Does Culture Evolve?

Authors


Abstract

The drive to describe cultural history as an evolutionary process has two sources. One from within social theory is part of the impetus to convert social studies into “social sciences” providing them with the status accorded to the natural sciences. The other comes from within biology and biological anthropology in the belief that the theory of evolution must be universal in its application to all functions of all living organisms. The social--scientific theory of cultura evolution is pre-Darwinian, employing a developmental model of unfolding characterized by intrinsic directionality, by definable stages that succeed each other, and by some criterion of progress. It is arbitrary in its definitions of progress, and has had the political problem that a diachronic claim of cultural progress implies a synchronic differential valuation of present-day cultures. The biological scheme creates an isomorphism between the Darwinian mechanism of evolution and cultural history, postulating rules of cultural “mutation,” cultural inheritance and some mechanism of natural selection among cultural alternatives. It uses simplistic ad hoc notions of individual acculturation and of the differential survival and reproduction of cultural elements. It is unclear what useful work is done by substituting the metaphor of evolution for history.

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