The Evolution of Evolutionary Explanations of Culture: How and Why Can a Critical Evaluation of Costly Signalling Theory Enhance Our Understanding of Cultural Practices?

Author: Searfoss, Amy Elizabeth Robertson

Date: 2016

Publisher: Victoria University of Wellington

Type: Scholarly text, Doctoral

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Victoria University of Wellington


In the last two decades, evolutionary explanations of cultural practice have become prevalent within the social sciences and humanities, including religious studies. This thesis is a critical analysis and recension of one of these applications of evolutionary theory to cultural practice. Specifically, I analyse a secondary case study to investigate the explanatory power and politico-ethical considerations that arise from the application of costly signalling theory to Māori tā moko. Utilising primary and secondary source materials, this research was conducted within an interpretivist and inductive qualitative framework with the aim of offering a reflexive critique of the explanatory power that costly signalling theory carries for tā moko and, more broadly, of the illustrative efficacy of evolutionary explanations when applied to indigenous cultural practices. In a critique of the Cisco case study, I identify some of the more general, global deficiencies of evolutionary explanations of culture and explore the rich, indigenous narrative complexes which shape understandings of Māori tā moko. I maintain that the argument for moko as a costly signal, based, in part, upon Māori warfare is a reiteration of mythologised aspects of Māori culture which divorces tā moko from its ontological and epistemological underpinnings. In separating it from its Māori context, the reflexivity of tā moko is denied and Westernised and colonised conceptions of tā moko which etically view Māori cultural practice through a veil of alterity are perpetuated. In response to the concerns the application of costly signalling theory to tā moko generates, I propose an alternative model: transmissive assemblage. Drawing from actor-network theory, indigenous ontological perspectivism, and Kaupapa Māori, the transmissive assemblage model provides a symmetrical and decolonised framework which both challenges and enhances the dominant Western scientific paradigms used to explain indigenous practices. By focussing on the interactions between agents and the associations which circulate between them, rather than on the agents themselves, this integrative model makes an original contribution to scholarship in allowing the emergence of heteroglossia and by providing a balanced platform for indigenous voices and emic perspectives to be represented in the context of Western scientific research. In doing so, I argue that integrative, reflexive, and decolonised approaches to indigenous cultural practice which focus on process, as opposed to agency, enhance the explanatory power of evolutionary explanations by affording indigenous groups the opportunity to assert their own agency within the paradigm of Western science.

Subjects: Tā moko, Cultural evolutionary theory, Anthropology of religions