Cultural Ecology and Neo-Evolutionary Thought

What is the significance of the “Cultural Ecology and Neo-Evolutionary Thought” tradition?
How was it “neo-evolutionary”?
-Julian Steward, “The Patrilineal Band” (1955)
-Leslie White, “Energy and the Evolution of Culture” (1943)
-George P. Murdock, “Family Stability in Non-European Cultures” (1950)

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  • Merrily  On March 11, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    Neo evoluntionary theory is a resurgence of defining evolution by explanation of “general principles of evolionary process. It, “neo-evolutionary” emerged in the 1930’s and these thinkers, Julian Steward, Leslie White, and George Peter Murdock, brought back evolutionary thought, developing its acceptability to contemporary anthropology, giving intellectual thinkers a basis for cross-cultural analysis. (

    Leslie White: White’s most reknowned work positions itself on the topic of culture, which means “the sum of all human cultural activity on the planet was and is evolving.” White broke these cultural aspects into three groups – technological, sociological, and ideological. He believed, “the technological componet was the determing factor responsible for cultural evolution.”

    White’s idea is that technology being the most important driver in the system provides these agrument to support his beliefs:

    1. Technology is an attempt to solve the problems of survival.
    2. This attempt ultimately means capturing enough energy and diverting it for human needs.
    3. Societies that capture more energy and use it more efficiently have an advantage over other societies.
    4. Therefore, these different societies are more advanced in an evolutionary sense

    Therewith White’s these is based on the idea of “harness and control of energy” and this becomes the primary function of culture. The more energy consumption acquired by a particular culture the greater its evolutionary status, and survivability. (leslie White, Wikipedia.)

  • Jessica  On March 12, 2009 at 3:57 am

    When he began teaching at the University of Buffalo, Leslie White read the work of nineteenth century evolutionists such as Herbert Spencer and Lewis Henry Morgan. Boas and his students vilified such works because of their racist content. White had a different reaction. He thought that much of what Morgan wrote was correct. Morgan agreed that cultural evolution did exist and that this evolution was in the direction of increasing complexity. Morgan failed to develop a nonethnocentric, scientific method of accurately assessing cultural complexity. Although the nineteenth century evolutionists’ general ideas were correct, many of their specific examples were wrong. White remedied the situation by developing a quantifiable, universal standard of measurement. He proposed that the control of energy was a key factor in cultural evolution and could serve as the standard by which to measure evolutionary progress. White believed changes in technology were evidence of evolution at work. He defined culture as the means by which people adapted to their environment. Societies that utilized energy made their lives increasingly secure, and culture advanced. He even made his theory into a formula: Culture advances as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year increases, or as the efficiency with which energy is utilized increases. White split culture into three analytical levels: technological, sociological, and ideological. Out of these three, technology played the largest role in social evolution, since changes in technology affected a society’s institutions and value systems. America needed men like Boas to rid anthropology of the ethnocentrism that had characterized its past. However, I believe that many of Boas’ students rejected these earlier works because of the pressure they faced from their teachers and fellow students. It was brave of Leslie White and George Peter Murdock to give these works more consideration and appreciate the quality of the ideas they contained. Personally, I think it doesn’t matter what standard is used to measure social complexity. It still implies that some societies are more advanced than others, which is a racist idea.

  • Felicia  On March 12, 2009 at 7:31 am

    The significance of neo-evolutionary thought is that it was not unilineal. Instead, culture is multilinear, meaning that “cultures could evolve in any number of distinct patterns depending on their environmental circumstances.” It was neo-evolutionary in the sense that the anthropologists were interested and researched the causes for cultural evolution. Past anthropologists did not develop an accurate assessment of cultural complexity because of their own ethnocentrism. Therefore later anthropologist, such as Leslie White, proposed a universal standard of measurement showing an understanding that culture is as “the means which humans adapted to nature.” The significance of cultural ecology tradition is that it has demonstrated that environments do shape culture. Culture development has a lot to do with the way humans meet the challenges posed by their surrounding or environment.

  • caseyc  On March 12, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    So from reading Im gathering that the ecology approach was important because it represented a shift from the culture and personality school popular at the time. Environment was no longer a passive backdrop but an active and shaping force on cultural evolution. White did believe that ecology could be a standard but other criticized White and his followers “had great trouble actually providing agreed-on, concrete, quantitative measures of the variables they discussed”. Pg 231 White was heavily influenced by Marx which is evident in his adoption of the concept of evolution as a “struggle”. In general, White believed society is progressing to a more advanced state, with humans exerting more control on their environment, tools, animals etc. but lacks the blatant ethnocentrism of earlier evolutionism. White believed that there was in fact “a biologically based drive to use culture to make life more rich, more full”….

  • Josh AKA "Marky Mark"  On March 12, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    It is plain as day to see that, as Felicia points out, evolution is multilineal. When people think of evolution, they typically think of the physical body changing, but there seems to definately be plenty to say about the change of cultures. It is fascinating that even in today’s world, where the everything has the potential to be connected and streamlined through satelites, the internet, tv broadcasting, and cell phones, each region of the world still maintains its cultural differences. There are so many ideas out there that say, “this is the way people should live and be happy,” that it would be impossible for a world full of individual thinkers to become one unilineal species, physically and culturally.

  • Mark  On March 12, 2009 at 11:31 pm

    Not really sure what to say on this one to be quite honest. I agree with a lot of the statements made by White and Steward to an extent but, like most have already stated above, I don’t agree with the notion that they consider some societies to be less advanced than others.
    The legacy left behind, once again as stated above, is that societies are indeed multilineal. This simple statement speaks volumes. Such a common sense notion that has become the basis of how an anthropologist approaches different cultures. The idea that attempting to understand a culture from your own point of view (ethnocentrism) is a flawed one was a concept that most people were already grasping (boas of course was probably one of the leaders to start the move away from ethnocentric ideology) however the works of White and Steward helped to solidify this idea more thoroughly.
    Not really sure how this can be classified as “neo-evolutionism”. From my point of view, the only reason why the theories of White and Steward differed from their predecessors was because of the knowledge that was available to them. In the end, the goal of attempting to quantify civilization into stratified hierarchies was still trying to be achieved, the only difference now was: 1) The pressure to remain culturally sensitive from Boasians 2) The introduction of Field Research (which meant no more “arm chair” anthropology 3) The gift of retrospect. They were able to not only avoid the same mistakes as their predecessors, but they were able to build off their theories and hone them as they saw fit.

  • brandi  On March 13, 2009 at 12:18 am

    Cultural Ecology and Neo-Evolutionary is not simply a revival of evolutionary thought but it is a reworking of it. The standard that cultures where compared by was technological and environmentally based. Instead of having a unilineal thought, White stated that people moved “from simple to complex, with increasing specialization of parts”. It looked at how an individual culture would adapt to the issues presented by the surrounding environment. Thus, significantly showing that culture is influenced by enviornment. It also meant that cultures could be grouped into multiple generalities because according to Steward, people living in similar environments would possibly “follow the same developmental sequences and formulate similar responses to their environmental challenges”.

  • empfresnostate  On March 13, 2009 at 12:23 am

    As humans progress in time new ideas for our development and what some may call progress, emerge and question theories already in existence. The neoevolutionary ideas by White and Steward can be seen as the products of societies evolving. White believed that societies evolve unilineally and their stage in development can be gauged by its consumption of energy. Steward on the other hand rejected the unilineal view and felt that societies evolve in mulitlineally. He proposed that a society’s level of evolution could be gauged by the consumption of energy. I think it is seen as neo-evolution because it uses modern reasons for the progression of a society. I think societies do evolve in a multilineal pattern. Not all do it down the same path, but all do arrive to a higher level.

  • Selena Farnesi  On March 13, 2009 at 1:17 am

    I’m taking an anthropology class currently that talks about multilinear evolution is pre-history, and I was surprised to find there is very little supporting evidence for it. I think it’s interesting that there would be so little evidence for it in the past, and yet such an abundance of evidence and a general consensus that evolution is multilinear.

    Secondly, something I found interesting was that Julian Steward (Patri-lineal Band) put societies into hierarchies based on their complexity. I feel like this has become a social norm, the more complex societies seem to be on the top of America’s social latter and even if it isn’t an issue of complexity, those of us in middle and higher social classes seem to deem our systems more complex – our lives more complicated.

  • Merrily  On March 14, 2009 at 12:00 am

    check this out. It is fully loaded!

  • madoka  On February 23, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    Cultural ecology studies focus on the relationship between a given society and its natural environment as well as the life-forms and ecosystems that help our life. These studies are a major contribution to social organization and other human institutions. It is also questions historical events.

    In neo evolutional thought, “Cultures could evolve in any number of distinct patterns depending on their environmental circumstances.” According to Steward, one of localized, multi-linear evolutions was spurred by the environmental needs of each locality. I believe that while they represent the earliest form of human social organization, they are assumed to be as they are today for similar environmental reasons compared to those which gave rise to them in the first place.

  • Josie Weatherford  On March 1, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    I was reading the article by White and i realized that while he was writing about the evolution of civilization as reaching the epitome with the more complex civilizations on top, i think he fails to take into account the problems that they face, although he mentions warfare and serfdom, he doesn’t explore how more complex societies don’t exactly mean happier ones, and that tribes and chiefdoms contain a social cohesion that we lack as a large civilization. While we have choices in the modern day world that more “primitive” societies lack, those choices further complicate our lives and do not necessarily add to our happiness in general.

  • Jason McClung  On March 5, 2010 at 12:18 am

    I took a stab at Murdock, and found some interesting things.

    Murdock’s look into Family Stability struck me as a bit odd (since today the family is hardly nuclear anymore), but his attempt to compare it to other cultures makes me wonder: does his comparison border on Social Darwinism, or is he trying to advocate for reform in America? Who exactly is the authoritative source he cites on family stability? God? His own personal upbringing?

    Further, how can he project the Aztecs onto modern societies? Further, where does his data come from? Out of his ass? Sure, I may be as lazy a student as the next aspiring scholar, but pulling your information from somewhere at least a little reputable is important to not just getting assignments and studies done right, but to getting a proper understanding of the situation you’re analyzing.

    This article strikes me of activism more than anything. Murdock’s views on divorce, mainly going into detail about how it should be private, make me wonder if he was trying to send a message about contemporary American life (since divorce was stigmatized heavily), or a simple observation about a culture.

    Then again, is this kind of thought provoking a bad thing?

    – Jason

  • Megan Scholl  On March 7, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    One of the main significances of the cultural ecology and neo-evolutionary thought tradition was something that came out of it: the resurrection of comparative anthropology. Murdock was exceedingly influential in doing this because he was incredibly interested in large-scale cross-cultural analysis. Had he not helped bring the method back into play I’m not sure if it ever would have returned. It might have come back later in time or it might not have come back at all.

    In Murdock’s studies his “cross-cultural comparisons of cultural traits in many ways paralleled Steward’s theory of multilinear evolution, and his attempts to statistically demonstrate universal principles of kin relations resembled White’s effort to formulate a universal theory of cultural evolution.” This goes to show that Murdock’s processes were similar in thinking with the other notable neo-evolutional anthropologists during his time.

    I think that this time in anthropology was very valuable due to the fact that comparative anthropology started coming back again.

  • Charon193 (Christina Knapp)  On March 8, 2010 at 10:21 am

    If you ask me, this particular style of anthropology is a throwback to Spencer and his crew. The only difference is that Leslie White’s group is technologically biased while Spencer’s had a racial bias. Otherwise, they both seem to go for the idea that cultural evolution is linear. I wonder if White’s ideology lead to the “keeping up with Jones” mentality that has been prevalent since the 1950’s. This ideology was still significant because it caused a comeback for comparative anthropology. The only problem is the guidelines for comparison.

  • JackieC  On March 7, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    Hello Everyone! I love our discussion in class today, everyone had at least something to say about our (Ben and I) presentation of Leslie White’s “Energy and the Evolution of Culture”.

    I want to bring up another topic to continue our discussion from class. According to White, “…by means of agriculture man was able to harness, control, and put to work for himself powerful forces of nature. With greatly augmented energy resources man was able to expand and develop his way of life, i.e., his culture^14” (2nd ed: pp 249). He also goes on to say, “In agriculture… this limit has not been reached, and, indeed it is not yet even in sight” (pp 250). My question to you is do you believe that “end” to efficiency when man is no longer able to supply himself with his most basic necessity, food, in sight? Our world’s population is quickly approaching 7 Billion people, ( It is not unrealistic to assume that our planet cannot support our increasing population without some consequences, there is only so much food agriculture can produce, only so many water resources. What’s going to happen to our culture, by culture I’m including the human race, when we come to as White claims our “end”?

    It’s my opinion that man is still largely relying upon an agricultural system to supply and harness his need for food. What is the next technological advancement man needs to make if agriculture can no longer supply and feed the world’s population? What happens to our culture?

    this is a link for something i found very interesting, it relates to my argument for our need to find alternative sources for fuel, energy, food, etc.

  • JackieC  On March 7, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    Julian Steward “The Patrilineal Band”

    Steward was concerned how culture was affected by the environment. His article explains how the patrilineal band are products of their environment when shaping their kinship systems, subsistence patterns, marital practices, etc. Steward uses various patrilineal bands to support his theory, their use of the landscape, weapons, social structure, etc. How does Stewards theory uphold when removed from Patrilineal band society and used to describe contemporary western culture? Long before Europeans colonized the North and South American continent, man was largely in control over his environment. Logging was a major industry to clear the land for more space, build houses and other structures. Fishing in large quantities nearly depleted the rivers and oceans. Today we do not let our environment stand in our way, we tear down mountain sides to build roads and clear land for development. How are we changed? What is the end result of our mastery of the landscape? What are we still vulnerable to?

  • JackieC  On March 16, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    Family Stability in Non-European Cultures
    George Peter Murdock

    In his article concerning divorce practices, George P. Murdock decides to look cross-culturally to discern patterns and draw conclusions based on statistical data. Like Steward and White, Murdock relies on quantitative data to draw conclusions and reinforce the ideas presented in an attempt to provide scientific validity. Murdock examines 40 cultures across the major regions across the globe, and within those selected 40 societies compares variables such as gender, incidence and stability.

    In his brief article, Murdock addresses issues revolving around the liberty afforded through gender in certain societies to initiate divorce proceedings, while others are unequally fortunate. Throughout the article, Murdock relies on conveying the societies discussed in terms of percentages, which weakly supports his attempts at statistical evidence. By briefly glossing over practices and traits shared within the 40, randomly chosen societies Murdock does not allow himself to explain detailed similarities. The data that has been put forth is very shallow and does not present any other cultural contexts to thoroughly or carefully examine the topic of divorce responsibly.

    By synthesizing cultural practices from 40 different societies, a cross-cultural analysis is certainly possible. However, Murdock does not adequately detail the significance of these traits until his very brief conclusion. The inclusion of the table also does not adequately detail the behaviors he is conveying, there is also a lack of why or how the inferences were made. Ultimately the chart provided is too simple and merely a restating of the article.

  • Wise Warrior  On June 9, 2012 at 5:26 am

    Please do the right thing and spread the truth so we can blow the lies and cover ups out of the water

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