Cultural evolution has been a pretty active and heated topic in the anthropology blogosphere, especially between Martin, afarensis, and I. Afarensis continued the discussion today, returning to this topic but on the projectile point scope.
In some sort of weird coincidence, the professional press has also chimed in — not explicitly on projectile points, but on cultural evolution. I tip my hat to Simon Greenhill, who found these these two relevant pieces and posted about them in his blog HENRY. The first, a review on “Evolution in Archaeology,” by Stephen Shennan has been published in the Annual Review of Anthropology journal. The second, this column in Seed Magazine by Paul Ehrlich — who recently published a research paper in PNAS on cultural evolution, as well as a back and forth series of letters with a criticizer of his work.
Shennan is well versed in cultural evolution. He is one of the co-authors of a text titled, “The Evolution of Cultural Diversity: A Phylogenetic Approach.” In his Annual Review of Anthropology review, Shennan describes the history of how people have approached cultural evolution. He brings up the differences in the two analytical camps, ‘one centered on cultural transmission and dual inheritance theory and the other on human behavioral ecology,’ and how they have effected answering evolutionary questions with archaeological data. In summary, he effectively advocates that we need to find and agree on new, consistent ways of using archaeological data to answer evolutionary questions.
Ehrlich’s message starts out on a similar tone. In his second paragraph, he writes how we do not really “understand how cultures evolve.” He pays particular attention to the ambiguous nature of culture — something that “composed of overlapping phenomena from languages, religions, institutions, and socially transmitted power relationships to the information embodied in artifacts ranging from potsherds to jumbo jets,” and how it hard to extract patterns from all these varying sources that seem so bogged down with noise.
But Ehrlich ultimately reconsiles in that culture can be analyzed broadly, and under the same theoretical constraints that we analyze genetic evolution — so long as we through out that cultural evolution is progressive. His piece transitions into a summary of his recent research, but I still recommend you read it because it does a much better job with translating the science than I can, since he was one of the authors behind the piece.
Both are effective pieces in synthesizing evolutionary theory with the concept of culture. It is very problematic for one to discuss both or refute that culture doesn’t evolve without a strong understanding of the theoretical basis of evolution, selection, and change.