Evolution and natural selection, anthropologically


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  • I like your distinction between the use of “evolution” vs. “descent with modification.” You’re absolutely right that the term “evolution” does bring along unwanted semantic baggage. Despite having thought about and agreeing with all of your qualifications about the term, when I conjure it in my thoughts, it immediately seems sort of active, intentional and teleological–very similar to old concepts of progress. I can only imagine those unintended meanings are even stronger for students new to the discipline.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Thanks Cory for the thoughts. Sitting in my draft-box of posts-to-write is something I’ve been promising for months, “we give up culture if you give up natural selection.” It’s basically about how both terms are short-cuts and both conjure up exactly the wrong images, even as we rail against them. I’ve really tried to drill down on understanding natural selection as non-directional, but I just don’t think the term can ever be disassociated from those images.

  • I thought I was the only one who enjoyed Gould’s “Full House.” 🙂

    • Jason Antrosio

      Thank you, Patrick, for the comment. Full House is a very well-written book with such great examples. Do you think it is underappreciated? When I taught it once it seemed to do the opposite of what I intended. But that was years ago–I can delude myself into thinking I’d be much better teaching it now!

  • Hi Jason,

    I liked Gould’s warnings against seeing directionality in evolution, the drunkard’s walk and the supremacy of the ‘modal bacter.'(The baseball stuff was interesting as well).

    But I recall Robert Wright arguing against Gould’s premise that there was no direction or progress in evolution, and that while life necessarily had to begin simply, that complexity and intelligence were almost inevitable. In his words, if we rewound the tape of life and let it play over, it would obviously be far from guaranteed that evolution would produce humans, but it would likely create something like human intelligence simply because intelligence is such a valuable trait.

    Wright was also insistent that humans were in some objective sense ‘better’ than bacteria (despite the fact that the numbers and mass are not on our side). He felt that Gould overplayed the role of randomness in evolution as well as the argument that natural selection was just about environment-specific adaptations. Wright felt that Gould ignored the idea that some traits -like greater intelligence- would be subjected to a “positive feedback” loop, like an arms race.

    To me, the two sides were reminiscent of Forrest Gump wondering whether we were simultaneously subjected to fate steering us in a certain direction, while also being like a feather blown haphazardly by the winds. It’s an old debate, and great food for thought.


    • Hi Patrick, thank you for this extension and a great link, which I’ve finally read. I did have many of the same feelings as Wright reading through Full House: that is, Gould makes evolution so implausible it almost seems like there has to be something “miraculous” about it. But while I would agree with Wright that there are many feedback loops and opportunities for organisms themselves to influence evolutionary processess–that does not make particular evolutionary outcomes inevitable, it simply complicates our understanding of evolutionary mechanisms.

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