Rory Ewins's Pacific Islands Politics

Evolving a Theory of Tradition

Rory Ewins

This paper was presented at a workshop on “Science, Politics and Evolution in Asia and the Pacific” held by the Division of Pacific and Asian Studies, RSPAS, Australian National University, 20-21 November 1995. It is shown here as I gave it—that is, written to be read aloud. More developed thoughts on the issues it addresses can be found in Changing Their Minds: Tradition and Politics in Contemporary Fiji and Tonga (Christchurch, New Zealand: Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies, 1998).

At first I thought of calling this paper “Comments on the Process of Arriving at a Theory of Tradition for a Thesis on Politics in Contemporary Fiji and Tonga,” but as a title that doesn’t even have the saving grace of being memorable in its badness, so I’ve gone instead with “Evolving a Theory of Tradition,” which is at least shorter. What I propose to do in the paper is not to present some closely argued gem of research complete with quotations and footnotes, but instead to sketch a few themes of one chapter of my thesis and throw in a sweeping generalisation or two, just to put a few extra ideas into the mix.

When I first heard about this workshop I thought, “Great, it sounds just like the theory chapter of my thesis.” Then when I saw the provisional programme I became somewhat apprehensive. Which is not to say that I have any problem with the other topics addressed in the workshop! But it’s just that when quite a few of the people here have been discussing Social Darwinism and how it was applied in a questionable manner in various parts of the Asia-Pacific region, a political scientist like me who’s talking about evolutionary theories in the context of contemporary Fiji and Tonga may appear rather politically incorrect.

Now, that this should even be a concern is in itself quite interesting, especially given that I’m talking about political science and social science. It seems that we social scientists like to have our cake and eat it too—we like the air of objectivity that the label “social science” lends us (because after all, it sounds so much better than “social educated-guesswork”), but on the other hand, any attempts to incorporate aspects of the hard sciences into social analysis are considered suspect by many social scientists (who perhaps resent the fact that physics and chemistry have appropriated the tag of the “hard” sciences, thus insultingly implying that ours are the “easy” ones). And nowhere is this suspicion more obvious than when it comes to evolutionary theories. The history of Social Darwinism, eugenics, and so forth, all seem to have put evolutionary ideas off-limits for social scientists. It’s as if Social Darwinists held the patents on all possible combinations of social analysis and Darwinian ideas, and so you can’t offer up a new combination without being branded a Social Darwinist.

Now, I find that a shame, because, for one thing, I like Darwinian theories. I like the idea that all the complexity of life can be explained by such an elegantly simple notion as natural selection. But more importantly, today’s Darwinian (or neo-Darwinian) theories are fundamentally different from Social Darwinism. I suppose most people here would be aware that it wasn’t Charles Darwin but Herbert Spencer who coined the phrase most closely identified with Social Darwinism, “the survival of the fittest”. As to whether Darwin was or was not a Social Darwinist, I’ve heard arguments on both sides, and as was pointed out yesterday, even Spencer’s position is open to question, but these are questions I’ll happily leave to the historians to thrash out.

Now, the phrase “the survival of the fittest” applies to Social Darwinist ideas perfectly, but it most emphatically does not apply to Darwinism as it is currently understood (and here I could cite Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Christopher Wills, and other present-day writers on the subject). Natural selection is about the survival of the fit, not the fittest; or, if you prefer, the survival of those that are able to survive. It’s not just the strongest or the smartest of any particular species that survive to pass on their genes, but the strong and the smart; or the average; or even, in a lot of cases, the relatively puny and stupid. All that is required is that they are capable of getting by in whatever environment they find themselves in. A supposedly “weak” individual might live long enough to reproduce just by luck, and a supposedly “strong” one may get struck by lightning and killed before it has the chance. And as the environment can change, what may be a reasonable fit at one point in time may no longer be a fit at a later time, so the question of what is “fittest” in any absolute sense becomes moot.

Of course, Social Darwinists applauded the supposed fact that only the fittest survive, and believed that therefore the fittest race of the fittest species—that is, Caucasian human beings—would prevail. Once you remove the term “the fittest”, a term which can only be defined by reference to the specific value-system of whoever’s doing the defining, then that whole picture collapses. And once one accepts that, then another plank of Social Darwinism goes out the window, which is the idea of evolution as progress, as a process of continual improvement heading off towards some shining end-point, with the fittest of each generation giving rise to even fitter successive generations. And the idea of human beings as the end-point at which evolution has been “aiming” makes even less sense. Instead, we come to be seen simply as a species which fits its environment at this point in time; and, who knows, if we keep changing the environment at the rate we’re doing, that may cease to be the case.

Now, I don’t want to discuss the misguided policies which resulted from Social Darwinism, as others have already been doing so in other papers. I’m simply making the point that today there is no contradiction in being a social scientist and a Darwinist who most definitely is not a Social Darwinist. It may seem an obvious point, especially for this audience; and I am sure there are a great many social scientists who accept Darwin’s theory of natural selection just as they accept many other ideas from other fields—as part of the general fabric of human knowledge as it currently stands. But if Social Darwinism is what’s stopping some social scientists from using evolutionary ideas in their analyses, then they’ve really let Social Darwinist ideas cloud their understanding of Darwinism.

So—what is one way of using evolutionary ideas in social analysis? Or, to finally come to the theme of the workshop, how might one use scientific ideas about evolution in the study of politics in Asia and the Pacific? Well, here is how I used some in my own field.

My field of study for the past four or five years has been the “politics of tradition” in the Pacific islands, specifically Fiji and Tonga. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, it’s used to encompass all sorts of issues relating to the political uses made of tradition, and the political roles played by traditional figures of authority, such as the chiefs in Fiji, the King of Tonga, the matai in Western Samoa, and so forth. I first came to the field after studying the 1987 Fiji coup, which had a strong element of the reassertion of Fijian traditional authority to it.

Now, it’s one thing to describe the roles played by Chief X and Traditional Leader Y in a particular society. It’s quite another to try to understand why they play the roles that they do. To do that, one really needs to seek to understand tradition itself: the concept of tradition, not the specific details of any particular tradition. It’s like the difference between saying, “Here are all the traditional aspects of the present-day Australian church wedding ceremony,” and asking, “Why do people keep going through all of that rigmarole, anyway?”

So that’s what I sought to do: to understand how tradition works. In doing so, I had to overcome a number of obstacles within myself. The first being that I’m a Westerner, and a lot of Westerners aren’t that big on tradition. We like to think of Western societies as being innovative, cutting-edge, radical, and so on (I did warn that I’d make a few sweeping generalisations!)—and tradition supposedly is not those things. And to show how different our societies are from non-Western societies, we describe many of them as “traditional societies”, thereby implying that they’re static, old-fashioned, conservative, and so on.

Now, this understanding of tradition as static, as unchanging, as handed down from generation to generation since time immemorial, creates problems for the social analyst. Because when one looks at these “traditional societies”, one is confronted with a history of change: change which is often every bit as dramatic as one sees throughout, say, European history. And this creates apparent contradictions. For example, the traditional chief who rules in a certain village in Fiji today might enjoy quite a different set of powers and responsibilities from those of a chief a century or more ago; he might have become chief in a different way than chiefs once would have; and many of the traditional ceremonies he takes part in might have been unknown in the past.

Faced with this, a Western observer might be tempted to say, “This chief says he’s the traditional ruler of these people, but he’s not really traditional at all. The whole basis of his authority is false”—as some Western observers have indeed said, when confronted with these kinds of examples of traditions whose origins can be dated to comparatively recent times (which in turn is the subject of a whole debate about the “invention of tradition”).

Well, I wondered, what would Fijians or Tongans make of these contradictions? When I did my fieldwork there, I went around asking some of them about tradition and what they understood by the term. And almost everyone argued that there is no contradiction of the kind I just described, because traditions change. Traditions are a “link with the past”, true, but they have changed a great deal already, as the history books amply show, and they remain open to change today. This wasn’t a total acceptance of open-slather change in tradition on their part; there was usually some insistence that certain fundamentals should remain for Fijian or Tongan tradition to stay traditional. But there was also disagreement about what those fundamentals were.

When you think about it, Westerners can also see that traditions change. Take something as traditional as the coronation ceremony of Queen Elizabeth the Second. Traditional, certainly, but not unchanged from the past. Queen Victoria wasn’t crowned in the presence of the world’s television cameras. That one difference would account for many changes, large and small, in the nature and significance of the ceremony, and yet Elizabeth’s coronation was no less traditional than Victoria’s.

So if traditions can change—just like many other practices which are not thought of as traditional can change—why bother to talk about “traditions” at all? Why not just talk of “practices”? Well, there are various reasons, and I don’t want to go into all of the complexities here, as some of those reasons can be specific to certain places—in places like Fiji and Tonga, for example, the label “tradition” can be used to distinguish between indigenous practices and foreign ones, the term often being used interchangeably with “culture” by Fijians and Tongans. What I’ll try to sketch here are some features which I believe are common to the concepts of tradition held by many peoples around the world, including Westerners.

To cut a long story short, after a couple of years of mulling this over, I was pretty certain that the key to explaining the concept of tradition and how tradition works was to understand something about how individual people learn and how knowledge changes. This is because tradition is a form of knowledge: knowledge about certain beliefs and practices which together make up one’s tradition. And importantly, this particular knowledge is always shared by a group; it’s not just one person’s alone. So you share in the traditions of other people from your country, or your city or town, or even your family, but those things which you alone do aren’t really traditions as such.

So what’s so special about this knowledge we call “tradition”? Or, to ask more and more fundamental questions, why do individuals bother to learn about traditions? What’s the attraction in learning something which is supposedly handed down from the past? What’s the attraction in the “tried and true”?

To answer those questions one needs a theory of learning. I suppose there are a number of academic fields which could supply such a theory—education, psychology—but because I have a passing interest in matters scientific, I got mine from science, or more specifically, neuroscience, and the work of Gerald Edelman. Edelman won the Nobel Prize for his work on the human immune system, demonstrating that it develops in a selective manner which parallels natural selection. More recently, he has offered a theory of human learning which also parallels Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

To put it in simple terms, Edelman argues that our brains are not computers pre-programmed with information about the world and how to behave in it. Rather, our billions of neurons (or actually, our neuronal groups) work in competition, testing out different behaviours and thoughts, and those which succeed are favoured thereafter over those which do not. When a baby girl first tries to grasp an object, she randomly moves her arms and legs around in a wide variety of ways. By chance, one of those ways will eventually bring her into contact with the object. When this goal is achieved, Edelman argues, the neural pathways which led to the action which achieved it are chemically reinforced in her brain, making it more likely that she will act the same way next time. Over time, that becomes “her way” of grasping an object (provided that way continues to succeed). Her brain has selected for that behaviour by testing a wide range of behaviours in a given environment. And the chemical process seen in this simple example occurs whenever she learns something new.

I find this a striking explanation of how we learn, one which offers an appealing combination of both “nature and nurture” as well. Edelman’s theory explains not only how we, as individuals, become the idiosyncratic, individual human beings that we are, but also why we often find it difficult to adjust to sudden changes in our environment or our personal circumstances. Our brains are chemically prepared for our previous surroundings, and it will necessarily take time to adjust to the new.

For my purposes it isn’t crucial whether Edelman’s theory is correct in every respect in describing the physical processes at work in the brain when we learn. The central concept I used in my own work was that learning is itself evolutionary, and that an individual’s knowledge evolves through a selective process. We learn by trial and error—that is, by testing for what works (or fits) in our physical, social, and intellectual environment.

And what better way to find out what works than to look for the “tried and true”? We can find what works in our environment by looking at what works for other people living in our environment, and that can mean looking not only to our contemporaries but also—assuming the environment has not changed—to our predecessors. In other words, we can avoid the need for a great deal of personal learning by trial and error by simply taking a lot of knowledge on trust. And that’s where tradition is useful, because it’s knowledge vested in the group, and it’s knowledge about beliefs and practices which have worked and supposedly still work for the members of that group—our group. And “work”, in this context, is potentially as wide in scope as “fit” in the context of biological evolution; it makes about as much sense to worry about whether a practice “works best” in order to be a tradition as it does to worry about whether an individual is the “fittest” rather than simply “a fit”.

But if a belief or practice stops working for enough members of the group, it will fall out of use, and will cease to be a tradition (or what one might call a “living” tradition)—instead, it becomes history. A practice might no longer work for all sorts of reasons. The environment might change, making it no longer a fit for its environment; a newly-arisen alternative might be considered to be superior, and take over; both of these cases have obvious parallels in the evolution of species by natural selection.

However, a tradition usually won’t disappear overnight, and with the unanimous consent of all the members of the group whose tradition it is. Because even though tradition is knowledge shared by the group, the active agents in a process of change in tradition are individuals. A few individuals, at first, might decide that a certain traditional practice no longer works for them, and that they will flout tradition and do what they think is better. If their new way catches on with enough people, that particular tradition will begin to fade—perhaps accompanied by the protests of those who still prefer the old practice over the new—and eventually, it may die. And then, in time, the new practice can take over the mantle of “tradition”.

So traditions, too, evolve via a process of selection—in this case, selection by individuals. And this process explains the apparent contradictions of the concept. We like to think that traditions are handed down from the past, are “tried and true”, or else there would be no particular reason for us to favour them over any alternative practice or belief. At the same time, traditions must be flexible and open to change in order to be capable of adaptation to environmental changes. But change will be a contested process among members of the group, with differences of opinion over what should change and why. All of which agreed with the explanations of the concept that I’d been hearing from Fijians and Tongans, and with my own musings on the matter. Whether that means I’ve got it right is another matter, requiring a lot more argument and attention to detail than I have time for here. Instead, I’d like to close with a few words about the scientific ideas I used as a starting point for my social scientific theory.

Did I need Edelman’s theory of learning to arrive at this theory of tradition? Probably not; I’d already been thinking along these evolutionary lines for quite a while before I encountered Edelman’s work, and probably could have found some other alternative theory of learning to fill that particular gap. But does that mean I consider his theory to be a completely dispensible element of my own? Not at all. There’s one aspect to tradition which is difficult to account for, and that’s the dogged adherance to it which is displayed by some people. How does one explain people’s resistance to changing their ideas? Maybe it’s just me, but I find something very appealing in seeing it as a result of neural pathways in the brain, chemically-reinforced as the result of a lifetime of use; it makes me examine my own habits and beliefs in a whole new light. So I don’t regard that aspect as completely dispensible.

Even then, however, some might argue that I’m simply coming up with an analogy which itself is based on an analogy—that I’m not really talking about Darwinian evolution at all. If I really wanted to avoid the risk of being labelled a Social Darwinist, one might say, I should argue myself that I’m not really using scientific ideas, just “extrapolating” from them.

But that would also be to duck the issue, because when it comes down to it, I do see all these areas not just as analogous to one another, but as being linked. Partly this is because in constructing the knowledge inside my own brain, I want to build up a coherent and reasonably consistent framework, and I can’t do that if I accept that science is science and social science isn’t, and never the twain shall meet; if the theories that happen to belong to the academic field of “biology” contradict the theories of the field called “social science”, then they can’t all be right.

Partly, too, I am inspired by Gerald Edelman’s statement that “evolution, acting by selection on populations of individuals over long periods of time, gives rise to selective systems within individuals” (1994: 74), to go that one step further and suggest that it has given rise to at least one more selective system, that of tradition.

But more fundamentally, I believe (and I’ll leave discussions of the nature of belief and truth for another day) that human culture, of which the world’s myriad traditions are a part, is at this point in the earth’s history a significant factor in how life happens to be evolving. How could it not be, when we are so concerned today about the effect humans are having on the global environment? Evolution has given rise to intelligent human beings, and intelligent human beings have given rise to human culture—there’s a connection there that’s well worth investigating. And this, social scientists are ideally-qualified to do, if we can avoid the pitfalls of Social Darwinism and strive to proceed in as value-free a fashion as we can manage.



Edelman, Gerald M., 1994. Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.


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