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.