Anthropology Barriers

December 28, 2009 | Leave a Comment

Category: Biology, Society

One of the paradoxes of contemporary anthropology is the hesitation to examine different societies as different stages on an evolutionary trajectory.  For those of you that visit this blog relatively regularly, you know that I can’t be conversant in as many disciplines as I purport to know something about.  I skim disciplines, looking for patterns that transcend disciplines.  This may be one of those places where current trends make what I am about to say make little sense.  Nevertheless, what familiarity I have with anthropology suggests that the default natural selection frame of reference is almost useless when discussing humans.

In an effort to display equanimity, theorists have mostly purged from theorizing the early discipline prejudices that Western civilization was more “evolved” than non-Western or aboriginal societies.  Two things got stripped during the purging process, and they have inhibited contemporary theorizing.

First, the word “evolve” has come to mean progress, or trend in a positive direction.  This was not Darwin’s definition, nor is it the definition usually used by current evolutionary biologists.  A result has been that there is an enormous epistemological muddle as regards what exactly evolution is.  Because a judgment accompanies the definition of “evolution” that suggests that anything more evolved is an improvement, evolution is often neglected as a powerful principle in anthropology.  To suggest that one type of society evolves into another is to suggest that the second society is “better” than its predecessor.

I’m suggesting that it would be useful to reintegrate evolution into anthropology, but by using principles just emerging.  Evolutionary developmental biological concepts of evolution as deeply informed by and informing early ontogeny or womb dynamics (in combination with an understanding of how endocrinology integrates with social structure) may go a long way toward explaining how societies change.

The second thing purged from anthropological theorizing that characterized early contributions to the field is the idea that different disciplines are connected and that different scales of experience are allied.  This is perhaps another reason why evolution theory has not intuitively guided anthropological theorizing.  One hundred years ago there existed what has been called threefold and fourfold parallelisms connecting theorists in the disciplines serving biology, society, embryology/ontogeny and psychology.  Academics borrowed concepts from one another, experiencing a connection among disciplines as they observed evolutionary principles playing across a vast array of patterns.

A combination of several factors dampened that atmosphere.  Reductionism focused on variables that could easily be controlled.  There was less support for induction-based, big-picture connections.  The continued purge of patrifocal mythology from deistic or religious interpretations of experience encouraged an atheism that tended to see the world in pieces rather than in wholes.  With the purging of Western religion from Western theorizing, there seemed to be a vast, flat plane of religious practices occurring in thousand of societies, none seemingly more “evolved” than another, though trends were noted that seemed to suggest natural progressions of religious beliefs.

My work focuses on an understanding of anthropology as driven by the same dynamic that drives evolutionary biology.  By revisiting evolution as it influences humans, guided by an alternative “synthesis” that integrates embryology, social structure, neuropsychology and endocrinology into the synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s, it is my opinion that anthropology can again be usefully explored from an evolutionary perspective.

Evolution is often reflexively considered inappropriate when approaching anthropology.  The synthesis I’ve been playing with struggles against the definition of “evolution” that means progress and suggests evolution can be examined using a parallelism paradigm.

We have a tradition of creating barriers to understanding.  It would be useful if we just assumed everything evolves.


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