Is archaeology a science? 3. Problem solving

John Edward Terrell

This is part 3 of a 3 part commentary


There is nothing inherently bad or wrong about telling stories. In truth, our brains are always telling ourselves stories about all sorts of things. For example, figuring out what you need to buy at the supermarket. Or when it would be OK to cross the street. Or why your boss should give you a promotion at work. In short, stories are not always fictional accounts. They can also be factual.

While the thought may sound strange at first, even scientists tell stories to themselves and others (Terrell 1990). In truth, storytelling can be a creative way for them to develop new ideas and plausible explanations, say, about  badly broken bones dug up at an archaeological site in Kenya—although instead of calling them stories, scientists would probably label them as hypotheses (see: fig. 2).

Figure 2. Science differs from other kinds of storytelling is a critical way. Changing (a) the evidence available, (b) the assumptions made about the world and how things work when interpreting that evidence, or (c) the interpretations made (i.e., the working hypotheses) can also change the other two dimensions of the scientific endeavor.
Darwin’s famous letter

In a famous letter to a colleague in 1861, Charles Darwin reflects on what it means to do science:

About 30 years ago there was much talk that Geologists ought only to observe & not theorise; & I well remember some one saying, that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit & count the pebbles & describe their colours. How odd it is that every one should not see that all observation must be for or against some view, if it is to be of any service.

People writing about how science is done love to quote these words because, as Michael Shermer, a columnist at Scientific American, remarked a number of years ago: “If scientific observations are to be of any use, they must be tested against a theory, hypothesis or model. The facts never just speak for themselves. They must be interpreted through the colored lenses of ideas: percepts need concepts.”

Boiled down to a few words, therefore, what both scientists and lawyers call evidence isn’t evidence until it can be pinned to convincing stories about it. Hence, viewed from Darwin’s perspective, Lahr and her colleagues had been tasked with a research assignment that was a lot like counting pebbles and describing their colors. This kind of Plug & Play task has long been commonplace in archaeology because accidental discoveries and nowadays cultural resource salvage work are routine in this scholarly arena. Being routine, however, does not make a research assignment science. As Darwin said, all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.

The major reason Plug & Play archaeology isn’t science is that stories (hypotheses) about things (evidence) must be for or against stories that are bigger—scientists call them concepts, theories, models, and the like— than the kinds of particular stories that get called hypotheses.[*] Or if you are a trial lawyer, criminal indictments.

Stories, big and small

If hypotheses are stories about particular situations and things, then what makes concepts, models, theories, and so forth bigger stories? Philosophers love to argue about the answer, but I am not a philosopher. I will give you the answer that makes sense to me. Instead of calling them concepts, theories, models, and so forth, just call them assumptions.

The 25 grand challenges to archaeology  noted earlier are grounded on so many assumptions about how the world works and what needs to be better known to do archaeology right in the future that one is left almost speechless. In a more constrained fashion, the stories Lahr and her colleagues tell us about bones from Kenya similarly make allusions to grand assumptions about what life was like during the early Holocene, about the inherent violence or pacifism of human nature, and so forth. In both cases, it seems clear that the persuasive goal in part is to justify doing archaeology by relating particular issues to broad, general assumptions (sometimes called themes) that are compelling and sometimes seemingly quite magnificent in their scope and assumed relevance to the human condition.

“What’s the problem?”

Evidence, hypotheses, assumptions . . .  how do these components of the scientific endeavor fit together (Fig. 2)? Again, philosophers of science love to debate such a question, but here is a hands-on way to resolve it. Ask the “So what?” question that kicked off this commentary in a different way, one that is not just being more polite. It is also a more meaningful way to get to the heart of the issue. Ask instead “What’s the problem here?”

Critics of archaeology, anthropology, and the social sciences generally are likely to fault these fields of scholarly expertise in one or both of two ways. One is methodological, and might be expressed using the old cliché “you can’t get there from here.” In a word, there is doubt about whether the social sciences are rigorous enough in their objectivity, verifiability, and generality to merit being called real science. The other is more elusive and judgmental. Is the problem being tackled by the research work in question really worth doing?

One way of trying to avoid being on the receiving end of this second kind of criticism is to make the purpose of what you are doing elusive. A common way of trying to accomplish this dubious end is to make grand allusions in the opening paragraphs of a research report to work previously published on the same or a comparable theme (concept, hypothesis, model, theory, etc.) and then move swiftly on to discuss methods & materials, analysis, and the like.

This popular avoidance tactic is unlikely to work, however, when the critic is someone like Lamar Smith.

The intersection of independent lies

In 1966 the late biologist Richard Levins published a short paper on the role of model building in population biology that is now a classic in the philosophy and practice of science. One of his observations back then has become famous: “truth is the intersection of independent lies.’’ As he explains, the human mind can only cope with a few variables at one time, and almost any plausible proposed relation among aspects of nature is likely to be true in the sense that it occurs (although rarely and slightly). “Yet all models leave out a lot and are in that sense false, incomplete, inadequate. The validation of a model is not that it is ‘true’ but that it generates good testable hypotheses relevant to important problems” (Levins 1966).

Forty years after this article was published, Levins felt called upon to explain himself anew. Here, in part, is what he wrote:

In the dispute about climate change, a rising temperature in several cities is suggestive. Adding more cities to the list gives a diminishing return. But independent lines of evidence—ocean temperatures, cores from glaciers, decline of coral reefs, spread of species into places that had been too cold for them, accumulation of greenhouse gasses—each may have some separate idiosyncratic explanation or source of error but jointly converge on an unavoidable conclusion. We have to seek lines of evidence as independent as we can in order to support a large scale conclusion. (Levins 2006)

In other words, to do great science, you have to do different things based on different ways of looking at the problem being studied.

As I have said before, there is no disputing taste, and what one person judges to be a problem in need of solving may be seen as less worthy, even trivial, by someone else. The least I can do is offer two examples with the understanding you may not see them as grand, and therefore, may not be impressed that archaeologists are attempting to tackle the problem being addressed.

Two archaeological challenges to conventional wisdom

While perhaps not a universal truth, many people will tell you in one way or another that human beings come in different and enduring kinds that can be labeled variously as communities, races, ethnic groups, populations, societies, or cultures (Terrell 2012). As I have noted elsewhere at SCIENCE DIALOGUES,  such thinking is the bedrock of racism and social conflicts around the world.

My archaeological colleague John P. Hart at the New York State Museum and I have separately looked at this undeniable problem using different archaeological and ethnographic material culture datasets from entirely different regions of the globe—in Hart’s studies, northeastern North America (e.g., Hart et al. 2016), and in my work, the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea (e.g., Terrell 2010). Our goals, however, have been similar. We want to see if material culture studies support the notion—the popular conviction—that people come in discrete social and biological “kinds,” and if they do, how long-lived such fundamental building blocks of humanity may be.

As Hart and his colleagues recently reported, archaeological sequences based on pottery designs have often been used by scholars to identify ethnic ties among prehistoric settlements in eastern North America, and to hypothesize population movements over the landscape through time. Recent work by his research team using ceramic motifs and social network analysis challenges these conventional interpretations of the archaeological record and the principles underlying them. Network analysis of local and regional pottery design sequences, for example, suggests that rather than being ethnic markers, ceramic designs were used to signal inclusion in social and political networks crosscutting supposed ethnic and political boundaries in this part of North America. Moreover:

With a very robust archaeological record that has produced evidence for major shifts in settlement patterns, regional coalescences of village populations, changes in regional strife, and ultimately the development of confederacies, southern Ontario is an excellent area to investigate how signaling networks adapt as a result of socio-political and settlement system changes.

Similarly, work by myself and others on New Guinea’s northern Sepik coast since 1990 suggests that isolation by distance had led to some geographic patterning in cultural variation among communities on this coast prior to World War I. However, the patterning of similarities and differences in their material culture inventories offers little empirical support for the conventional assumption accepted by anthropologists, government officials, missionaries, and others that there is “a strong relation between language and material culture”  (Moore and Romney 1994) among villages communities in this part of the world. When seen in the broader perspectives of geography, human ecology, and time, as the old saying goes, appearances can be deceiving.


Science can be viewed as a continuous conversation among  evidence, hypotheses, and assumptions.  Some scientific conversations however ponderously expressed are trivial, merely chit-chat, so to speak. Other conversations are far more meaningful. If archaeologists want to be seen as substantial scholars and productive scientists, they have the same obligations all other scientists have. They must be clear and forthright about the problems they are addressing, and why those problems deserve the respect—and yes, the financial support—of others.

Grand challenges are inspirational, but they must be brought down to earth if what archaeologists dig up or study in museums is to add up to something worthwhile.

* As Richard Levins (2009: 744) has written, something is basically nonsense if it does not help us answer any questions other than about itself.

This is part 3 of a 3 part commentary


I thank John Hart for his help with this commentary.


Binford, Lewis R. 1962. Archaeology as anthropology. American Antiquity 28: 217-225.

Hart, John P., Termeh Shafie, Jennifer Birch, Susan Dermarkar, and Ronald F. Williamson. 2016. Nation building and social signaling in southern Ontario: AD 1350–1650. PloS One 11, no. 5: e0156178.

Jones, Sharyn. 2016. Anthropological archaeology in 2015: Entanglements, reflection, reevaluation, and archaeology beyond disciplinary boundaries. American Anthropologist 118: 301-316.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Fredrick Limp et al. 2014a. Grand challenges for archaeology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111: 879-880.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Fredrick Limp, Herbert D. G. Maschner, William K. Michener, Timothy R. Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Jeremy A. Sabloff, Tony J. Wilkinson, Henry T. Wright, and Melinda A. Zeder. 2014b. Grand challenges for archaeology. American Antiquity 79: 5-24.

Lahr, M. Mirazón, F. Rivera, R. K. Power, A. Mounier, B. Copsey, F. Crivellaro, J. E. Edung et al. 2016. Inter-group violence among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of West Turkana, Kenya. Nature 529: 394-398.

Levins, Richard. 1966. The strategy of model building in population biology. American Scientist 54:421–431.

Levins, Richard. 1993. A response to Orzack and Sober: formal analysis and the fluidity of science. Quarterly Review of Biology 68:547–555.

Mizoguchi, Koji. 2015. A future of archaeology. Antiquity 89: 12-22.

Moore, Carmella C., and A. Kimball Romney. 1994. Material culture, geographic propinquity, and linguistic affiliation on the North coast of New Guinea: A reanalysis of Welsch, Terrell, and Nadolski (1992). American Anthropologist 96: 370-396.

Terrell, John. 1990. Storytelling and prehistory. Archaeological Method and Theory 2: 1-29.

Terrell, John Edward. 2010. Language and material culture on the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea: Using social network analysis to simulate, graph, identify, and analyze social and cultural boundaries between communities. Journal of Island & Coastal Archaeology 5: 3-32.

Terrell, John Edward. 2012. Polynesians and the seductive power of common sense. Cultural Geographies 20: 135–152.

Terrell, John, Hunt, Terry L., and Gosden, Chris. 1997. The dimensions of social life in the Pacific: Human diversity and the myth of the primitive isolate. Current Anthropology 37: 155-195.

Yu, Pei-Lin, Matthew Schmader, and James G. Enloe. 2015. “I’m the oldest new archaeologist in town”: The intellectual evolution of Lewis R. Binford. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 38: 2-7.

© 2017 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

In the works: Mating, variation, and speciation: An interdisciplinary conversation


While using network theory and visualization techniques to map the genetic structure of species in space and time is in its infancy, reconfiguring how science grapples with the inherent complexity of evolution as an ever unfolding process using network approaches has the promise of making it easier to explore how comparable or dissimilar species are in their strategies for survival and reproduction. Looking long and hard at what other species do to survive and reproduce may also make it easier for all of us to see just how toxic our own social strategies—and the assumptions supporting them—can be.

Thinking about thinking 1. Cognitive niche construction

John Edward Terrell 

Please note: this commentary, recovered on 9-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 22-Jan-2015.

“Can we state more distinctly still the manner in which the mental life seems to intervene between impressions made from without upon the body, and reactions of the body upon the outer world again?”

William James, The Principles of Psychology, 1890: 6

By Dmitry Rozhkov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
THE NEUROLOGIST MARCUS RAICHLE HAS remarked that studies of brain function have traditionally focused on task-evoked responses (Raichle 2010, 2015). As Daniel Kahneman has explained, such research has contributed the useful convention that there are two modes of thinking—two systems in the mind, System 1 (or Type 1) and System 2 (or Type 2). In Kahneman’s words (2011: 20–21):

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.

System 2 allocates attention in the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

Although such conventions are useful, Raichle argues that focusing on task-evoked responses “ignores the alternative possibility that brain functions are mainly intrinsic, involving information processing for interpreting, responding to and predicting environmental demands” (2010: 180).

As he says, it is not difficult to see why so much attention has been given to monitoring neural responses to carefully designed tasks that can be rigorously controlled: “evaluating the behavioral relevance of intrinsic activity (i.e. ongoing neural and metabolic activity which is not directly associated with subjects’ performance of a task) can be an elusive enterprise” (2010: 180).

While it could be argued that intrinsic brain tasks are part and parcel of System 2 thinking, I believe it may be more constructive to infer instead that there is a third mode of thinking—one that I have suggested may be called cognitive niche construction (Terrell 2015: 29–32, 168–172)—a way of thinking that may strongly engage the brain’s default-mode network.

Default-mode network

As Raichle (2015) and Robert Spunt and his colleagues (in press) have underscored, there is considerable metabolic cost to running the human brain when it is engaged in ongoing internal activity. As the latter researchers observe: “most of the brain’s energy budget is consumed not by activity evoked by specific cognitive tasks (e.g., mental arithmetic) but by spontaneous ongoing activity that is most notable when the brain is at rest.”

Given the metabolic cost of this ongoing internal activity in what has been dubbed the brain’s default mode network (DMN) when we are not task-engaged, an obvious question arises. How can we afford such stimulus-independent activity?

Raiche, Spunt et al., and others stress the likelihood that such inner-directed brain activity must be somehow adaptive in a realistic Darwinian sense, i.e., this inner activity must be “functionally consequential for the execution of stimulus-dependent mental state inferences” (Spunt et al. in press). This inference is plausible, but arguably not sufficient.

Niche construction

How we are able to remake the world around us when we put our minds and backs to the effort has been called niche construction (Odling-Smee et al. 2003). In the biological sciences, the word “niche” means “way of life,” and every species is said to have its particular place, or niche, in the economy of life. We are just one of a number of species that excel at making and remaking their way of life, their place in the grand scheme of things, their ecological niche. Similarly, I have argued that even when it may look as if we are day-dreaming, our minds actually may be hard at work engaged in cognitive niche construction—a way of using our brains that is possibly but not necessarily unique to our species (Terrell 2015).

Others recently have also written about cognitive niche construction, but what they evidently have in mind may be more clearly activity under the heading of System 2 thinking. Steven Pinker, for instance, has defined cognitive niche construction as “a mode of survival characterized by manipulating the environment through causal reasoning and social cooperation” (Pinker 2010: 8993).

Such a description glosses over how difficult it can be to apply what we envision in our mind’s eye to the realities of life. More to the point, such a definition does not confront the obvious weakness of cognitive niche construction at least as I have described it. What goes on between our ears when we are engaged in such mental activity does not have to be rational at all, at least not if by “rational” we mean thinking that makes practical sense in the real world outside our bodies.

A Paradox

By detaching from the realities of the moment and turning our mind to our inner thoughts, we are able to ponder what I like to call the “coulds & shoulds” of life. We can devote our mind to a kind of imaginary niche construction that does not even have to be “of this world” at all. We can see seemingly impossible things in our mind’s eye. We can engage in “what if” fantasies of remarkable, perhaps sexually charged, and even quite unrealistic complexity. We can invent imaginary worlds, invent new things, rewrite the story of our life to our heart’s content. All in the mind rather than in the real world.

In short, it seems likely we engage in cognitive niche construction not just for interpreting, responding to, and predicting environmental demands—to paraphrase what Raichle has previously said. As Spunt et al. observe: “Given that the DMN activity is metabolically costly, widely distributed in the cortex, and highly sensitive to both the presence and type of task demand, it should be no surprise that this network would have functional consequences in multiple domains” (Spunt et al., in press).

They themselves hypothesize that natural selection has favored the evolution of such a costly DMN in humans (and possibly also in chimpanzees and monkeys) so that we can more skillfully “see the world in terms of other minds” and live together socially—thereby gaining far more socially than would be likely by living separately.

While this is a plausible hypothesis, it is not the only one possible, as Gabriel Terrell and I will discuss in the forthcoming commentaries.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of eight commentaries at SCIENCE DIALOGUES on cognitive niche construction and its implications for psychology, philosophy, and the social sciences generally.

Next in this series: “Thinking about thinking 2. Through the looking-glass.”


Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking: Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Odling-Smee, F. John, Kevin N. Laland, and Marcus W. Feldman (2003). Niche Construction. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Pinker, Steven (2010). The cognitive niche: Coevolution of intelligence, sociality, and language. Proceedings of the National Academy USA 107, suppl. 2: 8993–8999.

Raichle, Marcus (2010). Two views of brain function. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 14: 180–190.

Raichle, Marcus (2015). The restless brain: How intrinsic activity organizes brain function. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 370: 20140172.

Spunt, Robert P., Meghan L. Meyer, and Matthew D. Lieberman (in press). The default mode of human brain function primes the intentional stance. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Terrell, John Edward (2015). A Talent for Friendship: Rediscovery of a Remarkable Trait. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

John Edward Terrell is Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at The Field Museum, Chicago, IL 60605. His latest book A Talent for Friendship: Rediscovery of a Remarkable Trait was published on December 1, 2014 by Oxford University Press. Email address: terrell[at]

© 2015 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Darwin’s use of “use” and “disuse” (Part 3)

Tom Clark

Please note: this commentary, recovered on 8-Jan-2017, was originally published by the author, Tom Clark, on Science Dialogues on 14-Mar-2015.

DARWIN IS CREDITED with dethroning humans from their special place between animals and angels. As Copernicus had done astronomically, so had Darwin biologically.

Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, Montana.

But Darwin achieved continuity of humans with animals as much by humanizing animals as shrinking humans. Resisting “the too-ready ascription of action to instinct” (Beer 2009: 242-255), Darwin imagined that horses “admired a wide prospect,” baboons had “capacious hearts,” earthworms made aesthetic choices, and snails showed “some degree of permanent attachment.” He did not imagine that biology could benefit, as physics had, by abandoning animism, animals being so . . . animistic.

It was the neo-Darwinian assumption that genes and environments were sufficient causes of animals’ behavior that turned natural selection from an animate doing into a physical happening. Attributing behavior to stable causes both inside (molecules) and outside (environment) turned animals into spectators, along for the ride. Their mental lives were made redundant in the British sense of unemployed. (Compare John and Gabriel Terrell’s thoughts about self-generated, stimulus-independent, internally directed thought in their March 3 post Thinking about Thinking 2. Through the Looking Glass.)

Misreading Darwin’s use of use and disuse as simply Lamarckian enabled the neo-Darwinian demotion of both humans and animals, as meaningful roles for ancestors and Gods were, like baby and bathwater, summarily thrown out.

The word purpose is singularly inapplicable to evolutionary change … If an organism is well adapted … this is not due to any purpose of its ancestors or of an outside agency, such as “Nature” or “God” … (Mayr 1961: 1504).

The purposeful activities of ancestors were not final or ultimate causes. They were some among many causes. Yet they were bundled with God’s finality and dismissed. In the last paragraph of Origin of Species (Darwin 1860: 490) between his “entangled bank” metaphor and the poetic “endless forms most beautiful,” Darwin summarized the key elements of his theory. Two have been pushed to the edges of mainstream evolutionary thought, the ultimate activities of “the Creator” and the contingent activities of ancestors—”use and disuse.”

In the margins of an article by Wallace, Darwin wrote “use of moral qualities” (Greene 1981: 102), telegraphing a view of our moral origins that insinuated these dignifying lines of descent:

  • Life is inherently autonomous.
  • Autonomy has evolved (Rosslenbroich 2014).
  • Nervous systems support flexible, adaptive responding.
  • Vertebrates specialized in intention, allowing metabolic support for increasingly larger brains (Wrangham 2009).
  • Birds and mammals made relationships vital heritable resources (Kemp 2006), expanding autonomy by cooperating in relationships of secure dependence and interdependence.
  • Humans extended these achievements with ethics (Boehm 2012) and friendship (Terrell 2015).

The twentieth century dethroning of humanity carried out in Darwin’s name clipped human dignity more than Darwin intended. The following affirmations return to the evolutionary image of ourselves buds of autonomy and responsibility that Darwin was careful to leave on our family tree.

affirmWhen we consider the evolutionary role of animal behavior—or as we also say, ancestors’ activities—scientific theory becomes human nature mythology, the telling of which must be recognized as a moral act (Bock 1994: 8). The moral significance of our origin story hits home with the realization that how we tell this story can leverage or constrain personal and collective action toward sustainability (Clark and Clark 2012), peace and justice (Chorover 1979; Oyama 2000; Novoa and Levine 2010).

The sense we make of ourselves and each other shapes who we become, including our capacities for learning, cooperation and self-regulation. “Knowing” that intelligence is fixed inhibits learning (Blackwell et al. 2007). “Knowing” that personality attributes are inherited impels hasty negative judgments of others, foreclosing opportunities for constructive encounter (Dweck 2000). “Knowing” that free will is illusory engenders cheating (Vohs and Schooler 2008) and aggression (Baumeister et al. 2009). “Knowing” that humans are selfish by nature favors policies that crowd out reciprocity and trust, inducing selfish behavior (Bowles 2008). And “knowing” that metabolism is natural while intention remains a supernatural specter (Mayr 1982) hedges responsibility for our extended metabolism—energy consumption—compromising our ability to regulate our own inventions.

Knowing there is a choice to make and it matters what we choose to do prepares us for wising up to shared responsibilities and cooperating in the good use of resources.

Biologists rightly argue that a clear understanding of our evolutionary past must inform our plans for a sustainable future (Vermeij 2010: 253). Explaining the evolution of sighted animals as a blind process blinkers our understanding of the past, so also our outlook. Envisioning and motivating sustainable living is better served by an origin story that includes the vision and intentions of ancestors.

Evolution is not only what happened to our ancestors while they were busy making other plans. Ancestors did not plan our evolution, but their plans, successful or not, with consequences intended or not, were part of the story.

In the way he used use and disuse, Darwin recognized our ancestors’ part in how we came to be and our part in resolving where we go from here. By affirming our autonomy and interdependence, Darwin’s origin story also demands of us continued use of our moral imaginations.


Baumeister, R. F., E. J. Masicampo, and C. N. DeWall (2009). Prosocial benefits of feeling free: disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 35: 260–268.

Beer, G. (2009). Darwin’s Plots (3rd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blackwell, L. S., K. H. Trzesniewski, and C. S. Dweck (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: a longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development 78: 246–263.

Bock, K. (1994). Human Nature Mythology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Boehm, C. (2012). Moral Origins. New York: Basic Books.

Bowles, S. (2008). Policies designed for self-interested citizens may undermine ‘the moral sentiments’: evidence from economic experiments. Science 320: 94–112.

Chorover, S. L. (1979). From Genesis to Genocide. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Clark, T. and E. Clark (2012). Participation in evolution and sustainability. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37: 563–577.

Darwin, C. R. (1860). On the Origin of Species (2d ed.). In J. van Wyhe, ed., 2002 The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online(

Dweck, C. S. (2000). Self Theories. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.

Greene, J. C. (1981). Science, Ideology, and World View. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kemp, T. S. (2006). The origin of mammalian endothermy: A paradigm for the evolution of complex biological structure. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 147: 473–488.

Mayr E. (1961). Cause and effect in biology. Science 134, 3489: 1501–1506.

Mayr E. (1982). The Growth of Biological Thought. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Novoa, A. and A. Levine (2010). From Man to Ape. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Oyama, S. (2000). Evolution’s Eye. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rosslenbroich, B. (2014). On the Origin of Autonomy. Cham: Springer.

Terrell, J. E. (2015). A Talent for Friendship. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vermeij G. J. (2010). The Evolutionary World. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Vohs, K. D. and J. W. Schooler (2008). The value of believing in free will: encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating. Psychological Science 19: 49–54.

Wrangham, R. (2009). Catching Fire. New York: Basic Books.

Tom Clark

As a psychologist, I have been interested in the role of behavior in evolution since my graduate training at the University of South Florida.



© 2015, Thomas L. Clark. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.



Darwin’s use of “use” and “disuse” (Part 2)

Tom Clark

Please note: this commentary, recovered on 8-Jan-2017, was originally published by the author, Tom Clark, on Science Dialogues on 7-Mar-2015.

AT CHICAGO’S CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION of Origin of Species, Julian Huxley (1960: 14) attributed to Darwin this “Lamarckian error”:

… he did believe in the inheritance of certain “acquired characters”—the effects of the conditions of life and of use and disuse.

Though Darwin had been careful to use the terms use and disusedescriptively in Origin of Species, Huxley took them as categorically Lamarckian, a separate alternative to natural selection that did not mingle with it.

Ernst Mayr also presented Darwin’s thinking about use and disuse as singularly Lamarckian, in support of which he quoted from Origin of Species (1859: 134):

There can be little doubt that use in our domestic animals strengthens and enlarges certain parts and disuse diminishes them; and that such modifications are inherited.

Underscoring his Lamarckian take on Darwin, Mayr adds (1982: 691):

Use and disuse, of course, is of importance only if one believes in an inheritance of acquired characters. This Darwin affirms repeatedly … Darwin is quite positive: “Modifications [caused by use and disuse] are inherited.”

Standing alone, the sentence Mayr quotes from Origin of Species looks like a Lamarckian match. With each step back to see it in context, the resemblance fades.

In the next sentence, Darwin (1859: 134) refers to “… the effects of long-continued use and disuse,” not one generation to the next.

In the same paragraph he places use and disuse in the situation of stable selection pressures, offering as examples the “… wingless condition of several birds, which … inhabited several oceanic islands tenanted by no beasts of prey.”

On the next page he explicitly rejects Lamarckian inheritance of mutilations.

On the following page he clarifies “long-continued,” referring to “thousands of successive generations.”

And throughout Origin of Species, Darwin uses “acquired” only in reference to species across many generations in the context of specific selection pressures, not in the Lamarckian sense of individuals transmitting from one generation to the next characteristics acquired during their lifetimes.

In context, the “domestic animals” Darwin drew to our attention were domesticated species, not his neighbor’s individual dogs. Darwin saw species acquiring traits that became heritable when long-continued activities shaped selection pressures.

Jean Gayon repeated Mayr’s Lamarckian misreading of the identical quote from Origin of Species a decade later (1998 [1992]: 150).

Gayon is in the good company of many besides Huxley and Mayr. Science educators bemoan their failure to convince students that natural selection “does not involve effort, trying, or wanting” or “organisms trying to adapt” (Understanding Evolution, 2014). When their students accurately intuit that evolution has produced animals capable of effortful adaptation and these efforts can affect selection processes, this is considered “a significant departure from a scientific understanding of how animals change via natural selection” (Kelemen 2012: 71).

Huxley, Mayr, Gayon and science teachers stumbled over that ordinary and useful habit of thought, categorizing, while overlooking Darwin’s earnest doubts about the categories of his cultural inheritance (Beer 2009: xxx). The terms use and disusegrew into their common biological usage during the Lamarckian half-century that preceded Origin of Species. While Darwin was growing up, they acquired conceptual, social and political significance beyond concrete reference to specific animal activities. For many, the terms were synonymous with Lamarckian inheritance. Lamarckism has been called use-disuse theory.

When Darwin used these terms, he knew the importance of their secondary meanings for his readers. He also recognized the scientific and public relations merits of using these familiar terms for animal behavior in a more descriptive, pared down way.

Scientifically, he advanced more modest claims of animal agency than Lamarckian use of the terms. Darwin’s descriptive use of use and disuse created conceptual space for a developmental view of evolution that was not Lamarckian.

At the same time, Darwin wanted his readers to follow his argument and not give up on it. Pushing against the constraints of traditional terms by using them in nontraditional ways, Darwin’s “generous semantic practice” (Beer 2009: 33) allowed the reader to adjust their own yoke to the terms use and disuse. From his calibrated ambiguity, readers could hear in the text such Lamarckian overtones as their sensibilities favored.

Darwin’s semantic generosity quickened after publication of Origin of Species, as he responded to waves of criticism with a strategic retreat toward inclusiveness. In Variations of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868), “anything which had been documented and accepted by a fellow scientist was included and assessed” (Vorzimmer 1963: 386). Darwin admitted for discussion a provisional hypothesis of Lamarckian inheritance that he had carefully avoided in Origin of Species. Darlington (1959: 41) complained that during this time “ambiguity … became the mode and standard of Darwin’s expression … which in the end soothed and satisfied the troubled world.”

As he changed successive editions of Origin of Species – to his wife Emma’s delight, adding “the Creator” in the second edition – Darwin remained committed to respectful, empirical inquiry that doubled as good public relations for his theory.

Bufflehead, Morro Bay State Park CA. by Kevin Cole 2008.

While molecules eclipsed the behavior and development of whole organisms in 20th century evolutionary thought, accounts from Darwin’s vantage point persisted. Nobel physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1944: 113) echoed Darwin most clearly.

You simply cannot possess clever hands without using them for obtaining your aims… You cannot have efficient wings without attempting to fly… Selection would be powerless in ‘producing’ a new organ if selection were not aided all along by the organism’s making appropriate use of it….

Joining Huxley at Chicago’s centennial celebration of Origin of Species, Conrad Waddington (1959: 1636) presented a model of evolution that included animal choices.

Thus the animal by its behavior contributes in a most important way to determining the nature and intensity of the selective pressures which will be exerted on it.

Half a century on, Renée Duckworth (2009: 514) marked Origin’s sesquicentennial by reminding us that:

Changes in either the environment or an organism’s behavior can alter selection pressure. This places behavioral change on an equal footing with environmental change as a potential cause of evolutionary change … but despite the intuitive appeal of this idea, it remains largely unacknowledged in current evolutionary theory.

And Mary Jane West-Eberhard (2008: 902) rendered Darwin in contemporary terminology.

Much of Darwin’s discussion of … “use and disuse” refers not to Lamarckian inheritance but to what we would now call “phenotypic plasticity” [flexibility of the whole organism].


Beer, G. (2009). Darwin’s Plots (3rd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Darlington, C. D. (1959). Darwin’s Place in History. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Darwin C. (1859) On the Origin of Species. In J. van Wyhe, ed. (2002), The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online (

Darwin, C. (1868). Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. In J. van Wyhe, ed. (2002), The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online (

Duckworth, R. (2009). The role of behavior in evolution: A search for mechanism. Evolutionary Ecology 23: 513–531.

Gayon, J. (1992) [1998]. Darwin’s Struggle for Survival. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Huxley, J. (1960). The emergence of Darwinism. In Evolution After Darwin, vol. I: The Evolution of Life, Sol Tax, ed., pages 1–21. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kelemen, D. (2012). Teleological minds: How natural intuitions about agency and purpose influence learning about evolution. In Evolution Challenges: Integrating Research and Practice in Teaching and Learning about Evolution, Rosengren, K.S., S. K. Brem, E. M. Evans, and G. M. Sinatra, eds., pages 66–92. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mayr E. (1982). The Growth of Biological Thought. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Schrödinger E. (1944). What is Life? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Understanding Evolution, University of California Museum of Paleontology, 01 January 2014

Vorzimmer, P. (1963). Charles Darwin and blending inheritance.  Isis 543: 371–390.

Waddington, C. 1959 Evolutionary systems – animal and human. Nature 183 4676:1634-1638.

West-Eberhard, M. J. (2008) Toward a modern revival of Darwin’s theory of evolutionary novelty. Philosophy of Science 75: 899-908.

Tom Clark

As a psychologist, I have been interested in the role of behavior in evolution since my graduate training at the University of South Florida.



© 2015, Thomas L. Clark. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.


Darwin’s use of “use” and “disuse” (Part 1)

Tom Clark

Please note: this commentary, recovered on 8-Jan-2017, was originally published by the author, Tom Clark, on Science Dialogues on 28-Feb-2015.

LIKE OTHER NATURALISTS OF HIS DAY, Darwin thought that when animals used their bodies in some ways and not others, doing this and not that, these activities affected the evolution of their kind. Insect wings and rodent eyes became larger or smaller, more useful or less, depending on their ancestors’ use or disuse of their wings and eyes.

Unlike his peers, Darwin imagined animal behavior influencing evolution without Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics. His most important discovery, natural selection, allowed him an alternative. Instead of direct transmission, from one generation to the next, of changes brought about by an animal’s activity within its lifetime, Darwin saw that such activity affects both how animals grow into adults—variation—and how natural selection plays out. And by way of long continued selection outcomes, characteristics expressed while growing up—specific variants—can become, somehow, more likely to develop in later generations. Hence, evolution.

Stretching to browse on trees did not cause giraffe ancestors to have offspring with longer necks. Rather, giraffe ancestors’ browsing habits swayed selection so giraffes that grew longer necks tended to have more offspring.

Giraffa_camelopardalis (5)
Photograph of Giraffa camelopardalis by Scott Harrison, Kruger Park 2006.

Growing up mattered. Darwin observed variation among whole animals through their lifetimes, not variation among genes. Anything that made a growing child “not absolutely similar to the parent” was a source of variation that could make a difference in selection processes and outcomes (Darwin 1857). Darwin’s view was developmental, not Lamarckian.

Darwin understood that separating variation and selection was tidier in theory than in actual lives-in-progress. He took up his discussion of use and disuse in a chapter called “Laws of Variation” with a subheading “Use and disuse, combined with natural selection” (Darwin 1859: 131, italics added). What animals did with whom was a central and natural aspect of selection, as well as a source of variation. Animal behavior comprised and induced variation that was grist for selection and also part of the mill.

So he shows us in Origin of Species (1859: 136–143) that “the wings of some of the insects have been enlarged, and the wings of others have been reduced by natural selection aided by use and disuse.”

The wingless condition of so many Madeira beetles is mainly due to the action of natural selection, but combined probably with disuse.


The eyes of some burrowing rodents are rudimentary in size… probably due to gradual reduction from disuse, but aided perhaps by natural selection . . . natural selection would constantly aid the effects of disuse.


On the whole, I think we may conclude that habit, use, and disuse, have, in some cases, played a considerable part in the modification . . . of various organs; but that the effects of use and disuse have often been largely combined with, and sometimes overmastered by, the natural selection of innate differences.

Animals were protagonists in Darwin’s evolutionary plots. Theirs was an unwitting participation, animal intentions being of evolution, not about evolution. Still, animals’ semi-autonomous activities affected the evolution of their own kind and of others who came to their attention. Darwin saw, for example, that arbitrary “aesthetic” preferences of pollinating insects—going to these flowers more than those—affected selection of the flowers and of the insect’s nose, used to reach that flower’s nectar.

Darwin concerned himself with mechanisms of biological inheritance but had limited evidence to go on. Mendel published his experiments on plant hybridization in 1865 but with just three citations in 35 years, they never came to Darwin’s attention. Though he eventually proposed a Lamarckian mechanism of inheritance in his “provisional” hypothesis of pangenesis, Darwin continued to view the role of animal behavior in evolution as more developmental than Lamarckian. Animal activity naturally “either checked or favored” selection (1868: 234).

His developmental view of evolution endured August Weismann discerning a “barrier” between somatic and germ cells. Weismann’s famous barrier, allowing transmission of only germ cells to the next generation, was the death knell for Lamarckism. Yet Weismann affirmed Darwin’s view that “use and disuse” affected evolution by way of natural selection.

Weismann contrasted “mere disuse” with its consequence that “natural selection ceases to act” (1889: 15–16). By this relaxation of selection, disuse induced evolutionary change. Regarding use,

. . .  the direct influence of increased use during the course of a single life [cannot] produce hereditary effects without the assistance of natural selection (1889: 91).

And with the assistance of natural selection, it can.

. . . the use and disuse of parts can have no direct share in the process. . . . The fact, however, that we deny the transmission of the effects of use and disuse, does not imply that these factors are of no importance. . . . both use and disuse may lead indirectly to variations . . .  [that change selection processes and outcomes] (Weismann 1893: 395–396).

Darwin’s developmental view fell to the margins of evolutionary thought with the rediscovery of Mendel’s experiments that began the 20th century and initiated its turn toward a molecular gaze. In an historic cultural shift dubbed “bath-waterism” (Ewer 1960: 162), evolutionary thought threw out, along with the bath water of Lamarckism, the whole organism as an agent of evolutionary change. Evolutionary science transformed our image of ourselves from protagonists in the story of life to products of natural laws and chance, from the result of ancestors’ doings to the result of chemical happenings.

Our story changed from processes of selection that naturally had the benefit of vision and other senses and capabilities for the past 600 million years to “blind” selection the whole way; from an understanding that manners maketh the man, and action maketh the organism, to an understanding that tiny entities inside us make us who we are; from a story at the scale of organisms and lifetimes to a story about molecules across eons; from a story that includes growing up to a story that moves from one adult generation to the next by incantations of genes, environments and their so-called “interactions” (genes, of course, interact only with intra-cellular environments); from plot without humans to humans without plot; from a story teeming with human agency and meaning to a story of eggs regarding chickens as merely a way to make more eggs; from a story that tells us of life’s expanding autonomy, so what we do matters, to a story that tells us choice is a comforting illusion so we have no say in the course nature takes.

Among the ideas slanting these images of ourselves has been a misreading of Darwin’s use of use and disuse as simply Lamarckian.


Darwin, C. (1857). Letter to Asa Gray, 5 Sept.

Darwin C. (1859). On the Origin of Species. In J. van Wyhe, ed., (2002), The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online (

Darwin, C. (1868). Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. In J. van Wyhe, ed., (2002), The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online (

Ewer, R. F. 1960 Natural selection and neoteny. Acta Biotheoretica13:161-184.

Weismann, A. (1889). Essays Upon Heredity. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Weismann, A. (1893). The Germ Plasm. New York: Scribner.

Tom Clark

As a psychologist, I have been interested in the role of behavior in evolution since my graduate training at the University of South Florida.



© 2015, Thomas L. Clark. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.