Genes, Memes and Human History: Darwinian Archaeology and Cultural Evolution. Stephen Shennan. Thames and Hudson.

Genes, Memes and Human History: Darwinian Archaeology and Cultural Evolution Book Cover Genes, Memes and Human History: Darwinian Archaeology and Cultural Evolution
Stephen Shennan
Thames and Hudson
December 31, 2002

Today, many scholars show more interest in unscientific attempts to empathize with ancient peoples than in obtaining valid knowledge about the past. Archaeologists have become failed ethnographers, forever regretting the demise of the people they would like to talk to. Genes, Memes and Human History offers an ambitious blueprint for a new approach to archaeology, based on the application of the latest neo-Darwinian evolutionary ideas.

What is the history of human populations? How are cultural traditions maintained or changed over time? Why did people destroy their environments in the past and were they ever conservationists? What led to the emergence of marked social inequalities? These are some of the important questions that evolutionary archaeology can answer.

Steven Shennan opens with the study of animal behavior, as acted upon by natural selection, and goes on to demonstrate that the same ideas can be applied to human societies, not just through the genes but through what Richard Dawkins has called “memes,” units of cultural information that are passed on in our second inheritance system, culture. Shennan then looks in detail at cultural traditions, population history, methods of subsistence, male-female relations, social evolution, and competition in warfare. Fascinating insights emerge. For example, the unique time-depth of archaeology can be used to show that human populations have expanded and then crashed far more frequently in the past than has hitherto been realized. Similarly, during the Bronze Age increasing control of women by men as indicated by chained leg rings and other evidence runs parallel with growing hierarchical and social divisions in society.

Ranging from life history theory to game theory, and from the origins of farming to the collapse of societies, Genes, Memes and Human History takes us on a thrilling intellectual journey.

Steven Shennan is professor of Theoretical Archaeology and Director of the AHRB Centre for the Evolutionary Analysis of Cultural Behaviour at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. He is the author of several books, in particular Quantifying Archaeology, and has edited a number of volumes, including Archaeological Approaches to Cultural Identity and The Archaeology of Human Ancestry (with the James Steele).