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12 August 2010

Do Cultures Evolve?

With all of the time I've been spending recently thinking about Culture and Culture Change, I was intrigued when I came across some research that suggest that cultures evolve (via Neuroanthropology).  I found and read an article (which I've liberated here) so I could see what they're talking about. 

Let me say, first of all, that I dislike the term "evolve" when associated with culture, because most of the time (and, indeed, this is the case here) they're talking about a progressive becoming better and better.  That's too teleological for me.  Cultures accumulate (become more composed?), I think, and in some cases that means they become better (more efficient, more effective) at certain things, but in other cases not.  And in some cases what they accumulate is not functional at all.

Nevertheless, I liked the article, because I think it illustrates something that I've been arguing for recently - the progressive composition of culture.  Basically, this was a lab experiment to demonstrate "Continued Cultural Evolution" (CCE) (I think that part of the reason why these researchers found it so easy to make teleological claims about cultural evolution is that it was a simple, controlled experiment, but I digress).  The researchers had participants take turns performing a task - building paper airplanes or building spaghetti structures - within a given period of time.  As the first participant was performing the task, the next two would be watching.  When the second participant went in to perform the task, another one was allowed to enter and watch.  This was done to simulate generational learning and the movement of people in and out of cultures.  What they found was that the later participants made more effective artifacts (taller spaghetti structures, paper planes that flew farther) than the earlier participants.  They also found that the earlier artifacts were more similar to each other than the later artefacts and vice versa, suggesting that there was a kind of descent with modification. 

What I found really interesting, though, was that the researchers attributed all of this evolution to a progressive transmission of knowledge, but they left each previous artifact in the room as the people were working in order to simulate material culture.  This suggests to me that maybe the artifacts themselves were able to act as agents in the process and influence how the person built his or her own artifact.    In this case, I suspect that the direct transmission of knowledge from one person to the next (through demonstration and observation) may have played a large role simply because of the short time span of the experiment.  I wonder, however, what would happen if you delayed each participant's performance by a day or more so that there was a chance they'd forget some details of how the previous person built their artifact.  What would happen, also, if they removed the artifacts from the room after each performance?  I'd speculate that, without the material component and with greater delays, you'd see less progress, but I'm not 100% sure.  Anyone want to try it out?


Anonymous said...

In order to answer the question if cultures evolve it is crucial to define the scale of culture itself. The experiment you refer to appears to involve a limited number of people and materials in an “artificial environment”. Are we talking about culture in the same way as “American culture”, “Roman culture” or “Maya culture”? The way these latter terms are used hardly fits the experiment. These latter terms are arborescent structures with essentialist components, master-signifiers in Deleuzian terms. Let me illustrate this from my own field of Mesoamerican archaeology:

Compare the “fate” of the “Olmec culture” with that of the “Maya culture” in a typical Mesoamericanist narrative. Let us go back to 800 BC. At this time there was a Middle Formative (1000-300 BC) Maya culture present at the site of Cuello in northern Belize. There was another Middle Formative Olmec culture at La Venta in the Mexican state of Tabasco. At around 400 BC it appears as if the Olmec culture was on the decline and it eventually disappeared although its influence can be seen in various Olmecoid patterns in other cultures (such as the Maya). The Maya culture continued to exist and not even the “Maya collapse” 750-1100 AD and the Spanish conquest in the 16th century destroyed this culture according to this narrative. Thus, in the present there still is a Maya culture thriving throughout the Maya area but the Olmec culture is long since gone. We therefore have a contemporary Maya revitalization movement but not an Olmec equivalent. But the “Maya culture” is largely a Colonial and modern categorization, formed in the meeting with the Spaniards. How far back in time can this categorization be projected? One can wonder how much a lowland Maya male farmer at Cuello, 2800 years ago, would have had in common with Nobel peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, a Kiché Maya woman from the highlands of Guatemala? Very little is my guess and although no Mayanist would claim that there is this resemblance, the arborescent culture concept actually follows this logic. The Maya farmer at Cuello would obviously have had more in common with a contemporary Olmec farmer at La Venta, but they would still be seen as part of different cultures in the arborescent culture models.

In short: in the essentialist arborescent conceptions of “macrocultures” the contents (artifacts, buildings, language, environment, etc) may evolve but the overall container remains, just like an organism remains intact despite changes of its internal organs. I would rather replace culture with Latoruian collectives or DeLanda’s assemblages that still maintain heterogeneous components but do not rely on the organismic metaphor of culture. Culture is about relations of interiority (organs working for the cultural organism), but I prefer relations of exteriority in DeLanda’s sense.

Jeremy Trombley said...

In addition to defining scale - both spatial and temporal - we also need to ask what they mean by culture. I don't think it's the same thing as "American Culture," "Mayan Culture," or "Olmec Culture" of course. I think it might be better to think of this as "cultural" rather than "culture" as such. And maybe here they're talking about what might be called "cultural knowledge" or "cultural skill." I don't know.

I like DeLanda's assemblages, and Latour's collectives or associations better, as well. The term culture comes with too much baggage, including the organismic metaphor, so I think it might be best to simply abandon it. In fact, the only reason I use it here is because they did. But I don't think they're aware of all of the issues with that term - the self-consciousness surrounding the term seems to be limited to Anthropology.

Limitations aside, I think this is an interesting experiment. I think it does show some "cultural" effects. There are a few other experiments by the same researchers that sound interesting as well. But, of course, it all needs to be taken for what it is - simplified lab experiments.

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