Sunday, 2 November 2014

155 years of resistance to Darwinism within anthropology

Despite cultural evolution being close to the theoretical centre of gravity of their discipline, anthropologists have been some of the most reluctant scientists to embrace evolutionary theory.

Historically, Francis Boas and Claude Lévi-Strauss were among those responsible for the decline of Darwinism within anthropology. Retrospectively, their motivations seem political - often openly so. Boas saw it as his mission to expunge the concept of race from the scientific literature, and replace racial differences with cultural ones.

The document: The Boasian School of anthropology and the Decline of Darwinism in the Social Sciences tells the story of how this happened. It is embarrassing reading - portraying a triumph of ideology over science.

I notice that many of the modern critics of memetics are anthropologists. Their activities generally fit into the historical pattern of Darwin denialism in the social sciences. Even among those who have some sympathies for Darwin, we have documents minimizing the influence of Darwinism - such as How Darwinian is cultural evolution? - Claidière, Scott-Phillips and, Sperber. Their answer seems to be "not very". Boyd and Richerson have a different tack. They accept Darwinism, but take pains to emphasize how cultural evolution is different. My differences remain exaggerated article goes over this strategy. The basics of Darwinism are accepted, but the detailed implications - such as "Hamilton’s inclusive fitness rule" - are rejected.

Why do some anthropologists prefer "cultural variant" to "meme"? My theory is that "meme" is too openly biological - too reminiscent of "gene". Many anthropologists would react to this with a the same forceful immune reaction that they use to reject other biologically-influenced theories. "Cultural variant" is not such "in your face" biology - and so has a better chance of being tolerated by other anthropologists.

One the one hand, it is good to see a few anthropologists finally getting to grips with the application of evolutionary theory to culture. However progress within anthropology is frustratingly slow. The Darwinian revolution is going much more slowly in the cultural realm than it did in the organic realm.

I should add that it isn't just anthropologists who are at fault here. Evolutionists must accept some of the blame. For some reason, many evolutionists prefer to focus their educational efforts on other targets. Instead of educating their fellow scientists, many evolutionists seem to focus their outreach on the unlikely target of creationists. I am sceptical about whether this "gutter outreach" approach is an effective use of resources. I think a "leading from the front" approach would be better. Arguing with creationists makes evolutionists look stupid - in my opinion. It is too much like shooting a fish in a barrel. Evolutionists should spend more time taking on folk closer to their own intellectual size. Resistance to Darwinism within the social sciences is bad news for everyone - but few evolutionists seem interested in fixing the problem.

Part of the problem is specialization. Cultural evolution lies between two stools. Specialization is natural and good - but you have to make sure that you put more workers on the boundaries to make sure that valuable things don't fall down the cracks between the traditional disciplines.

Evolutionists need to clearly explain where their discipline applies to humans. Of course, that should be the job of anthropologists - but they have spent most of the last 155 years fumbling that ball, and still don't seem to have a good grip on it. Thus my equal time for cultural evolution proposal.


  1. I agree anthropology should be encouraged to carry the baton of evolutionary science. However, stating anthropology (and other social sciences) are at fault for removing evolutionary theory from their disciplines fails to address how these sciences emerged. Social science has always been closely related to social policy (social policy being the practical application of social science). When social policy began to be influenced by Social Darwinism there was immense push-back against the theory of evolution and the adoption of evolutionary theory to other disciplines. It was "throwing the baby out with the bathwater"--but there was little distinction between "baby" and "bathwater" at the time. Darwin was English & the English Empire ruled the globe and developed a rationale for their triumph based on racial exceptionalism.
    As such I don't think the distinction you make between ideological corruption and pure science is accurate. You can't remove science from the social milieu it emerges within. Social Darwinism was purged from the sciences through the immune response Cultural Anthropology developed to evolutionary language. It allowed for a documentation system to emerge free from moral and racial judgments. This was foundational to social science developing scientific rigor. And it also created the immense amount of data which memeticists can now use to substantiate Meme Theory. Please don't overlook this complex emergence in the history of Science.

    1. Cultural anthropologists failed as scientists by throwing out the correct theory. Indeed, many of them threw out the whole scientific method - in much the same way that historians did - and recast their profession as involving collecting facts.

      IMO, we shouldn't thank cultural anthropologists and historians for collecting all their facts. Fact collection without guidance for theory is not a terribly useful activity. Science requires iterative cycles of hypothesis testing and observation of the results. The observations go on the fuel the next round of theory building - approaching a truthful model by iteration. If scientists only observe then the whole process goes horribly wrong - and you wind up with a lot of data that isn't very useful.

      Cultural anthropology and history are a living testimony to what happens if you don't follow the scientific method. I don't think that the abandoning of the whole scientific method by these fields led to anything positive. A reduction of negative moral and racial judgements happened across the board over the last century. I doubt it was significantly caused by cultural anthropologists and historians abandoning the scientific method. Rather, the "tolerance" memes proved themselves to be fitter than their competitors in the meme pool.

  2. Saying all historical and anthropological approaches threw out the scientific method is an immense generalization. Evolutionary Theory, as Darwin presented it, failed to colonize anthropology and history--that is the fault of the presentation of the science, not the exclusive responsibility of historians and anthropologists. Granted, for the process of normal science, data collection without a framework leads to unproductive and even destructive ends. However, for paradigm shift, that overproduction without a framework is necessary to spark a re-working of the existing paradigm. The scientific method is not a "commandment", the following of which determines another's view of you & your legacy. The scientific method is for conducting normal science. But the evolution of science over the generations is something quite different.

  3. Also, saying the "tolerance" memes proved to be more resilient in the meme pool (which could be traced to Durkheim's idea of organic solidarity) ignores that historically, anthropology was dominated by missionaries (religious and social) who made value judgments about the cultures they observed. It also overlooks how Sociology received a shot in the arm after the horrors of WWII caused investigators to reconsider some of the discipline's assumptions. You write as though the disciplines of history and anthropology and other "social sciences" are illegitimate children, unworthy of consideration. This not only alienates would-be-allies in investigating memetics, it limits the data you expose yourself to in the pursuit of advancing meme theory.

    1. There's some material that I don't believe - and didn't say - apparently being attributed to me here. I do not think that *all* historical and anthropological approaches threw out the scientific method. Nor do I claim that the historical failure of Darwinism in the social sciences is "the exclusive responsibility of historians and anthropologists". Indeed, this very article says: "I should add that it isn't just anthropologists who are at fault here. Evolutionists must accept some of the blame." Nor do I think that anthropology and history are "unworthy of consideration". Data is still worth *something*, even if it is not gathered using the iterative generate-and-test methodology that characterizes most scientific activity. As for allies, speaking bluntly about the flaws of others will generally irritate them. There are others who like plain speaking. Critics are widely hated - but that doesn't mean that criticism is not sometimes valuable. Maybe criticism will help to accelerate reform, or help people to avoid repeating mistakes.

      The material about the scientific failings of cultural anthropology and history in this article is not very original. These flaws are well known. My article attempts to place some of the modern failures to fully grasp evolutionary theory in the context of historical attempts to minimize and denigrate evolutionary theory by anthropologists.

  4. I agree constructive criticism is valuable. What appears to be a failure or weakness by a collective of scholars (not only you) could in fact, under the right circumstances, be a strength. Seeing how the theory of evolution is incomplete without memetics, perhaps it was to the benefit of historians and anthropologists that they did not embrace a scientific revolution which appeared to be the exclusive domain of the biological sciences. Normal science is, after all, an extremely conservative practice.