Emergent novelty and the evolutionary dynamics of organic and cultural life-forms
Stephanie Koerner (Liverpool University )
Tim Ingold
Julian Thomas
Wills G27
Start time:
7 April, 2009 at 9:15
Session slots:

Short abstract:

Growing recognition of the novelty and complexity of life-forms has challenged the foundations of 20th century evolutionary science. This session will consider the implications of this challenge for archaeological and anthropological approaches to the long-term evolutionary dynamics of organic and cultural life.

Long abstract:

For much of the twentieth century, anthropologists and archaeologists debated what it would take for their disciplines to qualify as branches of science. This debate was founded on the presupposition that the task of science is to establish propositions, couched in universal concepts and categories, whose explanatory force is independent of any context of application. Recent decades, however, have seen growing recognition of the complexity of forms of life and, with this, the emergence of very different ideas about the aims and methods of scientific inquiry. These ideas are grounded in the insights: - that no problem or solution can be wholly specified in context-independent terms. - that emergent novelty is normal to the evolutionary dynamics of life-forms. - that such dichotomies as between 'biology' and 'culture' are inherently problematic, prioritise least tractable issues, and impede reflexive orientations towards social and ethical concerns. These insights shake the foundations of the 'modern synthesis' of twentieth century evolutionary biology, based as it was on the axioms that: (a) every organism can be programmatically specified in context-independent terms as its 'genotype'; (b) evolution depends on the selective retention of variation due to mutation (thus attributing all difference to abnormality), and (c) cultural evolution can be understood by positing a cultural analogue of the genotype. Coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species, the conference provides an opportune moment to reconsider how anthropologists and archaeologists are tackling questions of long-term evolutionary dynamics. Contributors to this session will compare anthropological and archaeological approaches to emergent novelty and complexity in organic and cultural life-forms.