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The Price of Metaphor

Joseph Fracchia and R. C. Lewontin
History and Theory
Vol. 44, No. 1 (Feb., 2005), pp. 14-29
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3590779
Page Count: 16
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The Price of Metaphor
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Abstract

In his critical response to our skeptical inquiry, "Does Culture Evolve?" (History and Theory, Theme Issue 38 [December 1999], 52-78), W. G. Runciman affirms that "Culture Does Evolve." However, we find nothing in his essay that convinces us to alter our initial position. And we must confess that in composing an answer to Runciman, our first temptation was simply to urge those interested to read our original article-both as a basis for evaluating Runciman's attempted refutation of it and as a framework for reading this essay, which addresses in greater detail issues we have already raised. Runciman views the "selectionist paradigm" as a "scientific" "puzzle-solving device" now validated by an "expanding literature" that has successfully modeled social and cultural change as "evolutionary." All paradigms, however, including scientific ones, give rise to self-validating "normal science." The real issue, accordingly, is not whether explanations can be successfully manufactured on the basis of paradigmatic assumptions, but whether the paradigmatic assumptions are appropriate to the object of analysis. The selectionist paradigm requires the reduction of society and culture to inheritance systems that consist of randomly varying, individual units, some of which are selected, and some not; and with society and culture thus reduced to inheritance systems, history can be reduced to "evolution." But these reductions, which are required by the selectionist paradigm, exclude much that is essential to a satisfactory historical explanation-particularly the systemic properties of society and culture and the combination of systemic logic and contingency. Now as before, therefore, we conclude that while historical phenomena can always be modeled selectionistically, selectionist explanations do no work, nor do they contribute anything new except a misleading vocabulary that anesthetizes history.

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