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Reviewer meets Reviewed: Where are we heading?
Thursday 21 October 2021, 04:00pm - 06:00pm
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Thursday 21 October 2021 at 4.00-6.00pm (BST)    

This webinar will be held on Zoom. Please register here: 

Where Are We Heading? The Evolution of Humans and Things


The British Museum’s Anthropology Library and Research Centre, in conjunction with the Royal Anthropological Institute, is pleased to present ‘Reviewer meets Reviewed’, a discussion between author Prof Ian Hodder (Stanford University) and Prof Julian Thomas (University of Manchester).

A theory of human evolution and history based on ever-increasing mutual dependency between humans and things.

In this engaging exploration, archaeologist Ian Hodder departs from the two prevailing modes of thought about human evolution: the older idea of constant advancement toward a civilized ideal and the newer one of a directionless process of natural selection. Instead, he proposes a theory of human evolution and history based on “entanglement,” the ever-increasing mutual dependency between humans and things.

Not only do humans become dependent on things, Hodder asserts, but things become dependent on humans, requiring an endless succession of new innovations. It is this mutual dependency that creates the dominant trend in both cultural and genetic evolution. He selects a small number of cases, ranging in significance from the invention of the wheel down to Christmas tree lights, to show how entanglement has created webs of human-thing dependency that encircle the world and limit our responses to global crises.


The review

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 26, issue 4, December 2020, pp.906-907

Julian Thomas

Lewis Binford once famously remarked that although archaeologists aspire to address big, long-term anthropological questions, they often end up merely documenting the variability of material culture. So Ian Hodder's Where are we heading? is especially welcome, as it represents a brave attempt to answer just such a question: why is it that human beings have progressively surrounded themselves with greater and greater quantities of material things to the point that they are now endangering their own existence? In doing so, Hodder builds on his earlier work Entangled (2012) while elaborating on the broader implications of his arguments and addressing himself to a wider audience. In trying to understand the apparent directionality in our accumulation of ‘stuff’, he provocatively states that he is investigating ‘the evolution of humans and things’ (p. xii), while remaining critical of both social and biological evolutionary ideas.

Social evolutionism generally recognizes incremental change through time, but often at the cost of teleology and value-laden notions of progress. Darwinism avoids the teleology and the value judgements but struggles to explain the kinds of macro-scale processes in which humans now find themselves imbricated. Hodder's answer is one that has something in common with the ‘new materialisms’: the tangible and durable qualities of material things make human evolution different from that of other species. Yet he stresses that he is not implying the existence of any universal psychological drive towards accumulation or self-improvement; he simply assumes that humans cannot get on without things. And while there is a general trend towards greater entanglement between people and things, this always emerges out of localized and contingent circumstances.

Things, Hodder emphasizes, never exist in isolation. Each new artefact or technology brings others with it, yet for various reasons we tend to see them as isolated objects, which blinds us to their consequences and ramifications. Over time, we have come to depend on things, and these objects depend both on other stuff and on us for their maintenance and repair. Unlike other animals, when we perceive a problem with some circumstance of our making, we tend to try to fix it with a further investment in technology, drawing us into deeper and knottier entanglements. All of this represents a form of entrapment. Human beings have demonstrated considerable ingenuity in overcoming their problems by creating progressively more sophisticated assemblages of artefacts, but these solutions turn out to be illusory, and we end up depending on still more things that rely on us for their care. According to Hodder, it is this emphasis on dependency and entrapment that distinguishes his ‘entanglement theory’ from otherwise similar approaches that are concerned with networks and meshworks.

Hodder's focus on material things over the long term is what makes his argument distinctively archaeological. Strikingly, he notes that prior to ten thousand years ago, the material equipment that a person would routinely employ would fit on a small tabletop, but that now an average American household owns 300,000 objects. Throughout Where are we heading? he repeatedly circles back to a series of key material technologies (agriculture, textiles, and wheeled transport), demonstrating the way that the development of each has involved increasing complexity and efficiency, but has in the process created more extensive webs of dependency. Each has by now begun to have an increasingly catastrophic impact on the environment through pollution and degradation, but we seek to overcome these by inventing still more. The pathways that entanglement follows are often conditioned by events that occurred long ago (from the spindle-whorl to the cotton mill; from the first crops to Amazonian deforestation), and they are also ones that some people are better placed to exploit than others, leading to increased social inequality.

Where are we heading? is a vital contribution to understanding the deep roots of our present environmental and climatic crisis. There are, of course, points with which one could take issue, some of which Hodder anticipates. Some will argue that in retaining the polarity between ‘humans’ and ‘things’, rather than seeing them both as aspects of broader assemblages, he maintains a human exceptionalism. Others might question his exclusive focus on crafted and manufactured objects. Haven't people always been entangled with naturally occurring things, places, and materials, and is the desire to return to a prelapsarian state of thing-freeness illusory? And can't we also be deeply entangled with intangible things, as are the Australian Aboriginal people whom Hodder mentions in passing? These concerns aside, this is an important and stimulating book