Books: Insights from the Outback

Does evolution really dictate culture? Kenan Malik unstitches a fashionable brand of genes
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by Peter Worsley

Profile Books, pounds 25

Evolution in Mind

by Henry Plotkin

Allen Lane, pounds 20

Australian Aborigines recognise some 643 living species, which they classify into hierarchical categories. Animals are divided into land, sea and winged creatures; sea creatures are subdivided into fish, shellfish and marine turtles, and so on. It is a taxonomy that seems to bear a strong resemblance to the Linnaean classification system that lies at the heart of modern Western biology.

What does this tell us about the structure of human thought? Peter Worsley and Henry Plotkin provide contrasting answers. Worsley adopts a sociological approach, relating the organisation of human thought to the nature of human activity. For Plotkin, on the other hand, human thinking is shaped by our evolutionary heritage. This is an argument that has suddenly become as fashionable as Chelsea FC, thanks in particular to such high-profile authors as Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley. The contrast between the two approaches tells us much about the promise and limits of contemporary thinking about the human mind.

is a sprawling work which is as fascinating as it is infuriating. Worsley roves the world discussing everything from Aboriginal classification to Antonio Gramsci, from Melanesian navigation to Scottish nationalism. He eschews linear exposition; instead, the book reads more like a novel, multilayered and fragmented. His method lets the reader think "laterally", but also makes it mightily frustrating to follow an argument.

What Worsley wants to know is why cultures are simultaneously similar and different. His answer is that knowledge is the product of human activity, but because human activity is varied, so knowledge is plural. As hunter- gatherers, Aborigines were driven to establishing a sophisticated biological taxonomy. Western biology, on the other hand, grew out of attempts to systematise knowledge that would be of economic value in the commercial system. Very different activities required similar knowledge about the world and hence produced similar forms of classification.

In other areas, however, Aborigines can seem to be backward. The Aboriginal number system is very limited, while spatial concepts are poorly elaborated - Aborigines, for instance, lack words for "line" and "point". It is not that they are incapable of such concepts, simply that they never required them. Aboriginal modes of thought, Worsley argues, are not irrational, but rational within their own social organisation. The rationality of traditional Aboriginal thinking about nature, he points out, is similar to our own "common sense".

For Plotkin, the structure of human thinking is shaped as much by our evolutionary heritage as by our activity. Evolution in Mind is among the best of the seemingly never-ending current stream of books about evolutionary psychology. Not only is it engagingly written, but Plotkin is also much more willing than, say, Steven Pinker to tackle the difficult conceptual problems thrown up by evolutionary accounts of modern human behaviour.

Like most evolutionary psychologists, Plotkin puts forward two key arguments. First, he suggests that the mind is not a single general-purpose processor, but a complex of modules each designed for a particular task - such as acquiring language or behaving romantically. Second, he argues that these modules must all be adaptations, selected for during our evolutionary history.

One such module is believed to be an "intuitive biology" - an innate, evolved capacity to understand and order the natural world. For evolutionary psychologists, Aborigines have such superb taxonomic skills because these skills are innate and evolved. Indeed, for Plotkin, culture itself is an evolved trait. Culture is such a complex phenomenon, he suggests, that it could not have arisen by accident, only through natural selection.

Such an account of human knowledge remains problematic. While it is true that in other animals complexity is usually a sign of an evolved trait, this is not necessarily so in humans. Some of our most complex cognitive skills - reading and writing, for instance, or mathematical skills - are known to be cultural creations, not evolved traits.

And while there is growing evidence for the idea of an innate "language module", the claims for an "intuitive biology" remain more speculative. If knowledge of nature was the product of evolution, we would expect it, like language, to be universal. Not only do all humans speak a language, but all, whether an Aborigine or an Englishman, speak languages of equal complexity. But the same is not true about understanding nature. Place the average Englishman on a desert island and you would quickly find that his survival abilities were less than intuitive.

Plotkin concedes that there must be a "partial decoupling" between biological and cultural evolution. He insists, however, that cultural evolution is of the same form as biological, except that it is non-genetic. But, as Worsley points out, culture does not happen blind; people consciously make culture. What is critical for Worsley is the idea of agency: the ability of human beings to make their world, not simply have it given to them. It is agency that distinguishes biological evolution from cultural change.

The danger with Worsley's pluralist view is that cultural progress disappears altogether. In his haste to dismiss racist views about Aboriginal culture, Worsley seems to suggest that Aboriginal knowledge is not inferior to modern science, simply different. But such relativism is as blind to human agency as is Plotkin's naturalism. For to deny cultural advance is to deny the progressive impact of human activity over history.

It is not racist to suggest that modern science is an advance over Aboriginal ideas of nature (just as it is over Western "folk" concepts). What is demeaning to Aborigines is the notion that science is somehow the property of one cultural group - the peoples of Europe and America. Stimulating as these two books are, they suggest that a more profound understanding of human knowledge requires us to see beyond the confines of both naturalism and relativism.