Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The two waves of sociocultural evolutionism in anthropological thought

by Gideon Lasco, MD, MSc

Social evolutionism (also cultural evolution or social evolution), in the context of society and culture, is the view that societies progress from one stage of development to another, and that culture is an adaptation; a survival strategy at the level of the species. In the history of anthropological thought, this idea gained currency twice, in two similar but distinct forms. The first, which we now term as unilineal or classical evolutionism, developed during the 1870s-1890s, amid much interest in Darwinian philosophy, espoused by Edward Tylor and Lewis Morgan. The second, neoevolutionism, was espoused by Leslie White, Julian Steward, Marvin Harris and others in the middle of the 20th century and to some extent remains influential in contemporary anthropological thought via cultural ecology.

The first wave of evolutionism came during a time when Western thinkers were seeking to explain social changes, heavily influenced by the rapid transformations that were occurring in their society at the time. Industrialization and technological advances were supporting larger cities which in turn created unprecedented social conditions – incidentally also inspiring Marx and Engels to craft their own explanations that eventually led to another evolutionary perspective: historical materialism. The colonial enterprise also introduced Western thinkers to what they conceived as ‘primitive societies’, giving rise to archaeological and ethnographic endeavors and subsequently, comparative studies, which was what Tylor and Morgan engaged in.

The epistemological context at the time was a heavily positivistic one, which held that in the same way that there are natural laws that describe biology, chemistry, and physics, similar laws can also be found for societies. Thus when Darwin’s theory of evolution among organisms spread in the intellectual world, social scientists were inspired to look at similar processes among societies. It was not unprecedented to examine societies in terms of processes. The Scottsh economist Adam Smith did the same one century earlier, offering four stages of social development. The contribution of Edward Tylor was to offer various cultures to support a view of evolution – a comparative method - claiming that cultures follow distinct phases of development, using various features such as religion as markers of that development, much as biological evolutionists would look at bipedalism or mammary glands.

Lewis Morgan developed a similar view, holding that features of culture like kinship, system of government, and concept of property can be used to measure different societies’ stage of development. By adopting a unilineal view of evolution, classical evolutionists assumed that “primitive cultures” such as the tribes in Australia – the site of Morgan’s fieldwork – were in an earlier stage of development.

Classical evolutionism was criticized as unsupported by ethnographic data, vigorously attacked by likes of Franz Boas, but the view that ‘culture’ is an adaptation to the environment, and Morgan’s view that material considerations are the driver of cultural change was resurrected in another generation. The important distinction between this new generation and the old evolutionism, however, was that most of them did not believe that cultures have to pass through the same stages of evolution. Instead, each culture takes a different course depending on its environment. Moreover, instead of the comparative method, they used empirical approaches. Gone were the ‘conjectural histories’ as Radcliffe-Brown described the classical evolutionists of old. Harris, for instance, used calculations of energy efficiency in analysing India’s ‘sacred cow’. Leslie White even placed energy consumptiom as a measure of cultural development.

Eventually, neoevolutionists’ focus on material culture and technology would influence latter-day cultural ecologists.


Harris, M. (2001). The rise of anthropological theory: A history of theories of culture. AltaMira Press.

Stocking, G. W. (1968). Race, culture, and evolution: Essays in the history of anthropology. University of Chicago Press.

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