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Ian Morris:

"Evolutionists are theorists

  • who see some conceptual continuity between human history and biological evolution;
  • who consider sociocultural evolution to be governed by identifiable mechanisms functioning somewhat like natural selection;
  • who see these mechanisms as involving adaptation to the environment;
  • who believe that the mechanisms operate on all societies regardless of time and space; and — usually, but not always —
  • who recognize a series of overlapping but largely sequential stages of social/cultural evolution, from egalitarian foraging bands through hierarchical agricultural empires and pastoral tribes, to modern fossil-fuel-based nation-states "



Is Seasonality an Objection To Anthropological Evolutionary Theories ?

Ian Morris (in response to the Dawn of Everything):

"Evolutionary models typically tell how egalitarian foraging groups turned into ranked farming societies and then into stratified states. However, GW note, anthropologists have regularly found societies that have moved back and forth on this spectrum, sometimes rapidly. Nineteenth-century Native American groups on the Great Plains are a famous case. The Crow, Cheyenne, and others spent much of the year in tiny, aggressively egalitarian foraging bands, with no chiefs at all. But for several weeks each autumn, they flocked together to slaughter the great herds of migrating bison. They appointed chiefs and provided them with what the anthropologist Robert Lowie called “a police force,” which “issued orders and restrained the disobedient. In most of the tribes,” Lowie continued, “they not only confiscated game clandestinely procured, but whipped the offender, destroyed his property, and, in case of resistance, killed him” (GW 109, citing Lowie 1948: 18).GW call such chiefs “play kings,” their power largely a matter of “performance,” and suggest that “their reality was, in effect, sporadic. They appeared and then dissolved away” (GW 117, 429).

Recognizing this, they say, undermines evolutionism because

- "the nineteenth-century Cheyenne or Lakota would have been seen [by evolutionists] as evolving from the “band” to the “state” level roughly every November, and then devolving back again come spring. Obviously, this is silly. No one would seriously suggest such a thing. Still, it’s worth pointing out because it exposes the much deeper silliness of the initial assumption: that societies must necessarily progress through a series of evolutionary stages to begin with." (GW 110–11)

Yet evolutionists have had no real problem incorporating these back-and-forth societies into their typologies. Allen Johnson and Timothy Earle (1987: 31-38, drawing on Steward 1938) even used the Great Basin Shoshone of a century ago as a case study in their widely read book The Evolution of Human Societies. Like the Cheyenne, the Shoshone spent most of the year in unranked, family-sized groups, but some of them periodically granted “rabbit bosses” and “antelope shamans” far-reaching powers to coordinate large-scale hunting and trapping. Most of the time, the Great Basin’s aridity made family-level organization the most effective way to hunt and gather, but when opportunities arose for rabbit drives, the Shoshone put people in charge and did what it took to get the job done. The Shoshone did not thereby become subjects of a stratified state. Bosses and shamans had no coercive powers beyond people’s willingness to follow their lead, whether that meant clearing brush and stringing out hundreds of feet of nets to accomplish a common goal or punishing free riders whose unruliness threatened the shared effort. The minute the jackrabbits or bison stopped running, Shoshone and Cheyenne, who now had no need for multi-family organizations (and no food supply abundant enough to support them), scattered across the landscape in tiny groups — until the next hunting season.

GW are right that prehistorians have neglected seasonality, but wrong that seasonality is inconsistent with evolutionism."


More information

"The literature is enormous; I lean particularly on Boyd and Richerson 2005 and Mesoudi 2011, plus Trigger’s [1998] account of the field’s intellectual history:

  • Boyd, Robert and Peter Richerson. 2005. Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Mesoudi, Alex.2011. Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture & Synthesize the Social Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Trigger, Bruce.1998. Sociocultural Evolution. Oxford: Blackwell