Who Are the Evolutionary Anthropologists?

For those of us who received the non-binding name change survey from the American Association of Physical Anthropology this week, you may have seen the alternative “American Association of Evolutionary Anthropologists” floated as an option. I am somewhat frustrated that this has popped up. Although in Europe Evolutionary Anthropology most certainly describes what we are doing here (see the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology for example), in the United States it has long meant something different.

I have already written on the issues surrounding the AAPA’s name change, so if you haven’t check this out, I encourage you to do so here:

American Association of Physical Anthropologists Name Change

What is Evolutionary Anthropology? Well, it depends on where you are. In Europe, Evolutionary Anthropology is as straightforward as it sounds. If you are using evolutionary theory to study humans, you are probably an evolutionary anthropologist. Paleoanthropology, social evolution, primatology, and cultural evolution are all fields underneath Evolutionary Anthropologys’ umbrella in Europe. I’m going to argue that this is not the case for us Americans.

These are the alternatives for the AAPA name change. Note Evolutionary Anthropology and BioCultural Anthropology as options.

Even prior to Charles Darwin’s contributions to evolutionary theory, the polymath Englishman Herbert Spencer had viewed society as part of an evolutionary process. His ideas were based on the earlier works of the Frenchman Auguste Comte who saw society through the lens of his Law of Three Stages. Comte’s belief was that humans first went through a theological stage (broken up into the three sub-stages of fetishism, polytheism, and monotheism) followed by a metaphysical stage characterized by belief in an abstract god followed by a positivity stage characterized by science. Spencer’s beliefs spawned the theory of unilineal evolution as advocated by the anthropologists EB Tylor in England and Lewis Henry Morgan in the United States. If you will look back to your introduction to anthropology courses, you might recall that Morgan was the one who believed society advances from savagery to barbarism to civilization. Although lacking nuance and consisting of rather strict stipulations for their evolutionary steps, Morgan and Tylor’s views were quite dominant during their time.

In 1995, Robert Carneiro authored a paper in the journal Vistas in Astronomy comparing the development of society in energetic values to the evolution of stars.¹ Carneiro is still active and is employed at the AMNH.

All of this happened before biological anthropology was even a field. This theoretical basis was later rejected by Boas and his students, but the anthropologist Leslie White successfully reintroduced it in the 1940s and 50s. According to White, this was not a new paradigm and he spent a great deal of his career defending the views of Morgan. White saw himself as continuing, rather than reinventing Morgan’s paradigm. As a prolific professor of cultural anthropology, White’s progeny included names such Robert Carneiro, Marshall Sahlins, Napoleon Chagnon, and Lewis Binford (who is arguably the father of modern American archaeology). None of his students were biological anthropologists, several of them are still alive. In the United States, these are the evolutionary anthropologists. During his era, White referred to this form of cultural exploration as “culturology” rather than evolutionary anthropology, but his paradigm was explicitly evolutionist. In most anthropology texts you will still find him and his students referred to as “neo-evolutionists”.

Although the students of White’s students did not go on to continue his paradigm, the field of cultural evolution is going through a current reinvigoration. The Cultural Evolution Society is in its second year, with an annual meeting taking place in Tempe, Arizona next week. These anthropologists, psychologists, historians, and biologists with names including Joseph Henrich, Michael Tomasello, and Peter Turchin are carrying through with the original mission of the cultural evolutionists. I am not quite certain that biological anthropologists are.

Perhaps this is splitting hairs, but in my opinion biological anthropologists in the United States are not evolutionary anthropologists. In the same way that we are now re-examining our current name for historical reasons, we should also examine the alternatives. Most of us study evolution, many of us arguably do not (forensic anthropology and paleopathology are not inherently evolutionary). You might be able to make the argument that we are claiming the term for ourselves, but I think if we’re going to start reclaiming anything we might focus on reclaiming physical anthropology. Personally, I am voting for the name change, just not this one.


¹Carneiro, R. L. (1995). Stellar Evolution and Social Evolution: A Study in Parallel Processes. Vistas in Astronomy, 39(4), 711.


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