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I.6.(a) Classical evolutionism

Classical evolutionism represent the earliest approach to building of anthropological theories.

Basic Premises

The classical Evolutionism is based on Darwin’s theory of evolution. It states that culture generally develops (or evolves) in a uniform and progressive manner. Most societies pass through the same or similar series of stages to arrive at a common end. Change was thought to originate principally from within the culture, so development was thought to be internally determined.

The classical evolutionist believed in Unilineal evolution. It refers to the idea that there is a set sequence of stages that all groups will pass through at some point, although the pace of progress through these stages will vary greatly.

The discipline of anthropology, beginning with these early social theories arose largely in response to encounter between the disparate cultures of quite different societies . Cultural evolution – anthropology’s first systematic ethnological theory – was intended to help explain this diversity among the peoples of the world. Both French and Scottish social and moral philosophers believed in evolution. Montesquieu proposed an evolutionary scheme consisting of three stages: hunting or savagery, herding or barbarism, and civilization.

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

Points of Reaction

  1. Evolutionists criticized the Christian approach as requiring divine revelation to explain civilization.
  2. The classical evolutionism offered a naturalist approach to understanding sociocultural variation within our species.
  3. It arose in opposition to the cultural degeneration.

Key Works

  • Frazer, James George- The New Golden Bough.
  • Lubbock, John- Prehistoric Times: As Illustrated by Ancient Remains and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages.
  • Maine, Henry -Ancient Law.
  • McLellan, John- Primitive Marriage.
  • Morgan, Lewis Henry- Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family.
  • Morgan, Lewis Henry- Ancient Society or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress rom Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization.
  • Tylor, Edward B. – Primitive Culture.

Principal Concepts

unilinear social evolution – the notion that culture generally develops (or evolves) in a uniform and progressive manner. Most societies pass through the same series of stages, (savagery, barbarism, and civilization), to arrive ultimately at a common end. The scheme originally included just three stages
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”
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”
primitive promiscuity – the theory that the original state of human society was characterized by the lack of incest taboos and other rules regarding sexual relations or marriage. Early anthropologists such as Morgan, McLellan, Bachofen and Frazer held this view. It was opposed by those scholars 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
stages of development – favored by early theorists who embraced a tripartite scheme of social evolution from savagery to barbarianism to civilization. This scheme was originally proposed by Montesquieu, and was further developed by the social evolutionists, most influentially by Tylor and Morgan.


The Comparative Method – Harris has an excellent discussion of this approach.

  1. the paleontology of Lyell,
  2. John Lubbock – an explicit analogy with geological practices:

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 resembled what life must have been like during the Paleolithic, Neolithic, or early state-organized societies.

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 forms.


  1. The first efforts to establish a scientific discipline of anthropology
  2. They aided in the development of the foundations of an organized discipline where none had existed before.
  3. They left us a legacy of at least three basic assumptions which have become an integral part of anthropological thought and research methodology, as outlined by Kaplan
    • 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


  1. As more data became available, the proposed sequences did not reflected the observations of professionally trained fieldworkers.
  2. Reconstruction of the history of the development, spread, and contact among different human societies did nor reflected the reality.
  3. There were almost no trained field workers, the approach was studied by amateur observers.
  4. These theories cannot satisfactorily account for cultural variation.  The “psychic unity of mankind” or “germs of thought” that were postulated to account for parallel evolution cannot also account for cultural differences.
  5. They cannot explain why some societies have regressed or even become extinct. Early evolutionist theory cannot explain the details of cultural evolution and variation as anthropology now knows them.
  6. They were highly ethnocentric – they assumed that Victorian England, or its equivalent, represented the highest level of development for mankind.
  7. “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”

The beginning of the twentieth century brought the end of evolutionism’s initial 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 argued 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.  But a very different kind of anthropological evolutionism would make  a comeback in the late 20th century as some scholars began to apply notions of natural selection of sociocultural phenomena.

Leading Figures

Johann Jacob Bachofen

  1. Swiss lawyer and classicist
  2. developed a theory of the evolution of kinship systems.
  3. He postulated that primitive promiscuity was first characterized by matriarchy and later by patrilineality.
  4. He linked the emergence of patrilineality to the development of private property and the desire of men to pass property on to their children.
  5. Morgan concurred with Bachofen’s postulation that a patrilineal stage followed matrilineality.

Sir James George Frazer

  1. British classical evolutionists. F
  2. razer work was based on collection of data though he never did any fieldwork.
  3. He wrote-The Golden Bough. Frazer’s ideas from The Golden Bough were widely accepted.
  4. 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”   Frazer subsequently studied the value of superstition in the evolution of culture arguing that it strengthened respect for private property and for marriage, and contributed to the stricter observance of the rules of sexual morality.

Sir John Lubbock

  1. He coined the terms ‘Paleolithic’ and ‘Neolithic’.
  2. Lubbock book- Prehistoric Times: As Illustrated by Ancient Remains and the Customs of Modern Savages, illustrates the evolutionists analogies to “stone age contemporaries.”
  3. Lubbock also advanced a gradual scheme for the evolution of religion, summarized in terms of five stages: atheism, nature worship (totemism), shamanism, idolatry, and monotheism.

Lewis Henry Morgan- 

  1. The father of American anthropology.
  2. studied Iroquois Indian and 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. He considered ceremonial, religious, and political aspects of Iroquoian social life.
  3. He also initiated his study of kinship and marriage in Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity .
  4. His Ancient Society employed by Marx and Engels in their theory of social evolution.
  5. he adopted Montesquieu’s categories of savagery, barbarism, and civilization.
  6. Morgan subdivided the first two categories into three sub-stages (lower, middle, and upper) and gave contemporary ethnographic examples of each stage. Each stage was characterized by a technological innovation that led to advances in subsistence patterns, family and marriage arrangements and political organization.
  7. 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 .
  8. 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.”
  9. 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. In the next stage a group of brothers was married to a group of sisters and brother-sister mating was 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. In the next stage husband-dominant families arose 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.

Sir Edward Burnett Tylor .

  1. A British anthropologist.
  2. Tylor formulated a most influential 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.”
  3. Studied the concept of cultural “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 of clay.
  4. His major contributions were in the field of religion and mythology, and he cited magic, astrology, and witchcraft as clues to primitive religion.
  5. Tylor -Primitive Culture, studied the complicated aspects of religious and magical phenomena.
  6. Tylor correlates the three levels of social evolution to types of religion: savages practicing animism, barbarians practicing polytheism, and civilized people practicing monotheism.
  7. he concentrated on the use of statistics in anthropological research.
  8. Primitive groups had “reached their position by learning and not by unlearning”
  9. 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.
  10. Tylor believed that there was a kind of psychic unity among all peoples that explained parallel evolutionary sequences in different cultural traditions.
  11. Tylor  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.

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