Regarding the Anthropological Approach to Evolutionism

Evolutionism in Anthropology was a widely held 19th century belief that organisms are intrinsically bound to increase in complexity through evolution. (Carneiro, 2003) Of course, that is not to say that evolutionism in anthropology has remained in the bygone era, nor has it disappeared completely from modern scholarship. However, for contemporary academics interested in evolutionism, the discourse bears little to no resemblance to the initial thrust of early social evolutionary theorists like Sir Henry Maine, Morgan, Fustel de Coulanges, Spencer, Tylor, and the like. Their thinking, along with their contemporary’s, was based less on empirical/experiential evidence, and more on speculation derived from fallacious premises concerning the nature/state of the human being; more specifically, referring to any sort of directionality in which human beings are destined to evolve socially. Although the ideals and normative prescriptions offered up by these scholars has largely been discredited in favor of a more relative perspective, these names mentioned above remain giants in their respective fields and are largely credited with laying the foundations for the modern theories and applications of the social sciences today.

Napoleon Chagnon, one of the first anthropologists to explain human behavior as a product of both culture and evolution, is pictured in 1990 showing an early GPS instrument to a Yanomamö headman.

            Cultural evolutionists of the 19th century were interested in the so-called “primitive” societies of the non-Western world, and highlighted them as a living example of our prehistorical, savage roots. While scholars involved in this discourse often insist upon differing points of importance, they all tended to agree upon the concept of unilineal social evolution. Unilineal evolution is a concept that explicitly posits that Western culture is the pinnacle of social evolution, and that all human societies are destined to progress through all the ‘stages’ of society in order to move from a primitive peoples to that of the most civilized European.

            This concept of unilineal evolution, while having generally been abandoned by modern scholarship in favor of a more relativist approach, is still an important point of contention among lay people in regards to both socio-cultural and biological evolution. Many WASPs (white anglo-saxon protestant) might use Detroit’s urban decay, crime rates and financial failings as an empirical indication of racist social-Darwinian principles associated with theories spun out of the concept of unilineal evolution. Those who advocate an argument along these lines often cite what a nice place Detroit was until the influx of southern blacks seeking work in the industrial war complex led to the degradation of neighborhoods, increase in crime and violence, and overseen by the corrupt. Of course, these opinions generally fail to account for the white racial politics and state housing policies that pushed blacks into specific neighborhoods, into specific jobs (or no jobs at all) making considerably less than their white counterparts; all while middle class whites fled urban Detroit to construct the ‘all-white’ suburban utopia that is Oakland County, leaving Detroit (one of the largest cities in America, geographically speaking) with a surprisingly emaciated and impoverished tax base with which to collect upon. (Sugrue, 1996/Freund, 2007)

            Even concerning the discourse on biological evolution, many creationists tend to employ the argument that, “if evolution is true, then how come chimps aren’t still evolving into humans?” This point of contention however is based upon the fallacious premise of unilineal evolution, that humans are the pinnacle of life and every organism must be at some stage in the process of evolving into human. What an argument like this really indicates is that the person who holds this view is completely ignorant of evolutionary theory itself and relies on regurgitating religious institutional propaganda rather than venturing to make any sort of reasoned analysis themselves. To put the last two paragraphs more succinctly, if ever there was an anthropological equivalent of the pop psychology taken root in Western society via Freud’s ‘Oedipus Complex’ and ‘Freudian-slip’, it would be the concept of unilineal evolution. For scholars, evolution refers to the gradual changes which can be observed (usually indirectly) over time as a species adapts to its changing environment. Lay people generally view evolution as some sort of predestination.

            For 19th century scholars interested in human social evolution, that predestination was entwined and verified through comparative analysis of the linguistic, archaeological and ethnographic records. Linguists of the latter half of the 18th century had made significant strides in developing language families based on comparative-historical philology, which soon realized that Europe’s classical languages bore close ties to Sanskrit. On this subject the most influential advocate, Sir William Jones writes, “The Sanskrit language, whatever may be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could have been produced by accident; so strong that no philologer could examine the Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which perhaps no longer exists.” This finding laid the basis for the Darwinian analogy that came later, for it posited the common derivation of widely divergent phenomena and suggested that the ancestral progenitor had long been extinct. (Alter, 1999)

            Archaeologists too, were uncovering artifacts from our prehistoric past. Stone tools and other objects which resembled the tools of the primitive societies being scrutinized by the European scholars, led these intellectuals to regard these so called primitives as a window into our prehistoric past; that in some way, these savages were frozen in time and never set upon the evolutionary track. Comparing the scant ethnographic record with the scant but comparatively larger archaeological and linguistic records, one can see how the scholars derived the speculations they did concerning the social evolution of the human species.

            The contributions linguists and archaeologists brought either through direct evidence or through innovation of research methodology influenced major evolutionist thinkers like Morgan to try a similar approach in comparing and categorizing ethnic groups into broader human families based on kinship systems and traditions. Morgan was a unilineal evolutionist who claimed that societies develop according to one universal order of cultural evolution. Morgan, a lawyer from New York, belonged to an organization called the League of the Iroquois. In order to authenticate the group’s rituals, Morgan began to study nearby Iroquois tribes and eventually compared their kinship system with that of the Ojibwe in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

            Kinship systems aside, Morgan’s influential contribution to evolutionism in anthropology, “Ancient Society,” presents his schema for cultural evolution via the progression along three stages: savagery, barbarism, and ultimately civilization. Nineteenth century evolutionist thought generally focused around these proposed stages of progress, with variations proposed by every author contributing to the discourse. To put it simply, savagery is the human condition in which a group subsists through foraging, i.e. hunting and gathering. The second stage, barbarism, is the condition in which human begin to domesticate plants and animals. The last stage is that of civilization, or the institution of the state.

            To help support his argument, Morgan relied on subjecting societies to an analysis and categorization of the kinship systems in which they employ. He made a differentiation between classificatory and descriptive kinship systems. In savage and barbarous societies, classificatory kinship reined. This practice was marked by sexual promiscuity and matrilineal descent because, after all, if the society is sexually promiscuous then how might one know who the father of a child is? Thus, in primitive societies, according to Morgan, we find a classificatory kinship system in which the people lump kinship categories together such as ‘mother’ and ‘father’ to include aunts and uncles. By the time humans reached civilization, they transition into a descriptive kinship, with more classifications (now with aunts and uncles) because property superseded kinship as the main determinant of social relations. (Erickson, 1998) A contemporary of Morgan, British jurist and historian, Sir Henry Maine, paralleled this view in his book, “Ancient Law,” in which he argues that civilization is marked by the contract, debt and private property take precedence over the broader classificatory kinship systems heralded by Morgan. (Maine, 1963)

             Edward Tylor is a giant in the social sciences, largely recognized for developing a theory of social evolution which laid the basis for treating anthropology as a science in the nineteenth century. Like Morgan, Tylor’s idea involved progress and improvement through time. This was an argument against a popular concept at the time which held that ‘primitives’ had degenerated after a common Biblical origin. (Barfield, 1997) Thus, unlike many of his contemporaries and predecessors, Tylor asserts that the human mind and its capabilities are the same globally, despite a particular society’s stage in social evolution. Similar to Morgan, yet unlike many other evolutionary theorists of the period, Tylor actually experienced first-hand some of the other cultures with which he was concerned. Many of the other scholars contributing to the discussion were considered armchair anthropologists, which refers to reading merchant and traveler’s accounts of foreign cultures and using them as reliable sources. Tylor only became interested in anthropology and social evolution itself after being sent to Mexico and Cuba to recover from ill health, finding intrigue along the way with these very different cultures and the archaeological findings regarding their ancient, great civilizations. Tylor differed from others interested in evolutionism in that he focused much more on humanist topics such as religion rather than on material culture.

            A predecessor of Morgan and Tylor, Spencer is a name that should not be forgotten. Although citing his insights as influential to the social sciences has largely been abandoned, Herbert Spencer was one of the most influential figures in European thought. For the uninitiated it may be quite surprising to learn that Spencer elaborated earlier than Darwin on evolution. In fact, it was Spencer who coined the phrase, “survival of the fittest”, and applied evolutionary thinking to human social life, so that it would be more apt to rename social-Darwinism as social-Spencerism. (Barfield, 1997)

            Spencer was a self-taught polymath who was interested in a unifying theory of everything, from physics to social behavior. The thread knitting all these fields together in Spencer’s view is evolution which, unlike Darwin who was interested in the mechanism (natural selection), Spencer was interested in direction. For Spencer, the everything in the universe is destined to gradually shift from simple to more complex, but not just directionless change, orderliness increases with complexity. Spencer believed in a homogenized origin that gradually shifts into heterogeneity. This idea came to torment Spencer later in life as the principle of entropy rendered many aspects of his argument essentially impotent, but not all. As we see in later scholars such as Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski, Spencer can still hold influential clout while the modern academic discards his evolutionism while retaining features of his functionalism.

            While many of the ideas espoused concerning evolutionism during the nineteenth century are considered antiquated by today’s standards, there is much value derived from grappling with these ideas. Of course for the anthropologist, it is quite important to understand the history of the discipline and the pitfalls previous theorists have confronted or succumbed to in their quest to advance the discourse on social theory. No less relevant, though much less talked about, is the importance of the everyday individual to understand that many of those ideas postulated in the nineteenth century are part of an ongoing discussion rather than the foregone conclusion many of today’s social institutions and even mundane individual human behavioral patterns in the West is built upon.

            Much of today’s economic inequality can be attributed to an era in which society latched onto social-Darwinism’s “survival of the fittest” and the American principle of “rugged-individualism”. Spencer, Tylor and Morgan among other early evolutionist thinkers of the nineteenth century were the stewards of the ideological institutions which played a key role in ushering in such an era of class and race based inequality. Even Boas, and his attempt to reveal the contradictions of evolutionist theory with empirical evidence has done little overall to, as he would put it, “…break the shackles of tradition.”

            Franz Boas is largely credited with the theory of historical particularism – which contrasts evolutionism in that it claims that each society has its own unique historical development and must be understood based on its own specific cultural and environmental context, especially its historical process. Until Boas presented historical particularism, many anthropologists believed that societies develop according to one universal order of cultural evolution, i.e. unilineal evolution. Boas criticized this belief for being based on insufficient evidence. For example, unilineal evolution claims that matrilineal kinship systems preceded patrilineal systems and that religions based on animism developed before polytheistic ones. Boas argues that this ordering is merely an assumption because there is no historical evidence or way to demonstrate its validity. Additionally, he criticized evolutionists about their method, which generally relied on missionaries or traders for data collection, while anthropologists themselves rarely went into the field. (Murphy, 2013)

            After Boas and his historical particularism comes a new group of evolutionist theorists concerned with revamping the nineteenth century principles to make it more palatable to those concerned with the topic in the 1930’s. This marks the beginning of Neoevolutionism. The main difference between neoevolutionism and its nineteenth century counterpart is whether they are empirical or not. Contrary to early evolutionism, neoevolutionism relied on measurable information for analyzing the process of cultural evolution. The neoevolutionary thoughts also gave some kind of common ground for cross-cultural analysis. Largely through their efforts, evolutionary theory was again generally accepted among anthropologists by the late 1960’s.

            The most significant of the neoevolutionist contributors would have to be Leslie White, whose attempts to restore evolutionary theory began in the 1920’s as he grew more impressed with Morgan’s model. White’s main contribution was that he provided scientific insights to the evolution of culture. To do this, White divided culture into three components: technological, sociological, and ideological, with technological culture being the basis for cultural evolution. White’s argument can be summed up as follows: 1. Technology is an attempt to solve the problems of survival, 2. This attempt ultimately means capturing enough energy and diverting it for human needs, 3. Societies that capture more energy and use it more efficiently have an advantage over other societies, 4. Therefore, these different societies are more advanced in an evolutionary sense.

            What we see absent in White’s treatment of evolutionism is the psychic unity of mankind which runs parallel to the great chain of being, both asserting some sort of predestined evolutionary path that we (Western society), are at the pinnacle of both socially and biologically. For White and other neoevolutionists, the theory had ‘evolved’ from a unilineal approach to one that employs a much more scientifically based epistemology. That is to say that if certain conditions are provided then specific results should be predictable. In White’s case it would be E x T = C, where E is the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year, T represents the efficiency of the tools used for exploiting the energy and C represents the degree of cultural development; a bit more sophisticated of a model than we might credit Morgan’s. What was for Morgan some sort of linear path that our species was always planned to develop along, becomes for White the sort of adaptational choices a society makes in regards to what it has to work with. (Wilk, 2013)

            In any event, evolutionism is one of the founding doctrines of anthropology and indeed the social sciences as a whole. In relatively recent years even disciplines such as evolutionary psychology and sociobiology have developed in hopes of adding a new perspective to the discourse. And such a discourse as sociocultural evolution is fraught with pitfalls, since any explanation regarding the development of society is after all only a speculative analysis of our available evidence which is sorely lacking; a discussion on evolutionism will remain ongoing. The concept of unilineal evolution has been proven unsound, but evolutionism itself remains with new theories and approaches to solve the riddle that is our path to advanced development.


  • Alter, Stephen G.. Darwinism and the linguistic image: language, race, and natural theology in the nineteenth century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Print.
  • Barfield, Thomas J.. The dictionary of anthropology. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 20001997. Print.
  • Carneiro, Robert L.. Evolutionism in cultural anthropology: a critical history. Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2003. Print.
  • Erickson, Paul A., and Liam D. Murphy. A history of anthropological theory. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 1998. Print.
  • Freund, David M. P.. Colored property state policy and white racial politics in suburban America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.
  • Maine, Henry Sumner. Ancient law; its connection with the early history of society and its relation to modern ideas.. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963. Print.
  • Murphy, Michael. ” – Anthropological Theories – Department of Anthropology – The University of Alabama.” Department of Anthropology – The University of Alabama. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2013. <;.
  • Sugrue, Thomas J.. The origins of the urban crisis: race and inequality in postwar Detroit. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. Print.
  • Wilk, Richard . “Cultural Files.”edu. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2013. <

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