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 FornminnesfÃ¶reningens Tidskrift 10 (fasc. 30) titled Typologien eller utvecklingslÃ¤ran tillÃ¤mpad 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.