The Origin and Evolution of Cultures

By Robert Boyd; Peter J. Richerson | Go to book overview

PART 4
Archaeology and
Culture History

Historians and scientists do not always get along very well. Many historians view science as a procrustean enterprise whose practitioners insist on shoehorning complex historical phenomena into overly simple general laws. For their part, scientists often think that historians exaggerate the complexity and contingent nature of historical events, willfully refusing to see the order that underlies chaos of one thing after another. This debate is echoed in evolutionary biology where Steven J. Gould famously upheld a historicist version of organic evolution, a habit that made many mainstream evolutionary biologists hopping mad.

In our view, these debates are rooted in a mistaken view of evolutionary theory. Surely historical contingency plays a role in every sort of evolution from the cosmic to the cultural. The Big Bang was a singular event. So was the evolution of our unique species (and every other unique species, for that matter). However, evolutionary scientists do not try to jam this complexity into the straitjacket of general laws like those in physics. Instead, they aim to develop a toolkit of models and a collection of related empirical generalizations. The phenomena of evolution are not only complex but also diverse. No model and no empirical generalization is guaranteed to hold from one case to the next. Yet the lesson of biology is that this piecemeal approach to theory can yield deep insights. In chapter 19, we review the case for using a toolkit of simple models to explain complex and diverse phenomena like cultural evolution. Here we consider the role of theory-as-tools in understanding phenomena in which historical contingency plays a large, if not dominant, role.

Chapter 15 discusses why evolutionary processes give rise to history— meaning patterns of change with time in which the same initial conditions

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