Evolutionism as a wider concept was a commonly held 19th century belief based on Darwin’s theories on evolution and natural selection, which stated that organisms improve themselves through inherited change over time, and subsequently increase in complexity through evolution. This had consequences for early anthropological thought since the concept went on to include cultural and social evolution, which essentially held the belief that culture generally develops in a uniform and progressive manner through three stages: savagery, barbarism, and civilisation (Montesquieu). These early anthropologists thought that, just like species, cultures develop over time from simple to complex states, and that societies would pass through the same stages to arrive at a common end. Cultural change was believed to originate from within the culture itself, so anthropologists thought that development was internally determined.
Anthropology as a discipline itself, and early theories such as social evolutionism, arose largely in response to the encounter between cultures during European exploration, conquest and colonisation around the globe; these theories were intended to help explain global cultural diversity. From these concepts emerged a generation of social evolutionary theorists such as Tylor and Morgan who over the years built on the theory, and strove to explain the origins of different institutions such as marriage, family, and religion.
Contrary to the beliefs of early nineteenth-century writers that groups such as Native American were examples of cultural degeneration, Edward B. Tylor argued that people in different locations were all equally capable of progressing through the stages from savagery to civilisation, and that “primitive” groups had reached their position by learning, not unlearning. To explain cultural variation, Tylor argued that contemporary societies were at different stages of social evolution, and that some simply hadn’t reached the “higher” stages. An important aspect of Tylor’s work was the concept of ‘survivals’ – traces of earlier behaviour that survive in contemporary culture, used as way to explain apparently meaningless customs that must have been practical or at least ceremonial when they first arose, but are now seemingly absurd within their present context without the original meaning. Tylor also believed that there existed a mental framework common to all people which explained why different societies often came up with the same solutions to problems independently, however he also recognised that culture may be shared between societies by diffusion (adoption of traits through contact).
Another prominent figure in social evolutionist theory is Lewis Henry Morgan, a lawyer in upstate New York whose interest in the local Iroquois Indians led him to defend their reservation in a land-grant case. Morgan’s best known work ‘Ancient Society’ built on the stages of social evolution, and divided savagery and barbarism into upper, middle and lower subdivisions, each distinguished by a technological development and correlations between patterns of marriage, family, politics and subsistence. According to Morgan: middle savagery was characterised by discovery of fire and the beginnings of a fish diet; upper savagery by the bow; lower barbarism by the creation of pottery; middle barbarism by animal domestication and irrigated agriculture; upper barbarism by the manufacture of iron; and civilisation by the phonetic alphabet. Morgan also believed that family units became progressively smaller and more self contained as society evolved, moving from promiscuity with no real family structure, to group marriages, then husband dominated marriages with many wives, and finally civilised monogamous families.
Social evolutionism lost favour at the beginning of the 20th century, it’s leading opponent being Franz Boas who disagreed with the application of universal laws that governed all human culture.
If up to this point you have been shocked by the racist implications of social evolutionism, that is good. The idea that cultures follow a linear path from primitiveness to the civilisation (of which Victorian Britain was considered the pinnacle) is of course highly ethnocentric. However moving past this obvious flaw we can also see several more theoretical mistakes that condemn social evolutionism to anthropological history.
One of the biggest criticisms of social evolutionism is the fact that the proponents of the theory did not gather sufficient primary data to reinforce their arguments, instead relying on secondary sources in the form of reports from colonial officials, missionaries and other amateur observers (a phenomena we now call “armchair anthropology”). This meant that the recurrence of cultural customs that underlay many of the theory’s evidence was founded on misinformation and observations out of context. Much of the ethnographic data that has been gathered to date, by trained field workers, simply does not fit the social evolutionist model.
Another criticism is that although social evolutionism attempted to explain cultural diversity by separating it into the three categories, the concept simply couldn’t explain itself; if some cultures were indeed in ‘upper savagery’ and others in ‘civilisation’, what factors led to this variation, especially since they also believed that all cultures followed a linear evolutionary path. Even further there was no explanation as to why some societies had lost certain aspects or even become extinct.
However, social evolutionism shouldn’t be considered a complete failure; although misguided, the social evolutionists established the foundation for an organised scientific discipline of anthropology. They argued that cultural phenomena should be studied as a science, and shifted the shifted the perspective of cultural difference from biology to sociocultural experience.