Social Evolution Forum
FIND sef:
Steps Toward a Relational Biology

As a student in the late 1960s, I took up anthropology because I was looking for a subject that would bridge the divide between the natural sciences and the humanities in a way that nevertheless remains close to the realities of human experience. Almost half a century later, this is still the reason why I study anthropology. In the course of my endeavours I have ranged widely and read deeply across biological, psychological and anthropological approaches to culture and social life, and have contributed to fields as diverse as prehistoric archaeology, evolutionary linguistics, human geography, material culture studies, art, architecture and design. I suppose this should make me an example of the kind of scholar that David Sloan Wilson would like us all to be: well-read across a range of fields, both scientific and humanistic, and able to move with ease across the boundaries between them.

But the experience has also taught me to be suspicious of those who come bearing new paradigms promising the earth so long as we sign up to them. They invariably turn out to be antiquated, banal and cliché-ridden, their longevity matched only by their proponents’ conviction that they stand at the cutting edge of science. One of these ideas, endlessly rehashed over the past century and more, is that there is a parallel between biological inheritance and cultural heritage. News to anthropologists? Certainly not. For us it is long-discredited old hat. Most sensible social and cultural anthropologists effectively abandoned the idea some fifty years ago because it made no sense of the phenomena we were dealing with and served only to reproduce a colonial distinction between western-educated scientists who study culture and everyone else who lives in them. We, at least, have moved on.

Let me explain why the paradigm of evolutionary science that Sloan Wilson advocates seems to me to be an intellectual dead-end. Forty years ago, in 1986, I brought out a book entitled Evolution and Social Life (recently reissued as a Routledge Classic, Ingold 2016). The book explored the history of the idea of evolution in anthropology, biology and history from the mid-nineteenth century until recent times. I began with Darwin, Morgan, Tylor, Marx and Durkheim and ended with sociobiology and gene-culture coevolution (this was before the days of evolutionary psychology). The book was long and heavy-going, and ultimately, it failed. It failed because I had attempted to synthesise what a biology forged on neo-Darwinian principles was telling us about human biocultural evolution with what I knew from social anthropology about persons and social relations. By the end of writing it, I realised this couldn’t be done.

The problem is this. The kind of evolutionary science advocated by Sloan Wilson and the authors whose books he reviews requires a kind of ‘population thinking’ (the phrase comes from Ernst Mayr) according to which every living organism is a discrete, externally bounded entity, one of a population of such entities, and relating to other organisms in its environment along lines of external contact that leave its basic, internally specified nature unaffected. Whether the specification is genetic or cultural, or some mixture of the two, is immaterial: the logic remains the same. In writing Evolution and Social Life I had assumed that my task was not to challenge accepted biological wisdom but to reconcile it with what contemporary anthropology has to teach us about the constitution of human beings as persons. This is that the identities, characteristics and dispositions of persons are not bestowed upon them in advance of their involvement with others but are the condensations of histories of growth and maturations within fields of relationships. Thus every person emerges as a locus of development within such a field, which is in turn carried on and transformed through their own actions.

The trouble is that understanding persons in this way calls for a kind of ‘relational thinking’ that, though well established in social anthropology, goes right against the grain of the population thinking of neo-Darwinian, evolutionary science. Only by supposing that person and organism are entirely separate components of human being could one possibly entertain both ways of thinking at once. Such a split-level view of the human, however, is manifestly unsustainable. That’s why my attempts at synthesis finally failed. Only later did it dawn on me that if persons are organisms, then the principles of relational thinking – far from being restricted to the domain of human sociality – must be applicable across the entire continuum of organic life, and that this would require a radically alternative biology. If every organism is not so much a discrete entity as a node in a field of relationships, then we have to think in a new way not only about the interdependence of organisms and their environments but also about their evolution. My work has been guided by this aim ever since.

I am by no means alone in advocating a relational biology. Plenty of heterodox thinkers, especially developmental biologists, have been pursuing similar ideas for many years. Indeed, given that there are vastly more practising biologists than there are anthropologists, the absolute number of dissenting voices is probably greater in biology than in anthropology and all the other human sciences put together, even though they remain in the minority in their own discipline. It is therefore absurd to dismiss all opposition to neo-Darwinian evolutionary science as anti-scientific humanism. The majority of dissenters are card-carrying scientists. What I and they object to is not science but scientism. Science is a rich patchwork of knowledge which comes in an astonishing variety of different forms. Scientism is a doctrine, or a system of beliefs, founded on the assertion that scientific knowledge takes only one form, and that this form has an unrivalled and universal claim to truth. Thus the debate is not between biologists committed to science and humanists who reject it; it is rather between the cult of scientism and those who are prepared to adopt a more open-ended and less complacent approach to scientific inquiry.

Sloan Wilson’s ignorance of contemporary work in the humanities is both profound and shocking; paraded as a virtue, it is intolerable. So far as he is concerned, the only role for sociocultural anthropologists, historians, human geographers, scholars of language and literature, philosophers, and all the rest is to gather up the material – to ‘compile the vast storehouse of information’ – for scientists to process. This processing generally involves a two-stage procedure: first, the formal redescription of the data in terms of models; secondly, the conversion of models into ‘ultimate’ explanations by appeal to the logic of natural selection. That scholars in the humanities might have credible objections to this procedure is beyond Sloan Wilson’s comprehension. For him, evolutionary science is a creed and anyone who objects is simply an infidel. I will not argue with zealots.

Ingold, T. (2016). Evolution and Social Life (new edition). London: Routledge [original 1986, Cambridge University Press].


Join the discussion


  1. Mark Rego-Monteiro says:

    Well, all righty then. Considering Sloan Wilson’s article reviewing 4 works including Henrich’s Secret of Our Success, Sloan Wilson himself talks about banging swords into ploughshares.

    The issue might be the value of the dynamics in relationships themselves and so on. The lack of interest in the ultimate evolutionary perspective is identifiable and expressible. Why does that become an intolerance, when there is clearly common ground for hashing out what is in fact co-existing levels and the construction of a viewpoint that incorporates those different levels?
    The rejection of group/cultural selection in a competitive paradigm is more specific, and understandable. That, however, is identifiable and a concept that can be itself rectified, as it were, by the richness of reality. The value of cooperation and pluralistic culture is itself a value. That can itself be specified and juxtaposed in contradistinction to group/cultural selection in social Darwinism. Why the intolerance? You actually are supposed to want to stand for all that relational stuff. That’s called, “tolerance” and requires “forebearance,” to say the least. I’m a Bio Anthro bachelors with a Masters in International Relations, and experience in social services and financial services.

    • Mark Rego-Monteiro says:

      That “tolerance” stuff raises such issues as emotions like anger, resentment, and thanks to Jesus, spiritual practitioners of many stripes, and the therapeutic psychological developments including Kubler-Ross’ stages of grieving, forgiveness. Now we can start to discuss the foundations of science in a culture of relational sentient beings. Human ones at that.