Early Archaeological Darwinism

To celebrate Charles Darwin’s bicentennial, Dear Reader, let me tell you about a less well-known way in which his great idea was misunderstood or misappropriated. You may have heard of social Darwinism and eugenics. The former took Darwin’s description of long-term biological change and applied it as a prescriptive excuse for not showing compassion to the poor and weak. The latter held that a species that was protected from selection pressure by such compassion would degenerate and all its members become weak. Both are thoroughly discredited.

The Origin of Species appeared 150 years ago in 1859. In 1900, Oscar Montelius published a richly illustrated 31-page paper in Svenska Fornminnesföreningens Tidskrift 10 (fasc. 30) titled Typologien eller utvecklingsläran tillämpad pÃ¥ det menskliga arbetet — “Typology, or the theory of evolution applied to the work of humans”. Montelius is known as the “Linnaeus of archaeology” and was one of the second-generation founding fathers of my discipline. Hugely prolific, much of his work is still read and cited, always being clearly argued. But in the case of his 1900 paper, Montelius made an uncharacteristic and unsuccessful attempt to latch onto one of his day’s most-discussed scientific theories. (August Strindberg’s famous 1888 play Miss Julie makes similar use of social Darwinism.)

“Typology” has two distinct meanings. In theology, it refers to the idea that certain motifs in the Old Testament prefigure motifs in the New Testament, thus revealing God’s great plan. (Most such parallels are of course extremely strained.) But in archaeology it refers to the classification and seriation of artefacts and structures. People are not boundlessly creative. Almost everything we make is very similar to something made before. These similarities allow us to date and interpret classes of finds instead of discussing every individual object on its own. Montelius’s paper forms an introduction to the basic theory of archaeological typology as it was understood at the time. But where does Darwin come into it all?

Montelius wrote the paper as a presentation to the 15th Conference of Scandinavian Naturalists in Stockholm in 1898. A professor and celebrated public figure of 55 at the time, he most likely received an invitation to the conference and reached for the best way available to make his work relevant and comprehensible to the assembled naturalists. Montelius begins by stating that just as one species evolves from another, every archaeological object type is born of an earlier type. This, he knew, is not strictly true as a new archaeological type often shows similarities to several earlier types. But he was after all standing in front of a crowd of biologists and needed to connect with them. He then demonstrates two typological series where Bronze Age axe and sword types evolve through time to reach a greater level of practical perfection. The take-home message: object types change due to selection pressure from their modes of practical use and become optimised over time. My axe is a better axe than my granddad’s.

But this is not quite true either, as Montelius knew. His series of sword grips does show one practical improvement in that the wielder’s thumb receives better protection from the late types than from the early ones. But Montelius doesn’t make this argument. He just takes the reader through a series of visual design changes without any apparent practical implications. My sword is not in fact much better than granddad’s: it’s mainly just different because of fashion. And this is driven home even more forcefully by Montelius’s next examples, where he presents two series of brooch types, all technically equivalent but aesthetically extremely varied. The last brooch in each series does not work any better than the first. Montelius also quotes Bernhard Salin at great length on the development of 1st Millennium animal art, where no practical selection pressure would be possible even in principle. Finally, he shows the retention in railway carriages of his day of non-practical design traits that only made sense as reminiscences of what horse-drawn stagecoaches had looked like almost a century before.

So archaeological typology is not quite analogous to biological evolution. People will of course only make objects that work for their intended purposes (sometimes practical, sometimes not). But they will also design and decorate these objects according to whims of fashion and ideology that are best compared to genetic drift or null mutations in the context of biology. I don’t want to sound like a panadaptationist, but most visible variation between biological species is at least adaptively relevant. Between object types, not so.

The paper contains only a few general appeals to biological theory and no references to the biological literature. Montelius mentions Darwin only once, on the last page (and I translate):

“My having wished to speak at a meeting of naturalists about the typological method is not however mainly because of the importance of this method to the archaeologist, but rather, that it might be of some interest to the naturalist to see that we generally use the same method as he, — in that we collect the largest possible body of evidence and order it in such a manner that the results immediately appear to the eye, — and with reference to the theory of evolution, we are at a purely darwinian standpoint.”

In fact, all that Montelius had shown was that archaeological typology has descent with modification. But he failed quite ostentatiously to establish anything like adaptation through natural selection. That is not in fact the motor that drives change in material culture with all its kaleidoscopic complexity. The motor is immaterial culture, the culture of the mind.


11 thoughts on “Early Archaeological Darwinism

  1. Could one not argue that in this context, “fittest” does not mean “most functional”, but “most suited to the current cultural context”, with changing fashions as part of that cultural context (or “environment” to use the biological analogy)? Could one not consider fashion as being analogous to sexual selection of traits with no immediate survival advantage?


  2. Sure, but current cultural context changes in a pretty random way and boils down to immaterial culture. So all you’re saying then is still “People do weird things just because they feel like it”. Which is the actual explanation.

    Fashion may have some element of actual Darwinian sexual selection to it, but then our analogy breaks down since in culture we’ve been talking about practical usefulness instead of Darwinian fitness.


  3. Very similar to things happening in musicology in the 1880s, at least in one prominent case I’m studying. Seems quite like the fashion of the times, for the historical disciplines at least. In my case there are some closer connections to Haeckel, since I’m looking at German-language musicology. Parsing what is taken over from bio is hellishly difficult, though.


  4. Interesting article, two points strike me; firstly, the development of weapons is as close as we get to survival of the fittest technology, and secondly, like biology with its use of genetics, scientific testing of material culture has superseded visual appraisal as the final arbiter of typologies.

    Another thought,- is the appendix skeuomorphic?


  5. I disagree, visual (and metric) typology still rules the field. It would be impractical (and unnecessary) to base type definitions on parameters that can only be measured through expensive specialist analyses.

    Last I heard, the appendix is actually a working part of the lymphatic system.


  6. Martin, I concede it is not practical, and it’s a rather week analogy, but for some artefact classes, metallurgy & petrology provide an objective base line.
    The difference between copper & arsenical copper may be highly significant, but may not have been reflected in conventional visual & metrical approach. Typology is only valuable if it means something, and can be undermined if, for example, a group of typologically disparate objects can be shown to have a single origin in terms of manufacture.

    Good news about the appendix.


  7. As the author of the piece points out, much of the change in artifact style is analogous to “drift” in the biological sphere. A better analogy might be with language, where for the most part linguistic form is purely arbitrary with respect to the things or ideas being represented. That is, “eltab” works just as well as “table” to represent a piece of furniture with a level top held up by legs. There is just a conventional understanding in the speech community that this set of sounds represents that object. Dialects diverge and may eventually become different languages as speech communities become isolated from one another, and linguistic forms drift apart. Theoretically two languages with exactly the same number of words representing exactly the same set of things could through this process diverge from a single ancestral language that also had the same number of words representing the same set of things. What constitutes adaptiveness in language forms and in the stylistic aspects of artifacts is fitting into a community that shares understandings of what a particular form means, even if in the case of artifacts it only means that the user of that form is “one of us,” and “does things our way.” As forms of artifact style drift, they ordinarily do so around a central tendency, which thus moves along with the drift. We tend to see unexpected shifts in artifact style as new information, designed to “tell us something,” while the gradual drift of familiar styles remains largely imperceptible through time, because it remains just “the way we do things.”


  8. Re the appendix, check out a recent post at Pharyngula. The appendix WORKS, sure, but it’s still quite unnecessary. It’s quite possible that the only reason it hasn’t disappeared entirely is that narrower appendices are more likely to suffer fatal appendicitis, which means there’s a selective pressure keeping the appendix from growing any smaller.

    I suppose one could say it’s skeuomorphic in that a skeuomorph has some sort of function (being pretty, people feeling safe with familiar objects), but is largely unnecessary…


  9. You bastard you’ve stole my post (or rather what I intended to write about) but you did a good job out of it. Well I had to rethink and wrote something completely different on Darwin instead.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s