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Monday, October 18, 2010

Monday Ground Up: Phylogenies And Evolutionary Biology in Anthropology:

Contributing author Maria Rainier

In biology, a phylogeny is the historical evolution of an organism as understood by ancestor and descendant relationships. Phylogenies help biologists plot and understand how a given organism has arrived at its present condition, giving valuable insight into the evolutionary process. By now, you're probably wondering whether or not you've arrived at the Ancient Digger page, but you're right – this is an anthropological blog. So how does evolutionary biology fit into the picture?

Cultural Phylogenies

As discussed in Wired Science, anthropologists Thomas Currie and Ruth Mace of University College in London decided to address the issue of complex society evolution with the phylogeny approach, borrowed from evolutionary biology. The evolution of post-ice age complex societies has long been a topic of fierce contention and inconclusive tests in anthropological circles, and although Currie and Mace haven't designed the perfect study, its innovative design has a lot of potential for future inquiry.

The Pacific Islands Case Study

Currie and Mace set about using cultural phylogenies to determine whether a sample of complex societies evolved and dissolved incrementally and linearly, or in a more haphazard and unpredictable fashion. They chose an area of the Pacific Islands between Madagascar and Easter Island to conduct their study, gathering information on inhabitants who lived up to 5,200 years ago. The main indicator of cultural development in this study was the bifurcation of language, which often coincided with moves from one island to the next. This led researchers to construct a solid chronological history of 84 island societies based primarily on language comparison techniques.

Findings: Steps to Progress and Leaps to Dissolution 

The patterns of political differentiation that were discovered as Currie and Mace constructed a phylogeny-inspired tree diagram were consistent with linear development. These researchers found that, by comparing their tree to computer-generated versions that mimicked both linear and nonlinear development, they could demonstrate their tree's strong similarities to the linear model. In other words, their cultural phylogeny tree showed that societies develop in small, consistent steps rather than in unpredictable leaps.

However, to complicate matters, the linear model didn't fit their data in terms of direction: not all Pacific Island societies had made consistent progress. Some had regressed, and that happened at a different pace. Societies that had dissolved were shown to have done so at an alarmingly fast rate, demonstrating that the complex society evolution debate is still in need of high-quality and innovative research to reach a resolution.

While it can be reasonably stated that these societies progressed linearly in small, consistent increments and dissolved in large regressive steps, there's no solid evidence that this was the case in all situations. The study conducted by Currie and Mace can also be criticized for its generalizations and lack of specificity in categorizing political differences. But these small faults are no reason to dismiss the conclusions of the research. In fact, it's likely that other anthropologists will adopt the cultural phylogeny strategy to map trees of societies in southern and central Africa, where well-preserved chronological language patterns would allow for lucrative comparisons and strong conclusions.

Bio: Maria Rainier is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education, researching various online programs and blogging about student life issues. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.


Photo of Easter Island Statues: Public Domain
Haeckel tree


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