Posted by: Johan Normark | March 29, 2009

Darwin and his philosophical followers

This year it is 200 years since Charles Darwin was born. Darwinian ideas, particularly his descent with modification has gained increased interest in some directions in contemporary archaeology. However, the associated idea of evolution (which existed before Darwin) has been used in problematic ways in social sciences, often focusing on macro-scale patterns. Giddens argues that evolutionism “can easily be an enemy of history rather than the ally it might superficially seem to be. For it encourages a high-handed disrespect for matters of historical detail by cramming human history into pre-packed schemes” (Giddens 1984:360). However, what Giddens does not acknowledge, is that there are evolutionary ideas that do not use these teleological views and pre-packed “schemes” (orthogenetic evolution). This is an inheritance from Lamarckian and Spencerian views of evolution. Orthogenetic explanations of “cultural evolution” imply that it is the same culture that goes through different predefined stages (band, tribe, chiefdom and state). Orthogenetic ideas should not be confused with Darwin’s descent with modification. Giddens and most agency theorists generally confuse these views of evolution.

The leading neo-Darwinists in archaeology today should not be associated with the past social or cultural evolutionary ideas developed by Spencer, Tylor, Morgan and Marx where orthogenetic views of social formations occurred. For example, Shennan’s ideas go partly back to Darwin, but mainly to Dawkins and his genes and memes. Neo-Darwinists see culture as behavioural phenomena and that artifacts are part of the human phenotype that is affected by natural selection.

However, the major obstacle with neo-Darwinian archaeology is that it relies on the idea of culture, a culture that usually is treated like an organism with organs that works to benefit the greater whole. In this sense, neo-Darwinian approaches are similar to social constructionist approaches since they rely on relations of interiority, relations interior to a cultural “body”. This is the arborescent body, the tree we should cut down.

Darwin’s greatest contribution, which the neo-Darwinists have embraced, is pointed out by the feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz. Darwin transformed Being (the static and eternal) to Becoming (the changing); to divergence, more complexity and variation. His world is endless variation and openness to the unexpected. It is not that of biological determinism or stages as he has wrongfully been accused for. Darwin saw the past as the mould for the present species but the past does not limit them. He introduced the idea of the event, the rupture that generates the unpredictable. The past is not the cause for the present or the future, but rather the basis for divergence and difference. And, of course differentiation lies at the heart of the Nietzschean, Bergsonian and Deleuzian ontologies which is crucial in Posthumanocentric archaeology.




  1. I’ve just read the most astonishing book that has changed the way I think about Darwin and the whole debate – check out The Darwin Delusion and make your own mind up

    • Although I am not a great fan of Dawkins’ meme idea, I support most of his and other Darwinists’ ideas. I distrust creationists and will most likely never read the book, but thanks anyway.


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