19th-century Evolutionism

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The theory of Nineteenth-century Evolutionism claims that societies develop according to one universal order of cultural evolution. The theorists identified the universal evolutional stages and classified different societies as savagery, barbarian and civilization. The Nineteenth-century Evolutionists collected data from missionaries and traders and they themselves rarely went to the societies that they were analyzing. They organized these second-hand data and applied the general theory to all societies. Since Western societies had the most advanced technology, they put those societies at the highest rank of civilization.

The Nineteenth-century Evolutionists had two main assumptions that form the theory. One was psychic unity, a concept that suggests human minds share similar characteristics all over the world. This means that all people and their societies will go through the same process of development. Another underlying assumption was that Western societies are superior to other societies in the world. This assumption was based on the fact that Western societies were dominant because of their military and economic power against technologically simple societies.

The Nineteenth-century Evolutionists contributed to anthropology by providing the first systematic methods for thinking about and explaining human societies. Their evolutionary theory is insightful with regard to the technological aspect of societies. There is a logical progression from using simple tools to developing complex technology. In this sense, complex societies are more “advanced” than simple societies. However, this judgment does not necessarily apply to other aspects of societies, such as kin systems, religions and childrearing customs.

Contemporary anthropologists view Nineteenth-century Evolutionism as too simplistic to explain the development of various societies. In general, the Nineteenth-century evolutionists relied on racist views of human development which were popular at that time. For example, both Lewis Henry Morgan and Edward Burnett Tylor believed that people in various societies have different levels of intelligence, which leads to societal differences. This view of intelligence is no longer valid in contemporary science. Nineteenth-century Evolutionism was strongly attacked by Historical Particularists for being speculative and ethnocentric at the early twentieth-century. At the same time, its materialist approaches and cross-cultural views influenced Marxist Anthropology and Neo-evolutionists.

Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917, Great Britain)

The founder of cultural anthropology was the English scientist Edward Burnett Tylor. He adapted Charles Darwin's theory of biological evolution to the study of human societies. Tylor's own theory asserted that there is a progressive development of human cultures from the most primitive to the highest stages of civilization. He believed that societies evolve in much the same way as do biological organisms. In developing the concept of “survivals,” he noted that ancient customs and beliefs often survive in modern cultures, although somewhat transformed.

Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881, The United States)

Lewis Henry Morgan is a unilineal evolutionist who claimed that societies develop according to one universal order of cultural evolution. Morgan believed in a hierarchy of evolutionary development from “savagery” to “barbarism” to “civilization.” According to Morgan, the crucial distinction between civilized society and earlier societies is private property. He described “savage” societies as communistic, contrasting with “civilized” societies, which are based on private property.

Although Morgan’s theory has been criticized for being speculative and ethnocentric, his evolutionary theory influenced the development of anthropology. First, Morgan outlined the importance of the study of kinship systems for understanding the social organizations. Second, Morgan conducted cross-cultural research that attempted to be systematic and large-scale. Finally, Morgan organized anthropological data and formulated the evolutionary theory rather than simply collecting cultural data.

19th-century Evolutionism | Historical Particularism | Functionalism | Culture and Personality | Neoevolutionism | Materialism and NeoMaterialism | Structuralism | Symbolic Anthropology | Postmodernism