Cultural Evolution As Dialectic

Are cultural anthropologists going to get serious soon about evolution? When I first learned anthropology, back in the mid-1980s, “cultural evolution” (Lewis Morgan and E.B. Tylor) was always an early lesson in intro courses, basically on how not to think about culture. Or as an illustration of European ethnocentrism, with their culture as the more complex evolutionary development from simpler, primitive societies. But now I teach Darwin’s Origin of the Species in my intro grad theory course and to my undergraduates, as well. There’s no better way to engage the importance of yet problems with talking about underlying commonalities across species lines. As well, if we’re going to talk about “life itself” in relation to biopower and biopolitics, we have to become fluent with the underlying grammar of biology, and that’s evolutionary theory. Perhaps the “biocultural synthesis” will promote this kind of fluency; certainly Hicks and Leonard make a powerful argument for this in their recent article in Current Anthropology, “Developmental systems and inequality: Linking evolutionary and political-economic theory in biological anthropology.” They see an opportunity “to balance the importance of our long evolutionary history with our social and cultural complexity as explanatory frameworks for understanding modern human variation and health.”

But the challenges here are manifold. First, cultural analysis largely remains predicated upon countering notions of the natural, as in this recent piece by Port and Mol in JRAI, which seeks “to interfere with the naturalization of ‘eating’ by comparing two modes of engaging with fruits in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil.” Such accounts seem animated by a drive to disallow evolution as a reference frame for modern humans. Second, evolutionary narratives, particularly from behavioral psychologists, represent that which we often struggle against—biologically reductionist accounts of social dynamics. For that matter, the biological sciences are faring so much better than the social sciences or humanities that it seems defeatist to incorporate such modes of thinking into our accounts of the world.

But this all may be changing quickly, partly because how we understand culture is shifting, most clearly from within anthropology. Greg Downey summarizes this nicely: “Whereas anthropologists may have once thought that culture and technology buffered our species from evolutionary processes, repealing the laws of natural selection, we now are much more ambivalent.” This new found uncertainty about the buffers between culture and evolution arises partly because cultural accounts are identifying and detailing the way rapid change in our environment—in this case, endocrine disrupting chemicals affecting human reproductive dynamics—is creating new selective pressures; or, arguably, how the Anthropocene blurs the very distinction between “natural” and “artificial” forms of selection. Examples here include the recent surge of interest in epigenetics and how this provides a powerful purchase on the social reproduction of biological problems, as in Elizabeth Roberts’ current bio-ethnography in Mexico City.

Another driver within anthropology is the emergence of multispecies accounts, which increasingly feature an attention to evolutionary threats to our species, particularly in the form of mutating and adapting viruses. Recent ethnographic examples include accounts of viruses by Natalie Porter, Lyle Fearnley, Alex Nading, and Austin Zeiderman, potentially along with work on HIV, SARS, and Ebola. But more fundamentally, the multispecies turn at the beginning included calls to incorporate components of evolutionary theory in cultural analysis. Agustín Fuentes made this case in a Culture at Large forum with Dorion Sagan, in relation to a core dimension of evolutionary theory: niche construction, something very much like “place-making” and the subject of Downey’s discussion, as well. Fuentes stated, “I’d like to convince you that, as anthropologists, we should think about niche construction, the building, destroying and altering of niches in external and internal senses, in our bodies and ecologies,  and how this perspective, combined with a true multispecies-ness impacts our senses of selves .” But Fuentes’ stance was informed as much by how evolution is being reconsidered by natural scientists; in the process, its collective and cooperative dimensions come to the foreground—that which we cultural anthropologists know a lot about. Fuentes noted that “Many biologists, geneticists and others” are recognizing that “nearly all major events in the history of life can be seen not as primarily a conflictual Hobbesian moment, ‘nature red tooth and claw,’ but rather an epic of enormous cooperation and symbiosis in the evolution of life again, and again and again.” Mauricio Meloni recounts this major intellectual shift (“How biology became social, and what it means for social theory,” in Sociological Review, 2014) by which a “prosocial view of evolution” (along with accounts of “the social brain” and “the socialized gene”) are on the rise in the natural sciences. But more broadly, Standard Evolutionary Theory is facing a fundamental reconfiguration of how we understand intergenerational dynamics.

A primary outcome is the recognition that culture “is an evolutionary player,” in the words of Kevin Laland. That is, culture drives and shapes so many aspects of evolution that it can destabilize reductivist assertions about human biology. The dialectic possibilities involve thinking about the key concept of phenotypic plasticity and how that vacillates along a continuum of fixity and fluidity, particularly as influenced by domestication (whether the version practiced by humans or not). And this gets back to a point the Fuentes stressed: “The mutual mutability of form and function in becoming human with other humans and nonhuman others is a central tenet in human evolution and should be recognized as a locus for the anthropological gaze …one where we can influence scientific practice in fields outside our own.” The way to challenge and change the way evolution operates in public discourse as an explanatory frame—see evolutionary psychology and economics—won’t improve until we fashion a more cultural account of how it operates.

6 thoughts on “Cultural Evolution As Dialectic

  1. Issues of evolution have been something of a no-fly zone in cultural anthropology for some time (it seems). The unwillingness to confront this has isolated cultural anthro types from various pertinent topics, in part because we shied away from historical reconstruction. But defining evolution is still a political question, a matter of significant facts instead of objective facts. Sorting out the political question, it seems to me, comes down to issues of purpose; what politics does a scholar wish to serve as she or he declares the key to life? In 1970, Anthony Wallace had a pretty interesting angle on culture in relation to evolution, and it seems no one cared to notice.

  2. Yes, well put. There’s a lot of negative charge (anxiety, fear, anger, etc) to talking about evolution, because that entails confronting our disciplinary assumptions/dogma. In rough terms, I’d say these are 1) the assumption that “the social” negates evolution entirely; 2) that it’s a limit point to saying “it’s culturally constructed”. Also, taking up evolution means engaging on the badly sloped terrain of pop-psychology and its reductivist narratives. But the reasons for doing so now are important, and these largely stem from 1) the growing recognition of the role culture plays in shaping evolution (that there’s a dialectical dynamic); 2) the understanding that there are cooperative (i.e. “social”) dimensions to it that can cross species lines. So our expertise comes to the fore in these regards, as much as we’d be drawing upon the expertise of biological anthropologists in formulating questions and analytics.

  3. Apropos of the hurdles here, see Rana Dajani’s column today in Nature, “Why I teach Evolution to Muslim Students,” reflecting on her experiences in Jordan. Dajani confronts how “Darwin’s ideas became associated with colonialism, imperialism, the West, atheism, materialism and racism” over the course of the 20th Century. Linking all this to Earth Day, she writes “Students in my classes often get a shock. I wear a hijab, so they know that I am a practising Muslim, yet they hear me endorsing evolution as a mechanism to explain diversity and the development of species, and citing Charles Darwin as a scientist who contributed to our understanding of the emergence and diversification of life on Earth. I am almost always the first Muslim they have met who says such things.” Her column speaks to various reasons why an evolutionary perspective matters so much today.

  4. The cooperative and interspecies dimensions are important. Did the sub-discipline’s obsession with “an ethnic group” as a legitimate case keep our heads in the collective sand? For me as a SEAsianist, the way toward evolutionary questions (re the patterns of diversity in the region) came from reading certain linguists and archaeologists (well, just one of each) who suggest how diversity (ethnic and other) has been harnessed (and even fashioned) for social projects of mutual benefit. Each scholar suggests this for a time-period stretching back perhaps 10K years. Until this recent scholarship, the available models for the units of social life was based on ethnolinguistic families (a stem with its branches as the time-measure) that in retrospect evoke “the horse” of Gould’s classic essay, Life’s Little Joke. On the evolution-front, I would emphasize culture as what can happen across difference (Wallace’s policy and contract, perhaps a match to the interspecies focus) rather than that which distinguishes one group from another (the old ethnic trap). Culture as play (interactive, intersubjective, fashioned, based on some collective project) is one path toward matters of negotiating difference, but “the levity proper to a game” (as Huizinga puts it) is never securely there for long.

  5. What do all humans strive to do in their modern sociocultural environments: seek comparative advantage to maintain or increase their relative survival and adaptability. It’s this constant seeking of advantage that defines current societies. What are the “laws” that govern such cultural selection of individuals? We are all subject to cultural selection, otherwise those with PhDs would not have been “selected” for grad school …. there is a constant cultural selection occurring among modern humans. Those “selected against” are poor and disadvantaged …. those “selected for” have more necessities and tools for continuing to be selected ….. . Can we understand how this selection process occurs and adapt it for more common good?

  6. An important point to remember here is that in rapidly changing societies, selection pressures may vary widely over time. Thus, for example, the familiar phenomenon of boom and bust cycles in labor markets. As demand for a particular types of skills peaks, many of those training to meet what seems to be constantly expanding demand will be stranded when the wave collapses. Determining the common good—here taken to mean the best possible fit between qualifications and opportunities—is a wicked problem.

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