Posted by: Johan Normark | October 17, 2013

The sorites paradox, evolution and the archaeological record

I recently ecountered the sorites paradox in a book and I realized that I have used this in my licentiate thesis without knowing that it had a name. The paradox is that if you have a heap of sand and gradually remove one grain there is no point at which the heap disappears. The opposite is also the case. If you add one grain to another grain that is not a heap and there is no magic number when the additional grains become a heap. This paradox is also known in evolution; where shall we draw the line between species in time and space? Darwin knew this problem all too well and therefore there is no real “origin of the species”. It is the evolutionary perspective that I used in my licentiate thesis. Here is a quote from this thesis (Normark 2004:46f). Note that I no longer use the term “materiality”:

“The use of chronology has associated the archaeological record with the fossil record (Binford 1983; Schiffer 1976; Thomas 1996). I will use the analogy of the fossil record for another reason. In the fossil record, palaeontologists can distinguish different individuals as examples of species of animals or plants and categorize them into larger group such as classes (mammals, reptiles, etc.). This is similar to the typological approach in archaeology. The slightly skewed picture palaeontologists get as being short-lived beings who study a small and random sample of past species (or rather individuals) can thus be applied to archaeologists as well. We do not experience the slow process of biological evolution itself (neither the Lamarckian, Darwinian, nor Bergsonian). Our parents are not of another species. Two thousand years ago we were the same species, but maybe not two hundred thousand years ago. The genetic changes are usually slow (even if they are “fast” geologically speaking). Species can only be distinguished if we cut out a sequence or a point of time of the past. Even at certain points in time there are species which can mate with each other and produce sterile offspring (such as when a horse and a donkey produce a mule). There is always some variation within every species and form. If we had the opportunity to travel in time and follow each “individual” from the “origin” of life to now, we would not be able to see when one species turned into another. There would not be any species in a continuum. Only an isolated event, an instant, as when an individual dies and is covered by sediment makes it possible to generalize fossilized individuals into species.

Although animals are entities quite unlike artifacts who are manufactured by humans, I believe I can make a brief analogy between them (but not in a social-evolutionary sense) if we relate the artifacts to the events associated with them. Applied to archaeology, this means that what we are seeing in the archaeological records are only events as “points in time” (only literally, not in reality), made possible to distinguish and categorize because of their instantaneous endings. For Bachelard (2000b:66-68), evolution is punctuated by creative instants. This is how the archaeological record appears for us. It consists of “snapshots”, and not of a continuum. These snapshots are separated from what went on before and what went on after by the instant moment when an action ended. We can not see beyond this event horizon. Thus, a building with a long construction history has “isolated points” or “segments” of materiality (our archaeological reference points) in which the past acts or practices are deprived of their temporality and spatiality since for me only the present exist, and the past is non-existent. Some other social practice(s) took place before and after the formation of the materialities we study, but the event itself is isolated as far as the material remains are concerned. The causes for the artifactual effects are not there directly to see.”

In my licentiate thesis I relied primarily on Bachelard’s discontinuous view of time whereas I moved on to Bergsonian and Deleuzian continuous duration in my dissertation thesis and in my various post-doctoral articles (influenced by DeLanda). Since I am now more influenced by object-oriented perspectives, my old view on time as discontinuous is much more suitable to this direction (with some major revisions). I will bring this up at TAG.


  1. I think you have made a common mistake regarding Darwin’s phrase. It is not “The Origin of the Species” it is “The Origin of Species.” I believe that because of the controversy that surrounded Darwin with respect to human origins, his words were changed (in the public mind) to “the species” meaning “homo sapiens sapiens.” It is tempting to attribute this to rampant humano-centrism then and now, but I have no data indicating when this typographic error was first created, nor how it spread. I do not mean to impugn the rest of your post.

    Although, I think it cannot really be argued that one grain of sand can logically be termed a “heap.” I would have to look at the etymology of the word “heap” and I suspect that there I would find that it connotes a vertical dimension as well as a quantity factor. Therefore 10.000 grains of sand in a layer that is one grain thick would not be a heap but would have high potential heap given certain types of energy inputs.

    Physical evolution is the result of genetic mutation. A change in coding is a discrete event that can be observed after the fact and identified by comparison to other examples of the species. However, it seems that in reality it is the cumulative impact of that mutation providing a selection advantage, replicated over many generations that we see. Reading backwards to date the first appearance of the mutation is likely to be difficult, and then too one must consider that the attribute could be the result of one or more mutations of different pairs in different chromosomal loci. So, for now at least, I agree with the sentiment you express here.

  2. Thanks. I do know the title of the book and as far as I remember this was not the choice of Darwin himself as he saw the problem of defining a species in time and space.

    Basically, the unexpressed reason why I brought up this paradox is that what is known as “process-relationism” tries to escape this paradox by claiming that everything is part of a continuum. The grain/heap is simply opposite ends of a continuum with no absolute boundaries. That worked for me before but not now since all that we can observe are these individual objects, not processes and relations.


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