Ossified and doomed

I’m going to address a comment here that I found elsewhere, and as I’m pretty sure it will have been moderated and deleted as vexatious by now, I’m not going to link to it. However, I do want to address the spirit of this argument, which I come across in various forums quite often, and which displays a highly selective (shall we say) understanding of how selection in evolution works, as well as several other misconceptions.

But western society was dynamic and evolving. On the other indigenous society was ossified and doomed. Need I bother pointing out the fact that 99% of hunter-gatherer societies were extinguished in the 18th and 19th centuries?

What tosh. Who has better weapons has nothing to do with whether a conquered society is “ossified and doomed”, and only a little to do with the evolution of a whole society compared to the genius of a handful of innovators. Inventors are exceptions to any society’s rule, and although some societies may be more accepting of innovation than others, there is absolutely no evidence that hunter-gatherer societies are opposed to innovations that improve their chances of survival. Hunter gatherer societies were doomed in the face of European colonisation by the technology gap, not by any “more evolved” society over all.

What this commentor really meant to say was that western society was “progressing” (with all the “improvements” and “superiority” that “progress” implies), while indigenous society was not “progressing”, and what he means by progress is solely technological prowess.

The technology gap certainly was a function of the ability to accumulate masses of technology that was made possible by the development of agriculture and town living that allowed the specialisation of skills. Hunter gatherer peoples have changed their technology over time, but they don’t accumulate technology in the same way because they are more limited by what they can carry, and also depend on being generally skilled in survival in their environment rather than specialising.

But is our technology the only way society can progress? All detailed anthropological studies of the remaining hunter-gatherer societies show that they are generally healthier, work fewer hours to feed their families, and appear generally happier than all but the wealthiest of their agricultural/industrial neighbours. Captain Cook noted this about the aboriginals of Far North Queensland in his journals, in passages that were expunged when they were printed for general consumption.

For all our modern comforts and possessions, has our society actually progressed over one where everybody worked together for a few hours daily to ensure that everyone was fed, and then spent the rest of day talking, laughing, singing, dancing and making art and craft objects?

I don’t want to overly romanticise hunter gatherer life. It has its share of brutalities and atrocities, just like any other human society, and it is undeniable that such cultures are highly vulnerable to organised armed attack from groups with more advanced weaponry. But to imply that their vulnerability is due to being “ossified” as a society, as if they have somehow failed through not “progressing” and therefore deserve to be conquered by a society “higher” on the “Chain of Being”, is illogical nonsense and highly offensive.

Such statements display how the concept of biological evolution and evolution generally become conflated, confused and twisted. “Evolution” just means “change”, after all, not “progress”. Evolution has no goal, it just happens. There is no such thing in biology as “more evolved” or “devolved”, as evolution never stops: all species on earth, from simple amoeba to complex vertebrates, are just as evolved as any other. The old idea of a “great chain of being” with worms at the bottom, turtles in the middle and humans at the top has been long abandoned by science: biological evolution is not a ladder, it is a copiously branching bush (technically, a cladogram).

Even though biologists reject the Great Chain of Being or any similar ladder-of-progress explanation of evolution, the idea still persists in popular culture. A more accurate analogy would be that of a bush that branches in many directions. If we think of evolution over time in this way, we’re less likely to be confused by notions of progress because the branches of a bush can grow in various directions in three dimensions, and new branches can sprout off of older branches without implying that those farther from the trunk are better or more advanced than those closer to the trunk. A more recent branch that has split off from an earlier branch-like a species that has evolved from an ancestral species-does not indicate greater progress or advancement. Rather, it is simply a new and different growth on the bush, or more specifically, a new species that is sufficiently adapted to its environment to survive.

The Darwinian concept of Natural Selection as the driving force behind biological evolution, based on the natural environment filtering organisms for survival (& reproduction) based on success in the competition for resources, is a powerfully useful and generally compelling concept, but doesn’t necessarily have much to say about how cultures, societies and ideas evolve. Just because one animal has bigger teeth and claws than another does not mean it is “more evolved”, and just because one society has more powerful weapons than another does not mean that it is “more evolved” either. It’s not just postmodernism which demands that rigorous analysis be context-specific.

e.g. if unexpectedly lost in a desert, who is more likely to survive? The specialised urbanites of western society, or the people who have generations of experience in wilderness survival skills? Who is “more evolved” in this situation?

More on “progress” and evolution here.

Categories: history, indigenous, Science, Sociology

Tags: , , , ,

9 replies

  1. I shouldn’t be surprised that that old chestnut is still around, but I am. That myth was debunked in Anthropology 101. Maybe it should be compulsory.

  2. “The Darwinian concept of Natural Selection as the driving force behind biological evolution”
    Actually, there are TWO driving forces behind evolution according to Darwin, natural selection and sex selection.
    So, just to be totally pedantic, that should have read
    “The Darwinian concept of Natural Selection as one of the driving forces behind biological evolution”
    Everyone always ignores sex selection though.

  3. A pedant after my own heart, Rebekka, and I’ll point out that it’s sexual selection, not sex selection (which is preferring one sex of offspring over the other through either selective abortion or infanticide).
    You’re quite right, sexual selection is often overlooked. In this case I didn’t mention it because it wasn’t part of the twisted concept I was debunking, and I thought the post was complicated enough.

  4. Also, don’t biologists mostly refer to sexual selection as a subset of Natural Selection?
    Introduction to Evolutionary Biology

    Natural selection can be broken down into many components, of which survival is only one. Sexual attractiveness is a very important component of selection, so much so that biologists use the term sexual selection when they talk about this subset of natural selection.
    Sexual selection is natural selection operating on factors that contribute to an organism’s mating success.

  5. That idea of some societies being “more evolved” than others is an extension of the (slightly phalocentric) line of thought that goes “the bigger and more powerful, the better”.
    Well done for debunking this!

  6. Ah this was a fantastic post and all the more so for its absence of romanticism about any societal structure, hunter-gatherer included.
    This paragraph was particularly powerful –
    “For all our modern comforts and possessions, has our society actually progressed over one where everybody worked together for a few hours daily to ensure that everyone was fed, and then spent the rest of day talking, laughing, singing, dancing and making art and craft objects?”
    Especially on a day like today when I am racing to get us all out of here for a long day at work and care.

  7. I just realised I was so concentrated on the misuse of “evolving” in the original comment that I let his usage of “dynamic” pass.
    By “dynamic” of course what he really means is “expansionary”, and we’re all starting to see how an ideal of progress which depends on continued expansion is unsustainable.

  8. I’ve just been reading a range of scary, but credible, science journals predicting that our progressive society is going to reach the point of no return in runaway climate change – rendering the planet unihabitable – in 8 to 15 years.
    Define ‘evolving’ and ‘doomed’ again?

  9. Just because one animal has bigger teeth and claws than another does not mean it is “more evolved”…

    One of the best teachers I ever had used to talk about the evolution of the ‘apt organism’ and pointed out that seasquirts were extremely apt in the context in which they live; their physiology has not had to change in millions of years. As far as successful adaptation goes seasquirts are the supreme beings 🙂 and no doubt they’ll still be here when we have overspecialized to the point of extinction.

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