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Cultural evolution

Cultural evolution refers to a set of theories that have been promoted and criticized by anthropologists (see anthropology and cultural anthropology). Today anthropologists distinguish between "unilinear cultural evolution" and "multinear cultural evolution".

The notion of unilinear cultural evolution has its origins in the Enlightenment notion of progress, and was developed in the mid-late 1800s by such people as Sir E. B. Tylor[?] in England and Lewis Henry Morgan[?] in the United States (Morgan would later have a significant influence on Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels). Their analysis of cross-cultural data was based on three assumptions:

  1. Contemporary societies may be classified and ranked as more "primitive" or more "civilized";
  2. There are a determinate number of stages between "primitive" and "civilized";
  3. All societies progress through these stages in the same sequence.

Note that although this theory (like Herbert Spencer's theory of social evolution) benefited from the growing acceptance of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, its principles contradicted Darwinian theory.

These 19th century ethnologists used these principles primarily to explain differences in religious beliefs and kinship[?] terminologies among various societies.

By the early 1900s, as cultural anthropology shifted to ethnography and more rigorous empirical methods, most anthropologists rejected the theory of unilineal cultural evolution. At first, they argued that the third premise was speculative. As they studied different religious and kinship systems more closely, they argued that evolutionary theory systematically misrepresented ethnographic data. More importantly, they soon came to reject the first premise, the distinction between "primitive" and "civilized" (or "modern"), pointing out that so-called primitive contemporary societies have just as much history, and were just as evolved, as so-called civilized societies.

By the 1950s cultural anthropologists such as Leslie White[?] and Julian Steward[?] sought to revive an evolutionary model on a more scientific basis. White rejected the opposition between "primitive" and "modern" societies but did argue that societies could be distinguished based on the amount of energy they harnessed, and that increased energy allowed for greater social differentiation. Steward rejected the 19th century notion of progress, and instead called attention to the Darwinian notion of "adaptation", and argued that all societies had to adapt to their environment in some way. He argued that different adaptations could be studied through the examination of the specific resources a society exploited, the technology the society relied on to exploit these resources, and the organization of human labor. He argued that different environments and technologies would require different kinds of adaptations, and that as the resource base or technology changed, so too would a culture. In other words, cultures do not change according to some inner logic, but rather in terms of a changing relationship with a changing environment. Cultures would therefore not pass through the same stages in the same order as they changed--rather, they would change in varying ways and directions. He called his theory "multilineal evolution".

The anthropologists Marshall Sahlins[?] and Elman Service[?] wrote a book, Evolution and Culture, in which they attempted to synthesize White's and Steward's approaches. Other anthropologists, building on or responding to work by White and Steward, developed theories of cultural ecology[?] and ecological anthropology[?]. The most prominent examples are Peter Vayda[?] and Roy Rappaport[?]. (See also Marvin Harris[?]'s Cultural Materialism[?].)

Today most anthropologists continue to reject 19th century notions of progress and the three original assumptions of unilineal evolution. Following Steward, they take seriously the relationship between a culture and its environment in attempts to explain different aspects of a culture. But most cultural anthropologists now argue that one must consider the whole social environment, which includes political and economic relations among cultures.

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