Theoretical Progress in Archaeology: When should the archaeological research community judge a theory or research programme to be better than a rival?

Theoretical progress in archaeology: When should the archaeological research community judge a theory or research programme to be better than a rival?

Zak van Straaten

This paper was published in KNOWLEDGE and METHOD in the HUMAN SCIENCES as paper No.35; pages 535 - 556; (ed) Johann Mouton and Dian Joubert, Human Sciences Research Council Publishers, Pretoria, 1990.

Lakatos’ model of the growth of scientific knowledge

The unit of change for Lakatos is not paradigm (Kuhn), not a theory or hypothesis or basic statement (Popper), not theories and observation sentences (Quine & the justificationist fallibilists) but the Scientific Research Programme (SRP).
A SRP is a sequence of scientific theories such that each theory in the sequence is a modification of its predecessor.
A SRP has one central sub-component, two accompanying structures and a protective auxiliary belt.
The central sub-component is the hard core, which is a set of theoretical assertions/statements. Any theory which belongs to a SRP must subscribe to the truth of the statement in the hard core. The hard core is “conventionally accepted” and is provisionally not refutable.
The first companion structure is the negative heuristic which is a methodological principle which implies that the theoretical assertions in the hard core are not to be abandoned in the face of anomalies and counter-ex-amples. You may abandon auxiliary observational hypotheses, or basic statements, or statements of initial conditions.
The second companion structure is the positive heuristic which is a partially articulated set of suggestions of hints on how to develop, expand or change the potentially refutable variants of the research programme, and a set of suggestions on how to make the refutable protective belt more sophisticated.
The current theory in a SRP always has a protective belt of auxiliary observational hypotheses, and is able to specify initial conditions. Testable predictions are derived from initial conditions and auxiliary observational hypotheses. The theory’s auxiliary belt (TAB) is the set of all observational hypotheses which are testable.
A SRP is said to be progressive if its theoretical growth anticipates its empirical growth. Progressive SRP’s have increasing empirical content and predict new facts. A SRP is said to be degenerating if its theoretical growth has slowed down and lags behind its empirical growth, and when it gives post hoc explanations of facts predicted by or discovered by a competitor SRP.
When should we regard a theory as falsified? Lakatos says we should regard theory T as falsified if:

1) another theory T’ has excess empirical content of T; that is it predicts novel facts; i.e. facts improbable in the light of, of even forbidden by T.
2) T’ explains the previous success of T. i.e. all the unrefuted content of T is included (within the limits of observational error) in the content of T’ ; AND
3) Some of the excess content of T’ is corroborated.

Lakatos believes we should not model the growth of scientific knowledge as a two cornered fight between theory and experiment. We should view it as a three cornered fight between two rival theories and an experiment. In the fight the world acts as referee. Lakatos wants to defend a realist view of science.

First application

Lakatos’ model of the growth of scientific knowledge applied to Newton’s research programme.
Lakatos has applied his model to Newton’s globalo programs. I think he is very illuminating in his application and shall therefore quote him at length. All the quotations below are from Lakatos 1970.

The classical example of a successful research programme is Newton’s gravitational theory: possibly the most successful research programme ever. When it was first produced, it was submerged in an ocean of anomalies” (or, if you wish, “counterexamples”), and opposed by the observational theories supporting these anomalies. But Newtonians turned, with brilliant tenacity and ingenuity, one counter-instance after another into corroborating instances, primarily by overthrowing the original observational theories in the light of which this “contrary evidence” was established. In the process they themselves produced new counter-examples which they again resolved. They turned each new difficulty into a new victory of their programme.

In Newton’s programme the negative heuristic bids us to divert the modus tollens from Newton’s three laws of dynamics and his law of gravitation. This “core” is “irrefutable” by the methodological decision of its protagonists: anomalies must lead to changes only in the “protective” belt of auxiliary, “observational” hypothesis and initial conditions.
I have given a contrived micro-example of a progressive Newtonian problem shift. If we analyze it, it turns out that each successive link in this case exercise predicts some new fact; each step represents an increase in empirical content: the example constitutes a consistently progressive theoretical shift. Also, each prediction is in the end verified; although on three subsequent occasions they may have seemed momentarily to be “refuted”. While “theoretical progress” cannot, and in a research programme we may be frustrated by a long series of “refutation” before ingenious and lucky content-increasing auxiliary hypotheses turn a chain of defeats – with hindsight – into a resounding success story, either by revising some false “facts” or by adding novel auxiliary hypotheses. We may then say that we must require that each step of a research programme be consistently content-increasing: that each step constitutes a consistently progressive theoretical problem shift. All we need is addition to this is that at least every now and then the increase in content should be seen to be retrospectively corroborated: the programme as a whole should also display an intermittently progressive empirical shift” (Lakatos 1970: 133-134).

Lakatos’ contrived micro-example

For even if experiments could prove experimental reports, their disproving power would still be miserably restricted: exactly the most admired scientific theories simply fail to forbid any observable of affairs.
To support this last contention, I shall first tell a characteristic story and then propose a general argument.
The story is about an imaginary case of planetary misbehaviour. A physicist of the pre-Einsteinian era takes Newton’s mechanics and his law of gravitation, (N), the accepted initial conditions, I, and calculates, with their help, the path of a newly discovered small plant, p. But the planet deviates from the calculated path. Does our Newtonian physicist consider that the deviation was forbidden by Newton’s theory and therefore that, once established, it refutes the theory N? He suggests that there must be a hitherto unknown planet p’ which perturbs the path of p. He calculates the mass, orbit, etc, of this hypothesis. The planet p’ is so small that even the biggest available telescopes cannot possibly observe it: the experimental astronomer applies for a research grant to build yet a bigger one. In three years’ time the new telescope is ready. Were the unknown planet p’ to be discovered, it would be hailed as a new victory of Newtonian science. But it is not. Does our scientist abandon Newton’s theory and his idea of the perturbing plant? No. He suggests that a cloud of cosmic dust hides the planet from us. He calculates the location and properties of this cloud and asks for research grant to send up a satellite to test his calculations. Were the satellite’s instruments (possibly new ones, based on a little-tested theory) to record the existence of the conjectural cloud, the result would be hailed as an outstanding victory for Newtonian science. But the cloud is not found. Does our scientist abandon Newton’s theory, together with the idea of the perturbing planet and the idea of the cloud which hides it? No. He suggests that there is some magnetic field in that region of the universe which disturbed the instruments of the satellite. A new satellite is sent up. Were the magnetic field to be found, Newtonians would celebrate a sensational victory. But it is not. Is this regarded as a refutation of Newtonian science? No. Either yet another ingenious auxiliary hypothesis proposed or … the whole story is buried in the dusty volumes of periodicals and the story never mentioned again (Lakatos 1970:134).

Positive heuristic

One may formulate the “positive heuristic” of a research programme as a “metaphysical” principle. For instance one may formulate Newton’s program like this: “the planets are essentially gravitating spinning-tops of roughly spherical shape”. This idea was never rigidly maintained: the planets are not just gravitational, they have also, for example, electromagnetic characteristics which may influence their motion. Positive heuristic in thus in general more flexible than negative heuristic. Moreover, it occasionally happens that when a research programme gets into a degenerating phase, a little revolution or a creative shift in its heuristic may push it forward again. It is better therefore to separate the “hard core” from the more flexible metaphysical principles expressing the positive heuristic” (Lakatos 1970: 136).

The problem of methodology in archaeology

If Archaeology were an established science we would be in possession of a complete, consistent, and unified fundamental theory of all archaeological interactions. The fundamental archaeological theory could be used to describe, not only actual observations, but future possible observations. It is a commonplace that in archaeology we do not have such a completed theory, and that we do not even have part of such a theory, Instead we have a number of different strategies for arriving at trustworthy explanations. Two of these are:

First methodological strategy

The first strategy consists in be description of social facts and the drawing of inferences from our knowledge of the facts. There is usually no basic theory which licenses the inferences. There is instead a collection of ideas which forms a system of background knowledge. It is here that support is sought for drawing inferences about social life. A basic assumption is that archaeological data are meaningful expressions of human culture and purpose. It is assumed that with sufficiently ingenious interpretations of the data, and with the assumption of an adequate sociological or archaeological interpretation of what we mean by “human’, we can apply this concept to the domain of human in both current and historic times. One basic problem with this model is that it cannot as it stands generate scientific explanations; another problem that it is mentalistic. It is mentalistic in the sense is which Parsonian sociology is mentalistic, i.e it relies on the language of common sense of folk psychology to understand “purpose”, “intention”, “wishes”, “goals” of social groups. And disciplines which rely essentially on what is mental cannot be turned into sciences, ( i.e. into disciplines which base their explanations on law like universal generalizations, and can specify in advance what would falsity a hypothesis or theory) while retaining the mentalistic, non-lawlike component.

Second methodological strategy

Archaeologists study material phenomena. The relevant material things are in various configurations and forms. They are the matter and energy systems which are required for environmental adaptation. It is not necessary to presume one uniform concept of “human nature” for linking the present to the historic to analyze and assess social, biological psychological, and material adaptation systems. The mentalistic non-lawlike component of the first strategy is, in this model of explanation, apparently illuminable.

Colin Renfrew points out in this introduction to Transformations: Mathematical Approaches to Culture Change, the point of this kind of approach is to attempt to move from “anecdote to analysis”, from pictures and descriptions to explanation, and the analysis of material systems and behaviour. The point is to try to move away from a merely descriptive and eclectic methodology.

Conjecture and refutation in archaeology

I think that those archaeologists who claim that there is no properly scientific methodology which is appropriate to archaeology as a whole are wrong . There is both a method and a methodology which is effective and suited to archaeology. It is the Popper\Lakatos method of conjecture and refutation which I have outlined above. It is a method which can apply effectively in those fields of archaeology where truth values and truth condition re fundamental. And it is a method which can unite the two sets of methodological stances sketched out above.

For compactness let us call the method outlined outlined above AM (for ar-chaeological methodology). Let us suppose that the hypotheses:
(a) that AM is the only correct method in archeology for generating the non-false, well corroborated, high-verisimilitude archaeological theories/hypotheses/basic statements is itself well corroborated.
(b) What should we expect?
Some of the implications of the non-falsity of (a) would be that:
(i) The hypothetico-deductivism of AM would characterize the context of justification of an archaeological theory/hypothesis/basic statement. The strategies of AM and the implications which we may derive from it about how to proceed in a problem situation would also apply to the context of discovery.
(ii) We should expect in either the context of justification or of discovery of a theory or basic statement, that a great deal of time is devoted to attempted refutations and falsifications. Seminars and international conferences would (and should) be characterized by numerous and repeated attempts at falsifications or refutations.
(iii) We would not expect to find archaeologists having recourse to hundreds of cases of induction so as to be able to form one or more a generalizations based upon them.
(iv) The history of archaeology would, like most history of science, mainly contain accounts of refuted theories.
I have assumed above, in accordance with the basic presupposition of the methodology, that archaeological theories/hypotheses/basic statements are falsified or refuted in variety of different ways.
The most obvious is by counter-example. Examples are either drawn from present day actual world cases, or from the archaeological record. I submit that this method occurs frequently in archaeological seminars, and at conferences.
Another type of refutations is to show that the proposed theory or hypotheses is incompatible with what is accepted as unproblematic current archaeological or scientific knowledge.

A theory or hypothesis could be incompatible with general logical principles, or general archaeological/economic/anthropological principles, which we have no reason to suspect as problematic.
In order to establish AM as the only correct methodology for archaeology a great deal more would be required that I have been able to demonstrate above.

Second application

Lakatos’ model of the growth of scientific knowledge applied to the conflict between the research programme of the physical anthropologists, comparative anatomists, and paleontologists on the one hand and the research programme of the bio-scientists and geneticist on the other.
I take the following example from The invisible ape by Jerold Lowenstein and Adrienne Zihlman in New Scientist, 1988, and in some places I have, in order to specify their example accurately, borrowed some of the terminology used by Lowenstein and Zihlman. The example fits the Lakatos mould, and shows how accepted evidence, which is apparently “absolutely obvious”, for a theory, can be overturned by non-obvious, counter-intuitive evidence, which rests on a new technique. It particularly highlights the idea of a degenerating problem shift, as opposed to a progressive problem shift.
The original conjecture was that:
Chimpanzees and gorillas are more closely related to each other than to humans. This was held to be an obvious fact by the physical anthropologists because of the evidence:
They look more like each other. They are hairy; Men are smooth. Chimpanzees and gorillas walk on all fours; we walk on our hind limbs. Chimpanzees and gorillas have short legs and long arms but with very flexible hands; we have long legs and short arms with not very flexible hands. They walk on their knuckles; we do not, and cannot easily walk on our knuckles, since in our hands cannot bear much weight. Their brains are small, ours are large. Their canine teeth are large; ours small. Their molars have thin enamel; ours have thick enamel.
For more than 100 years these differences convinced comparative anatomists and physical anthropologists of the truth of the conjecture. If it were true then our common ancestor the invisible conjectured ape would remain a mystery.
Was it a knuckle walker like Chimps? Or a biped like us? Or something very different looking?
According to Lowenstein and Zihlman the attitudes adopted by the physical anthropologists during the debate correspond to the four stages of human reaction to a bereavement: “first denial, then rage, next grief, and finally sadness and reluctant acceptance.”
Denial Stage: In the decade of the 1960’s, Morris Goodman and Vincent Sarich (U.C Berkeley) showed by immunological tests of blood proteins that humans, chimps and gorrilas are closely related. This implied that the three lineages separated only 5 million years ago.
The physical anthropologists denied this. They already had a 14 million year old human ancestor “Ramapithecus”. This implied a divergence of apes and humans between 15-20 million years ago.
The molecular data contradicted the morphological evidence and fossil record.
Rage: The issue during the decade of the 1970’s was: What kind of evidence best establishes genetic relationships through time; morphology and the fossil record or molecules?
Mary Clair-King and Allen Wilson (U.C Berkeley) asked: How could humans look so different from chimps and gorillas when all showed the same degree of difference at the molecular level? (from 1% to 5%).
Answer: Only 1% to 5% of the DNA Genome is expressed as proteins. Between 95 and 99% consists of Introns or pseudogenes, so called “junk” genes. This is DNA that goes along for the ride, without doing any work. The “junk” genes replicate from generation without affecting morphology. All this extra DNA is not much use to the organism but it is useful to researches.
This DNA is not impeded by natural selection. It accumulates mutations at an even faster rate than the coding sequences of DNA. So it provides a fast biological clock for timing evolutionary differences, and a possible way of resolving the problem.
Three techniques called DNA sequencing, Mitochondrial DNA sequencing, and DNA hybridization, suggest three different lines of evidence which support the chimp/human versus gorilla difference.
DNA Hybridization bears same relationship to DNA sequencing as protein immunology does to protein sequencing.
It compares two large molecules by measuring their overall similarities and differences.
The double strands in the human DNA helix can be “melted” by heat into single strands. Then these can be “melted” with strands from chimpanzee molecules into a single strand. The hybrid is a chimp-human strand. The hybrids separate at a lower temperature (like sections of a defective zipper) than the human or chimp originals because of mismatches, in the base pairs. A 1’ difference of tempt, represents a 1% difference in the sequence.
Charles Sibley and Jon Ahlquist (Yale) found that chimp-human hybrids are 20% more stable than chimp-gorilla or human-gorilla hybrids. This implies that gorillas split off from chimps/human approximately 1 million years before the chimps/humans split from each other.
Sadness and reluctant acceptance: In the mid 1980’s after 20 years of defence the physical anthropologists and paleontologists abandoned their original hypotheses that Ramapithecus was a human ancestor, and that chimps and gorillas are more closely related to each other than to humans. On the basis of the b one and teeth fragments that they thought supported their original theory, and which, with benefit of hindsight, led them astray, the paleontologists now proclaim that Ramapithecus is an ancestor to orang-utans.

Third application

Lakatos’ model of the growth of scientific knowledge applied to the tension between the research programs of the archaelogists on the one hand the research programme of the sociologists on the other.
My assumption is that human sociology, resting on bio-science base of microbiological, genetic and biochemical theory, can be directly applied to human now. I have argued elsewhere that the theory can be used to complement the archaelogical record to explain the behaviour of prehistoric Mediterranean hunter gatherer subsistence and settlement systems; or to other historic social groupings/communities. In this respect I assume that human sociology will attempt to preempt some domains of existing social theory, which are incompatible with sociobiology. On this issue see the book by Alexander Rosenberg: Sociobiology and the preemption of social science, Rosenberg (1981).

What is the relation of genes to culture?

The relationship between culture and genetics is such that they are both necessary. They both require each other. Sociobiology sets the framework, and orthodox theories of culture must say at least how the universal structures of sociobiology are realized. The relation may be expressed as follows: Culture without sociobiology is blind, and sociobiology without culture is empty.

And it is a natural requirement of archaelogical methodology that not only theories of culture and sociobiology be consistent with archaelogical orthodoxy, archaelogical orthodoxy must be consistent with, as yet unfalsified, bio-science accounts of culture and sociobiology.

It was easy to claim above that, culture without sociobiology is blind, and sociobiology without culture is empty. What one means by that is at least in part that a culture which negates the fundamental posits of sociobiology is blind, and a sociobiology which is at odds with the historical cultured record is empty, or from a theoretical point of view valueless.
However, the relation between genes and culture, or between the results of animal sociobiology and human sociobiology admits of different stances. Some of these are as follows:

R.L.Trivers holds that “The chimpanzee and the share about 99.5 per cent of their evolutionary history, yet most human thinkers regard the chimp as a malformed irrelevant oddity while seeing themselves as stepping stones to the Almighty. To the evolutionist this cannot be so. There exists no objective basis on which to elevate one species above another. Chimp and human, lizard and fungus, we have all evolved some three billion years by a process known as natural selection. Within each species some individuals leave more surviving offspring than others, so that the inheritable traits (genes) of the reproductively successful become more numerous in the next generation. This is natural selection: the non-random differential reproduction of genes. Natural selections built us, and it is natural selection we must understand if we are to comprehend our own identities.(8)

And according to R.D.Alexander, “A Darwinian model seems to me to be established beyond as an appropriate hypothesis for the background of a significant, if not major, function of the proximate behavioural tendencies and motivations of humans. “(9) But, the father of sociobiology, E.O.Wilson is more cautions. He says: “ It is part of the conventional wisdom that virtually all cultural variation is phenotypic rather than genetic in origin. “And he admits “the genes have given away most of ‘their Sovereignty’”! But Wilson also believes that small genetic effects can have large scale behavioral effects, not only for animals but also for humans.(10)
Maynard-Smith is sceptical. He does not see his work on insects contributing to the understanding of human sociobiology and denies that his ideas about insects of animals may also refer either directly or by analogy to humans (Ruse:1985:p.53).

Is sociobiology unfalsifiable

It is sometimes claimed that sociobiology is unfalsifiable on the grounds that it posits individual (or selfish gene) natural selection (survival of the fittest) to explain selfish behaviour: kin selection to account for altruistic or submissive acts directed at relatives: and, reciprocal altruism to explain apparently unselfish behaviour towards non-related persons. All other behaviour is explained in terms of adaptation or lack of adaptation, so the model is really unfalsifiable.
However, there are certainly potentially falsifiable claims in the hard core, and positive heuristic of the sociobiology SRP.
Falsifiable claims:
(1) Sociobiology claims that there is differential reproduction for all. This could be false. There could be one and only one offspring for all.

(2) Sociobiology claims that differential reproduction will be systematic, -it is not just chance which organism survives and which replicates. The initial conditions and positive heuristic explain why this is so.

The theory of evolution is the necessary consequence of three hypotheses. These are part of the hard core, and can be set up with suitable initial conditions in the positive heuristics as which may be tested:
1. There is phenotypic variation; the members of a species do not all look alike, or act alike.
2. There is correlation between parents and offspring.
3. Different phenotypes leave different numbers of offspring in remote generations.
The essential presupposition for genetics is one can abstract characteristics from organisms. Characteristics like brown eyes or a large chin can be explained by reference to the basic laws of genetics. Physiological and biochemical links between genes and characteristics can be given. And these can be brought under known laws of heredity. At any stage the theory, if it is false, can be falsified.

The abstractive process can be extended to behaviour. For example, in animal sociobiology, a list of traits in Drosophilia (fruit-flies) can be selected for, under the control of genes, such as selection for mating preference can be carried out by allowing free mating in a mixture of 2 mutant stocks, and then destroying all hybrid progeny in each generation. After a number of generations you can establish mating preferences. This process could be shown to be resting on false assumptions at any stage. So far no one has.

In human sociobiology there is an established genetic case for schizophrenia. If you have it, it must exist somewhere in your family. If false, this could be shown to be so.

There is a general claim in both animal and human sociobiology that organisms all know their degree of relatedness to other organisms. Many anthropologists have reported acute awareness of relatedness among preliterate cultures. But this claim is also supposed to be true of, say, birds. The mechanisms by which animals can be said to be aware of kinship are in most cases not known. This is similar to ornithologist believing that birds are guided in their migrations, but in many cases do not know the mechanism. Starlings are supposed to be guided by the night sky. They migrate at night. So here is something which can be falsified. As it stands it is part of the hard core and the whole research programme is not abandoned simply because an explanation is not to hand. This is also a case of the theory predicting novel facts.
There is a theoretical continuity between Darwin and sociobiology. Three points are relevant here: (1) Sexual selection in Darwin is something between members of the same species. (2) Darwin refused to follow Wallace into group selective mechanisms. Darwin insisted on individual selection. (3) Darwin wished to apply his principles to Man. The really giant development in bioscience, and sociobiology in the early 20th Century was to develop the theory and techniques which were required to glue together in the hard core Darwinian selection and Mendelian genetics.

From the point of view Lakatos’s model for judging a research programme general bio-science (including animal sociobiology and population biology) have a large number of plus points:

(1) It unifies widely disparate areas of study – from bio-geography to embryology.
(2) It leads to worthwhile predictions.
(3) It has no rivals to replace it.
(4) It is metaphysically and materially acceptable in that it tries to explain adaptation through “normal” terrestrial or material events rather than by reference to transcendental posists as “god”.
(5) The hard core assumes that adaptive advantage is a good heuristic guide. If this is so it directs sociobiologists to look for the precise nature of adaptive advantage.

On the minus side sea of anomalies in which sociobiology flourishes includes some of the following which the negative heuristic holds at bay: (1) suicides – the non survivors; (2) reproductively inactive monks or nuns – the non replicators; and (3) non adaptors – people who do not modify their behaviour in order to survive.

Sociobiological categories

In this section I set out some of the generally accepted descriptions and predictions of human sociobiological theory as conjectures. I then conjecture that these structures can be used to explain social organization, and what is meant by ”human nature”. I assume the reader is familiar with the three theoretical possibilities that the unit of selection could be the group, or the individual, or selfish chromosome. The present stage of the debate seems to have excluded the first option. I am assuming the viability of the third case, and following Dawkins (1976) calling this the “selfish gene interpretation”.
Some of the basic categories, which are fundamental to sociobiology as a research programme, for explaining the behaviour of the extended phenotypic effects of the selfish gene are as follows: aggression, sex, parenthood, kin selection, parental manipulation, and reciprocal altruism.
There is a vast and quickly growing literature on these categories, and I have space in this paper to present only a small fraction of the available results. The interested reader is referred to Michael Ruse’s excellent and clearly written, Sociobiology: Sense of Nonsense? (Ruse, 1985) for an extended account of human sociobiology; and to E.O Wilson’s On Human Nature (Wilson, 1975). The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, (Dawkins, 1976) has rapidly become a classic textbook on the subject.

I now proceed to conjecture that the models of human sociobiological behaviour which are used as explanatory structures within the categories mentioned above can be extended contemporary human social behaviour, and our concept of human nature. What are these models, and what can they tell us about expected behaviour patterns? In presenting the models I shall closely follow the exposition given in Dwkins (1976) and Ruse (1985).


A great deal of aggression in both humans and animals is adaptive. It is directed toward acquisition of limited or scarce resources. As Wilson says “non-sexual aggression…within a speciesserves primarily as form of competition for environmental resources including especially food and shelter” (Wilson, 1975: 243).

Aggression in both humans is caused by a number of factors, most particularly by the actions of strangers. One doesn’t have to take a position on whether aggression is innate or learned. The function is important. When individuals have their food supply or living space or reproductive strategy threatened, they respond aggressively. And, with some qualification, it is true that human and animal responses to strangers are similar. We distinguishes between us and them: family, friends, colleagues and others; people who look and behave like us and anyone who dresses, speaks, and behaves differently. According to a leading sociobiologist, R.D Alexander, the capacity to live socially together is the product of aggression. Tow of the bad effects of social living are diseases and parasites. They conspire to reduce the size of a band/group. So there has to be a good reason for large groups/bands. Alexander has suggested that aggression, sociability and intelligence are adaptations to an environment with predators competing for relatively scarce resources.

I suggest that, at an early stage, predators became chiefly responsible for forcing men to live in groups, and that those predators were not other species, but larger stronger groups of men.

The alternative explanation that prehistoric man needed to band together to secure larger or more powerful prey is not as convincing as Alexander’s. Smaller groups could have been just as effective.


Most sociologists think that theories of sexual behaviour first conjectured for animals can be applied to humans. In both animal and human sociobiology mating and sexual behaviour is construed as a strategy where each sexually active adult tries to maximize his/her own replicational success.
Even though it is true that human life is determined (and in many cases “overdetermined”) by culture, human sexual behaviour despite ultural determinants is not falsifier of the general sociobiological predictions. In the case of the female she must contend with a 9 month pregnancy and approximately 12 years of child rearing. After impregnation she is literally left holding the baby. So her best strategy is, either, according to Dawkins (1976), to offer “domestic bliss” or to choose “he-men”. The “domestic bliss” strategy is to attempt to get the male to provide some parental care. The female can offer the male sexual favours before impregnation, with the promise of more in return for “domestic bliss”. Females who are very attractive can offer less, and unattractive females probably have to raise the threshold of sexual giving. Wilson points out that the human female is sexually receptive at times other than the period of ovulation. This is connected to the fact that she needs help for 12 years or more.
The “he-man” strategy is to marry “up-market”, i.e, up the socio-economic scale. To do so is to ally yourself with economic success, and to choose genes from the sort of mate whose genes maximize replicational success of the progeny. There is some kind of symmetry in the “he-man” strategy. The most desirable females get to choose the most successful males to choose the pool of the most attractive and desirable females.
In the case of the male he can impregnate with little effort and his inventory of sperm is large. Whereas the average female can bring approximately 15 eggs out of about 400 produced during her lifetime to maturity, the male inventory of sperm over a lifetime is in excess of 1.560,000,000,00 and of those about 60% are usable for impregnation. The New Scientist (1988) reported on research in Manchester which found that about 40% of the average ejaculate is used to form a barrier over the entrance of the womb (cervix) to stop other sperm entering while the 60% of usable sperm attempt fertilization.

So males ought to try and invest as little time and effort as they can get away with. Females have to try to prevent them from doing so by the “domestic bliss” or “he-man” strategy. There should be a selective adaptive disposition towards adultery, where males can have reproductive success, but where the females have other partners who will help raise the offspring. And we should also expect to find a selective adaptive disposition towards not being a cuckold. According to Trivers archaelogical data do not falsify this prediction. Trivers shows that where the cause was known, the overwhelming cause of fatal fights among Bushmen was adultery. The same is true of certain Eskimo tribes, and Australian aborigines.
In the female there is selective adaptive behaviour which shuns adultery. It runs counter to either the “domestic bliss” or “he-man” strategy to allow impregnation by random males not prepared to invest time and money in offspring.
So the male is thwarted by the already mated females pursuing their best strategies. It is therefore easier for the male to get sexual favors from his mate, who will expect help with the offspring in return for sexual favours. The male also has an interest in a period of time to be spent with the female of his choice, before impregnation. If all these push-pull forces commit him to some care of the offspring then it is in his interest to be relatively sure that it is his own gene that he is committed to caring for. Here the male strategy complements the female strategy “coyness”, where she is ready to offer attractions before impregnation, but not too eager to start breeding before she has established that the male has the potential for some child care and faithfulness to her (Ruse, 1985): 57-61)

Kin selection

Sociobiologists believe that their theory of kin selection is well corroborated. They argue that kin selection has been a fundamental factor in producing human nature. It was Radcliffe-Brown who pointed out that many pre-literate societies evinced a remarkable understanding of kin. In these societies it was standard to be able to work out relationships in great detail.

Man is aware, to an extraordinary degree, of differences in his relationship to the other men with whom he lives (Alexander, 1971: 117)

Pre-literate societies allow their social behaviour to be governed by kinship relationships. In general, you would expect more from closer relatives than from distant ones, or non-relatives. If kin selection was a fundamental causal factor in the development of the human genotype then this is what you should expect. There is evidence to suggest that kin selection was historically important. Alexander has argued than kin selection was involved in violent competition. His theory requires that:

“… waged in some relationship to degrees of genetic difference and raises the question of the selective value and background of assisting one’s close relatives at the expense of non-relatives or distant relatives. In any species engaging the more violent kinds of intraspecific competition, ability to recognize and spare close relatives would be highly favoured “(Alexander, 1971:117).

He goes on to say:

In some modern hunting-gathering people still living in small groups, and in which inter-tribal aggression is prevent, the extent and nature of such knowledge (of kin) has amazed anthropologists more than any other of their attributes (loc.cit.).

It might be objected that kinship systems on occasion do not work in the way that predicted by sociobiology. According to the positive heuristic of the sociobiological SRP the position is that any conflict between their predictions and observational basic statements will be apparent and not actual. An example of an anomaly which has been turned into a successful prediction is the mother’s brother phenomenon.
The data for some societies shows that responsibility for male parental care is delegated to the mother’s brother rather than the father. This is a counter-example since sociobiology predicts that the dispenser of male parental benefits should be the biological father. Why should males support 25% relatives rather than 50% relatives? Alexander (1977a) suggests that in such societies there is doubt about who the biological father. In such cases mother’s brother/s care is just what kin selection would predict. A dubious 50% relation is deleted in favour of an assumed 25% relationship. Alexander says:

To summarize; whenever general living conditions or other society-wide circumstances lead to a general lowering of confidence of paternity, a man’s sister’s offspring, alone among all possible nephews and nieces, can become his closest relatives in the next generation. In consequence, so long as adult brothers and sisters tend to remain in sufficient social proximity that men are capable of assisting their sister’s offspring, a general society-wide lowering of confidence of paternity is predicted on grounds of kin selection to lead to a society-wide prominence, or institutionalisation, of mother’s brother as an appropriate male dispenser of parental benefits. This appears to be exactly what happens. The evidence indicates that lowered confidence of paternity, fragility or marriage bonds matrilineality, and shifts toward a prominence of mother’s brother go together, in a pattern almost dramatically consistent with a Darwinian model of human sociality (Alexander, 1977A: 17).

Another prima facie counter example involves cousins. Some societies distinguish between “parallel-cousins”. The former are progency of siblings of the same sex, and latter, offspring of siblings of the opposite sex. And often parallel-cousins are regarded as being closer relatives than cross-cousins. However, according to sociobiology theory the preference ought to be the same since the degree of relatedness between parallel-cousins and cross-cousins is one-eight. But Alexander claims that there is a significant correlation between societies which make these cousin distinctions, and societies where parallel-cousins tend to be closer biological relatives than cross-cousins. He claims that the kin closeness is due to the data context of polygynous societies where males have more than one wife, often sisters. In these instances parallel-cousins are frequently half-siblings. Sociobiological theory is again vindicated since:

“….a symmetrical treatment of cousins is very strongly concentrated in precisely the kinds of polygynous societies in which it is predicted to occur from an inclusive fitness model, and least frequent in the kind of monogamous society where that is expected” (Alexander, 1977a: 18).

Sociobiology has a great deal more to say about kinship, but I do not have room for it here.


The dominant theme here is that of “reproductive self-interest.” And the question is: What strategy will best maximize my genes in future generations? There are different strategies depending on the number of children involved.
The one child case: Conflict will arise between the parent’s interests and the child’s interests. At some stage it is better to invest less in an only child and more in a second child. But from the point of view of an only child it is best to demand as much as it can get. The parent and child are in some senses genetic rivals.
Altruistic behaviour by an offspring might benefit a parent more than the offspring. When an individual helps a first cousin it is helping an individual related by 12.5% to itself. However, that individual is related by 25% to the parent. In some cases it is in the parent’s interest to push the offspring to altruism, but not in offspring’s interest to comply.

A fundamental conflict is expected during socialization in the two or more children case over the egoistic/selfish and altruistic/non-selfish impulses of the offspring. Parents are expected to socialize their offspring to act more altruistically than they would otherwise act, that it to act in such a way as to benefit the other offspring; and the offspring should resist because they are related genetically by only 50% to other full siblings, but are related by 100% to themselves. The story of Cinderella is a mythical case in point of this kind of phenomenon. As Michael Ruse shows, the teaching of honesty, decency, generosity, is not a question of introducing children to culture, or to civilization, but pushing the children to support the parent’s biological or replicational interests.
The conflict is not between the culture of the parent versus the biology of child. It is instead a conflict based on the sociobiology of the parent versus the sociobiology of the child (Ruse, 1985: 61-63)

A hunter-gatherer model for the prehistoric Mediterranean

Any success which sociobiology has when applied to archaeology is. From the point of view of theory, dependant on generating predictions of expected behaviour in the present which can be retrodicted into the past. Arthur S. Keene in his “Economic optimization models and the study of hunter-gatherer subsistence settlement systems makes certain assumptions:
Assumption 1: Economic activities among Hunter-Gatherer are organized.
(Sociobiological activities are organized).
Assumption 2: The primary goal among Hunter-Gatherer is to provide the basic nutritive and other raw materials necessary for the survival of the population. (The interests of survival, adaptation, and replication are preeminent).
Assumption 3: When faced with a choice between two resources of equal utility, the one of lower cost will be chosen. Economic behaviour is both satisfying and optimizing. (Sociobiological behaviour is satisfying and optimizing.) The remarks in parenthesis are reinterpretation of Keene’s assumptions on the sociobiological model).
Keene uses these assumptions and his deductivist model to account for behaviour in a Nestlik social economy both pre-rifle and post-rifle. The model accounts for usage of caribou, musk-ox, ringed seal, bearded seal, polar bear fish, birds etc. Of course it is a simplified model. But is potentially falsifiable. It cannot be overstressed from the point of theory how important in this context this latter fat is.
Sociobiologically we would make different assumptions to arrive at an efficient optimization model of gene-replication. These would involve the question of the optimum number of babies given survival conditions. Religion and social organization would have to be arranged to optimize and maximize this central concern of sociobiology.
The general problem about making cultural predictions of retrodictions, which is referred to as the problem of the hermeneutic circle. The problem can be stated as follows: a theorist can only understand a whole culture by understanding the “discourse” or “meanings” in the social interactions. And to understand the whole of a culture you need to understand some part of it. Understanding some part of it requires a knowledge of the terms and usage of that part of the language which capture the meanings of the part of the culture you wish to understand. But in the prehistoric Meditarranean it is clearly impossible to understand the language of e.g the prehistoric Maltese. And since you cannot break into the hermeneutic circle you cannot understand the culture.
Furthermore, the theorists who appeal to the problem in a skeptical fashion are usually theorists who assume that there is just one general concept of “human nature”, but that in any particular culture what is meant by human nature is to be understood by the particular mix of psychology, mythology, religion, politics and family life which is current at some date in that culture. So again, we would not understand what prehistoric Maltese meant by human nature because of our ignorance of the language which was used at the time.
If the only way into a culture, or if the only understanding of human nature were an internal linguistic one then no important cultural projections could be made back into the prehistory of the Meditarranean. And we would be in the dark about human nature.
It should be clear that the model of sociobiology adjoined to Keene’s model of hunter-gatherer behaviour can circumvent the hermeneutic circle problem. Sociobiology gives us an account of human nature which bypasses most of the assumptions made by the statement of the hermeneutic circle problem.

Concluding unscientific postscript

Archaeology appears to be on the road to becoming a science subject. To become a science it will have to acquire a methodology which is genuinely scientific. I submit that the methodologies of Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos will be both useful and necessary if the subject of archaeology is to become a science. The theories and hypotheses of archaeology must be open to refutation and falsification an intellectual honesty in the sciences require. One of the virtues of the Popper approach is that it can also cope with many parts of archaeology which for the moment will remain outside the domain of science. An overall archaeological perspective will have many sub-components: linguistic, archaeological, ethnographic, art-historical, religious, philosophical, and perian method obviously applies; techniques derived from physics, chemistry, engineering, economics, demography, environmental ecology, and mathematics. It seems best to regard the most accessible parts of the non-scientific sub-components as sets of hypotheses and theories which are conjectured for potential refutation. Alternative methodologies for Archaeology should be seen in the perspective of Popper – Lakatos evolutionary epistemology. The fittest methodologies will survive, because they adapt. The others will not leave copies of themselves in remote generations.


*The selfish gene in the prehistoric Mediterranean: method in archaeology” paper read to the Second International Conference on the Archaeology of the Prehistoric Mediterranean, at the University of Malta, Valletta, Malta, December 19-22, 1988. This paper is forthcoming in the proceedings of the conference which are to be published later this year. For a further application of sociobiology to archaeology of the prehistoric Mediterranean see also, Van Straaten, Zak, Philosophical paradigms of fertility cult behaviour, pp 31-41, in Archaeology and fertility cult in the ancient Meditarranean, (ed.) A. Bonnano, Gruner, Amsterdam 1986.
1. There are numerous footnotes in the Lakatos text which I have, for lack of space, not produced here. The interested reader may wish to pursue them. In one of the footnotes he points out that; “The actual hard core of a programme does not actually emerge fully armed like Athene from the head of Zeus. It develops slowly, by a long, preliminary process of trial and error. In this paper this process is not discussed.” And in other footnotes he refers to text where he refines the concepts of “counter-example” an”anomally”.
2. The equivalent conjecture for theoretical physics is given in: Hawking, S. Is the end in sight for theoretical physics? Cambridge University Press, 1980 p.1. 6. Arthur S. Keene “Economic optimization models and the study of hunter-gatherer subsistence settlement systems, pp. 369-404 of C. Renfrew and K.L Cooke (eds). Transformations: Mathematical approaches to culture change, N.Y Academic Press, 1979.
7. C Renfrew “Transformation” p. 3ff. and in the Introduction of (C. Renfrew and K.L Cooke: 1979).
8. Trivers R.L Foreword of Dawkins, 1976: v.
9. Alexander, R. D. “Natural Selection and the analysis of human sociality” in C.C. Goulden (ed) Changing scenes in natural science, Philadelphia Academy of Natural Science, Philadelphia, 1977.
10. Wilson, E.O 1975: 550
11. Alexander, R.D P.116 “The search for an evolutionary philosophy”. Proc. Of the Royal Society, Victoria, Australia 84; 1971 pp 99-120).
12. Trivers R.L. ‘parental investment and sexual selection,” in B. Campbell (ed.) Sexual Selection and the Descent of Man 1871-1971, p. 149 Chicago, Aldine 1972.
13. Three recent critics of this model are Lewis R. Binford “Meaning inference and the material record” pp. 160-163: Robert Whallon Comments on “explanation” pp. 155-158): and Colin Renfrew, “Socio-economic change in ranked societies” (pp. 1-8) in (Renfrew and Shennan, 1982). For a discussion of similar issues in methodology see: Plog, Fred. ‘Laws, systems of law, and the explanation of observed variation”: and Binford, Lewis R. ‘Interassemblage variability-the Mousterian and the “functional” argument, in Renfrew, Colin (ed) The explanation of culture change, models in prehistory, G. Duckworth, London 1973.
14. For a deft analysis of the practical problems connecting science based archaeology to so-called classical archaeology see Pollard, Mark. Archaeology in Ruins? Forthcoming in New Scientis t, January 21, 1989.
15. Lowenstein and Zihlman 1988: 56-59.
17. Lowenstein and Zihlman 1988: 57


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