Anthropological co-opting of "evolutionary" theory

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Anthropological co-opting of "evolutionary" theory

Postby psionic11 on November 26th, 2013, 3:52 pm 

My last post in the thread "The Creation of Inequality" has been churning in my head for the past few days like a song stuck in your head that won't go away.

My strongest contention was that evolutionary theory applies best (and exclusively) to biology.

But it's becoming more and more apparent as I look deeper that the term "evolution", and its precepts, have been and are continually being co-opted. I know the following list and its one-line summations of entire fields is likely very glib, but there is a larger pattern here.

Neo-Darwinian evolutionary Theory -- beyond the initial Darwinian concept of "survival of the fittest" and natural selection, this includes Wallace's anti-Lamarckian and Mendel's inheritance contributions.

It seems to me the further we stray away from NDT down this list, the more inheritance (Mendelian, not familial surplus) is bypassed, and a form of Lamarckianism re-endorsed (namely, that societal change is a conglomeration of acquired characteristics!)


Social evolution -- "social behaviors that have fitness consequences for individuals other than the actor". Behavior categorized into selfish, altruistic, mutually beneficial, and spiteful (hurts both actor and recipient).

Evolutionary game theory frames "Darwinian competition" into classical game theory context

Inclusive fitness -- organisms improve genetic success via altruistic social behaviors
Kin selection -- inclusive fitness enhanced via the reproductive success of an organism's relatives

Sociobiology -- social behavior results from evolution
Darwinian anthropology -- sociobiology, with an emphasis on kinship

Anything below this line seems to me to have abandoned NDT and therefore co-opted/conflated/diffused the term "evolution" and its mechanics. Do you agree?

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Neo-evolutionism -- tries to explain the evolution of societies using Darwinism (yikes!)
Cultural evolutionism -- explains human sociology from a social rather than biological basis

Sociocultural development -- societies are at different stages of "evolution"
Sociocultural evolution -- rejects sociocultural development (the idea of directional, social progress), in favor of neo-evolutionism, sociobiology, and modernization theory

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I don't think it should be lightly dismissed that the fields between the lines above may still make claims and counterclaims which profess to adhere to NDT, either explicitly or implicitly.

There is no teleology or willful direction in evolution. Societies and political structures do not have alleles or parents which donate half their DNA to offspring. The right hand of molecular genealogy knows not what the left hand of material artifacts does.

For culture is an abstraction, as are the terms used to define its internal and external "variables", local or universal or otherwise. Evolutionary theory has no province over abstractions.

NDT only applies to biology and its directly related sub-fields!! Yes? No? I guess I'm making a whole lot of ado about nothing. At least I got it all off my chest...
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Re: Anthropological co-opting of "evolutionary" theory

Postby Paralith on November 26th, 2013, 5:35 pm 

psionic,

I haven't read all the same things that you have. I have seen the terminology of NDT thrown about in other contexts, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone explicitly say, "NDT also applies to this other system." If you've seen such a thing, perhaps you could point us to it as a more concrete example?

The word evolution in its broadest sense simply means change. We can observe that many things change over time, and also that many things seem to follow a basic logic of selection, that being some variations do well in the environment and so increase in number and other variations don't do well and so decrease in number and eventually disappear. I think this general logic is applied to a lot of things, which I don't necessarily see as problematic. The nitty gritty details of exactly what is changing, what "do well" actually means, how variations appear and how they multiply, what exactly is the environment and what is it selecting for, etc - these are the finer points on which we can distinguish NDT from other systems being described with a general evolutionary logic. So yes, of course NDT only applies to a specific system. By definition it is a description of that system. But again, I'm not sure that people are actually truly trying to apply NDT to other systems or if they're just using a similar logic/set of terms.

Of course, this has potential to lead to a great deal of confusion, but that just seems to be the way of things when it comes to the issue of jargon.
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Re: Anthropological co-opting of "evolutionary" theory

Postby Venus on November 26th, 2013, 5:39 pm 

With biological evolution the future source of material is always the recombined and slightly randomized current material that survived to replicate. In other cases that is obviously not the case.
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Re: Anthropological co-opting of "evolutionary" theory

Postby Forest_Dump on November 26th, 2013, 10:46 pm 

Paralith wrote:The word evolution in its broadest sense simply means change. We can observe that many things change over time,


This right here is an extremely important point. Describing change over time amongst animals and plants goes back to at least Erasmus Darwin (Chuck's grandfather) but I seem to recall that an older use had to do with the unfolding of the universe. Various THEORIES of evolution, used to EXPLAIN the historic fact of evolution, also predate Charles Darwin - Lamarkian "theory" definitely counts as a theory of evolution, just not one that has survived as adequate in biology (but I think the case could be made for its application in human culture but that too is debatable - see below). Of course, some now prefer different definitions such as the change in the genome from one generation to the next but honestly I think you have to be careful here because you can get very dogmatic and that is not often a good thing.

If you are really interested in some of this, I highly recommend books by Peter Bowler. Very informative and authoritative but also easy to read and I found them absorbing. I seriously couldn't put them down.

Evolution of human culture is a huge topic. Modern, hard-core, dogmatic, paradigmatic writing on the use of extreme NTD theory to explain human culture can be attributed to archaeologists like Lymann and O'Brien following their god, R. Dunnell. I am not a huge fan of this stuff (way too paradigmatic for me) but there is no doubt they are very serious scholars and cannot be ignored (I have read an estimated 4-5000 pages written by these three alone in books and journal articles and there are a number of others in a very similar vein). But other serious scholars in this stuff I would have to recommend if you are serious about wanting to grasp evolution of culture would have to go back to Marx, H. Spencer and L. H. Morgan in the 19th century, Sahlins and Service in the 1960s, Leslie White and more recently even Tim Ingold. Beware, this is a big hairy topic.
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Re: Anthropological co-opting of "evolutionary" theory

Postby psionic11 on November 27th, 2013, 10:49 am 

After reading some new chapters in my course, posting here, and discussions with my professor, it does seems that I went a bit overboard in my diatribe against the use of the term. I did learn quite a bit, at least as far as the various perspectives and approaches go, so there was some benefit after all.

Marx seems to come up a lot lately. I think that will be a good starting point. Then Spencer is another familiar name, useful at least, I suspect, in showcasing what was versus what is. Thanks for the input everyone, I have a lot more material available now...
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Re: Anthropological co-opting of "evolutionary" theory

Postby henriette on January 12th, 2014, 6:37 pm 

Alain Testart, 2012, "Before history : evolution of societies from Lascaux to Carnac", Paris : Gallimard, 549 p
Alain Testart, 2012, "Are biological models useful for theorizing social and cultural evolution?,"Préhistoires méditerranéennes 2011 (in English : http://pm.revues.org/599)

Alain Testart, that alas died past September, has addressed many points of interest for the present topics. He shows why we can not think the evolution of societies from using the Darwinian theory.
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Re: Anthropological co-opting of "evolutionary" theory

Postby Forest_Dump on January 12th, 2014, 11:58 pm 

Its been awhile but I have read Testart in the past. He is worth paying attention to.
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