Natural Selection, Scale, And Cultural Evolution

956 words - 4 pages

In his article entitled “Natural Selection, Scale, and Cultural Evolution” Dunnell states that his purpose for the paper is to explain why evolution has made such a small impact on archaeology. His hopes, he says, are to give ways to integrate evolutionary characteristics and anthropological theory effectively.
He first explains that cultural evolution and biological evolution are not the same (1996, pg 24). Because its “laws are not theoretical propositions but rather empirical generalizations,” cultural evolution does not work to explain cultural phenomena (1996, pg 25).
Evolutionary biology, says Dunnell, is a better method to use in comparison to cultural evolution for both cultural anthropology and archaeology. The only problem found with this method is dilemma of altruistic behavior in humans, which is the exact opposite of natural selection. That is, as Dunnell states, “the ultimate of the selfish principles.” The original solution to this problem was thought to be to change the scale of which natural selection works from that of the individual to the group. However, Dunnell gives a few reasons why this change usually would not work. First of these is that the individual, not the group, is the mean by which the reproductivity occurs. Second, the individual is the mean by which observable characteristics show themselves. Finally, changes in higher levels, such as that of the group, are too slow for natural selection to have and effect on the overall situation (1996, pg 26).
The difficulty, Dunnel states, is that evolution was developed “without the human case in mind,” and because humans are verbal beings, it is harder to apply evolutionary thought to the anthropology that studies them (1996, pg 26).
Even though the potential of these concepts may appear to be straightforward, Dunnel says that applying them is another matter that needs some explanation. First, evolution requires three things to work: variation, heritability, and selection. Dunnel states, “Variation in form arises in the biological world through mutation and through sexual reproduction in higher plants and animals. This variation is transmitted in biological systems genetically. Selection then acts, through differential reproductive success, to alter the frequency of forms in subsequent generations.” In short, variation is a mutation that occurs in a trait that is then transferred on to the next unit genetically. Selection then changes the frequency at which that trait is seen. To encompass human culture into this method, the process requires a second mean of character transfer (1996, pg 27). Because of this, it is not tied to an individuals’ lifetime and thus may act faster than normal genetic change would.
Cultural transmission and genetic transmission of traits are similar. However, they do differ at the level at which the traits are transmitted, thus natural selection can be applied to cultural change. The transfer of traits is not limited to...

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