Friday, 24 August 2012

The Contentious History of Evolutionary Theory in the Anthropological Academy: From Boasian Historical Particularism to Wilson's Sociobiology

With the publication of On the Origins of Species, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has been one of the most profound theories in the biological sciences in expounding and analysing the physical, genetic and behavioural diversity of animals. Indeed Darwinian evolution has been a profound theory outside of the biological sciences – namely it has had remarkable impact in the social sciences throughout its history. During the nineteenth century, “versions of Darwinian evolution took centre stage in political and social philosophy and in the human sciences.” A number of anthropologists came to understand cultural variation in terms of a linear progression to a cultural apex, then considered Western civilisation. This interpretation was rebuked by the anthropological school of cultural relativism and it became essentially taboo by the academy to utilise evolutionary theory in the social sciences. That said, during the early to mid-twentieth century a number of sociopolitical movements, such as the Nazi party and the eugenics movement, appropriated Darwinism to justify the genocide of certain deemed “unfavourable” and “subhuman” demographics. Such justifications were strongly condemned by evolutionary scientists as pseudoscientific and immoral but such utilisation of evolutionary theory in the social sciences still remained seriously contentious. Then in 1975 the American entomologist Wilson developed the field of sociobiology as the “systematic study of the biological basis of all social behaviour in the context of evolution” and in 1976 the British zoologist Dawkins developed the gene-centred view of evolution based on “selfish genes” determining natural selection and consequent behaviour of an organism. Whilst both Wilson and Dawkins primary aims were with the study of non-human animals, their theories flowed over into the realms of the social sciences. Indeed there was a profound backlash in the social sciences academy claiming that sociobiology and the gene-centred view were ethnocentric, reductionist, determinist and flawed in explaining human nature. By the 1990s, the debate over human sociobiology culminated in the development of evolutionary psychology as attempting to respond to the criticisms against evolutionary theory in the social sciences. Led by Barkow, Cosmides, and Tooby, evolutionary psychology aimed to understand the “neurobiology of the human brain as a series of evolutionary adaptations and that human behaviour and culture thus stem from the genetics and evolution of the brain.” Yet there still exists and persists contentions from the social sciences, particularly cultural anthropology, against sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. This essay will examine the history of the contributions and criticisms of evolutionary theory in the social sciences, from its racist and pseudoscientific past to its current contributions. Then it will examine the contributions and theory of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology as applied to anthropology in explaining human nature and also examine the contentions and controversy in the anthropological academy in response to such. Overall this essay will not delve into the technical details and scientific theory of evolutionary theory, but rather examine its claims and responses to and from in the anthropological academy.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has presented an interpretation of human nature that has been at odds with prevailing theoretical paradigms throughout its history. The theorisation of human nature through conceptions of evolution and instinct has been undertaken by such figures as Darwin himself, Hume, Smith and Huxley who have proposed that the mosaic of human nature stems from innate human instincts. Whilst this paradigm of evolutionary social science culminated as essentially “passive and benign contemplations”, the theory of evolution of natural selection also manifested as bigotry, racism and the apparent justification of white Anglo male supremacy based on a linear interpretation of history. The school of social evolutionism in the anthropological academy led by Tylor, Morgan and Spencer became the dominant paradigm in the late ninetieth century and became appropriated as Social Darwinism in popular discourses. This paradigm utilised the framework of evolution to describe the differences between developed Western civilisations and non-developed “savage” cultures as stemming from the biological inferiority of the “savages” who were considered more related to chimpanzees than the superior Anglo-Saxons. Social movements also took up this school of thought and supported social policies of eugenics and forced sterilisation of certain demographics such as those in low socioeconomic statuses, those with disabilities or mental illness, or those from non-white ethnicities. Key responses to this school came from Boas and Kroeber in the anthropological schools of historical particularism and cultural relativism. These schools posited that the history of humanity is not a linear progression to the technological civilisation of the West but rather that each culture must be understood by “its own conditions and own particular cultural history.” Yet, there have still been individuals and groups that support Social Darwinism, culminating in cases such as the forced assimilation of Australian Aboriginals in the early twentieth century and the genocide committed by the Nazi regime during 1933 to 1945. After the Second World War, as Degler posits “the utilisation of the theory of the biological sciences in the social sciences and the ‘biologicisation’ of human nature became a taboo” due to the profound consequences of its appropriations.

During the 1970s there was a revival in the theory of evolutionary theory with advances in molecular biology, genetics, computer science and mathematical game theory. This revival was primarily aimed at explaining non-human animal behaviour and was largely led by Wilson and Dawkins along with other evolutionary theorists. Although this was the primary aim of the science, both Wilson and Dawkins still theorised on the evolution of human behaviour using the same paradigm of evolutionary theory of the study non-human behaviour. There was profound backlash in the social sciences, primarily by Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin and Sahlins with the scientific reductionism and biological determinism of sociobiology in explaining culture, but also controversy surrounding the ideological and ethical implications of such. Thus the theorists of sociobiology then responded to such criticism and controversy with the development of the field of evolutionary psychology. Led by Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby, evolutionary psychology attempted to redress the claims of reductionism and determinism by focusing on the dichotomy of nature and nurture through holistically studying the neurobiological, cognitive and psychological factors of human nature. Yet, the paradigm of evolutionary psychology has also too been met with profound criticism from the anthropological academy. Despite such criticism over legitimacy and usefulness, the fields of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and the general application of evolutionary theory in the social sciences, have been increasingly taken up in the biological and social sciences academies.

The majority of ethical, practical and theoretical contentions in the anthropological academy surrounding the application of evolutionary theory to explain human nature stem from the reductionism and genetic determinism of evolutionary theory. Indeed the question of how in the confines of the so perceived savage, impersonal and selfish world of Darwinian natural section can complex social structures and cultural norms come about is indeed important. Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology as they manifest in the academic and popular literature have been rebuked by anthropologists and other cultural theorists as being “ethnocentric, reductionist, determinist, and philosophically reprehensible.” Critics level evolutionary theory “is merely academic fancy foot work away from the archaic and pseudoscientific” school of social evolutionism of the nineteenth century, that it explicitly and implicitly makes “false, flawed and unsubstantiated assumptions about social, political, economic, and cultural processes”, and that even the presumption of a “human nature itself is flawed.” Indeed as Sahlins has stated, evolutionary theory in the social sciences is “at its worst pseudoscientific and racist and at its best it is quasi-scientific based on flawed principles and methodology with a profound misunderstanding of the dynamics of culture.” The responses to these claims by evolutionary theorists have centred on pointing out the “fundamental biological basis of humans, being an animal species just like any other” but also pointing out the “naturalistic fallacy between making descriptive and normative judgements."

The theory of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology is predicated, by definition, on reducing human behaviour to an evolutionary and biological basis. According to Lewontin and Sahlins this does away with the cultural forces of acculturation and diffusion and other social, economic and political dynamics. Indeed explaining human behaviour by “reducing it down to the genes of the body and modules in the brain” fundamentally “neglects to recognise the power of culture in shaping and reshaping the human mind.” Thus the theorisation of the gene and or the brain being the paramount determiner in human behaviour is flawed as it “restricts the interpretation of behaviour and its cultural context.” Rather, Lewontin propounds a dialectical and interactionist interpretation of human behaviour in response to the reductionism as “it is not just that wholes are more than the sum of their parts, it is that parts become qualitatively new by being parts of the whole.” Lewontin propose that dialectical explanations are more effective and holistic in explaining human behaviour in contrast to the “reductionist calculus of the evolutionary neurobiological and gene-centred view of culture.” In response, evolutionary theorists propose that reductionism is an “important scientific principle.” Moreover such theorists as Barkow and Wilson propose that the theory of evolutionary psychology also seeks a holistic interpretation of human nature via genetic, cognitive, neurobiological and psychological processes “based on the fact that humans have evolved to environments with culture – that culture is not independent of evolution, but rather biology is the precursor.” Indeed “culture is sometimes advanced as competing with explanations that invoke evolutionary psychology, most frequently when cross-cultural variability is observed” and these “cultural explanations invoke the notion that differences between groups are prima facie evidence that culture is an autonomous causal agent.” Evolutionary theorists respond to these criticisms by stating that “cultural explanations are more or less cultural reductionism” and “ignorant of the role of biology and innate characteristics” that have evolved in the human species.

Along with the claims and criticisms of reductionism against sociobiology and evolutionary psychology is biological determinism. The critics label sociobiology and evolutionary psychology as biological determinist and that evolutionary theory is ignorant of the forces of nurture and the capacity of culture and social environments to shape and reshape human nature, but also that evolutionary theory facilitates and entrenches racism, sexism and prejudice. Indeed major criticism against sociobiology and evolutionary psychology that stems from the ethical, political and social implications of their theoretical underpinnings and findings. The critics of evolutionary psychology propose that evolutionary theory promotes or at least enables racism and sexism and does to re-entrench out-dated perceptions of sex and race. This criticism came from key findings in evolutionary psychology that the male and female brains evolved differently and thus possess different cognitive and behavioural hardwiring and that certain ethnicities are more likely to behave in certain ways or are more susceptible to certain diseases. Indeed, some evolutionary theorists, such as Jensen have even claimed that that intelligence is inheritable, that certain races are more intelligent than others, and that racial economic equality is unattainable. Thus it is proposed that just as the historically dominant class ideologies that supported the oppression of women and ethnic minorities had strong pseudoscientific justifications, in the form of assertions that women and ethnic minorities were genetically inferior, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology makes it possible again to hold such beliefs.

All this criticism has been strongly responded to by evolutionary theorists primarily based on pointing forth the naturalistic fallacy and that “sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are scientific disciplines with no social agenda.” It is also put forward that the frameworks of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology dissolve dichotomies of nature versus nurture, innate versus learned, and biological versus culture. It is not biological determinism but rather an understanding that genes and other biological factors predispose certain behavioural traits and therefore culture. Moreover, it is proposed that the biological determinism perceived of evolutionary theory in the social sciences “as being seen to be antithetical to social or political change is evidently historically falsified.” Evolutionary theorists respond with that evolutionary psychology does not privilege or prejudice individuals or groups but rather just seeks to describe and that the claims on racial inequality being inevitable by Jensen and Herrnstein have been discredited in the evolutionary theory by fellow theorists such as De Waal and Pinker. Indeed, it has been asserted that critics have been putting forth critiques based on personal political and ethical values rather than any empirical or explanatory factors and thus the attacks against evolutionary theory have been made on “non-scientific grounds”. Sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists “should and do acknowledge the role of ideology and politics in the formation and support of scientific paradigms” but do not let it influence their own paradigm. Moreover it is noted that “genetically determined mechanisms do not imply genetically determined behaviour” and thus the theory of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology is not predicated on genetic determinism. Fundamentally critics do not recognise the naturalistic fallacy in their critiques of the ethical implications of evolutionary theory. Indeed “an explanation is not a justification” and neither sociobiology nor evolutionary psychology attempt to justify the existence of social hierarchies, racism or sexism – “when they are and have been used to justify such than evidently that is not scientific.” It is posited that any “politically incorrect assertions of evolutionary psychology are based on considerable empirical evidence” and indeed critics are welcome to challenge the evidence or provide testable alternative explanations. Overall it is a profound misunderstanding of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology to claim it is biological determinist when it takes in genetic, neurobiological, and cultural evolution of human behaviour. Thus when the theoretical paradigm fails to achieve such a spread of looking at genetic, neurobiological and cultural factors, theorists agree with critics that such a paradigm is indeed flawed.

The resurgence of evolutionary theory in the social sciences has indeed been a contentious and controversial one with much criticism being levelled against it but it also has managed to make constructive contributions to the anthropological academy. With its archaic and pseudoscientific beginnings in the schools of social evolutionism and Social Darwinism of Tylor, Morgan and Spencer arguably behind it, Wilson and Dawkins and then Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby and others transformed the application of evolutionary theory in the social sciences. Yet indeed the theory of sociobiology and evolutionary theory was met with critical claims of ethnocentrism, determinism and reductionism by Sahlins, and Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin and others, it responded with arguments stemming from the naturalistic fallacy and that it is a misunderstanding of the theory to label it determinist. Indeed the majority of theorists, both evolutionary and non-evolutionary, acknowledge that it is flawed and invalid to make purely reductionistic and biologically determinist explanations for human nature, specifically culture. Thus evolutionary theory attempts to employ a holistic interpretation based on neurobiological, genetic and cultural factors whilst firmly grounded in the understanding that humans have evolved with culture. Overall, whilst evolutionary theory in the social sciences, particularly cultural anthropology, has been and still largely is contentious, it is becoming the popular and prevailing paradigm once again. Thus sociobiology and evolutionary psychology must not revert to their natal beginnings in the application of the human sciences through justifying racism and sexism and other forms of violence and prejudice of the times of Social Darwinism. Fundamentally evolutionary theory must progress cautiously in explaining the politically, socially and morally sensitive issues that exist. Indeed making politically incorrect findings through evolutionary theory is essentially inevitable and should not be refrained from, but its theorist must recognise the consequences as they manifest in the social environment that it exists in. 

Tasman Bain is a second year Bachelor of Arts (Anthropology) and Bachelor of Social Science (International Development) Student at the University of Queensland. He is interested evolutionary anthropology, social epidemiology and philosophy of science and enjoys endurance running, reading Douglas Adams, and playing the glockenspiel.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

'In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes': Why Popularity has become More Concentrated not Less

Reflecting on Warhol

Andy Warhol's prediction that everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes was intended to undermine the idea that anyone 'deserved' to be famous and highlight that with modern media a broader collection of people could be known by everyone (for only a little time, admittedly). This is related to the broader idea that globalisation and the end of the old media etc. would lead to more voices being heard and a decrease in the dominance of cultural conversations by a few individuals. I have highlighted before (in my post that the marketplace for ideas is fundamentally unfree and in this post I wish to examine whether the broader idea that we have a more pluralistic (or less 'concentrated' perhaps) culture is at all valid. I can't help myself, I'm addicted to a life of material

So this begs two questions: How do people get famous? And is this more or less concentrated than before?

I don't mean I want to examine the marketing of celebrity (which is detailed for those interested in a reasonably old Economist post: nor do I want to get into a debate about the merits of Madonna or Lady Gaga etc (which I have previously defended at, I mean the process by which the works, knowledge of their lives or writings of famous individuals spread in society.

I want to make two claims: really famous works (or the fame of celebrities) tend to spread at a slow rate until they reach a 'critical mass' at which point they spread exponentially (seemingly without effort) and that this and the processes of globalised capitalism make a 'winner take all' culture more pervasive (with qualifications) than before. 

Warhol may have been right that many people are famous for short periods, but it is still true that there are particular subjects whose fame does not fade as easily who still dominate our culture.

How Things Get Popular

Gabriel Rossman in his excellent book Climbing the Charts discusses how most ideas (or works etc.) either spread 'within' a social network (think of your friends recommending a song or a new cardigan) or 'from without' (e.g. promoting the Batman film with a huge advertising release). The latter type produces the more predictable pattern that the work will do huge business initially but then fade away quickly, for example with Twilight box office sales.

Charts courtesy of Sociological Images

Now, most works function like this- they have some initial scales (which are obviously scale variant) and then peter off. But some films or songs etc work in the first way- they become 'viral' which means that their sales are 'S-shaped', they are unpopular initially and then suddenly when they reach a critical mass of popularity, spike! As an example: the box office results for My Big Fat Greek Wedding:

This even applies to baby names, as you can see in the chart below, Isabella spiked as a social phenomenon from without whereas Madison spiked initially due to the movie Splash (released in 1984) and then became a runaway success until fading in the late 1990s.

Now, what does this all mean? Well, if you do get famous, with the exception for those whose 'fame' is the very brief glimpse on the nightly news- you tend to become famous for a longer period than Warhol's quip might suspect- see the Kardashians, for instance. Once you get people initially interested in a product, work etc. it can spread 'virally' throughout social networks till the popularity of that product, work etc. is self sustaining, at least for a time.

But, since I'm an economist at heart, what are the consequences then for the monetary side?

The Rise of Winner Takes All Markets

As Adorno puts it in The Culture Industry, previously you might've had a tenor for each major town and a group of tenors in a major city- but now, thanks to technology, everyone can listen to Pavarotti- who is almost certainly not so much better than other tenors that he deserves most of the attention/profit but might be a bit better and able to be marketed more easily. With the invention of the internet in particular, it is very easy now for the works of certain people to spread through the whole population without limitations on say actually being able to go to a concert hall or wait for a new print run of Harry Potter etc.

Now, this is obviously not entirely the case- 'within' trends do exist as I noted, as evidenced by the explosion of new acts and writers who have risen from the internet (for example Justin Bieber). But the idea that new technology was solely going to lead to pluralism or the demise of persistent celebrity is false- indeed popular Western acts like Madonna etc. have displaced some locally famous acts across the developed and developing world. As there is an ability to reach more people, the 'market' for fame and status can devolve into a 'winner takes all' market. In economics, you can have a market where scaling up actually increases the returns you make on an investment (as opposed to what you might think is more intuitive- where scaling up decreases efficiency). If this is the case, then superstars can basically extract a lot of profit when they get to a certain critical mass of popularity.

What are the limitations on this? Well, most new adaptions only get to a certain level of popularity before they peter out- with the exception of televisions, there is almost no technology owned by close to the whole population of the United States, for instance. Also, as we have seen time and time again (particularly with the youth), people will either intentionally or otherwise break the mould of the system- perhaps creating alternative or subculture communities as a consequence. 


The tide of any cultural change is hard to predict- who would have thought that 'Call me Maybe' would become so popular or that a book about a boy wizard who goes off to wizarding school would enthral a huge reading public? But the general outline of the complex and varied system that is 'culture' can be at least traced. Fame might be quicker to obtain now than before, but it still often lasts and can provide particularly high profits. In the end, some people are still famous for a lot longer than 15 minutes and most people are only noticed for fifteen seconds, at best.

Dan Gibbons is a third year Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) student at the University of Melbourne. He has a forthcoming publication in Intergraph: A Journal of Dialogic Anthropology (about memory and nationalism) and is currently submitting papers on the rise of modern consumerism, the role of criminology theory in literary criticism and the institutional theory of nationalism. Dan is a keen debater and public speaker.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Communist Countries: Crisis, Contradiction and Collapse

Introduction: A Beautiful Idea, Really?
I've often had people claim to me that communism would be a great idea, if only human nature let it work. But I don't think that Marxist communism in particular would work on even a theoretical level- the idea of a 'dictatorship of the proletariat' ever seeding power is beyond comprehension. Were then communist systems always doomed to fail, or might they have survived if not for a few historical quirks?

Marx claimed in Das Kapital that “capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation”. His argument was that because capitalist societies relied on social production to create wealth but private appropriation to obtain wealth, they were fated to collapse. However, communist systems also suffered systemic crises, from the failure of the New Economic Policy to the USSR’s fall. Indeed, communist systems suffered from the same internal contradiction as capitalist systems, notably an exclusive extractive class which took profits away from socially productive workers. Communist systems in fact fared worse than capitalist economies from this because they entrenched party apparatchiks at the head of their economies and lacked the 'creative destruction' of capitalism. As a consequence,   they suffered systemic crises, to which unlike capitalist democracies, they could not adapt. I want to make two points in this post: first, that the autocratic nature of communist parties lead to the creation of a new extractive class, that of autocratic party bureaucrats and second, that this internal contradiction lead to crises in communist nations, leading to their eventual collapse. Thus, it will be proven that not only did communist systems contain internal contradictions; they suffered worse from them than capitalist systems.

Party Bureaucrats: The World's Best Rent-Seekers
Communist systems lead to the substitution of Marx and Engel’s bourgeois class who aimed for the “accumulation of wealth in private hands” for a group of party bureaucrats who were equally extractive, thus leading to an inherent contradiction. Official Soviet propaganda espoused that the regime was leading the USSR to a “brilliant future… one of liberty, equality, fraternity, guaranteed employment”. However, because of the inherent vagueness in Marx’s idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” which he claimed would lead to the “abolition of all classes” after a transition phase of socialist rule, all communist systems in reality did not transition out of bureaucratic socialism. As Olson notes, under Stalin this meant that the party expropriated all natural resources and capital to add to its yield to its tax collections and also directly controlled consumption and investment for its own benefit. 

Party members were rewarded from this expropriation with special stores, health care facilities and vacation spas in return for loyalty to the party. CPSU members were paid 127 per cent of the average wage of a government worker and their pay was one third of the government administration budget. Further, there was systemic soliciting of in-kind payments and direct stealing. They also engaged in what Verdery terms “political capitalism”, that is bureaucrats used the shortages inherent to the system to make a profit from selling scarce goods. Party “apparatchiks” thus became the class of rent-seekers that Marx railed against because the command economy allowed them to do so. They constituted a class both in terms of political power, economic capital and the ability to consume both more goods and those of a higher quality. Communist systems became a form of what Clark and Wildavsky call “vulgar capitalism” or “profit-making without competition… based on corrupt personal relations”. Simultaneously, bureaucrats were rhetorically devoted to “large-scale heroic means of production”, production based around work done cooperatively. Therefore, so-called communist systems suffered from the same internal contradiction as capitalist systems: while production was (at least initially- black markets eventually flourished) social and cooperative, the accumulation of wealth was private and worked by class expropriation.

Tear Down That Wall!
Further, this inherent contradiction led to inevitable crises in communist systems, to which they could not adjust unlike capitalist systems, which led to their collapse.  Marx believed that the inherent contradiction in the expropriation of workers by the bourgeoisie would eventually lead to a decline in the “rate of exploitation” because “vampire-like, the capitalist only lives by sucking labor”. His argument was that eventually this would lead to recessions and the awakening of class-consciousness. This problem was also present in the Soviet Union, where the extraction of wealth by members of the CPSU helped to slow economic growth to the point where in 1967 the GNP of West Germany was larger than the entire Soviet Bloc. In particular as Maier outlines the extractive process of the communist system hampered the social production of the workers on which it depended. 

Somewhat fittingly, this led to the class conflict that Marx had predicted capitalism falling prey to, especially the rise of the Polish trade union Solidarity that was integral in the USSR’s collapse. This was worsened by the chronic shortages of basic goods which led to worse recessions than those experienced in capitalist systems. Capitalist systems did not suffer as badly because, as Marx was unable to foresee, the welfare state was developed, which redistributed profits to the working class because it was in the bourgeois political class’ interest to avoid class conflict. In contrast, the extractive behaviours of communist party members were only possible through continued coercion of those they were apparently serving. As soon as communist regimes faced crises they could not adapt except by further coercion and entrenchment of expropriation behaviours. Thus, as soon as communist regimes were opened to partial openness such as under Gorbachev’s glasnost in order to create more profits to expropriate, they began to collapse under the weight of their own internal contradictions. This has occurred not just in the Soviet Union, but also in the fall of Yugoslavia, the transformation of the People’s Republic of China and recent partial reforms in the collapsing Cuban economy. Thus, the inherent contradiction in communist systems and their inability to adapt to the crises resulting from it led to their eventual total collapse. 

Conclusion and Consequences
In conclusion, contrary to Marx’s predictions, this essay has shown that the autocratic nature of communist “dictatorships of the proletariat” created the same inherent contradiction between the social production and private extraction and accumulation of wealth inherent in capitalism. Further, it has shown that this led to crisis and eventual collapse of communist systems because the extractive class in the communist system could not allow for it to be adapted unlike the capitalist bourgeois class. Thus, Marx’s proposed solution to capitalism became self-defeating in practice for precisely the reasons Marx felt that capitalism would fail.

Dan Gibbons is a third year Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) student at the University of Melbourne. He has a forthcoming publication in Intergraph: A Journal of Dialogic Anthropology (about memory and nationalism) and is currently submitting papers on the rise of modern consumerism, the role of criminology theory in literary criticism and the institutional theory of nationalism. Dan is a keen debater and public speaker.