Anthropological theory: Classical evolutionism(Tyler, Morgan and Frazer)

In the early years of anthropology, the prevailing view of anthropologists and other scholars was that culture generally develops (or evolves) in a uniform and progressive manner. The Evolutionists, building from Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection, sought to track the development of culture through time. Just as species were thought to evolve into increasing complexity, so too were cultures thought to progress from a simple to complex states. It was thought that most societies pass through the same series of stages to arrive, ultimately, at a common end. Change was thought to originate from within the culture, so development was thought to be internally determined.

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. Drawing upon Enlightenment thought, Darwin’s work, and new cross-cultural, historical, and archaeological evidence, a whole generation of social evolutionary theorists emerged such as Tylor and Morgan. 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.

Sir Edward Burnett Tylor(1832 – 1917):

Edward B. Tylor disagreed with the contention of some early-nineteenth-century French and English writers, led by Comte Joseph de Maistre, that groups such as the American Indians and other indigenous peoples were examples of cultural degeneration. He believed that peoples in different locations were equally capable of developing and progressing through the stages. Primitive groups had β€œreached their position by learning and not by unlearning”. 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,” therefore, was 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. In more advanced societies one could see proof of cultural evolution through the presence of 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 in the mental framework of 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.

Lewis Henry Morgan (1818 – 1881);

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, providing contemporary examples of each of these three stages. Each stage was distinguished by a 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 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. 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. 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.

Morgan believed that family units became progressively smaller and more self-contained as human society developed. His postulated sequence for the evolution of the family, however, 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.

Sir James Frazer (1854-1941):

Sir James Frazer (1854-1941) maintains that the object of his work is to discuss ‘questions of more general interest which concern the gradual evolution of human thought from savagery to civilization’. In this respect, Frazer posits a series of phases or stages of human intellectual development and then explains magic, religion and science in an anthropological, rhetorical narrative that outlines his evolutionary, linear

scheme. He says that ‘the higher thought… has on the whole been from magic through religion to science’. The assumption that there is something called ‘higher thought’, whose most developed ‘scientific’, rationalistic knowledge Frazer alludes to possess, means that magic is not only older than religion and science in human history but it ‘represents a ruder and earlier phase of human mind’. It is ‘a spurious system of natural law’, ‘a fallacious guide of conduct’, ‘a false science’ and ‘an abortive art’. This description of magic tells more about Frazer’ s intellectualistic enterprise that presumes anthropological eminence based on the political, military and technological superiority of an imperial power. This is why magic, according to Frazer, exists among ‘the ignorant and superstitious classes of modern Europe’ and ‘among the lowest savages surviving in

the remotest corners of the world’.


The evolutionism of Tylor, Morgan, and others of the nineteenth century is largely rejected today largely because 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 level of development for mankind. source(internet, books and research notes.)

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