The State of Evolutionary Archaeology

Evolutionary Correctness, or the Search for the Common Ground
  • Robert L. Bettinger
  • Peter J. Richerson
Part of the Interdisciplinary Contributions to Archaeology book series (IDCA)


The problem, straight off, is that the common ground is not as clear as it should be. To the reader it must seem that evolutionary archaeologists are individually certain they are standing on the common ground, equally certain that their colleagues are not, and that the job is mainly to bring the undecided and misguided into the fold. Competition brings out the best in some products, possibly, but perhaps not in theory. All of the authors here would surely agree that the evolutionary processes that operate in the human case are complex and still poorly understood. After all, the biological disciplines from which much of the basic theory is being borrowed have historically been, and continue to be, filled with contentious debate over the processes of organic evolution. In the case of humans, we deal mainly with one species, but also with the relatively unstudied, and decidedly controversial, complexities of cultural evolution. Under these circumstances, competition between theorists plays a useful role only if the reader is not misled by the rhetorical excesses of self-advertisement and remains diligent in discriminating between clear thinking and problem solving, on the one hand, and dogma and the strawman, on the other. It helps to recognize that at the early stages of the exploration of a new field, even the main lines of fruitful inquiry remain shrouded in ignorance. Polemical essays are best taken merely as claims that a particular line of inquiry is promising enough to be worth pursuing. Read literally, some of the arguments here verge on claiming a unique theoretical correctness for certain evolutionary concepts, processes, or lines of empirical inquiry. Many such claims are highly abstract, which should trigger a warning signal in the reader’s mind. Scientific issues are generally settled with concrete tests of cogency (often involving mathematical tools) or critical data (collected with effort and analyzed with care). In the case of the complex and diverse subject matter of evolution, many models, much data, and considerable time are invariably required to arrive at definitive answers. It is hard to think of a case where important issues in evolutionary biology were settled by abstract, a priori claims.


Evolutionary Theory Common Ground Cultural Evolution Evolutionary Ecology Contentious Debate 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert L. Bettinger
    • 1
  • Peter J. Richerson
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of CaliforniaDavisUSA
  2. 2.Division of Environmental StudiesUniversity of CaliforniaDavisUSA

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