Review of Stephan Shennan’s introduction to Pattern and Process in Cultural Evolution

Evolutionary biology as a field of inquiry is fairly well entrenched, with detailed and documented studies carried out over the last 150 years.  The same cannot be said about cultural evolution, which is a synthesis of anthropology, archaeology and the study of human history.  While evolutionary biology has come to depend on well-established methods of scientific research and analysis, cultural evolution is an emerging field of study with no comprehensive and conclusive body of work.  Stephen Shennan’s introduction to the work titled Pattern and Process in Cultural Evolution briefly describes the agenda for the book and the topics focussed by various contributors.  The author also endeavours to bring more clarity to the major questions in this field, and to set a general framework of understanding that will facilitate further dialogue and discussion amongst social scientists.

At the outset, Shennan makes reference to the various approaches and methodologies of research pertaining to evolutionary anthropology.  An important point that he makes is the analogy between biological and anthropological evolutionary processes.  For example, the idea of “descent with modification” is supported by evidence gathered from the generational history of native North American tribes.  Unlike European civilization of the Old World, the New World remained primitive for much longer, thereby making it more suitable for longitudinal case studies. Shennan draws attention to the fact that unlike biological evolution, changes in social cultures and norms are not always based on utility and survival value.  The notion of reproductive success is also not directly behind many of the cultural changes that were documented.  A classic instance of this point is the sudden switch from snowshoes to snowmobiles by the Cree Indian tribes.  This change had nothing to do with conferring an advantage in the process of reproduction, but resulted because of “behaviorally plastic decision making underpinned by selection-influenced capacities”.  Shennan cites several studies conducted by fellow sociologists on the changing shapes, sizes and uses of artefacts and household objects such as spears, spades, pottery, etc (mostly of indigenous tribes and clans from North America), and shows that evolutionary anthropology is much more complex and confounding that the workings of Darwinian theory evolution by natural selection.

The task of building on previous work is left to the contributors to the book.  What Shennan does is to showcase various schools of thought in evolutionary anthropology and state the complexities involved therein.  The author explicates the various nuances and finer distinctions of different approaches to research and underlines the importance of processes of biological evolution to the study of anthropology and culture.  On the whole, the author touches upon wide range of sociological theories to give the reader a brief overview of the scope and breadth of the subject.

In sum, Stephan Shennan’s introduction to the book Pattern and Process in Cultural Evolution is a much welcome addition to the growing body of work in anthropology.  The author should be commended for putting together an apt introduction to field of study that is increasingly becoming more sophisticated and scientific.  The most striking aspects of this introduction were the knowledge displayed by the author and the standards of objectivity maintained throughout.