Saturday, August 26, 2006

A Darwinian Archaeology?

I want to review and criticize here a chapter on "Darwinian-evolutionary-selectionist" archaeology by O'Brien and Lyman in an edited volume entitled "Social Theory in Archaeology" edited by Michael Schiffer. Bibliographic information and Amazon links are at the end of the post if interested.

The overall book’s purpose is to present an overview of some of the various social theoretical schools of contemporary archaeology with the goal of searching for some common ground among them. Some of the chapters are quite good and those that are present the author’s theoretical perspective in reference to particular substantive and empirical problems in the dicipline. My understanding of the term theory, at least as it pertains to archaeology, is that it is a conceptual framework for the explanation empirical facts of the archaeological record and of the societal changes that produced that record.

In light of this, my first initial criticism of O’Brien and Lyman's chapter entitled Evolutionary Archaeology: Reconstructing and Explaining Historical Lineages; is that the chapter makes no reference to a specific archaeological problem or set of data. Thus it does not make a case for how the theoretical approach can be employed in archaeology. Other chapters on the other hand do, and the other chapters that do not are of a post-modern/post-processual nature.
I read this out of a genuine curiosity in the application of Darwinian or "Selectionist" theory to archaeological problems. For the lay reader not knowledgeable about debates in archaeological theory you should know that Darwinian archaeology is not about human biological evolution, nor does it appear to be about evolutionary psychology. It also doesn’t appear to be about explaining the evolution of societies and their socio-political, economic, and cultural institutions, which is what I think archaeology should be about. Instead this theoretical school in archaeology I think is more about explaining the evolutionary change of material culture.

So that my comments will not be misconstrued let me make one thing clear. I think Darwinian theory rightly deserves its dominant position as the organizing framework for biology, and that includes the fields of physical anthropology and the study of human biological evolution. While skeptical of some claims of Darwinian evolutionary psychology, I do think it still has many insights to offer on human behavior. Therefore, I am prepared to hear a good argument for the utility of Darwinian-selectionist theory as applied to the archaeological study of human societies and culture change. The chapter under review here however was a great disappointment and worthy of vigorous criticism.

The chapter takes the tone of having been written for an audience of scholars already committed to the so-called selectionist or Darwinian theory in archaeology; not for a volume meant to communicate the utility of the Darwinian-selectionist archaeology to the un-converted. The paper is a series of musings on what Darwinian theory is in biology (gee-whiz, thanks Mr. science!), along with some very general and vague statements as to what "evolutionary archaeology" should be. Ironically O'Brien and Lyman state "Proponents of the evolutionary approach have not been as clear and concise as they should have been in setting forth what it is that makes evolutionary archaeology... different from other theoretical approaches." And they don't correct the problem here.

For example, they reiterate the selectionist proposition that artifacts are "phenotypic features" of a "cultural genotype" that should tell us about evolutionary processes in the past. Undoubtedly this idea has been greatly explored in the selectionist literature. Why not review the concept for the un-converted? How exactly is it that a potsherd or a stone tool is a phenotypic feature as my blue-green eyes are a phenotypic expression of my genotype? How is culture like a genotype? Artifacts as phenotypic expressions of a cultural genotype imply some vague and imprecise analogy, not an actually existing phenomenon. How is a cultural artifact, intentionally made, designed, and modified by conscious and intelligent human agents really like a phenotype as a morphological structure is the phenotype of an organism? What is Darwinian-selectionist archaeology really about? O'Brien and Lyman leave us in the dark in this article. One can only glean a suggestion from this piece that it is about the evolutionary change in artifacts. I would suggest that perhaps this is not really that interesting in itself.

Quoting the late paleontologist Stephen J. Gould that "history matters" they appropriately argue that Darwinian biological evolution is about how and why particular organisms come to be what they are at particular times and places. Fair enough. We can understand this idea of a random, undirected, and historically particular genetic mutation that raises the reproductive success of an organism. This behavioral or morphological feature of an organism is selected for in a historically contingent and particular ecological context. How is this notion of history in biological evolution transferable to that of human sociocultural evolution and history? Are we to believe that human cultural variations and innovations are not the result of conscious human action and propagation?

It is valuable to remind ourselves that the Darwinian theory of evolution is non-teleological. Biological evolution does not proceed as a result of the intent of an organism to consciously develop an adaptive morphological structure or behavior. Instead, variation is randomly produced by mutation.

I do think it legitimate to think of sociocultural institutions, technological innovations, and other human sociocultural behaviors as subject to social and natural selective forces. However, these selective forces do not evade the conscious awareness of human agents who respond to both the social and natural environment. Human agents respond to selective forces consciously to create technological innovations, new behavioral patterns, and sociocultural institutions. Humans can also act to consciously create selective forces that shape the behaviors of other human actors.
For example, in many parts of the world under particular circumstances complex sociopolitical institutions evolved to form what archaeologist refer to as chiefdoms and states. A valid evolutionary psychological argument can be made that in all human populations there are people who seek to expand their wealth, power, and status. This can be considered part of an evolved human behavioral biogram. Less socio-politically complex societies keep these behavioral tendencies in check both by social leveling mechanisms. Environmental constraints also play a negative selective role in inhibiting social, political and economic inequality. In other circumstances there are the social and natural environmental possibilities of a socially produced surplus, which makes possible the transcendence of these leveling mechanisms and the development of hierarchal socio-political institutions. However, none of these processes take place behind the backs of human agents. Human agents consciously develop cultural innovations and strategies to increase their wealth, status, and power, while others agents might employ strategies to resistance.

In this general scenario, culture as analogous to a genotype, and artifacts as phenotypes, can only be thought of as a very loose and indirect analogy because human agents actively and consciously produce both a cultural "genotype" and a material cultural "phenotype". It is hard to fit this fact of human agency into a framework that is faithful to Darwinian evolutionary theory.
O'Brien and Lyman devote a good portion of their chapter to a critique of neo-evolutionary and ecological anthropologists (not to be confused with the so-called Darwinian approach) such as Service, Sahlins, Fried, Steward, White, Harris, and the adoption of their theory by the New Archaeology. Few now would disagree with their criticism of the misapplication of the search for "general laws" of cultural change and the overly generalizing framework of cultural-evolutionary stages. However, O'Brien and Lyman tell a fictional story of how processual archaeologists adopted this non-Darwinian, naive, essentialist, progressivist "cultural-evolutionary" theory that was so untenable that it ossified and virtually disappeared. According to them it was only the selectionist-Darwinian archaeology founded by Dunnell that kept alive an evolutionary approach in archaeology; suggesting that the selectionist-Darwinian approach is the only evolutionary archaeology.

They ignore a significant sector of processual archaeology that matured and kept alive an evolutionary approach focused on socio-political change. This theoretical school can be traced to the present in Charles Spencer's 1997 review article Evolutionary Approaches in Archaeology, and in the excellent volume entitled Cultural Evolution: Contemporary Viewpoints in honor of Kent Flannery who along with Joyce Marcus and others (such as Earle, Drennan, Stanish etc.) have developed a processual evolutionary approach that acknowledges the important factors of human agency and ideology into their analyses of the evolution of human societies.

Spencer in his 1997 article by the way does not simply wipe Darwinian-selectionist theory off the map, but gives a fair review of the core concepts and premises organizing Darwinian-selectionist archaeology. Yet O'Brien and Lyman clearly illustrate how theoretical practitioners redline rival approaches out of awareness. Even those that share some of the same key language, that of evolution.

O'Brien and Lyman suggest that archaeologists should look to the methodology of paleontology. How might we do this? Paleontology deals with the evolution of biological organisms through their fossilized remains. However, archaeological features, artifacts, and architecture, are the remains of human creation, activity, and design, which archaeologists use to infer about past human behavior and social institutions. While there are certainly superficial similarities between the discipline of archaeology and paleontology, the objects of our study and what we hope to learn from them are quite different. Until Darwinian-selectionist archaeologists can provide a precise argument as to how societies are actually like biological organisms, and how paleontological methods can actually be applied to archaeology, I predict their approach will go nowhere. We should not hold our breath because societies and biological organisms are ontologically distinct.

The "New Archaeology" of the 1960s and 70s attempted to make archaeology more scientific by arguing that our goal should be to look for general, deterministic, and universal laws of culture. Laws such as these may work well with physics and chemistry; but as philosopher of social science Daniel Little has argued, social processes operate under "laws of tendency", not deterministic ones. Part of the failure of the "New Archaeology" was to not respect the ways in which human sociocultural phenomena are shaped by the intentional choices of human agents -- in addition to the social structures and natural environment that is their stage. I believe the so-called Darwinian-selectionist archaeology is making similar mistakes. They attempt to create a more scientific archaeology by invoking theoretical tools that have been very successful to the field of biology, but are not quite appropriate to the task of understanding the evolution of sociocultural and political institutions.

Their chapter would have been greatly improved if they could provide us with a detailed discussion or review of Darwinian-selectionist theory as applied to actual archaeological problems. They squandered a good opportunity to make their case in a volume dedicated to a survey of contemporary social theory in archaeology. If I misconstrue O'Brien and Lyman's argument it is because they don't make it well. Instead they spend far too much time lecturing the reader on what Darwinian theory is in biology, which virtually no archaeologist would disagree with, and not making a case for it in archaeology.

The chapter in question can be found in Social Theory in Archaeology edited by Michael Brian Schiffer

The book mentioned above that is an evolutionary archaeology, but not of the Darwinian-selectionist variety is Cultural Evolution: Contemporary Viewpoints edited by Feinman and Manzanilla which is a volume in tribute to Kent Flannery and is here

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