Consider the question: What is a human being? The question is phrased in such a way that it seems to call for an objective, scientific answer, and we may begin answering it by speaking about homo sapiens as a small twig on a larger branch on the great tree of life, the product of natural and sexual selection, created by chance and necessity through the aeons of biological evolution.

However, the question may be asked differently: What does it mean to be a human being? In this case, a rather different set of answers are generated, and among the great Victorians, it may well be the case that Dickens, or Marx, would offer more useful cues than that other towering nineteenth-century figure.

Or consider a brief encounter, in front of the coffee machine, between two colleagues working in the same department, a biological and a sociocultural anthropologist. The biological anthropologist says, ‘You know, the difference between the two of us is that I work with facts whereas you work with interpretations.’ The sociocultural anthropologist, nonplussed, responds: ‘Yes, but your facts are also interpretations.’ Both immediately set out, steaming mugs aloft, towards their respective offices. End of discussion.

These are the kinds of intellectual gridlocks that David Sloan Wilson tries to overcome in his eloquent and thought-provoking review essay. Rather than Snow’s two cultures – ships passing in the night, Wittgensteinian duck-rabbits, unfinished bridges – he argues that time is ripe to merge the two into a single unifying paradigm enabling the study of all things human within a shared scientific framework. After forty-plus years of ‘science wars’, beginning with the controversies following the 1975 publication of E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, how far have we progressed? In (D.S.) Wilson’s view, quite a bit, indeed far enough to announce the coming of a new synthesis. Evolutionary theorists have come to appreciate the significance of language, metaphor and symbolism as decisive factors in human life; and many working in the humanities acknowledge the need to understand our evolutionary heritage in order to grasp the significance of the products of the human mind such as art and literature.

As the four books reviewed by Wilson indicate, radical interdisciplinarity fusing discrete branches of knowledge about humanity can lead to genuinely new insights, and it is needed. This is not to say that the vision of The One Culture is not without its challenges.

Notably, methods and approaches depend on the problem at hand. Wilson claims that cultural anthropology has produced largely descriptive knowledge; that it is a pre-paradigmatic science (in Kuhn’s sense) in search of its Newton or Darwin. This is a somewhat uncharitable view; 20th century sociocultural anthropology saw the development and not always peaceful coexistence of a string of strong theoretical programmes, ranging from crude materialist determinism via various branches of Marxism to the highly sophisticated and universalist theory of the mind called structuralism and methodological individualism premised on the theory of games. What is true, however, is that the academic community was unable to coalesce around one unifying paradigm or theory.

The main reason is that the questions differed. Some asked what is it that makes people do whatever it is that they do, while others asked what made societies work; some asked about the origins and causes of inequality, while others were interested in the workings of the mind. They arranged their toolbox accordingly. Wilson is right in suggesting that evolutionary theory would enrich and sharpen each of these theoretical approaches, but it is better seen as a loose framework than a universal acid. Scientific endeavours to understand humanity better succeed not so much as a result of shared methodologies or axioms as through their ability to stimulate the intellectual imagination. Wilson’s own theory of multilevel selection is an excellent example; by asking, in a critical spirit, what ought to be seen as the appropriate level of selection, he enabled others to ask new questions to their material. Similarly, the ecosystem approach to evolution – or, at an even higher level, a planetary ‘Gaia’ perspective on life on earth – generates yet a different set of questions and answers.

None of these approaches, from methodological individualism to a systemic view of evolution, are incompatible with the basic principles of selectionism, and the books reviewed by Wilson indicate some ways in which the social sciences may benefit from evolutionary theory. The loose, shared framework I have in mind may be described as a weak functionalism. In early-20th century social anthropology, a strong and a weak functionalist programme competed for hegemony. Malinowski argued for a direct relationship between human needs and sociocultural institutions that satisfied them, in other words that the institutions existed to satisfy needs. His rival Radcliffe-Brown argued, rather, that the long-term survival of institutions and practices hinged on their ability to satisfy needs, but that this did not explain their existence in the first place. The latter perspective is compatible with Darwinian selectionism, while the first has more than a hint of teleology (placing the cart in front of the horse). In other words, for institutions and practices to survive in the long term, they must be functional (in the sense of being adaptive), but any institutional arrangement comes about, stabilises and evolves through trial and error (although conscious planning is, naturally, also involved). So far, there is compatibility between evolutionary theory and social science, and it is perfectly possible to ask credible and relevant questions about the mechanisms of selection at work in the growth and decline of social institutions and indeed entire societies. And there are many other promising areas for collaboration between social scientists or humanities scholars and evolutionary scholars, the minimum requirement on both sides being openness, curiosity and a willingness to listen. As for myself, I have written two books with the biologist Dag O. Hessen (in Norwegian), about selfishness and the ‘red queen’ effect, without encountering serious issues of mutual incomprehension or incommensurability.

However, these and other areas of convergence do not solve the question of commensurability once and for all, since sociocultural anthropologists ask other kinds of questions as well. Jean-Paul Sartre famously stated that ‘existence precedes essence’, indicating that we choose our actions as free agents; and Clifford Geertz once described man, tongue-in-cheek, as ‘a self-defining animal’. Many anthropologists are concerned with understanding (rather than explaining) what it is like to be an X, Y or Z. This calls for interpretive, phenomenological methods; religion, then, becomes a belief system to be understood from within rather than a social institution to be explained from without. A currently lively debate in anthropology concerns the appropriate way of understanding Amazonian cosmologies which do not posit a contrast between nature and culture. In such cases, evolutionary theory does not come across as wrong, just irrelevant.

I do not share Wilson’s view that the era of building bridges is soon over in so far as we have come to realise that we live on the same island: Qualitatively different ways of knowing continue to exist, and rightly so. As my colleague Adam Kuper once said, we are all Darwinists now – but this does not mean that Darwinism (or evolutionary perspectives in a wider sense) can provide an adequate metodology for exploring all the questions we might want to raise about the human condition. However, and more importantly, Wilson convincingly argues, in this review essay and elsewhere, that the expanded toolkit of evolutionary science, with its ever more sophisticated approaches to meaning-creation and symbolism, group cohesion and systemic processes, creates exciting opportunities for the kind of radical interdisciplinarity we need in order to improve our understanding of anthropos.


Published On: August 22, 2016

Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Thomas Hylland Eriksen is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo and President of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA). Much of his research has concerned the dynamics of culture and identity in complex societies, but he is now directing a comparative project on accelerated global change called “Overheating: An anthropological history of the early 21st century”. His latest book is “Overheating: An anthropology of accelerated change” (2016).


  • Robert Barton says:

    Isn’t the key difference that, in general, evolutionary anthropologists seek causal explanations, whereas sociocultural anthropologists seek to understand subjective meaning (albeit with exceptions)? To that extent, the aims are different, and therefore pursuing a synthesis may be misguided (a bit like neuroscientists trying to explain qualia)? Having said that, I am all in favour of us talking to each other…!

  • Thom Scott-Phillips says:

    This is a very interesting post; thank you Thomas.

    I agree with Rob that there are often different goals in evolutionary and social anthropology. Still, there is no reason that both types of goal cannot be pursued. Indeed, anthropology was originally conceived of as a natural science, the goal of which was indeed to develop causal explanations of cultural phenomena. It does not much pursue this goal anymore, but it could, and indeed some people do still keep this goal in mind, and even actively pursue it. So when Thomas writes “This calls for interpretive, phenomenological methods; religion, then, becomes a belief system to be understood from within rather than a social institution to be explained from without” – this seems to me a false dichotomy. Why not both? Why not understand from within, and *also* explain from without?

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