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Thursday, June 05, 2008

Changes of last 10 000 years too great to be explained by Darwinian mechanism?

Here's a 2005 article by Eric Hobsbawm defending history, "It is fashionable to say 'my truth is as valid as yours'. But it's not true".

Hobsbawm is defending Marxism, and it is hard to imagine a political system more exploded than Marxism (though its professors are busy chipping away at civil liberties wherever they can).

But curiously, he says,
DNA analysis has established a firmer chronology of the spread of the species from its original African origin throughout the world, before the appearance of written sources. This has both established the astonishing brevity of human history and eliminated the reductionist solution of neo-Darwinian socio-biology.

The changes in human life in past 10,000 years, let alone the past 10 generations, are too great to be explained by a wholly Darwinian mechanism of evolution via genes. They amount to the accelerating inheritance of acquired characteristics by cultural and not genetic mechanisms.

What he is saying is that trying to figure out what Alley Oop might have done or why he might have done it 20,000 years ago is not a useful approach to understanding life today. That is probably true, even if a Marxist says it. But then, of course, he goes on to say,
In short, the DNA revolution calls for a specific, historical, method of studying the evolution of the human species. It also provides us with a rational framework for a world history. History is the continuance of the biological evolution of homo sapiens by other means.

which leads me to wonder, naturally enough, what "other means" he has in mind. He also insists,
Secondly, the new evolutionary biology eliminates the distinction between history and the natural sciences and bypasses the bogus debates on whether history is or is not a science. (Eric Hobsbawm is author of The Age of Extremes: The Short 20th Century 1914-1991. This is an edited extract from a speech to the British Academy Colloquium on Marxist historiography, first published in Le Monde diplomatique )

Why is a debate on whether human history is a science bogus? Actually, that is an important question, and a lot is at stake. In any event, if human history is not a science, then evolutionary biology is not a science either. I happen to think that neither is a science for that exact reason. But that doesn't mean that neither is a source of useful information. If I want to know what happened during World War II, I consult a historian, and expect factual answers. And the historian's information is not rendered more accurate by describing it as a science.

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