going to focus on human biological evolution. I want to talk about what Darwin’s idea meant for those of us who study culture.

As Europeans (read: rich white guys) started traveling around the world, the diversity of human cultures was amazing to them. Being proper, well trained rich white guys, their initial response was to study them, and try to figure out why they didn’t all act the same. Okay, some of theses white guys studied them. Others tried to figure out how to convert them to a specific religion, or economy, or industry- basically screwing them over pretty hard in the process. But enough social critique. I’ll rant about colonialism some other day.

So guy’s like Lewis H. Morgan and Herbert Spencer (that dude down there ↓) started trying to explain the variations in culture around the world. As an aside; it was Spencer who coined the term “Survival of the Fittest“. He also published his early ideas about culture a couple of years before Darwin, though he wrote about survival of the fittest after reading Origin of Species. He also had killer sideburns.

Dr. Stereotypical White Guy, PhD (Archaeology), M.A (Sideburns)


Anyways, these two guys (and a bunch of other guys that I am skipping over for the sake of brevity) decided that the best explanation for the boat-load of different cultures that they kept running into (and occasionally having to shoot) was something we now like to call unilineal evolution. Put simply, this is the idea that human cultures have discrete stages of evolution, passing from early primitive forms to higher, more complex and successful forms (the word ‘civilized’ is thrown around a lot at this end of the scale).

This is generally agreed as wrong by modern archaeologists. Instead, the modern form of cultural evolution is much complex, attempting to draw in multiple reasons for cultural change, and does not require culture change to ‘progress’- instead the focus is more on a evolutionary explanation for why cultures change. More on that latter.

So, at this point I’m thinking you are asking yourself:

Okay, Mr. Smarty-Pants Multisyllabic Man, why the hell should I care about a theory of human culture that no-one really subscribes to any more?

If that is indeed what you were asking, then good on you. Also that’s not my name. It’s James, but good question.

Why the hell do we care about these old ancient white dudes and what they thought about culture?

For two reasons: One is that the history of science is cool. It is. Seriously. It’s cool. The second, and more important, is because these ideas still affect the way we think.

For example, here is a stripped-down explanation of how we got civilizations:

Early people lived in small groups and had very little in the way of belongings. The ran around, killed a bunch of animals, cut off those skins, wrapped themselves in said dead animal and then sat around the fire eating. Then the decided to build more permanent houses, grow some food, store said food, replant it- and boom! We’re living in towns. Now we’ve got some spare food, so my buddy two huts over can focus on making some things out of metal. He gets good at it and become a specialist. Now we got ourselves a civilization and in the blink of a geologic eye we’re rushing around in planes, trains, and automobiles.

Okay, so if you have read anything else I have written, you know that was the set up for my inevitable “but it’s not that simple” line. Which it’s not. But lets pretend for a second that the series of changes that led to the forms of transportation necessary to inspire a Steve Martin and John Candy film were, in fact, that simple. The problem lies not with the simplicity of the explanation, but in the explanation itself.

The idea that cultures ‘progress’ through those stages is dangerous. First of all, they don’t. Cultures change due to a variety of reasons, and change is not a one-way street. Change happens in all directions. Like bumper-cars.

The other reason this idea of ‘progress’ is dangerous is that these upper-class white guys inevitably put their culture at the top of the evolutionary tree. I know. It’s shocking. I can hardly believe that rich white dudes would consider themselves better than other people. But it’s true.

So, if you think about the concept: tribe->band->chiefdom->civilization as a ‘progression’, it’s easy to think about those people at the right of that scale as ‘more advanced’ then those to the left.

It’s is very important you don’t think that.

First off, it’s wrong. The only reason we see it as advanced is because we decided civilizations are better. I have already written about how some people think civilization is worse, and some people think is better, and how judgments like those are basically useless.  Thinking that cultures are evolving (or devolving) is dangerous because it places judgments on people from cultures in those different ‘stages’. These ideas permeate our thoughts.

We may no longer call people savages, but when we compare First Nations social complexity from 300 years ago to hunter-gather groups in Europe from 12,000 years ago it carries with it the possibility of interpreting modern First Nations group as less developed than Europeans because they’re like 11,700 years behind in their ‘development’. Some people may see that as a good thing, other’s may see it as a bad, but any putting judgments on it is just plain wrong.

When an archaeologist compares these two cultures, we’re (generally) not trying to make a judgment call on which culture is more ‘advanced’. Instead we’re attempting to interpret human behavior in the past from similar adaptive responses. We look for similarities in order to try and figure out why the archaeological record looks the way it does. It’s more useful to think of these things as analogies, rather than direct comparisons. (Though if you want, you can go read the wikipidea page on analogies to see why that gets confusing- but on the surface it’s a useful way of thinking about it.

I think it’s important we know that some our terms and concepts come from racist backgrounds. Now I’m not advocating eliminating terms like civilization and tribes, but we need to know that they carry with them the possibility for misinterpretations. When we talk about ‘complexity’ or ‘cultural evolution’ it is imperative that we make it clear that these are not synonymous with ‘better’ or ‘worse’.

So, everyone on board? No more judgment calls when we talk about different cultures? I really, really wanted to make this clear before I started talking about modern theories of cultural evolution.

Now that we’re clear on that, next week I’m going to continue with more modern evolutionary concepts, and why some cultures have similar adaptations. Hopefully with pictures.