Categories Anthropology I

I.6.(f) Neo- evolutionism- Leslie White

White, a student of Franz, was heavily influenced by Marxian economic theory as well as Darwinian evolutionary theory.  As per him “man as an animal species, and consequently culture as a whole, is dependent upon the material, mechanical means of adjustment to the natural environment” .

He while trying to explain a universal principle of  the course of evolution, explained the role of Energy in evolution of culture. He stated that culture is basically a survival mechanism and that energy is required to provide man with the necessities for his continued existence. In the earliest stage of human development, man used his own body as the major source of energy, but soon he began to capture other natural sources of energy, and utilised fire, water, wind etc., for his own purposes.

White points out that the efficiency of technology increased as culture evolved, for the tools became increasingly efficient, animals were domesticated, engines constructed etc., and so the amount of energy harnessed per capita. He further argues that each type of social organisation conditioned a specific type of social viz. pastoralism, agriculture, metallurgy, industry, militarism etc., and each found a corresponding expression in a social system.

His evolved the concept of the technological determinism.

Basic premise

  1. Culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the instrumental means of putting the energy to work is increased.
  2. Energy capture is accomplished through the technological aspect of culture so that a modification in technology could, in turn, lead to a greater amount of energy capture or a more efficient method of energy capture thus changing culture.
  3. In other words, “we find that progress and development are effected by the improvement of the mechanical means with which energy is harnessed and put to work as well as by increasing the amounts of energy employed”.
  4. the technological system plays a primary role or is the primary determining factor within the cultural system.

Leslie White was concerned with ecological anthropology and energy capture as a measure by which to define the complexity of a culture.

Leslie white approach  of Cultural Materialism is  a mechanism of harnessing energy & of putting it to work  in service of man. Culture is also a mechanism of challenging & regulating human behavior. Social systems are determined by the technological terms.

White approach to cultural materialism is given as follows

  1. Cultural system can be divided into 4  sub systems-
    1. Ideological aspect of culture (philosophical aspect like belief, morals etc.)
    2. Sociological aspect of culture (like marriage, kinship etc.)
    3. Technological aspect of culture (tools, implements etc.)
    4. Sentimental aspect of culture (like totem, taboo etc.)
  2. These four aspects of culture constitute a culture large.
  3. Technology constitutes most basic system, which includes tools, weapons, knowledge of use. This is a means for capturing & utilizing energy.
  4. when these aspects of culture are arranged vertically, the sentimental dimension of culture occupies the position at the bottom, followed by the technological, sociological and ideological dimensions


  1. All 3 subsystems influence each other mutually.
  2. Technology sub system influences other two. Social structure & ideology are influenced by technology.
  3. Culture is a system in itself & depends upon man for its survival.
  4. Fundamental function of culture is capturing & utilizing free energy.
  5. Amount of energy captured and utilized is determined by the technological sub systems.
  6. The more efficient the technology, more is the energy utilized and captured, which leads to the development of culture as a whole. This is expressed by White as the “ Law of Cultural Development”
  7. It states,” Cultural advances as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year increases so as the efficiency of the economy of the means of controlling energy is increased or both”.

The law is expressed by the formula

C= E x T,

where C is cultural development, E is the energy and T is technlogy.


  1. The Science of Culture-  explained his scheme of neo-evolution
  2. “Energy and the Evolution of Culture”

Other concepts

I. Science of organisation

White says that there is a science of organisation in which there are many organisations like physical, biological, social etc. He further points out that while the physical organisation deals with all forms of organisation of non-living matter, the biological organisation will contain the arrangement and relationship of living beings to one another. The study of social organisation is, therefore, merely a portion of scientific enquiry taken as whole; it is that portion of science which is concerned with the interrelationship of living beings. Social organisation is a network on relationship between living material bodies and the function of which is to maintain and perpetuate their status living beings through the processes of Nutrition, Protection (Defence) and Reproduction.  Social organisation may be formulated as:

 S.O. = N x D x R

II. The economic organisation

White also explained the economic organisation.  An event  on the basis of the following characteristics can be explained

  • It must be socio cultural in character,
  • The things is from the external world,
  • The things should be used to satisfy the human needs,
  • Human energy must be used in making these things.

The house hold is very important unit in the economic organisation of a tribe, as it is the principal organisation of production, preparation, distribution and consumption of food.

III. The concept of property –

The property should have the following characteris tics:

  • Something in nature that is capable of serving human needs and which has been incorporated into an economic system by a social device called – ownership.
  • A thing taken from nature, the extraction or appropriation of which involves and requires human labour.
  • Human labour power, exercised or expressed in an economic

Ownership is a concept correlative or complimentary to property, property is that which is owned. Ownership is the nature of property.

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