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By Jon Agar, on 15 October 2008

The STS Seminar series got off to a great start with Steve Jones’ talk ‘Is man just another animal?’. His overall argument was that possession of language is probably the best criterion with which to build a distinction (if you wish to). As you might expect there was plenty of demonstration of evolution as both fact and on-going process. And while human evolution is still happening – witness the selection for ccl3l1 alleles under the pressure of HIV and AIDS – Jones suggested that it has slowed down. In a nutshell his view is that our insulation from the forces of natural selection, due to our inhabiting human-built environments and our possession of culture, helps explain this phenomenon.

There is a vast undeveloped academic field here. Sound as Jones is on evolution, his history of culture, landscape and technology is sketchy. Yet there is a fabulous literature on landscapes as intimately artificial environments. The intersection – natural history meets history of technology – is the place where new thought is needed.

Another (new) synthesis is required.

Where would we start if we wanted to read up a new subject like evo-techno? For reasons that I might go into later, the strand of analysis that treats technology itself as an evolved entity is not particularly helpful, even though it’s a scholarly tradition that stretches from Pitt Rivers in the 19th century to evolutionary studies of innovation in the 21st.

Instead let us draw inspiration from two articles. In 2007, Ed Russell in Environmental History wrote a brave and insightful essay that challenges historians to bring evolution into their work. It is speculative in the best sense. He side-steps biological determinism and explains why you can imagine an evolutionary historiography that is not – and should not – be labelled social Darwinism. In conclusion he writes:

‘Scholars in a variety of disciplines and fields have built the foundation for such an inquiry, with biology and history leading the way along parallel, but too rarely intersecting, paths. Evolutionary history offers a way to link these endeavors. To biology, history offers understanding of the social forces that create selective pressures. To history, biology offers understanding of the ways organisms respond to such pressures. Together, as evolutionary history, they offer understanding of the ever-changing dance between humans and nature. The resulting synthesis just might lead us to new understanding of historical episodes as disparate as state building, capital accumulation, geopolitics, industrialization, and domestication.’

Russell’s manifesto is just a sketch. His treatment of technology needs much more work. But it is one pillar of evo-techno.

The second article is by the anthropologist Tim Ingold. I was a colleague of Tim’s in Manchester a decade ago, and I confess that then I didn’t always ‘get’ his project. But his 1993 essay ‘The temporality of the landscape’ in World Archaeology is a beauty. Anthropology, of course, is well placed to work at the intersection of the natural and social worlds. Ingold tells us that the artificial environments are ‘taskscapes’, seamless vistas of human activities. While it is not Ingold’s intention, the notion of taskscapes can be a second pillar of evo-techno. We can then ask, for example, where are the niches in a taskscape? How have both changed over time?

If you are interested in such a project, then email me, or post a comment.