Why history is not a matter of Darwinian evolution but of biocultural development

The trace of an evolutionary process is marked by the selective transmission of traits over time, and in its recent form, biological evolution has been treated as if the process was governed by the principles of neo-Darwinism (Dawkins 1999; Dennett 1996). These principles focus upon the claim that evolution is the transmission, under natural selection, of genetic material. The further claim is that it is the totality of this material, the genotype, that determines the form of the phenotype. Archaeology, on the other hand, when it is treated as if its purpose is to produce an evolutionary narrative, must concern itself with the ways that various forms of life, in particular the various forms of human life, have been able to develop, and the ways that those processes of development might have changed across both time and space. It is from this latter perspective that archaeology should be treated as the study of the historical conditions within which forms of humanness have developed. It is important to clarify the distinction between neo-Darwinism as it has been applied within biology, and the archaeology of the changing conditions by which forms of life have been able to develop. The direction of neo-Darwinian evolution is determined by natural selection acting on the random inheritance of trait mutations within a population (Mayr 1976, 26—29). By way of contrast, the direction of historical development, which I am arguing for here, is determined by the organism’s ability to orientate its own development as the interpretant of the ecosystem of which it is a part.

Given this contrast, I would argue that archaeology’s priority cannot be one of tracing the transmission of traits of behaviour, social organisations, or styles of material culture, across the generations, as if these represented the presence and operations of an inherited human trait, but rather to understand the ways communities of humanness once orientated their particular developments with reference to the material and cultural conditions within which those developments took place. And if the neo-Darwinian paradigm, with its emphasis upon the natural selection of random mutations, has indeed died, as many would now claim, having been ‘brought down by the weight of its own internal contradictions’ (Ingold 2013, 1), then we need to understand why it was ever adopted in the first place, and to be aware of the ideas that have died along with it.

Darwin (2009 [1859]) provided an argument for how biological reproduction could result in species diversity, and consequently he questioned the idea that species diversity was the unchanging product of a momentarily executed design.

In the Darwinian argument it is the reproduction of life that generates the possibilities that are selected for. The following three things should be noted.

First, Darwin did not know what mechanism carried heritable traits from one generation to the next. In 1900 the experimental results that had been achieved nearly fifty years earlier by Gregor Mendel were rediscovered (Jablonka & Lamb 2005, 16—38). These experiments involved controlling the cross-pollination of plants of the pea family, and they demonstrated the particulate and statistically predictable inheritance of individual traits from one generation to the next. The implication appeared to be that such traits were carried by some singular, determinate factor: a unit of inheritance that the Danish botanist Wilhelm Johannsen named the gene, and from whence he defined the ‘genotype’ as the totality of inherited genetic information that gave rise to the ‘phenotype’ as a functioning assemblage of traits (Roll-Hansen 2009). The general synthesis of Mendelian inheritance with Darwinian evolution resulted in a distinction being drawn between the phenotype, which is the physical form of the organism upon which, in this model, natural selection acts, and the genotype, being the inherited material, the long-term survival of which is consequential upon natural selection. At the end of the nineteenth century, the biologist August Wiseman had rejected claims that acquired characteristics could be inherited by their being included within the biological material contained in the germ line (i.e. the sperm or ovum cells in sexual reproduction) (Dawkins 1999, 113). In the early 1950s the chemical structure for the gene was accepted as having been identified by Francis Crick and James Watson who, drawing upon the images of X-ray crystallography that had been prepared by Rosalind Franklin, established the famous image of the DNA molecule that is defined by two intertwined polymer strands, weakly bound together by paired bonds formed between four different kinds of nucleobases. DNA thus came to be identified with the basic chemical structure that carried genetic information inherited from one generation to the next (Maynard Smith 2000; Jablonka 2002).

Second, the Darwinian paradigm requires that natural selection must work upon inherited diversity, although diversity within a reproducing population would seem to be reduced over time as a consequence of the operation of natural selection. This apparent contradiction lies at the heart of the Darwinian model of evolution, and it must be overcome by the necessary injection of genetic diversity into the lineages of reproduction. This injection of diversity is supposedly achieved either by mutations that occur during the transfer of genetic information across the generations, or by the drift of new genetic material into a gene pool via the migration of new members into the breeding population (Godfrey-Smith 2009, 53-67). Neither of these suggested solutions appears to be particularly straightforward in sustaining the required diversity of inherited information. Inherited mutations certainly occur although they are guarded against by various biological ‘editing’ procedures, and when they do occur, they are often catastrophic for the success of the reproductive process (cf. Margulis & Sagan 2002, 29). Genetic drift is also certainly a possibility (Godfrey-Smith 2009, 27-31), although the migration of new genetic material into a population does not account for the evolution of those populations that have become isolated geographically and environmentally, as appears to be required by the model of allopatric speciation.

Third, in 1866 Alfred Wallace wrote to Darwin recommending that he adopt Herbert Spencer’s term ‘survival of the fittest’ as a way of clarifying what he meant by the process of ‘natural selection’ (www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/DCP- LETT-5140.xml#back-mark-5140.f5). Unfortunately, Darwin readily concurred (Dawkins 1999, 179-194), and this has helped to secure the image of evolution as a process of competition between individual organisms. The claim that ‘natural selection’ implies competition between individuals was initially opposed by the observations and the arguments developed by the anarchist Peter Kropotkin (1902 & 1971, 498-499), although these were ignored at that time and have been ignored since. Writing from a gene-centred perspective on the process of natural selection Richard Dawkins complains that ‘fitness’ has become a ‘verbal trick, . . . contrived to make it possible to talk in terms of individuals, as opposed to true replicators’ (i.e. genes in Dawkins’s model) (Dawkins 1999, 179). The confusion, as far as Dawkins is concerned, is the focus that the phrase ‘survival and the fittest’ places upon the reproductive success of the organism when ‘that reproductive success is a measure of success in passing on genes’ (Dawkins 1999, 185). If this emphasis upon an individual organism’s success were indeed warranted, then it would render the occurrence of altruism between organisms a problematic characteristic of behaviour. Why, where individuals were supposedly competing for reproductive success against other conspecifics, would some individuals sacrifice that success on behalf of the success of others and thus also leave the way open for free-loaders and cheats to benefit from their generosity (Trivers 1971)? Considerable effort has gone into building the arguments that have counteracted these concerns from a ‘genes point of view’. These arguments have continued to emphasise that natural selection is a matter of genetic survival, and they are based upon William Hamilton’s model of inclusive fitness (Hamilton 1964a & 1964b). Inclusive fitness concerns the effects that a pattern of behaviours will have upon the successful reproduction of organisms that are genetically related (Dawkins 1999). Inclusive fitness is a relative, and not an absolute, measure. Hamilton’s argument, which strongly influenced the work of Dawkins, was that selection operates on organisms in ways that tend to sustain the behaviours that best secure the reproduction of a particular suite of genes. Inclusive fitness demands altruistic behaviour from individual organisms as a way to ensure the successful reproduction of some proportion of a shared genetic inheritance.

While Darwin had challenged the immutable status of the species as if it were a product of a deistic creation, neo-Darwinian modelling of biological reproduction has meant that natural selection, acting upon the reproduction of organisms with their relatively brief lifespans, appears to result in the ongoing, and cross- generational, survival of the successful lineages that define a species. The ‘genes’- eye’ view of neo-Darwinian evolution has been well expressed by Richard Dawkins who attributed to organisms the relatively passive role of ‘vehicles’ that were built, carried, and whose place in various classifications of the natural world was determined by, the more active existence of genetic ‘replicators’ (Dawkins 1978 [1976]). From this perspective it seemed reasonable to characterise genes as ‘selfish’ because they only exist to be replicated. The evolution of altruism could then be explained, as we have implied, by the process of ‘inclusive fitness’, where the altruistic sacrifice of an organism’s reproductive potential was taken to increase the survival chances of some proportion of the genetic replicators which that organism shared with its kin.

The claim that the natural selection of a genotypic determinant had designed all forms of life was the basis of the argument offered by E.O. Wilson in his Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Wilson 1975). Arguments such as this have meant that any attempt to introduce a biological reasoning into an understanding of human history' has been met with widespread suspicion. My intention here is indeed to utilise current biological ideas in seeking to understand human history, although the basis for doing this is quite different from that which was evoked by sociobiology. In the case of the latter approach, a neo-Darwinian form of biological inheritance is treated as if it were determining human behaviour. It is this approach that has been rejected by those working in the social sciences, as well as by some biologists (e.g. Sahlins 1977; Barlow & Silverberg 1980). The reactions against sociobiology have been partly sustained by the continuing desire to distinguish the processes of human history, as an expression of human intentions and arising from a human consciousness, from those of biological evolution that are supposedly genetically determined and directed by the processes of natural selection.

Resistance to various arguments for a biological determinacy driving human behaviour has depended in part upon distinguishing between human expressions of cultural value as the motivations for human actions, and processes of ‘natural’ or instinctive behaviour occurring generally across the animal kingdom. The culture mature dichotomy continues to pose the problem of explaining how human conscious behaviour evolved from the natural selection of the random mutations that supposedly drove biological reproduction. For many commentators this does not seem to be a problem. Indeed, it has even been claimed that the Darwinian principle of the natural selection of inherited variability is applicable beyond the biological case of genetic/species evolution. Dennett, for example, writes that ‘ [i]n a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law’ (Dennett 1996, 21).

If this were indeed the case then all of history' could presumably be treated as if it had resulted from the natural selection of transmittable variables, where those variables were ‘blindly’ generated by what is, in Dennett’s view, some form of algorithm. The more general application of Darwinian principles, alongside the neo-Darwinian emphasis upon the selective transmission of genes, was attempted by Dawkins who, by treating Darwinism as ‘too big a theory' to be confined to the narrow context of the gene’ (Dawkins 1978 [1976J, 205), raised the possibility' that human life is structured by the inheritance of both biological genes and cultural ‘memes’ (Dawkins 1978 [1976J, 203-215). Memes have been treated as the transmittable units of cultural information (Blackmore 1999; Aunger 2002), and these two lines of biological and cultural transmission provide the basis for an assumed process of dual inheritance (Boyd & Richerson 1985; Richerson & Boyd 2005). If cultural inheritance is governed by the teaching and copying of units of behaviour and thought, where variability results from randomised innovation along with the rapid drift of ideas and their mutation, and where selection may arise as the result of various social demands, whilst being otherwise biologically neutral, then the Darwinian principle of descent with modification appears to remain applicable to cultural systems of inheritance (O’Brien 1996; Shennan 2002). But how does cultural behaviour emerge from the evolutionary' process: how do cultural values emerge from those of nature?

The distinction between the processes of a human cultural world and those of natural evolution is not, I suggest, to be dissolved by treating the former as if it were simply determined by a reductionist view of the latter (Wilson 1999). Instead I seek, as an alternative, the view that life is responsive, must thus be accepted as being conscious (Thompson 2007), in which agency is fundamental to the making of life (Kauffman 2019), and where both consciousness and agency ensure that life expresses an intentionality towards the things that matter to it.

We humans, then, are not the only ones who interpret the world.

‘Aboutness’ - representation, intention, and purpose in their most basic

forms - is an intrinsic structuring feature of living dynamics in the biological

world. Life is inherently semiotic. (Kohn 2013, 74)

Primarily, the things that matter to life are the foods that provide it with the necessary' energy to grow and develop, but in this process humanness, as a form of life, has developed an intentionality towards things that also have a cultural value. As far as I can see this view of intentionality conforms with Dennett’s view ‘that a particular thing is an Intentional system only in relation to the strategies of someone who is trying to explain and predict its behavior’ (Dennett 1971, 87).

 
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