“The naming of cats is a difficult matter
It isn't just one of your holiday games
You may think at first I'm mad as a hatter
When I tell you a cat must have three different names.”
T S Elliot, 1939.
In the past decade I’ve been an enthusiastic user of evolutionary models and methods to examine culture. So why do I call myself by the long-winded title "researcher in ..." rather than “Cultural Evolutionist”? After all, a fair number of people seem to be adopting this label. And many biologists seem happy with the term “Evolutionary Biologist”. So why not join the trend?
There are three reasons.
Firstly, all biological organisms most definitely Evolve, which makes “Evolutionary Biologist” pretty uncontroversial. But culture is a mixed bag. Some things evolve in a Darwinian kind of way (eg core language lexicons and some material culture traditions), and some things don’t. Calling oneself a “Cultural Evolutionist” therefore seems to be jumping the gun just a little. Some aspects of culture can be better modelled with an epidemiological approach (eg slang … how and when did “basic” become a term of abuse??) but I am not aware of anyone calling themselves a “Cultural Epidemiologist”.
What there is, is people who study culture in a systematic way. Good.
Complex systems, like culture, exhibit a variety of emergent behaviours. These cannot be modelled from first principles, eg by solving the Schrödinger Equation. But they can be tackled with a variety of approximate models and systematic approaches, which can reveal a great deal about what is going on. The trick is knowing which of these tools to pull out of the bag. Evolutionary models are one group of tools. They are not the only ones. In the study of material culture (for example) I have found that plotting stuff on a map can be as revealing as a full-blown phylogenetic study. It’s important to have a bag of tools that bulges with more options than just evolutionary models.
The second reason relates to the history of Cultural Anthropology over the last 150 years. A lot of past work has not met the basic minimum standard to be called “science”, and the field has been subject to fads and fashions. Seen in the rear-view mirror, much of 20th century cultural anthropology is starting to look like a Rorsach Blot, a mess onto which anthropologists projected their fears and fantasies.
In contrast, in the last 3 decades there has been an encouraging growth in systematic approaches that seem to be bearing fruit. “Cultural Evolution” is currently a hot area, and some are tempted to adopt the label. There’s also funding out there to be had. The risk is that this is viewed by those outside the field as another “turn” in anthropology. Such things are customarily debated on aesthetic and political grounds, rather than with evidence. Cultural Evolutionary studies already face push-back along these lines (I have been on the receiving end myself). This is exacerbated if we call ourselves “Cultural Evolutionists” since this label makes it sound as if we have nailed our colours to a particular mast. We might argue that “evolution” (with a small “e”) simply means “change over time”, but most outside the field will assume that we are talking about Evolution of the Darwinian kind. And sometimes we will be. But not always.
By the way, I can completely forgive anyone who studies culture in a systematic way not wishing to call themselves an “Anthropologist”. No-one likes to be associated with failure.
The third reason relates to the trend towards increasing sub-division and specialization in academia. Sub-fields, once defined, tend to operate like guilds: The Worshipful Company of Whateverists. If you have worked in an academic field you will have encountered these guilds, with their holy books, hierarchies, apprentices, and high priests. This is a great approach for advancing the interests of stonemasons and silversmiths, but it is problematic for science.
I hanker after the 19th century, when researchers were mostly called “scientists” or “naturalists”. Even when I was growing up there were still “naturalists” around. I suppose this is nostalgia, and completely unrealistic. But I’m still drawn to the idea that the most interesting thinkers (in any age) resist characterization.