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Home / STS Lunchtime Talk and Discussion: Jeffrey Schwartz “Why biological evolution cannot serve as a framework for cultural evolution”

STS Lunchtime Talk and Discussion: Jeffrey Schwartz “Why biological evolution cannot serve as a framework for cultural evolution”

When Mar 08, 2011
from 12:10 PM to 02:00 PM
Where SSH 1246
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Lunchtime Talk and Discussion

March 8, 2011, 12:10 pm
1246 Social Science Humanities
Science and Technology Studies Program

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street view of the entrance

(Pizza will be served)

“Why biological evolution cannot serve as a framework for cultural evolution”

Jeffrey Schwartz
University of Pittsburgh
Anthropology and HPS


We all know the word “change” and think we know its meaning: something like, A was once one way, and now it is not (it is A’, or perhaps B). We might also think it is perfectly reasonable to apply the word “change” equally to “adaptation” and to “evolution”. In fact, received wisdom, first from Darwin and then in the 1940s from the founders of the “modern evolutionary synthesis”, is grounded in the notion that evolution is merely adaptation writ large; that evolution is adaptation protracted over geological rather than generational time. Given the dominance of the word “change” and widespread use interchangeably with evolution, it is not wonderful that the term has been applied to (epi-)phenomena outside the domain of an organism’s developmental biology: e.g. from the evolution of culture to the evolution of the automobile. Yet the only way in which these synonymies make sense is by believing there is no loss of information when “change”, “adaptation”, and “evolution” are used interchangeably. I will argue that while “adaptation” and “evolution” may be described as “change”, the mechanisms/processes underlying each differ at the most basic biological levels, and that, at the very least, it is inappropriate to refer to non-biological change as “evolution”.

To receive papers related to the topic of discussion please email Chris Kortright

Jeffrey H. Schwartz

Departments of Anthropology and History and Philosophy of Science
University of Pittsburgh

Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz is a physical anthropologist whose research and publications have covered areas including the exploration of method, theory, and philosophy in evolutionary biology through focusing on problems involving the origin and subsequent diversification of extinct as well as extant primates, from prosimians to humans and apes; human and faunal skeletal analysis of archaeological recovered remains, particularly from historical sites of the circum-Mediterranean region; and dentofacial growth and development in mammals, particularly those assigned to the genus Homo. Schwartz has done fieldwork in the United States, England, Israel, Cyprus, and Tunisia and museum research in the mammal and vertebrate paleontology collections of major museums in the United States, Great Britain, Europe, and Africa.

As a systematist working with skeletal biology and dentition Schwartz is interested in the research and theory underpinning our understanding of the origin and significance of morphological novelty. His work incoporates the growing body of knowledge concerning developmental processes and factors such as regulatory pathways to better appreciate the mode and tempo of evolution as well as to evaluate competing theories of relatedness. His work also utilizes a constructive skepticism based in the scientific spirit of testability and an openness to alternative perspectives which may challenge or reframe conventional professional wisdom, an attitude affirmed in the questions "How do we know what we think we know?" and "Why do we accept that answer?”

In addition to his research, Schwartz has authored The Red Ape: Orangutans and Human Origins, What the Bones Tell Us; Skeleton Keys: An Introduction to Human Skeletal Morphology, Development, and Analysis; and Sudden Origins: Fossils, Genes, and the Emergence of Species. He has coauthored volumes such as Extinct Humans and The Human Fossil Record as well as the edited volume Orangutan Biology.

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