Exceptions to the rule? Ethnographic alternatives to cumulative cultural evolution

  • George F. Steiner
Keywords: anarchic theory in ethnography, cultural heterochrony, cumulative/subtractive cultural evolution, immediate-return/egalitarian societies, ratcheting/leveling mechanisms.

Abstract

In suggesting that the rules that govern the evolution of cumulative culture are observed in all modern societies, gene-culture coevolution theory implies that the biases that affect the successful ‘ratcheting’ and efficient transmission of innovations are cross-cultural universals. In the modeling of the theory the stress is placed on demographic strength, the absence of which would render small and isolated populations vulnerable to the ‘treadmill effect’, the inevitable consequence of impaired social learning. However, the ethnographic literature documents small groups of isolated hunters and gatherers who have devised intricate risk-reduction networks that do not necessarily proliferate technological innovations and function only in low demographic settings. Moreover, with merit and abilities being equally distributed, the model-based and conformist biases that influence social learning in gene-culture coevolution theory become irrelevant and elaborate ‘leveling mechanisms’ inhibit the acquisition of status and prestige. As a result, no cultural models can rise to prominence and sway the trajectory of cultural change. Contrary to the predictions of the theory, these societies do not seem to be plagued by cultural loss and, instead of hopelessly running the treadmill and living in poverty, they have developed egalitarian and, to an extent, ‘affluent’ societies. The model forwarded in this paper resolves this apparent paradox by enrolling the hypothesis of ‘cultural neoteny’. It is contended that egalitarian societies – despite their simple (immediate-return) mode of subsistence – are not the vestiges of an ancestral/universal stage from which more complex (delayed-return) economies would linearly evolve, but a relatively recent and idiosyncratic achievement through ‘subtractive cultural evolution’.

Keywords: anarchic theory in ethnography, cultural heterochrony, cumulative/subtractive cultural evolution, immediate-return/egalitarian societies, ratcheting/leveling mechanisms.

Published
2020-11-27
Section
Articles

Journal Identifiers


eISSN: 1737-8176
print ISSN: 1737-7374