Look to Darwin, not skeletons

Genes, Memes and Human History

July 25, 2003

As a starting point to this challenging book, Stephen Shennan refers to the myopia of much archaeological explanation, in which social change is seen naively as the "outcome of the conscious choices of individuals with existentialist mentalities walking clear-sightedly into the future".

Emphasis on individuals as the prime locus of social change arose in the 1980s as a virulent meme among prehistorians, and arrogantly assumes that all individuals are knowledgeable social agents. It denies the often-considerable role of behavioural and biological selection at larger, that is to say, group levels. Shennan rightly holds attempts to write human prehistory as tabloid human-interest stories as dubious and to him "making sense of patterns and processes in world prehistory is both a lot more interesting and a lot more important".

Following Darwin's call to readers of On the Origin of Species to consider the complex interactions between plants and animals in an entangled bank and the processes that determined these, Shennan believes that "it is time for archaeologists to stop being beguiled by the complexities of their own entangled banks and to start producing accounts of human history that make use of the principles that Darwin established".

Such principles, of course, include inheritance and competition in the context of fluctuating resources, populations and social organisation. This is a serious agenda, required reading for archaeologists of all levels.

Shennan rightly stresses the unique strength of archaeology - long-term societal change at scales often invisible to individuals and groups - and suggests a new approach to traditional questions in this perspective. By his own admission his book is "a very 19th-century one in the issues it addresses", namely what forces act on cultural traditions through social learning over time, human life histories and population change, resource exploitation, relations between the sexes, and social organisation and practices within groups (including the rise of inequality) and between them (competition and warfare).

The first half of the book addresses biological issues, beginning with behavioural ecology, which is used broadly to understand behaviour by testing predictions based on the principle of Darwinian evolution by natural selection. The main tenets of this approach are that genes and behaviour extend beyond the individual, and that such behaviour will tend towards optimising reproductive success. Shennan views human culture as an inheritance system, in which individuals acquire phenotypes variably from their conspecifics by teaching or imitation. In contrast to Richard Dawkins' characterisation of cultural "memes" as replicators analogous to genes, Shennan rejects this framework as information may transform during transmission, and instead forwards a number of transmission modes that may each introduce variation in transmission rates and tempos. This is not to deny the role of individuals, and Shennan stresses how life history theory allows us to understand how processes at the individual level affect population patterns at larger scales, and provides a useful framework for the archaeological study of population.

Three chapters are concerned with the identification of patterns of human social organisation from the archaeological record. Gender is explored on the premise that male-female relations will be based on biological differences that manifest themselves in different strategies for maximising reproductive success. It emerges that competition, and the correlation between wealth and reproductive success, are stronger in and between males.

Notable here is Shennan's contention, derived from numerous anthropological studies, that many human practices are highly sexually dimorphic and therefore under different selection. Such biologically based differences form a starting point towards the realisation that differences between male and female activities cannot be divorced from issues of male power and control, and around which archaeologically identifiable symbolic elaboration may occur. Shennan draws on archaeological studies that draw out correlations between sexual selection and ornamentation.

Following this, Shennan examines the development of inequality and ownership within social groups. Evolutionary game theory - including the well-known prisoners' dilemma model, forms the backdrop for his contention that social institutions may be viewed as game conventions. The issue of whether groups play a role in social selection is debatable, but as Shennan notes, the ubiquity of violence between traditional small-scale societies suggests that group-level selection is occurring through the mechanism of inter-group competition. Shennan analyses inter-group violence from the prisoners' dilemma perspective, arguing that while much "violence" is a relatively harmless expression of competitive strength akin to the proverbial peacock's tail, deadly violence may be engaged if odds are felt to be favourably high.

Shennan's powerful case study demonstrates the rise of conflict and breakdown of traditional exchange networks in the late phase of the European early Neolithic linear pottery culture, which he suggests resulted from some half a millennium of continuous use of the same agricultural resources. Shennan's overall view is that a number of small agricultural communities, derived from the same source, reached local population ceilings and as a result changed their social strategies as reflected in novel ceramic forms and their becoming less susceptible to the practices of their neighbours. This, and the recognition elsewhere in the book that short-term population fluctuations such as those Shennan demonstrates were occurring in the Alpine Neolithic were probably the norm in prehistory, form powerful models for explaining social change.

In a discipline that has endured nearly two decades of concentration on individual "life experience", Shennan's call for a renewed use of prehistoric archaeology's unique long-term perspective on human development is refreshing. As he notes, archaeologists "do not need to be failed ethnographers, forever regretting the demise of the people they would like to talk to" and, let's face it, telling stories to compensate. This is a real alternative: Shennan's erudition, innovative thought and elegant prose may usher in a new paradigm of archaeological endeavour. I hope the dominance of individual experience in archaeological explanation is over.

If Shennan's own individual agency were to stand as an exception to the central tenets of his new agenda, it would be a welcome price to pay.

Paul Pettitt is research fellow and tutor in archaeology and anthropology, Keble College, Oxford.

Genes, Memes and Human History: Darwinian Archaeology and Cultural Evolution

Author - Stephen Shennan
ISBN - 0 500 05118 6
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £19.95
Pages - 304

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