On the narrative of cultural evolution and alternatives for human-environmental entanglements


Over the past few weeks, our group members have exchanged lively discussion and critique of Erle Ellis’s paper, virtually and in person. At those meetings I have attended, our chats have extended at least for some time towards the domain of culture and human history. This is not a surprise, as much of Ellis’s argument rests on evidence for ancient human-ecological dynamics, and his anthroecological theory is built with components of social theory. Indeed, Ellis places human practices squarely in the causal column.

I am not an ecologist, and have a limited understanding of the disciplinary traditions of thought (although this paper and group-think is illuminating). I am, however, an anthropological archaeologist. Here I want to reflect on one component of Ellis’s theory that is challenging to (and challenged by) contemporary anthropological thought.

One pillar that Ellis’ theory stands on is Cultural Evolution. Ellis sees a few capacities of humans as central to socio-natural processes. Most notable is human ultrasociality (see posts by Zev and myself from weeks past), the “ratchet effect and runaway cultural niche construction” behind apparent increasingly intensive land use and socialization, and the importance of social centrality. These components are inserted into a long-term master narrative of human social development, leading from the fragmented or small-scale (and low-density populations) to the increasingly complex social formations, with concomitant shifts in modes of subsistence through hunting-and-gathering,  cultivation, agriculture, and industry. This is a very familiar stadial scheme. Versions of it, based on mode of subsistence, have been present in western thought for hundreds of years, if not millennia (Pluciennik 2002).

As a method of inquiry, cultural evolution has a deep-and complicated-history in anthropology. Forgetting about the social Darwinism of the late 19th century, cultural evolution at the grand scale can be critiqued for its overemphasis on stages, reduction of variation, and the tendency to view history in a unilineal sense (Gamble 2007). Arranging societies by mode of subsistence does double work.  Aligned in a trajectory, the familiar (today, agriculturalist/industrialist) is given a foundation in (and separation from) the non-familiar (hunter-gatherers).  At the same time, classification by mode of subsistence places emphasis on those characteristics that modern (capitalist) societies place the most value on, and which explorers, observers, and historians of the past two hundred years have sought to identify among non-western cultures. Although unintended, I get the sense from reading Erle’s paper that our current socio-natural crisis was inevitable because of the particulars of the socio-cultural niche, described as it is in mostly economic and demographic terms. Lost in this formulation are the important ways that these societies could vary by history, either through the complexities of interaction, resistance, or alternative worldview. Indeed, a new trend in anthropology is to seek out big histories and see how different aspects of societies (artistic or monumental traditions, just as examples) might equally structure, diversify, and limit human organization (Robb 2015).

Somewhat new is the coupling of this stadial scheme with cultural inheritance theory, a Darwinian selection perspective which posits that human behavior (cultural learning) is acted upon by evolutionary forces, albeit at a pace faster than the genome. Forgoing for the moment concerns about what the unit of selection may be, what I and many others find problematic is that inheritance theories are largely free of culture-content and therefore ahistorical. That is, specific meaning or values are irrelevant as long as information is exchanged horizontally or vertically, selected as an evolutionary process, and can accumulate through time. The notion of runaway niche construction, for example, while certainly describing some examples, does not include those moments when communities shifted strategies in ways that did not necessarily amplify interconnectedness with natural systems, perhaps specifically to avoid such entanglements. So, too, we know there are means for humans to reorganize without increasing complexity, just different kinds of complexity. There is good reason, then, to suspect that the mode and content of transmitted information is subject to manipulation in frameworks that are not necessarily rational in a western, economizing sense. So, too, the use of evolutionary frameworks tend to include other metaphors that may not be appropriate, or at the very least gloss over much more complex interactions, e.g. competition, aggression, threat, or warfare. These concepts may work in an evolutionary framework, and we might find evidence for them, but they are not the only ways in which societies or individuals may interact. Missing, then, are examples of accommodation, mimesis, or creative innovation of new traditions.

So, I have avoided (anthro)ecology to this point, but we can return to it here.  There is no denying (or, at least I can’t deny) that humans are and have been dialectically unified with natural processes. I wonder, however, whether Ellis’s choice of cultural evolution—which uses the same metaphors and processes as biological evolution—might undermine Ellis’s larger goal. At the end of the paper, Ellis implores educators, ecologists, and conservationists “to integrate socio-cultural understanding into conservation” (p. 319), and further that “The paradigm must shift. Cultures create and sustain natures. Individual humans act intentionally, but they do so within their social contexts and depend on cultural values, perceptions, and actions“ (p. 320). There would seem, then, to be a contradiction between future pedagogy and the past.  Couched in terms of runaway cultural evolution, our present is projected as a largely unintentional project (though admittedly created through intentional acts). Yet Ellis seems to suggest that today, perhaps for the first time ever, humans might not only acknowledge the relevance of other ways of being (culture), but also collaborate to intervene in a deliberate way in shared socio-natural concerns. Using that same perspective, we might ask of our shared past, have there been times when humans have also intervened deliberately? How might such interventions illuminate past socio-natural processes?  What might they reveal of the diversity of human alternatives and their ecological correlates that are hidden by the evolutionary schema?


Gamble, Clive. (2007) Origins and revolutions: human identity in earliest prehistory. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Pluciennik, Mark. (2002) The invention of hunter-gatherers in seventeenth-century Europe. Archaeological Dialogues 9:98–118. doi: 10.1017/S1380203800002142
Robb, John. (2015) Prehistoric Art in Europe: A Deep-Time Social History. American Antiquity 80:635-654. doi: 10.7183/0002-7316.80.4.635

2 thoughts on “On the narrative of cultural evolution and alternatives for human-environmental entanglements

  1. Really rich and provocative post, Asa–thanks! Here’s a question. You say:

    what I and many others find problematic is that inheritance theories are largely free of culture-content and therefore ahistorical. That is, specific meaning or values are irrelevant as long as information is exchanged horizontally or vertically, selected as an evolutionary process, and can accumulate through time.

    Are you referring to the kinds of thing Steve and I were talking about in our exchange with Erle in the comment streams on my last post, and Steve’s post?

  2. This is an excellent critique, Asa, and there’s a lot to think about here. I want to focus in on the concept of resistance if I may, because you touch on it briefly and I think there’s a lot to explore in that concept both socially and ecologically.

    Ecological and evolutionary concepts of resistance and resilience tend to treat these processes as free from agency, as rules driven interactions of variables in complex systems. Humans may actively choose to resist change for any number of reasons, however, and I don’t think many of us would argue otherwise. This agency in resistance severely complicates Ellis’ model, as it does any model that roots human behavior in evolutionary and ecological metaphors.

    While the reasons humans may choose resistance, or nonresistance for that matter, are potentially infinite, I’d like to enumerate a few examples here in the interest of presenting some practical challenges to evolutionary models of human behavior.

    1.) Imperfect knowledge and belief – while selection pressures can impact social systems without the direct knowledge of actors within those systems, actors may be less likely to respond to changes they are either not aware of or do not believe in, i.e., climate change. Further, actors may intervene in ecological processes for reasons of belief that do not reflect what we may believe the scientific reality of those processes to be.

    2.) Attachment to place – stories, traditions, and identities are often tied to a sense of place (e.g., Basso 1996, Meadows 2008). People may actively resist leaving a place for purely social reasons.

    3.) Boundary maintenance – human social groups may resist change as a way of maintaining boundaries between themselves and other groups, in ways and for reasons that may or may not be adaptive within an evolutionary framework.

    Can resistance as the result of active, culturally enmeshed choices be worked into an ecological evolutionary framework, or does it reveal the inadequacy of reductive models for explaining the complex interrelationships between nonhuman ecological process and human behavior? If the latter, how do we address the Anthropocene as a real social and ecological phenomenon?

    Basso, Keith. 1996. Wisdom Sits in Places. University of New Mexico Press.

    Meadows, William C. 2008. Kiowa Ethnogeography. University of Texas Press.

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