Huxley Lecture

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This distinction was instituted in 1900 in memory of Thomas Henry Huxley and is the highest honour at the disposal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. It is awarded annually, by ballot of the Council, to a scientist, British or foreign, distinguished in any field of anthropological research in the widest sense.

The lecture is normally delivered at a special meeting of the Institute in November and is followed by the presentation of the medal. The lecture is normally published by the Institute.

Prior Recipients

The following RAI lectures have been recorded and are available online to listen to or download. Videos of other RAI events are available on our YouTube channel here.

2021 Huxley Lecture by Stephen Shennan

Population and the dynamics of culture change

In a paper published in Current Anthropology in 2000, I argued that we should see the changes documented in the archaeological record as the result of processes of cultural ‘descent with modification’, by analogy with Darwin’s term for biological evolution. I proposed that understanding these changes required archaeologists to return to many of the issues raised by the culture-history agenda rejected 30-40 years previously and largely despised ever since. I suggested that the single most important factor in understanding culture change was population dynamics. First, because past populations had been much more dynamic, in terms of processes of expansion and contraction, than had been appreciated. Second, this mattered because many of the skills involved in artefact production were acquired by children from their parents or other close relatives of the older generation, so, if a particular local population expanded, then so would the artefact forms associated with it; correspondingly, the opposite would be the case if the population declined or disappeared. The importance of this link between cultural and demographic patterns, had almost certainly been underestimated.

In the intervening 20 years there has been an explosion of theoretical and empirical work addressing the relationship between cultural and demographic patterns, using new lines of evidence and novel perspectives. In this lecture, I will review some of that work, with a focus on areas where I have been involved, in particular the spread of farming into Europe and its aftermath, where I will show the way in which new methods and sources of evidence have changed ideas and in doing so borne out some of my suggestions and modified others.

2020 Huxley Lecture by Stephen Levinson

The ‘interaction engine’: the evolution of the infrastructure for language

Thomas Henry Huxley, ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, believed in the underlying unity of the human species but on the voyage of HMS Rattlesnake was struck by the cultural and linguistic diversity of Melanesia. Indeed, the deep structural diversity of languages suggests that our language capacities are not based on any single template but rather on an underlying ability and motivation for infants to acquire a culturally transmitted system (Darwin’s ‘instinctive tendency to acquire an art’). The hypothesis presented here is that this ability has an interactional base that has discernable precursors in other primates – a behavioural parallel to the anatomical similarities that Huxley was the first to point out in detail. This interactional base is more or less invariant across cultures, constitutes the context for language use and learning, and acts like a machine tool for producing languages. In this lecture I explore two specific evolutionary routes that may have allowed humans to develop this interactional foundation for an elite communication system.

2019 Huxley Lecture by Chris Hann

Economy and Ethics in the Cosmic Process

When, late in life, T.H. Huxley returned to the themes of evolution and religion, he did so with a focus on ethics. But his audience was puzzled (and Herbert Spencer dismissive): how could morality be explained in Darwinian terms if man’s destiny was to combat the amoral laws of the “cosmic process”? These issues are still with us. While Huxley paid little attention to political and economic institutions, this lecture will consider the historical materialism of that era and arguments for socialism (rejected by the liberal Huxley). How can human societies evolve a healthy balance between private and collective property, market and redistribution, efficiency and equity, economic maximization and ethics? The difficulties will be illustrated with reference to the rise and fall of a State Farm in the western zone of the Great Hungarian Plain (Danube-Tisza interfluve).

This lecture is available here.

2017 Huxley Memorial Lecture by Margaret Conkey

Field Walking, Walking the Field: Anthropological Archaeology as Viewed from Deep Time

Professor Margaret Conkey, University of California, Berkeley

In this talk I will begin with observations derived from a pedestrian archaeological survey project, Between the Caves, which I directed for nearly 15 years in the French Midi-Pyrénées. From walking the (plowed) fields, I move to how I came to this project as part of walking the field of anthropological archaeology for the past 50 years as a Paleolithic archaeologist engaged in the development of a feminist practice of and for archaeology. From often marginal perspectives in an ever-shifting disciplinary enterprise, I will consider several dimensions of what it means to do archaeology today especially when viewed from those of us who attempt to make sense of lives and histories from deep time.

This lecture is available here.

2016 Huxley Memorial Lecture by Margaret Lock

Mutable Environments and Permeable Human Bodies

Professor Margaret Lock, McGill University

Mapping the human genome produced unexpected findings that paved the way for recognition of the contribution of environments external and internal, to health and illness in the human body. We live now with a ‘reactive genome’ in which environments – nurture, or its lack – account overwhelmingly for the human condition. In this lecture, focusing on debates about the anthropocene, epigenetics, and the metagenomic human body, I will highlight how environments are contestable and moveable, and with what effects.

This lecture is available here.

2015 Huxley Memorial Lecture by Robin Dunbar

Dunbar’s Number: How Constrained Is Your Social World?

The Social Brain Hypothesis, first proposed in the 1980s, predicted a natural grouping size for modern humans of about 150, now known as Dunbar’s Number. Since then, a plethora of comparative and neuroimaging research has confirmed both the Social Brain Hypothesis and the predicted size of human social groups, and shown that Dunbar’s Number applies also to personal social networks. More importantly, we have in the process learned a great deal more about the nature of the social relationships that underpin the Social Brain Hypothesis. I will explore the cognitive and ecological reasons why social groups are limited in size, why they have the peculiar layered structure that they do, and how modern humans have broken through the constraints on social group size that these impose.

The lecture is available here.

2013 Huxley Memorial Lecture by Howard Morphy

The Displaced Local: Multiple Agency in the Building of Ethnogrpahic Collections

National Museums have always been both global and local, collecting widely and holding locally. Ethnographic collections provide a prime example, bringing together in a single institution collections representing different cultures from around the world. The recent globalization of museum discourse and practice has resulted in an inversion of this situation. Indigenous communities, the local cultures of original production, are regaining a degree of agency over the collections of their material culture that have been distributed globally. This has often been framed as a counter movement to the colonial processes that were entangled in the building of the collections. Such a perspective, however, can mask the agency and motivations of the builders of collections in the past and fail to recognize the transformational role that museums have played in ideational change. The lecture will focus on the motivations of Yolngu, Aboriginal Australians from Northern Australia, in collaborating with researchers and others in building collections over the past three-quarters of a century. This perspective from active engagement in the present provides a very different light on the past than one that subordinates the development of collections to the enterprise of a ‘colonial science’.

The lecture is available here.

2012 Huxley Memorial Lectute by Alan MacFarlane

Anthropology, Empire and Modernity

Anthropology has developed within three theoretical frameworks over the last three hundred years. The Enlightenment world view dominated from the early eighteenth to the mid nineteenth century; Evolutionary models triumphed from Darwin and Marx through to the late 1980’s; a Global vision is the one we now inhabit. Investigating the reasons for these paradigm changes, the lecture will consider the relative power of nations (imperialism and industrialism) as one factor. Another has been the growth of ‘modernity’, defined as the separation of institutional spheres (Wealth, Power, Society, Ideology). Recent shifts in world power and the re-shaping of ‘modernity’ through technological change are redefining the task of anthropology in the twenty-first century.

The lecture is available here.

2010 Huxley Memorial Lecture by Prof Johannes Fabian

Cultural Anthropology and the Question of Knowledge

Although it helps to be aware of what philosophers think about knowledge anthropologists can neither simply relegate their epistemological problems to, nor find solutions in, philosophy. In anthropology knowing what and how we know is a practical, not just a theoretical problem, one we face in all phases of our work, from field research to writing (and teaching). Historical recollections of debates since the nineteen-sixties are followed by giving attention to two aspects of the knowledge-question in our discipline: Knowledge of what? and Whose knowledge? Guided by reflections on knowledge and survival, the lecture will end with an attempt to assess the present and future state of the question.

The lecture is available here.