How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and Petroski’s Emphasis on Cultural Criteria Can Explain Aspects of Human Society

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Nathan Nemon
Humanities 260
2.21.13
TA: Cheryl Berriman
How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and Petroski’s Emphasis on Cultural Criteria Can Explain Aspects of Human Society
Stephen Jay Gould’s claims that “odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proof of evolution” and “a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce” 1 accurately express the core aspects of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. In Evolution of Useful Things2, Henry Petroski finds that optimality in the design of human made things is by nature unattainable because such constructions depend on cultural criteria that can vary. A framework combining Darwin’s evolutionary theory- marked by advantageous but imperfect changes that depend on historical context- and Petroski’s inclusion of cultural criteria can help characterize the evolution of social, technological and ideological developments in human society. Due to its dependence on culture and circumstance, progress in these arenas occurs at varying rates and is not governed by a static law dictating a single direction or outcome.

To understand Darwin’s evolutionary theory in its original application to organic species, it is necessary to understand the conditions it assumes and the two mechanisms through which it works. Darwin claims that, “as many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive… there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence.”3 He describes this existence as occurring inside complex and varying conditions of life affected by climate, natural events, and inter/ intra species interactions. He also assumes that variability may exist in a given instance such that some organisms will have genetic advantages for survival over others.

The first mechanism in Darwin’s evolutionary theory is the introduction of variability due to a random, external cause. This might be a random gene mutation that creates an advantage to the owner or it could be a natural disaster that changes the environment and subsequently what are beneficial traits. The panda’s ‘thumb’ described by Gould is an example of a gene mutation that has provided an advantage of more efficient bamboo stripping. A species able to hunt fish may be better off in an environment that gets flooded as compared to an animal unable to fish. The second, well-recognized mechanism is “natural selection” through which advantageous traits are preserved and accumulated. Darwin explains that “from the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.”3 Species better adapted to their environment are naturally selected through the process of reproduction and inheritance. The original Pandas with genetically mutated thumbs had a higher probability of survival compared to others and thus were able to propagate the trait through offspring.

These two mechanisms of Darwin’s theory illuminate the haphazard, imperfect nature of evolution. Darwin’s observations of the contrivances of reproductive organs in Orchids fashioned from common components of flowers demonstrate how evolution does not yield optimal designs but instead functional composites of previous adaptations and new genetic variations. It follows that complex organs are formed through “numerous, successive, slight modifications”3 and the extent to which any trait is beneficial depends on how it interacts with past adaptations and the current environment. Petroski applies Darwin’s theory to the evolution of forks, generalizing his findings to all human made objects. He asserts object designs “don’t spring fully formed

from the mind of some maker but, rather, become shaped and reshaped through the (principally negative) experiences of their users” and as such, “there can be no such thing as a ‘perfected’ artifact.” Reflecting on the continuity between objects and their antecedents, Petroski describes the history of artifacts and technology as “more than a cultural adjunct to the business of...
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