ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Plenary panel one

Anthropology after Darwin

Convenor: Tim Ingold

Panel abstract

Contemporary ideas in biological anthropology about human evolution, about the identity and variability of human beings as individuals of a species, and about their relations with – and differences from – non-humans (above all, the great apes) have been profoundly shaped by the legacy of Darwinian thinking. In social and cultural anthropology, reactions to the Darwinian paradigm have been far more ambivalent. The insistence that cultural variation is independent of hereditary constraint, and that human society exists on a level over and above the organic, initially set both cultural and social wings of the discipline on a path that increasingly diverged from the biological. Moreover biological anthropology was slow to reject the doctrine, bequeathed by Darwin, that human populations could be ranked on a scale of innate physical and intellectual advance. Though few advocates of such a view can be found today, the problem remains as to how a conception of human uniqueness and universality that underpins not just social and cultural anthropology but the institution of science itself can be reconciled with the Darwinian principle of continuity between humankind and its evolutionary antecedents. Is it possible, even in theory, for social and cultural anthropology to reach an accommodation with a biological anthropology structured on Darwinian premises? If so, what are the terms of this accommodation to be? Alternatively, must a future integration of social-cultural and biological anthropology await the development of a biology that supersedes or even replaces the Darwinian paradigm and its contemporary ‘neo-Darwinian’ offshoots? Panelists will assess the ‘state of play’ in the relationship between social-cultural and biological anthropology in the light of the history of Darwinian impacts in the discipline, and will consider whether – and if so how – they might be brought together more closely in the future.

Dynamic social communication in primates

Barbara J King

The study of language – its origin, evolution, and cross-cultural variation – seems a point of likely vital connection between sociocultural and biological anthropology. Issues of language are central to any sociocultural account of human behaviour. Perhaps less well-known is the degree to which the socioemotional connections and shared histories of the great apes, our closest living relatives, are mediated through complex social communication.

Despite apparently fertile ground for collaboration, anthropologists in these two areas seem unable to connect. I suggest that this situation arises in part owing to different expectations about appropriate units of analysis. Most primatologists study great ape vocalizations and gestures by extracting these “signals” from the ongoing stream of behaviour. Senders and receivers of the signals are identified; the functions of the signals and the possible mechanisms by which they are learned (imitation versus ontogenetic ritualization, for example) are emphasized. The social context is noted as a variable that may impinge upon signal production and receipt.

Though trained in this conventional way, I have been working for six years under a different framework, that of dynamic systems theory (DST). In DST, the unit of study becomes the social event between two or more social partners. Social communication is not a process of sequential signal-sending and receiving but is created by the joint action of social partners, whether humans or great apes, who behave with each other in strikingly unpredictable and contingent ways. Questions of Darwinian continuity across primates are recast in the DST perspective. What becomes significant in the search for evolutionary roots of human language is not continuity in stand-alone units and static properties of communication, but rather in the dynamic social coordination achieved by such communication. Still quite suspect in primatology, DST-driven research into great ape social communication can be informed by, and inform, research in sociocultural anthropology.

What, if anything, is a Darwinian anthropology?

Jon Marks

I will identify and discuss five themes self-consciously promoted as illuminating the human condition in the name of Darwin:

  1. Bio-genetic determinism
  2. Fitness maximization theory
  3. Meme theory
  4. Extrapolative primatology
  5. Evangelical atheism.

Each has been invoked within 'sociobiology' and 'evolutionary psychology', but none has a great deal of logical or biological value in understanding patterned human behaviour scientifically.

Darwinian models of cultural change: a critical assessment

Bill Durham

The last several decades have witnessed a growing number of efforts at "Darwinizing culture" - that is, at modelling cultural change as a process of variational evolution with the familiar components of variation, transmission, and selection. If successful, such models might possibly lead to what the plenary organizers term "accommodation" between social and cultural anthropology on the one hand and biological anthropology on the other. At least they might allow conceptual bridges to be built between these two domains of anthropology.

In this paper, I review leading Darwinian models of cultural change and the criticisms that have been levelled at them. I consider cultural transmission theory, biased transmission, cultural selection, and mimetics. I suggest that two key weaknesses remain in these models: (1) naive sociology, and (2) naive semiotics. Efforts to Darwinize culture underestimate the importance of social relations and social structure even as they ignore or downplay the role of meaning in the process of cultural change. These two problems must be addressed before "anthropology after Darwin" will be significantly affected by the Darwinian paradigm.

Beyond biology and culture: the meaning of evolution in a relational world

Tim Ingold

Is it possible to accommodate, within a single explanatory paradigm, the phenomena of both organic evolution and cultural history? In this paper I propose just such an accommodation. This is not a matter of showing how cultural forms ‘evolve’, as organic forms, through the operation of an overarching principle of variation under natural selection. To the contrary, I argue that this principle is inadequate to grasp the generative dynamics of cultural change. To understand these dynamics we have to focus not on final forms but the activities that give rise to them. Moreover precisely the same, I contend, applies to organisms: their forms are likewise more or less ephemeral condensations of activity within fields of relationships. Understanding the persistence and change of form over time therefore calls for a radically alternative view of the evolutionary process itself. Instead of thinking of evolution as the sequential modification, along one or more lines of descent, of the design specifications that are supposed to underwrite the construction of organisms, persons or artifacts, we have to regard it as the unfolding of a total field of relations – a web of life – within which forms come into being and are held in place. We can then see that what we are accustomed to calling history, when speaking of human beings, is but one aspect of a total process of evolution that embraces the entire organic world. Persons and artifacts, like organisms, have life-histories, they grow – or take shape – within fields of relationships, and through their presence in the environment, they condition the development of other beings or entities to which they relate. Thus human history is evolutionary; cultural change is biological.