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BOOK REVIEW

Biological Culture

Fraser Neiman

Darwinian Archaeologies. Herbert D. G. Maschner, ed. 261 pp. Plenum Press, 1996. $42.50.

During the past two decades a small and slowly growing number of archaeologists has begun to suspect that Darwinian theory might offer their discipline a path to more accurate and complete accounts of what happened in human history and why. The appearance of Herbert Maschner's Darwinian Archaeologies is symptomatic of the trend. Taken together with the recent publication of three additional collections of essays on Darwinian ideas in archaeology, it might even be taken to suggest that evolutionary archaeology is poised to emerge as a coherent research program, destined to have a major impact on the future direction of the archaeological mainstream. Maschner's collection illustrates powerfully why such a prediction is premature. The essays that comprise it reveal an astonishing amount of variation among the visions their authors entertain about the proper role of Darwinian ideas in archaeological theory. The use of the plural in the book's title is one acknowledgment of this diversity that, as Maschner and Mithen point out in their introductory essay, is the common thread that provides a kind of Pickwickian unity to the individual contributions.

For some contributors, Darwinian archaeology means plucking analogies from biology to be used in the construction of a wholly autonomous cultural theory. Thus we have Ben Cullen and Roland Fletcher suggesting that artifacts are like viruses: parasitic on their human hosts and dependent on them for reproduction but still of independent genealogies. The conceit that artifacts have lives of their own is an old one in archaeology, and so far it has proved analytically barren. Without concrete models that can be made to do a job of work, one must guess a similar fate awaits these recent incarnations. Paul Graves-Brown is also anxious to defend cultural turf against biological poachers, but his solution is to reject both Darwinian theory and cultural analogies in favor of Marxist nostrums, which are comfortably familiar to social scientists. Other contributors, self-styled "selectionists," have no qualms about rhetorically embracing the theory of natural selection, but forswear use of powerful analytical tools deduced from that theory—optimization and game-theory models—although they have revolutionized our understanding of animal and human behavior during the past three decades and made evolutionary ecology one of the most progressive research programs in the biological sciences.

Elsewhere the reader finds more openness to connections between archaeology and Darwinian theory in the rest of science. Maschner and John Patton suspect that the evolutionary history of kin selection will figure importantly in any satisfactory explanation for the emergence of hereditary inequality on the northwest coast of North America. They are probably right. Their hunch would benefit from a model describing the counterintuitive dynamics of group size, the function of relatedness among actual and potential joiners or the fitness costs and benefits of joining. This is what is required to convert their claim that increased variance in house size encountered archaeologically 1,800 years ago represents the emergence of hereditary social inequality into something more than one possible interpretation based on an ethnographically documented correlation between lineage status and house size.

Serious modeling makes an appearance in a review by Robert Bettinger, Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson of the latter two authors' pioneering efforts to understand the cultural transmission of stylistic variation in artifacts. This essay is a "must read" for anyone hoping to further our understanding of the evolutionary dynamics and fitness consequences of signaling systems, but as Bettinger and Richerson point out in their thoughtful coda to the volume, the impact is blunted by the lack of sustained paradigmatic case studies.

James Steele writes on primate group, brain and body size, and the evolution of language, and Steven Mithen looks at how cognitive architecture carried by anatomically modern H. sapiens might have made possible the appearance of representational art in Europe 32,000 years ago. These clever essays emphasize that the causal pathways from natural selection to the archaeological record run through human brains. Among the important implications of this work is that a successful Darwinian archaeology will reach across outmoded disciplinary boundaries not only into theoretical biology, but also into primatology, cognitive psychology and experimental economics.

Why are there so many Darwinian archaeologies? Which one should we pursue? Kenneth Ames points the way to an answer when he suggests that we choose one that "does not require abandoning the central core of anthropological and archaeological knowledge about culture." Neo-Darwinian theory is the foundation of a naturalistic research program—it uses a small number of causal mechanisms to build models of living phenomena that can be objectively evaluated vis-à-vis their consistency with one another and the rest of scientific knowledge. Mainstream anthropology, on the other hand, is, for the most part, an interpretive enterprise, based on the assumption that humans are magnificent exceptions to processes responsible for the rest of life. The emergence of a Darwinian archaeology may require rethinking familiar anthropological conventions. Given that contemporary anthropologists can agree on little save the foolishness of their discipline's discarded paradigms, the intellectual costs of the change may be lower than many archaeologists think. But the emotional burdens remain daunting.—Fraser D. Neiman, Archaeology, Monticello, Charlottesville, VA

 

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