A Foot in the River: Why Our Lives Change--and the Limits of Evolution
A Foot in the River: Why Our Lives Change--and the Limits of Evolution is a challenging book. There are limits to what even an accomplished professor and historian like Felipe Fernandez-Armesto can accomplish in simplifying the complex argument delivered in this short, highly ambitious book. To paraphrase the somewhat clunky title, Fernandez-Armesto proposes something akin to a unified theory of culture and cultural change, a multi-pronged idea with many corollaries and one main enemy: the idea that evolution is sufficient to explain culture and cultural change.
It may sound like a distinction significant only to argumentative professors, but Fernandez-Armesto is quick to identify areas where the idea of evolutionary forces as source and driver of culture has done real damage. He notes the disturbing frequency with which dry academic theories have been repurposed as justifications for immoral practices such as slavery and eugenics. Fernandez-Armesto criticizes both the odious consequences and the theories themselves: "Cultural traits do not replicate like genes--people accept or reject them according to criteria of their own--criteria that have nothing to do with... enhancing the survival of the group."
A Foot in the River is also challenging in the sense that it directly takes on popular ideas of cultural change and their famous proponents. Fernandez-Armesto delivers body blows to both genetic and environmental determinism, as well as eviscerating more recent concepts like Richard Dawkins's "memes." Readers may find themselves compelled to poke holes in Fernandez-Armesto's theses as they read, but that is perhaps how the book is best read: as a challenge. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books