Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Anthropological Theory: Evolutionism

I thought for something different, I would include Anthropological theory into my blog. I know it's boring, but I found such a great site for this information, I just had to share. But instead of doing it all at once, I'll break it down. So for the first part, I'll write about evolutionary Anthropological theory.

"The theory of Nineteenth-century Evolutionism claims that societies develop according to one universal order of cultural evolution. The theorists identified the universal evolutional stages and classified different societies as savage, barbarian and civilization. The nineteenth-century evolutionists collected data from missionaries and traders and they themselves rarely went to the societies that they were analyzing. They organized these second-hand data and applied the general theory to all societies. Since
Western societies had the most advanced technology, they put these societies at the highest rank of civilization." (Source: MNSU eMuseum)

So these theorists held two assumptions:
1. Human minds share similar characteristics all over the world.
2. Western societies are superior to other societies in the world.

What we have gained from these early theorists is a systematic approach to Anthropological analysis and research. However, these early theorists have been criticized for their overly simplistic view of cultures. They are also criticized for their belief that it is different levels of intelligence that leads to different levels of societies. This belief has since been proven invalid by more modern scientific enquiry.

Two significant Anthropologists are Edward Burnett Tylor from Britain and Lewis Henry Morgan from the United States. To learn more about Tylor visit thisWikipedia page. His definition of culture is one of the most enduring ones. He defined culture as; "Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, 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." 

To learn more about Lewis Henry Morgan visit this page. 

Anthropologists reconstructed their evolutionary theories and developed a Neoevolutionary theory in the middle of the twentieth century. 
The theory of Neoevolutionism explained how culture develops by giving general principles of its evolutionary process. The theory of cultural evolution was originally established in the 19th century. However, this Nineteenth-century Evolutionism was dismissed by the Historical Particularists as unscientific in the early 20th century. Therefore, the topic of cultural evolution had been avoided by many anthropologists until Neoevolutionism emerged in the 1930s. In other words, it was the Neoevolutionary thinkers who brought back evolutionary thought and developed it to be acceptable to contemporary anthropology.  

The main difference between Neoevolutionism and Ninteenth-century Evolutionism is whether they are empirical or not. While Nineteenth-century evolutionism used value judgement and assumptions for interpreting data, the new one relied on measurable information for analyzing the process of cultural evolution. The Neoevolutionary thoughts also gave some kind of common ground for cross-cultural analysis. Largely through their efforts, evolutionary theory was again generally accepted among anthropologists by the late 1960s. 


Leslie White

Julian Steward

George Peter Murdock


The main theorists for Neoevolutionism include Julian Steward of the United States, Leslie White of the United States, and George Peter Murdock also of the United States.

Anonymous. 2003. "Overview of Nineteenth-century Evolutionism". eMuseum. University of Minnesota, Mankato. Available online:

Anonymous. 2003. "Overview of Neoevolutionism". eMuseum. University of Minnesota, Mankato. Available online:

McGee, R. Jon and Richard L. Warms. 2004. Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. New York: McGraw Hill.

Tylor,Edward. 1920 [1871]. Primitive Culture. New York: J.P. Putnam’s Sons.1.

Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 2009. "George Murdock". Wikipedia. Available online:

-- 2009. "Lewis H. Morgan". Wikipedia. Available online:

-- 2009. "Edward Burnett Tylor". Wikipedia. Available online:


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