October 26, 2010

From Stephen Mikesell:

Re: Societies evolve a bit like organisms, study finds (Oct. 13): there might be a problem that creatures may not evolve solely according to this model of incremental development, which some might say has a bit of a neo-Darwinian bias.

Incremental evolution only reflects one side of evolution. On the other side has been various forms of symbiosis, pursued in studies by Lynn Margulis beginning some 40 years ago, in which genetic material combine from different cells and organisms to introduce new forms of dynamism and radical divergences into evolutionary development. In the genetic record most of the existing phyla may have emerged in this way. The biologists Smith and Szatmary have extended these insights into the realm of social development.

Anthropologists have attempted to explain such change in terms of concepts such as cultural diffusion. The anthropologist Aidan Southall, working from a more dialectical as opposed to functionalist perspective in his "Cities in Time and Space," identified a process in the development of urban civilization in which new urban cultural forms emerged at the edges of old civilizations as outside cultures and ideas merged to introduce new forces of dynamism.

Not knowing better, perhaps focus on Oceanic cultures, with more uniform kinds of adaptation and less cultural inter-mixing as opposed to continental intermixing of highly divergent adaptations and cultures, might over-exaggerate a neo-Darwinian view, just when in biology neo Darwinians are being forced to begrudgingly accept the role of symbiosis in introducing sudden changes into evolutionary development.


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