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Where Are We Heading? The Evolution of Humans and Things – Ian Hodder

by Venky


Over the years, evolutionary theories have taken the shape and structure of two dominant strains. The first theory has its advocates emphasizing society’s progression towards an advances industrial systems. The proponents of this theory view societies are moving towards a tangible end or a determined goal. The competing theory, pioneered by Charles Darwin postulates that complicated systems get selected over their simpler counterparts, on account of the former accommodating better adaptations to the environment.

Radically departing from the accepted wisdom, constituting the bedrock of the two hitherto acknowledged theories of evolution, Ian Hodder an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at Stanford University, introduces a new flavour, colour, content and context to the theory of evolution. Postulating a novel and compelling philosophy of human evolution that has at its crux and core the notion of “entanglement,” Hodder dwells on the exponentially increasing mutual dependency between humans and things. Choosing a few examples such as the invention of the wheel, growth of the cultivation of cotton etc. Hodder demonstrates how this mutual entanglement has weaved webs of dependency that both bestows benefits as well as brings bewilderment.

By using the entanglement approach, Hodder encourages the readers to be as ‘inclusive’ as possible and to comprehend the ‘artificiality’ of any boundaries that we may wont to be drawing, especially between humans and things. Explaining the inextricable interconnection between things themselves and their employ, Hodder turns to the wheel – an invention that influenced the contours of human evolution in more ways than one – to espouse his theory of entanglement. A wheel may be subject to a fundamentally simplistic definition, ‘a thin circular object with a hole in the middle’. However, resorting to such a simplistic definition lands us in hot water. What about those wheels that do not have a hole in the middle and are not exactly circular? Also viewing the wheel in isolation would not serve any utilitarian end. Since a wheel cannot function without an axle, which in turn needs a frame or a vehicle to keep it in place, this cascading linkage exhibits the tenuous boundary between the wheel and the wagon. As Hodder says, “’wheelness’ is distributed, displaced. Deferred and dispersed. Thingness is a dispersal and a making of connections.”  This entanglement between humans and things is illustrated by Hodder with the help of the following four acronyms:

  • HH – Human dependent on Human;
  • HT – Human dependent on Thing;
  • TH – Thing dependent on Human; and
  • TT – Thing dependent on Thing

Hodder argues that “human dependence on things (HT) leads to thing dependence on other things (TT) and things dependence on humans (TH), producing greater human dependence on things (HT).”

This unique iteration leads to what Hodder terms as an ‘expanding outer core of conditions and consequences.’ For example, the outer cone in the case of cotton spinning involves, ‘people, material things, institutions and ideas, including sugar, tobacco, trains, clocks, the telegraph, wool, flax, guns, spices, iron, pollutants, ships, tribute, clothing, unions, slaves, children, Native Americans, trading companies, entrepreneurs, retailers, debt, machines, wage labour, the movement into towns and the emergence of a proletariat, industrial capitalism, enclosure, the nation-state, governments, colonialism, and much more.’

This dependency between human beings and things forming an inevitable lock step may also involve a double bind. This mutual reciprocity and dependency which has the capability to both further as well as fell the prospects of humanity finds its full impact in the story of opium. As Hodder strives to explain, “the web of positive dependence and negative dependency around opium has brought addiction, wars, imprisonment, crime and terrorism”. While the Sumerians cultivated poppy seeds as early as in the seventh century BC its main purpose was a cure for various ailments. The Greeks also employed opium as a sleeping potion and a cure. From purposes as variegated as serving as an anesthetic for surgery and being mixed with wine/alcohol to produce laudanum, opium has traversed a meandering path from pure to pernicious!

Hodder also highlights in perfect detail, the contradictions and conflicts that stem from the mutual dependency between Humans and things. For example, the dependence on cotton set in motion a virtual and virulent chain of contrasts: “slavery and free labour, states and markets, colonialism and free trade, industrialization and de-industrialization, plantation and factory, colonizers and colonized.”

The famous German philosopher, Immanuel Kant even more famously remarked, “and we indeed, rightly considering objects of sense as mere appearances, confess thereby that they are based upon a thing in itself, though we know not this thing as it is in itself, but only know its appearances, viz., the way in which our senses are affected by this unknown something.”  “Where We Are Heading” spurs us to never examine or evaluate a thing in isolation for doing so would expose us to dependencies the unraveling of which may shock as well as awe us!

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