Professor Eric Mueggler, Graduate Student Instructor Shana Melnysyn
Today, society accepts the fact that humanity is diverse. This has not always been the case, however. In fact, human diversity is a relatively new idea on the immense and infinite timeline of existence. About 150 years ago, anthropologists and ethnographers partook in a revolution of understanding ethnological time. Scholars and researchers formulated theories and concepts that broke down mental barriers that previously dictated the common outlook on human diversity. Some of the most significant contributions came from Thomas R. Trautmann. His work provides a framework for interpreting a historical view of ethnological thought. This is important to include because in order to understand the transformation in human diversity, we must understand its past. In order to further realize how the concept of human diversity has transformed through time, The Origins of Culture by Edward Burnett (E.B.) Tylor will be cited. E.B. Tylor, an English anthropologist, provides the first examples of cultural evolutionism. Ultimately, Europeans defined human diversity in terms of having similar capacities that evolved into higher and more complex social forms.
To begin let us draw on Trautmann’s historical perspective of human diversity prior to the revolution in ethnological thought. Essentially, ethnological and anthropological accounts were based on biblical narratives (Trautmann 1992: 386). Trautmann explains that, “each nation in the Bible narrative takes its origin by descent from Noah and his three sons, Shem, Ham and Japhet, often identified respectively with the nations of Asia, Africa and Europe” (Trautmann 1992: 386). This view of human beginnings is very simplified. It is also a fundamentally old worldview of ethnology; one based primarily in biblical text. It pinpoints a start and extrapolates from that the anatomy of the world. The reason that this view does not promote human diversity is because it classifies enormous regions together and does not take into account the variances that are inherent to each. A significant benefit of the revolution was its ability to claim separate creations of humans or perhaps even the degeneration from an “original” human type. Becoming aware of the similarities and differences amongst cultures is central to anthropology and stemmed from the revolution in ethnological time. A positive consequence of the revolution in ethnological time was its ability to welcome diversity and dissimilarities inherent to human existence. This new view of human life promoted exploration and education about unique cultures dispersed around the world and spurred anthropological research. However, there were further strides to make before the revolution could occur.
The definitive step towards the revolution in ethnological time was the discovery of archaeological evidence. Human history, up until this point, could essentially be “crowded into the space of a few thousand years” (Trautmann 1992: 380). When bones and extinct animals started to be found by anthropologists, the idea of a short chronology of life was changed forever (Trautmann 1992: 380). All of a sudden, anthropologists had great lengths of time to fill. Therefore, they had to develop a new schema or theory to fill in the immense time gaps that were becoming more evident based on archaeological findings. The prevailing theory that surfaced out of the revolution in ethnological time is social evolutionism (Trautmann 1992: 380). This concept is largely the result of Charles Darwin’s findings and publications. It is not to say that the revolution in ethnological time was the result of Darwinism, but rather that his theory helped put the pieces of the puzzle together (Trautmann 1992: 379). Trautmann explains further by saying, “now it is certainly the case that anthropology as we know it came into existence in the decade of Darwin, more or less between the publication of The origin of species in 1859 and that of The descent of man in 1871” (Trautmann 1992: 379). This, therefore, sets the stage for exploration into human diversity following the revolution in ethnological time.
Some anthropologists maintained that cultures all possessed similar capacities, but were at different locations in terms of their progression towards being fully actualized, or in other words, European. E.B. Tylor articulates this point in The Science of Culture when he states that, “mankind [is] homogenous in nature, though placed in different grades of civilization” (Tylor 1958: 7). In order to support this idea with evidence, Tylor studies civilizations based on similarities that can be found within each. Tylor looks specifically at the development of weapons, textile arts, and myths (Tylor 1958: 7). Tylor likens the process of classification to that of a naturalist studying species of plants (Tylor 1958: 8). This is a critical distinction to make in the understanding of human diversity. The components that make up culture to anthropologists following the revolution in ethnological time have therefore become far more systematic and structured. Human diversity, therefore, is grouped and combined so that it is easier understood.
Recognizing that human diversity can be tackled in the same manner as a naturalist promoted the importance of geographical distribution (Tylor 1958: 8). Tylor explains that, “just as certain plants and animals are peculiar to certain districts, so it is with such instruments as the Australian boomerang, […] and in like manner with many an art, myth, or custom, found in a particular field” (Tylor 1958: 8). Anthropologists further gained awareness that regions on Earth could be as populous with diversity as the trees and flowers of the world. This is significant because it reveals that there is a wealth of diversity on the planet. It also reveals a different approach to thinking about diversity. It suggested that diversity was constantly changing and contorting itself and that one type of civilization gave rise to another.
Tylor further comments on the evolution of civilizations by targeting various items that he refers to as “survivals” (Tylor 1958: 16). Tylor hypothesizes that these survivals are various habits that persist through the decades, which inevitably provide proof that there used to be an older culture than the one that exists today (Tylor 1958: 16). In order to illustrate this point, one could think about a long-bow and a cross-bow. Both of these instruments are relatively the same. They serve the same general purpose. However, one of the instruments is perhaps a little more sophisticated and more developed than its counterpart. It is natural to assume then that the cross-bow was the result of a modification of the long-bow (Tylor 1958: 15). It is important to note that the task that is being performed with this instrument, hunting in this case, is central to most all civilizations. This furthers the idea that civilizations have similar capacities, but differentiate themselves in how they achieve those means by forming culturally diverse habits or using special tools. Aside from survival, a civilization has other means of diversifying itself. Tylor proposes that through means of progress, degradation, revival, and modification, civilizations can change and grow (Tylor 1958: 17). All of these options allow for a number of dimensions in which civilizations can evolve.
Without the revolution in ethnological time, the understanding and breadth of knowledge associated with human diversity would never have been as encompassing as it has become. Before the revolution, the history of mankind was seen as short period in time that depended upon old scriptures like the Bible for reference. As Trautmann puts it, “the decisive event for the formation of anthropology […] [was] the sudden collapse of the short biblical chronology for human history, and the opening out of an earlier prehistory of indefinite length” (Trautmann 1992: 379). Prior to this, there was a closed interpretation and understanding of civilizations and cultures. However, anthropologists and ethnographers had to adapt to these new findings. The way that they adapted was through molding present discoveries at the time to the study of civilizations. Around the same time that anthropologists were making a number of archaeological finds, which suggested a much longer human history than initially thought, Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution. Anthropologists further adapted this theory to civilizations. This literally transformed the way that people thought about human diversity. Cultural evolution forced anthropologists to think about the history of cultures in different ways. In particular, anthropologists went about their work similar to naturalists by classifying and finding similarities amongst civilizations. This made anthropologists scrutinize civilizations even more and focus on the minor details that formulated a given culture. All of these details were weighed on a gradient with European civilization at the top. This new view did not come without its drawbacks though. By proposing a hierarchical understanding of human life, it intrinsically creates prejudices and authorizes power unjustly. It assumes that European way of life is the pinnacle, which is not warranted by any scientific reasoning. One ought to be aware of both the positive and negative impacts of the revolution in ethnological time. The revolution definitively shifted anthropologists thinking about differences amongst cultures due to a greater understanding of human history, which richly contributed to the promotion of human diversity.
Trautmann, Thomas R.
1992 The Revolution in Ethnological Time. Man, New Series 27(2): 379-297.
Tylor, Edward Burnett
1958 “The Science of Culture” in The Origins of Culture. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers.