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By Michael J. O’Brien, R. Lee Lyman (auth.)

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Extra info for Applying Evolutionary Archaeology: A Systematic Approach

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Biologists might wrangle over what a species is, but they normally do not worry about whether what they are doing falls under the essentialist or the materialist banner. The fact that they do not worry about it is not a sign that they do not care which kind of science they are doing, nor is it a sign that they do not understand the difference between the two. Rather, modern biologists, like many of their forebears, accept the fact that Darwin’s theory slammed the door on essentialism, and they get on with the business of understanding how life evolves.

Today, many archaeologists still cling tenaciously to the essentialist model of how science works, some because they firmly believe that it is the proper model, others because of a perception that nothing better exists. Something better does exist, but it comes at considerable intellectual price. Saying that archaeology should be a materialist science is easy; actually carrying out the switch from essentialist to materialist thinking is not. There is no better means of highlighting the difficulties encountered when one adopts a materialist perspective than by focusing on a question that has long been at the center of debate in evolutionary biology: What is a species?

By using ethnographic or ethnohistorical analogs as keys to the past. The end result of this analogical approach is an interpretation of the archaeological record rather than an explanation of it (Dunnell 1994; O’Brien 1996b)—an approach that would work if human behavior were invariant, which it clearly is not. Behavior varies over time and space, and it does so in nonpredictable ways—behavior is historical. Any approach that denies the explanatory significance of the historical component is inappropriate for studying Darwinian Theory and Archaeology 17 the material record.

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