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FW: [ANTHRO-L] The Possible Origin of Culture

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  • Popplestone, Ann
    ... From: Ian Pitchford [mailto:ian.pitchford@scientist.com] Sent: Monday, May 13, 2002 5:23 PM To: ANTHRO-L@LISTSERV.ACSU.BUFFALO.EDU Subject: [ANTHRO-L] The
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      FW: [ANTHRO-L] The Possible Origin of Culture

      -----Original Message-----
      From: Ian Pitchford [mailto:ian.pitchford@...]
      Sent: Monday, May 13, 2002 5:23 PM
      To: ANTHRO-L@...
      Subject: [ANTHRO-L] The Possible Origin of Culture

      Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 195-203 ( 13 May )
      URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/lock.html

      Essay Review

      The Possible Origin of Culture
      Andy Lock, Professor of Psychology at Massey University, New Zealand.

      Review of The Evolution of Culture: An Interdisciplinary View
      Edited by Robin Dunbar, Chris Knight and Camilla Power
      Edinburgh University Press, 1999 Pp. xii + 257

      There are four great systems whereby that phenomenon called 'life' variously
      sustains itself by moving information around in time. Three of these, the
      genetic system, the immune system, and the various nervous systems that support
      learning, are miracles of individual biology. Our understanding of each of
      these is conceptually united and underpinned by the Darwinian explication of
      'selection'. Natural selection explains how a profusion of genotypes is
      winnowed down to a set of 'adapted' individuals. Clonal selection theory
      explains how a profusion of lymphocytes are selected by their fit to antigens.
      And as Skinner (1953: 430) has pointed out 'In certain respects [learning]
      resembles the natural selection of evolutionary theory. Just as genetic
      characteristics which arise as mutations are selected or discarded by their
      consequences, so novel forms of behavior are selected or discarded through

      The fourth great system - culture - has never been satisfactorily fitted into
      this framework. The social systems of sub-human animals have proved to be
      explainable within an evolutionary framework, but human culture is more
      elusive. Cultural behaviour has a moral component rooted in self-awareness that
      the other systems do not display. It is fundamental to the maintenance of
      cultures that the individuals who make them up must have some awareness of
      their social standing with respect to age, sex, hierarchies of social standing,
      etc, for 'if [they] were not aware of [their] roles they would not be in a
      position to appraise their own conduct in terms of traditional values and
      social sanctions' (Hallowell, 1971: 83); they would not be able to provide an
      acceptable account of their actions when called to do so upon transgressing
      'custom' - accounts which draw on the local 'social constructs' of the group;
      and without such an awareness, human groups would be, if they could even exist
      under such conditions, little more than a collection of mindless sociopaths.
      Culture has thus, within the social sciences, come to be felt of as something
      'beyond biology', with socio-biological Darwinism being reacted to as an
      ideological construct rather than an applicable scientific framework.

      The aim of the present volume is to counter this rejection by asking
      evolutionary questions about culture: 'What is a 'social construct'? Under what
      selection pressures did such morally compulsive intangibles become invented,
      believed in and held up for respect?' (p. 5). It is divided into three
      sections: the evolution of society; the evolution of art and religion; the
      evolution of language. The chapters are brief at around 20 pages each (bar
      one). They are packed with information, but generally very well written and
      thus their arguments are all accessible. And at the same time, fascinating.

      Full text

      Other reviews at

      LETTERS TO THE EDITOR should be addressed to review@...

      The Evolution of Culture : An Interdisciplinary View
      by R. I. M. Dunbar (Editor), Chris Knight (Editor), Camilla Power (Editor)
      Paperback: 272 pages; Dimensions (in inches): 0.61 x 9.19 x 6.20
      Publisher: Rutgers University Press; ISBN: 0813527317; (September 1999)
      AMAZON - US
      AMAZON - UK

      From the Back Cover
      The Evolution of Culture seeks to explain the origins, evolution and character
      of human culture, from language, art, music and ritual to the use of technology
      and the beginnings of social, political and economic behavior. It is concerned
      not only with where and when human culture evolved, but also asks how and why.
      The book draws together original contributions by archaeologists,
      anthropologists, linguists and psychologists. By integrating evolutionary
      biology with the social sciences, it shows how contemporary evolutionary
      thinking can inform the study of the peculiarly human phenomenon of culture.
      The contributors call into question the gulf currently separating the natural
      from the cultural sciences. Human capacities for culture, they argue, evolved
      through standard processes of natural and sexual selection and can be properly
      analyzed as biological adaptations. The Evolution of Culture is fully
      referenced and indexed and contains a guide to further reading. It is
      accessibly written and will be sure to appeal to the growing multidisciplinary
      readership now asking questions about human origins.

      About the Author
      Robin Dunbar is Professor of Psychology in the School of Biological Sciences,
      University of Liverpool. He is the author of many books, including Grooming,
      Gossip and the Evolution of Language. Chris Knight is Reader in Anthropology at
      the University of East London and author of the highly acclaimed and widely
      debated first book, Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture.
      Camilla Power is a research student at University College, London.

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