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 cultural 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. (shrink)
In his critical response to our skeptical inquiry, “Does Culture Evolve?” , W. G. Runciman affirms that “Culture Does Evolve.” However, we find nothing in his essay that convinces us to alter our initial position. And we must confess that in composing an answer to Runciman, our first temptation was simply to urge those interested to read our original article—both as a basis for evaluating Runciman’s attempted refutation of it and as a framework for reading this essay, which addresses in (...) greater detail issues we have already raised. Runciman views the “selectionist paradigm” as a “scientific” “puzzle-solving device” now validated by an “expanding literature” that has successfully modeled social and cultural change as “evolutionary.” All paradigms, however, including scientific ones, give rise to self-validating “normal science.” The real issue, accordingly, is not whether explanations can be successfully manufactured on the basis of paradigmatic assumptions, but whether the paradigmatic assumptions are appropriate to the object of analysis. The selectionist paradigm requires the reduction of society and culture to inheritance systems that consist of randomly varying, individual units, some of which are selected, and some not; and with society and culture thus reduced to inheritance systems, history can be reduced to “evolution.” But these reductions, which are required by the selectionist paradigm, exclude much that is essential to a satisfactory historical explanation—particularly the systemic properties of society and culture and the combination of systemic logic and contingency. Now as before, therefore, we conclude that while historical phenomena can always be modeled selectionistically, selectionist explanations do no work, nor do they contribute anything new except a misleading vocabulary that anesthetizes history. (shrink)
The problem that confronts us when we try to compare the structure of discourse and explanation in different domains of knowledge is that no one is an insider in more than one field, and insider information is essential. An observer who is not immersed in the practice of a particular scholarship and who wants to understand it is at the mercy of the practitioners. Yet those practitioners are themselves mystified by a largely unexamined communal myth of how scholarship is carried (...) on. R. G. Collingwood, although primarily a philosopher, was immersed in the community of historians and understood how history is done, so that he has had an immense influence on our ideas about historiography. Every historian knows The Idea of History.1 He was also a metaphysician, yet his influence on scientists’ understanding of nature, and of science, has been nil, and it is a rare scientist indeed who has ever heard of Collingwood or read The Idea of Nature.2 Collingwood’s views of the structure of science had to be constructed in large part from the elaborate fictions created by scientists and by an earlier generation of philosophers and historians of science who participated in the Baconian myth of the hypothetical-deductive scheme. 1. See R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History .2. See Collingwood, The Idea of Nature . R. C. Lewontin is Alexander Agassiz Professor at Harvard University. He is an experimental and theoretical evolutionary geneticist who has also worked extensively on epistemological issues in biology. He is the author of The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change and, with Richard Levins, of The Dialectical Biologist . His current research concerns the nature of genetic variation among individuals within species. (shrink)
Flesh of My Flesh is a collection of articles by today's most respected scientists, philosophers, bioethicists, theologians, and law professors about whether we should allow human cloning. It includes historical pieces to provide background for the current debate. Religious, philosophical, and legal points of view are all represented.