Situating action: 5. The history and evolution of bodily skills

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How are we to understand the difference between evolutionary and historical change in the field of technical practices? One possible answer hinges on a certain interpretation of the notion of making things, according to which making consists in bringing an object into conformity with a design that preexists in the mind of an agent. The history of technics thus is contingent upon a series of intentionally motivated design modifications, whereas in evolution these modifications are brought about, in the absence of a design agent, through variation under natural selection. This implies, however, that at some point, history must have ''started up'' from a baseline of evolved capacities shared by all human beings, past and present. Considering the ways in which humans use their bodies in technical activities, it is commonly supposed chat they are universally equipped, by virtue of their evolutionary endowment, with such innate capacities as bipedal locomotion and speech, but that these are ''topped up'' with acquired, culturally or historically specific content. The argument of this article, to the contrary, is that the distinction between innate capacities and acquired content is an artifact of our own analytic attempts to sift the general from the particular. What actually evolve are skills, regarded as properties not of individual bodies but of the whole system of relations constituted by the presence of the organism-person in its environment. To understand the evolution of skill, we therefore have to focus on the way such systems are constituted and transformed over time. In effect, the study of evolution becomes the study of how human beings and other animals, through their actions, establish the contexts of development for their successors. The implication of this argument, however, is to dissolve the distinctions not only between the innate and the acquired, but also between biology and culture and, above all, between evolution and history.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)171-182
Number of pages12
JournalEcological Psychology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1996


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