Basic Premises 

In the early years of anthropology, the prevailing view was that culture generally develops (or evolves) in a uniform and progressive manner. It was thought that most societies pass through the same series of stages, to arrive ultimately at a common end. The sources of culture change were generally assumed to be embedded within the culture from the beginning, and therefore the ultimate course of development was thought to be internally determined.

This notion of evolutionary progress of society was widely accepted as far back as the Enlightenment. Both French and Scottish social and moral philosophers were using evolutionary schemes during the 18th century. Among these was Montesquieu, who proposed an evolutionary scheme consisting of three stages: hunting or savagery, herding or barbarism, and civilization. This division became very popular among the 19th century social theorists, Tylor and Morgan in particular adopted this scheme (Seymour-Smith 1986:105). 

By the mid-nineteenth century, the cycle of European exploration, conquest, and colonization had yielded vast possessions with a variety of peoples culturally alien to European existence, and thus both politically and scientifically problematic. The discipline of anthropology, beginning with these early social theories arose largely in response to this encounter between cultures (Winthrop 1991:109). Cultural evolution - anthropology’s first systematic ethnological theory - was intended to help explain this diversity among the peoples of the world.

The notion of dividing the ethnological record into evolutionary stages ranging from the most primitive to the most civilized was fundamental to the new ideas of the nineteenth century social evolutionists. Drawing upon Enlightenment thought, Darwin’s work, and new cross-cultural, historical, and archaeological evidence, a whole generation of social evolutionary theorists emerged with Tylor and Morgan. These theorists developed rival schemes of overall social and cultural progress, as well as the of the origins of different specific institutions such as religion, marriage, and the family. 

Edward B. Tylor disagreed with the contention of some early-nineteenth-century French and English writers, led by Comte Joseph de Maistre, that such groups as the American Indians were examples of degenerated peoples. Tylor maintained that culture evolved from the simple to the complex, and that all societies passed through the three basic stages of development suggested by Montesquieu: from savagery through barbarism to civilization. “Progress” was therefore possible for all.

To account for cultural variation, Tylor and other early evolutionists postulated that different contemporary societies were at different stages of evolution. According to this view, the “simpler” peoples of the day had not yet reached “higher” stages. Thus, simpler contemporary societies were thought to resemble ancient societies. The more advanced societies, on the other hand, testified to cultural evolution by exhibiting what Tylor called survivals - traces of earlier customs that survive in present-day cultures. The making of pottery is an example of a survival in the sense used by Tylor. Earlier peoples made their cooking pots out of clay; today we generally make them out of metal because it is more durable. But we still prefer dishes made out of clay. 

Tylor believed that there was a kind of psychic unity among all peoples that explained parallel evolutionary sequences in different cultural traditions. In other words, because of the basic similarities common to all peoples, different societies often find the same solutions to the same problems independently. But Tylor also noted that cultural traits may spread from one society to another by simple diffusion - the borrowing by one culture of a trait belonging to another as the result of contact between the two. 

Another nineteenth-century proponent of uniform and progressive cultural evolution was Lewis Henry Morgan. A lawyer in upstate New York, Morgan became interested in the local Iroquois Indians and defended their reservation in a land-grant case. In gratitude, the Iroquois adopted Morgan, who regarded them as “noble savages.”

In his best-known work, Ancient Society, Morgan divided the evolution of human culture into the same three basic stages Tylor had suggested (savagery, barbarism, and civilization). But he also subdivided savagery and barbarism into upper, middle, and lower segments (Morgan 1877: 5-6), providing contemporary examples of each of these three stages. Each stage was distinguished by technological development and had a correlate in patterns of subsistence, marriage, family, and political organization. In Ancient Society, Morgan commented, “As it is undeniable that portions of the human family have existed in a state of savagery, other portions in a state of barbarism, and still others in a state of civilization, it seems equally so that these three distinct conditions are connected with each other in a natural as well as necessary sequence of progress” (Morgan 1877:3).

Morgan distinguished these stages of development in terms of technological achievement, and thus each had its identifying benchmarks. Middle savagery was marked by the acquisition of a fish diet and the discovery of fire; upper savagery by the bow and arrow; lower barbarism by pottery; middle barbarism by animal domestication and irrigated agriculture; upper barbarism by the manufacture of iron; and civilization by the phonetic alphabet (Morgan 1877: chapter 1). For Morgan, the cultural features distinguishing these various stages arose from a “few primary germs of thought” - germs that had emerged while humans were still savages and that later developed into the “principle institutions of mankind.”

Morgan postulated that the stages of technological development were associated with a sequence of different cultural patterns. For example, he speculated that the family evolved through six stages. Human society began as a “horde living in promiscuity,” with no sexual prohibitions and no real family structure. Next was a stage in which a group of brothers was married to a group of sisters and brother-sister mating were permitted. In the third stage, group marriage was practiced, but brothers and sisters were not allowed to mate. The fourth stage, which supposedly evolved during barbarism, was characterized by a loosely paired male and female who lived with other people. Then came the husband-dominant family, in which the husband could have more than one wife simultaneously. Finally, the stage of civilization was distinguished by the monogamous family, with just one wife and one husband who were relatively equal in status.

Morgan believed that family units became progressively smaller and more self-contained as human society developed. However, his postulated sequence for the evolution of the family is not supported by the enormous amount of ethnographic data that has been collected since his time. For example, no recent society that Morgan would call savage indulges in group marriage or allows brother-sister mating.

Although their work reached toward the same end, the evolutionary theorists each had very different ideas and foci for their studies. Differing from Morgan, Tylor and Frazer focusing on the evolution of religion, viewed the progress of society or culture from the viewpoint of the evolution of psychological or mental systems. Among the other evolutionary theorists who put forth schemes of development of society, including different religious, kinship, and legal institution were Frazer, Maine, McLellan, and Bachofen.

It is important to once again note that all of these early evolutionary schemes are unilineal because they argue for a single series of stages along which it was assumed that all human groups would progress through (although at uneven rates). Thus a contemporary “primitive” group could be taken as a representative of an earlier stage of development of more advanced types. 

The evolutionist program can be more or less summed up in this segment of Tylor’s Primitive Culture which notes: 
"The condition of culture among the various societies of mankind…is a subject apt for the study of laws of human thought and action. On the one hand, the uniformity which so largely pervades civilization may be ascribed, in great measure, to the uniform action of uniform causes; while on the other hand its various grades may be regarded as stages of development or evolution, each the outcome of previous history, and about to do its proper part in shaping the history of the future (Tylor 1871:1:1).” 

Points of Reaction

Evolutionism as a reaction to other intellectual concerns:

The argument as to whether civilization had evolved or had always existed with the primitives as miserable, sinful outcasts was not easily settled. The degeneration theory of savagery (that primitives regressed from the civilized state) had to be fought vigorously before social anthropology could progress. The social evolutionists countered the degenerationist views regarding primitivism as an indication of the fall from Grace. 

Social evolutionism offered an alternative to the Christian/theological approach to understanding cultural diversity, and thus encountered more opposition. The new views presented evolution as a line of progression in which the lower stages were prerequisite to the upper. This idea countered old ideas about the relationships between God, mankind, and the nature of life and progress. Evolutionists criticized the Christian approach as requiring divine revelation to explain civilization. 

Reactions within evolutionist thought:

There existed high rhetoric among the evolutionists, particularly concerning the most primitive stages of society. It was highly debated as to the order of primitive promiscuity, patriarchy, and matriarchy.

Reactions to evolutionism:

Karl Marx was struck by the parallels between Morgan’s evolutionism and his own theory of history. Marx and his co-worker, Friedrich Engels, devised a theory in which the institutions of monogamy, private property, and the state were assumed to be chiefly responsible for the exploitation of the working classes in modern industrialized societies. Marx and Engels extended Morgan’s evolutionary scheme to include a future stage of cultural evolution in which monogamy, private property, and the state would cease to exist and the “communism” of primitive society would once more come into being. 

The beginning of the twentieth century brought the end of evolutionism’s reign in cultural anthropology. Its leading opponent was Franz Boas, whose main disagreement with the evolutionists involved their assumption that universal laws governed all human culture. Boas pointed out that these nineteenth-century individuals lacked sufficient data (as did Boas himself) to formulate many useful generalizations. Thus historicism (and later functionalism) were reactions to nineteenth century social evolutionism.

Leading Figures 
Johann Jacob Bachofen (1815-1887). Swiss lawyer and classicist who developed a theory of the evolution of kinship systems. He postulated that primitive promiscuity was first characterized by matriarchy and later by patrilineality. This later stage of patrilineality was developed in relation to Bachofen’s theory of the development of private property and the want of man to pass this on to their children. Bachofen’s postulation of a patrilianeal stage following a matrilineal stage was agreed upon by Morgan (Seymour-Smith 1986:21).
Sir James George Frazer(1854 - 1873). Educated at Cambridge, he was considered to be the last of the British classical evolutionists. Frazer was an encyclopedic collector of data (although he never did any fieldwork), publishing dozens of volumes including the popular The Golden Bough. Frazer summed up this study of magic and religion by stating that “magic came first in men’s minds, then religion, then science, each giving way slowly and incompletely to the other (Hays 1965:127).” First published in two volumes and later expanded to twelve, Frazer’s ideas from The Golden Bough were widely accepted. Frazer went on to study the value of superstition in the evolution of culture saying that it strengthened the respect for private property, strengthened the respect for marriage, and contributed to the stricter observance of the rules of sexual morality. 
Sir John Lubbock (Lord Avebury). Botanist and antiquarian who was a staunch pupil of Darwin. He observed that some stone implements were cruder than others, and seemed, as they lay on the bottom of deposits, to be older. He coined the terms paleolithic and neolithic. The title of Lubbock’s book, Prehistoric Times: As Illustrated by Ancient Remains and the Customs of Modern Savages illustrates the evolutionists analogies to “stone age contemporaries.” This work also countered the degenerationist views in stating “It is common opinion that savages are, as a general rule, only miserable remnants of nations once more civilized; but although there are some well established cases of national decay, there is no scientific evidence which would justify us in asserting that this is generally the case (Hays 1965:51-52).” Lubbock also contributed a gradual evolution of religion, seen in five stages: atheism, nature worship (totemism), shamanism, idolatry, and monotheism. 
Sir Henry James Sumner Maine (1822-1888). English jurist and social theorist who focused on the development of legal systems as the key to social evolution. His scheme traces society from systems based on kinship to those based on territoriality, and from status to contract and from civil to criminal law. Maine argued that the most primitive societies were patriarchal. This view contrasted with the believers in the primacy of primitive promiscuity and matriarchy. Maine also contrasted with other evolutionists in that he was not a proponent of unilinear evolution (Seymour-Smith 1986:175-176). 
John F. McLellan (1827-1881). Scottish lawyer who was inspired by ethnographic accounts of bride capture. From this he built a theory of the evolution of marriage. Like others including Bachofen, McLellan postulated an original period of primitive promiscuity followed by matriarchy. His argument began with primitive peoples practicing female infanticide because women did not hunt to support the group. The shortage of women that followed was resolved by the practice of bride capture and fraternal polyandry. These then gave rise to patrilineal descent. McLellan, in his Primitive Marriage, coined the terms exogamy and endogamy (Seymour-Smith 1986:185-186). 
Lewis Henry Morgan (1818 - 1881). One of the most influential evolutionary theorists of the 19th century and has been called the father of American anthropology. An American lawyer whose interest in Iroquois Indian affairs led him to study their customs and social system, giving rise to the first modern ethnographic study of a Native American group, the League of the Iroquois in 1851. In this, he considered ceremonial, religious, and political aspects and also initiated his study of kinship and marriage which he was later to develop into a comparative theory in his 1871 work, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity. This latter work is also a milestone in the development of anthropology, establishing kinship and marriage as central areas of anthropological inquiry and beginning an enduring preoccupation with kinship terminologies as the key to the interpretation of kinship systems. His Ancient Society is the most influential statement of the nineteenth-century cultural evolutionary position, to be developed by many later evolutionists and employed by Marx and Engels in their theory of social evolution. Employing Montesquieu’s categories of savagery, barbarism, and civilization, Morgan subdivided the first two categories into three stages (lower, middle, and upper) and gave contemporary ethnographic examples of each stage. Each stage was characterized by a technological advance and was correlated with advances in subsistence patterns, family and marriage and political organization (Seymour-Smith 1986:201).
Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832 - 1917). Put the science of anthropology on a firm basis and destroyed the degeneration theory. Tylor formulated a definition of culture: “Culture or civilization is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society,” and also developed the idea of survivals. His major contributions were in the field of religion and mythology, and he cited magic, astrology, and witchcraft as clues to primitive religion. In Tylor’s best work, Primitive Culture, he attempts to illuminate the complicated aspects of religious and magical phenomena. It was an impressive and well-reasoned analysis of primitive psychology and far more general in application than anything which had been earlier suggested. Tylor correlates the three levels of social evolution to types of religion: savages practicing animatism, barbarians practicing polytheism, and civilized man practicing monotheism. The primary importance of Tylor in relation to his contemporaries results from his use of statistics in his research.

Key Works 
Frazer, James George. 1890 [1959]. The New Golden Bough. 1 vol, abr. 
Theodor H. Gaster, ed. New York: Criterion. 
Lubbock, John. 1872. Prehistoric Times: As Illustrated by Ancient Remains and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages. New York: Appleton. 
Maine, Henry. 1861. Ancient Law. 
McLellan, John. 1865. Primitive Marriage. 
Morgan, Lewis Henry. 1876. Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family. 
----------. 1877. Ancient Society or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress rom Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr. 
Tylor, Edward B. 1871 [1958]. Primitive Culture. 2 vols. New York: Harper Torchbook. 

Principal Concepts

These terms are added only supplementarily, and more elaborate understandings can be discerned from reading the above basic premises: 
unilinear social evolution - the notion that culture generally develops (or evolves) in a uniform and progressive manner. It was thought that most societies pass through the same series of stages, to arrive ultimately at a common end. The scheme originally included just three parts, but was later subdivided into several to account for a greater cultural diversity.
the psychic unity of mankind - the belief that the human mind was everywhere essentially similar. “Some form of psychic unity is …implied whenever there is an emphasis on parallel evolution, for if the different peoples of the world advanced through similar sequences, it must be assumed that they all began with essentially similar psychological potentials (Harris 1968:137).”
survivals - traces of earlier customs that survive in present-day cultures. Tylor formulated the doctrine of survivals in analyzing the symbolic meaning of certain social customs. “Meaningless customs must be survivals, they had a practical or at least a ceremonial intention when and where they first arose, but are now fallen into absurdity from having been carried on into a new state in society where the original sense has been discarded. (Hays 1965: 64).”
primitive promiscuity - the theory that the original state of human society was characterized by the lack of incest taboos, or rules regarding sexual relations or marriage. Early anthropologists such as Morgan, McLellan, Bachofen and Frazer held this view. It was opposed on the other hand by those who like Freud argued that the original form of society was the primal patriarchal horde or like Westermark and Maine that it was the paternal monogamous family (Seymour-Smith 1986:234).
stages of development - favored by early theorists was a tripartite scheme of social evolution from savagery to barbarianism to civilization. This scheme was originally proposed by Montesquieu, and was carried into the thinking of the social evolutionists, and in particular Tylor and Morgan.


The Comparative Method

Harris (1968:150-151) has an excellent discussion of this approach. “…The main stimulus for [the comparative method] came out of biology where zoological and botanical knowledge of extant organisms was routinely applied to the interpretation of the structure and function of extinct fossil forms. No doubt, there were several late-nineteenth-century anthropological applications of this principle which explicitly referred to biological precedent. In the 1860’s, however, it was the paleontology of Lyell, rather than of Darwin, that was involved. … John Lubbock justified his attempt to “illustrate” the life of prehistoric times in terms of an explicit analogy with geological practices: 
"… the archaeologist is free to follow the methods which have been so successfully pursued in geology - the rude bone and stone implements of bygone ages being to the one what the remains of extinct animals are to the other. The analogy may be pursued even further than this. Many mammalia which are extinct in Europe have representatives still living in other countries. Our fossil pachyderms, for instance, would be almost unintelligible but for the species which still inhabit some parts of Asia and Africa; the secondary marsupials are illustrated by their existing representatives in Australia and South America; and in the same manner, if we wish clearly to understand the antiquities of Europe, we must compare them with the rude implements and weapons still, or until lately, used by the savage races in other parts of the world. In fact, Van Diemaner and South American are to the antiquary what the opossum and the sloth are to the geologist (1865:416).” 

All theorists of the latter half of the nineteenth century proposed to fill the gaps in the available knowledge of universal history largely by means of a special and much-debated procedure known as the “comparative method.” The basis for this method was the belief that sociocultural systems observable in the present bear differential degrees of resemblance to extinct cultures. The life of certain contemporary societies closely resembles what life must have been like during the paleolithic; other groups resemble typical neolithic culture; and others resemble the earliest state-organized societies. Morgan’s view of this prolongation of the past into the present is characteristic: 
"…the domestic institutions of the barbarous, and even of the savage ancestors of mankind, are still exemplified in portions of the human family with such completeness that, with the exception of the strictly primitive period, the several stages of this progress are tolerably well preserved. They are seen in the organization of society upon the basis of sex, then upon the basis of kin, and finally upon the basis of territory; through the successive forms of marriage and of the family, with the systems of consanguinity thereby created; through house life and architecture; and through progress in usages with respect to the ownership and inheritance of property." (1870:7) To apply the comparative method, the varieties of contemporary institutions are arranged in a sequence of increasing antiquity. This is achieved through an essentially logical, deductive operation. The implicit assumption is that the older forms are the simpler ones…”


The early evolutionists represented the first efforts to establish a scientific discipline of anthropology (although greatly hampered by the climate of supernatural explanations, a paucity of reliable empirical materials, and their engagement in “armchair speculation”). They aid the foundations of an organized discipline where none had existed before. They left us a legacy of at least three basic assumptions which have become an integral part of anthropological thought and research methodology: 
the dictum that cultural phenomena are to be studied in naturalistic fashion
the premise of the “psychic unity of mankind,” i.e., that cultural differences between groups are not due to differences in psychobiological equipment but to differences in sociocultural experience; and
the use of the comparative method as a surrogate for the experimental and laboratory techniques of the physical sciences (Kaplan 1972: 42-43). 


Morgan believed that family units became progressively smaller and more self-contained as human society developed. However, his postulated sequence for the evolution of the family is not supported by the enormous amount of ethnographic data that has been collected since his time. For example, no recent society that Morgan would call savage indulges in group marriage or allows brother-sister mating.

A second criticism is for the use by Tylor, McLellan, and others of recurrence - if a similar belief or custom could be found in different cultures in many parts of the world, then it was considered to be a valid clue to reconstructing the history of human society. The great weakness of this method lay in the evaluation of evidence plucked out of context, and in the fact that much of the material, at a time when there were almost no trained field workers, came from amateur observers.

The evolutionism of Tylor, Morgan, and others of the nineteenth century is largely rejected today. For one thing, their theories cannot satisfactorily account for cultural variation - why, for instance, some societies today are in “upper savagery” and others in “civilization.” The “psychic unity of mankind” or “germs of thought” that were postulated to account for parallel evolution cannot also account for cultural differences. Another weakness in the early evolutionists theories is that they cannot explain why some societies have regressed or even become extinct. Also, although other societies may have progressed to “civilization,” some of them have not passed through all the stages. Thus, early evolutionist theory cannot explain the details of cultural evolution and variation as anthropology now knows them. Finally, one of the most common criticisms leveled at the nineteenth century evolutionists is that they were highly ethnocentric - they assumed that Victorian England, or its equivalent, represented the highest achievement of mankind. 
“[The] unilineal evolutionary schemes [of these theorists] fell into disfavor in the 20th century, partly as a result of the constant controversy between evolutionist and diffusionist theories and partly because of the newly accumulating evidence about the diversity of specific sociocultural systems which made it impossible to sustain the largely “armchair” speculations of these early theorists (Seymour-Smith 1986:106).” 


Harris called Morgan and Tylor racists (1968:137,140), but they were the great thinkers of their time. I learned Tylor’s definition of culture as an undergraduate and all cultural anthropology classes discuss Morgan’s stages of development. These were the guys who got the ball rolling in social anthropology. They came up with the theories which opposed the traditional views. Their theories caused a new wave of thinking by people who agreed and changed their views and also by people who disagreed and came up with new theories to replace those of the evolutionists. The work of the nineteenth century social evolutionists represents an important step toward the field of anthropology today.

Evans-Pritchard, Sir Edward 1981 A History of Anthropological Thought. Basic Books, Inc., New York.
Harris, Marvin 1968 The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture. Thomas Y. Crowell, New York.
Hatch, Elvin 1973 Theories of Man and Culture. Columbia University Press, New York. 
Hays, H. R. 1965 From Ape to Angel: An Informal History of Social Anthropology. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 
Kaplan, David and Robert A. Manners 1972 Culture Theory. Waveland Press, Inc., Prospect Heights, Illinois.
Kuklick, Henrika 1991 The Savage Within: The Social History of British Anthropology, 1885-1945. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Seymour-Smith, Charlotte 1986 Macmillan Dictionary of Anthropology. Macmillan, New York.
Stocking Jr., George W. 1968 Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. The Free Press, New York.
Stocking Jr., George W. 1995 After Tylor: British Social Anthropology 1888-1951. The University of Wisconsin Press.
Winthrop, Robert H. 1991 Dictionary of Concepts in Cultural Anthropology. Greenwood Press, New York.

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