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The theory of Neoevolutionism explained how culture develops by giving general principles of its evolutionary process. The theory of cultural evolution was originally established in the 19th century. However, this Nineteenth-century Evolutionism was dismissed by the Historical Particularists as unscientific in the early 20th century. Therefore, the topic of cultural evolution had been avoided by many anthropologists until Neoevolutionism emerged in the 1930s. In other words, it was the Neoevolutionary thinkers who brought back evolutionary thought and developed it to be acceptable to contemporary anthropology.

The main difference between Neoevolutionism and Nineteenth-century Evolutionism is whether they are empirical or not. While Nineteenth-century evolutionism used value judgment and assumptions for interpreting data, the new one 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 1960s.

Julian Steward (The United States, 1902-1972)

Julian Steward is an Neoevolutionist who focused on relationships between cultures and the natural environment. Although Steward learned Historical Particularism when he was a graduate student of anthropology, his interests later turned to environmental influences on cultures and cultural evolution. He argued that different cultures do have similar features in their evolution and that these features could be explained as parallel adaptations to similar natural environments.

Steward began his ethnographic career among the Shoshone, a Native American tribe in the Great Basin in the West of the United States. Through studying the Shoshone society in the dry harsh environment, he produced a theory that explained social systems in terms of their adaptation to environmental and technological circumstances. Steward’s evolutionary theory, cultural ecology, is based on the idea that a social system is determined by its environmental resources. Steward outlined three basic steps for a cultural-ecological investigation. First, the relationship between subsistence strategies and natural resources must be analyzed. Second, the behavior patterns involved in a particular subsistence strategy must be analyzed. For example, certain game is best hunted by individuals while other game can be captured in communal hunts. These patterns of activities reveal that different social behaviors are involved in the utilization of different resources. The third step is to determine how these behavior patterns affect other aspects of the society. This strategy showed that environment determines the forms of labor in a society, which affects the entire culture of the group.

The principal concern of cultural ecology is to determine whether cultural adaptations toward the natural environment initiate social transformations of evolutionary change. Although Steward did not believe in one universal path of cultural evolution, he argued that different societies can independently develop parallel features. By applying cultural ecology, he identified several common features of cultural evolution which are seen in different societies in similar environments. He avoided sweeping statements about culture in general; instead, he dealt with parallels in limited numbers of cultures and gave specific explanations for the causes of such parallels. Steward’s evolutionary theory is called multilinear evolution because the theory is based on the idea that there are several different patterns of progress toward cultural complexity. In other words, Steward did not assume universal evolutionary stages that apply to all societies. For example, he traced the evolutionary similarities in five ancient civilizations: Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Mesoamerica, and the Andes. These cultures shared parallels in development of form and function because all of them developed in arid and semi-arid environments where the economic basis was irrigation and flood-water agriculture. He argued that these similarities stem not from universal stages of cultural development or from the diffusion of civilization between these regions, but from the similar natural environments.

Leslie White (The United States, 1900-1975)

Leslie White developed the theory of cultural evolution, which was ignored by most anthropologists at that time. White’s attempts to restore the evolutionary topic started in the 1920s, when he was impressed by Morgan’s model and logic of his evolutionary theory. White decided that whatever problems the theory had, it could not be dismissed. His main contribution was that he provided scientific insights to the evolution of culture. He created a formula that measures the degree of cultural development.

First, White divided culture into three components: technological, sociological and ideological, and argued that the technological aspect is the basis of cultural evolution. The technological aspect is composed of material, mechanical, physical and chemical instruments, as well as the way people use these techniques. White’s argument on the importance of technology goes 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.

Based on the logics above, White expressed the degree of cultural development by the formula: E x T = C. In this method, E is the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year, T shows the efficiency of the tools used for exploiting the energy, and C represents the degree of cultural development. Presenting this measurement, White asserted that developing effective control over energy is the prime cause of cultural evolution. As shown in his theory of cultural evolution, White believed that culture has general laws of its own. Based on these universal principles, culture evolves by itself. Therefore, an anthropologist’s task is to discover those principles and explain the particular phenomena of culture. He called this approach culturology, which attempts to define and predict cultural phenomena by understanding general patterns of culture.

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