Cultural Ecology and Neo-Evolutionary Thought

Julian Steward Studied anthropology at Berkley under A.L. Kroeber. He first started in archeology and then moved to ethnography and worked with the Shoshoni, Pueblo, and later the Carrier Indians in British Columbia. He investigated the parallel developmental sequences in the evolution of civilizations in the New and Old Worlds. He proposed that cultures in similar environments would tend to follow the same developmental sequences and formulate similar responses to their environmental challenges. Steward did not believe that cultures followed a single universal sequence of development; he proposed instead that cultures could evolve in any number of distinct patterns depending on their environmental circumstances. He called this theory multilinear evolution to distinguish it from unilineal evolutionary theory. He then created the field of study called Cultural Ecology (the examination of the cultural adaptations formulated by human beings to meet the challenges posed by their environments).

Leslie White  studied at the University of Chicago under Edward Sapir, a student of Boas. He read the works of Morgan, and argued that much of what Morgan wrote was correct. .He agreed that cross-cultural comparison showed that cultural evolution did exist and that this evolution was in the direction of increasing complexity.  He argued that the nineteenth century thinkers failed to develop a non-ethnocentric, scientific method of accurately assessing cultural complexity.  In White’s “Energy and the Evolution of Culture”, White 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 understood culture as the means by which humans adapted to nature. White separated culture into three analytical levels: technological, sociological and idealogical. Like Marx, he believed that all the institutions of society contributed to the evolution of culture; however, technology played the primary role in social evolution and changes in technology affected a society’s institutions and value system.

Wikipedia on White’s formula: C = ET,

where E is a measure of energy consumed per capita per year, T is the measure of efficiency of technical factors utilising the energy and C represents the degree of cultural development. In his own words: “the basic law of cultural evolution” was “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] Therefore “we find that progress and development are affected 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”.[3]

George Peter Murdock (not the Star Trek actor depicted here) was greatly influenced by the work of Spencer and Morgan. He graduated from Yale and taught there for 32 years. Murdock was interested in the statistical testing of cross-cultural hypotheses, in direct opposition to Boas’ avoidance of cross-cultural generalizations. In 1937 the Human Relations Areas Files, a bank of ethnographic data on more than one thousand societies indexed according to standardized categories. Using this information, one can conduct cross-cultural quantitative analysis and test cultural hypotheses in a wide variety of societies. In 1949 his book “Social Structure”, he believed that a universal set of principles governed the relationship between family structure, kinship, and marriage practices.  Murdock attempted to determine these principles through quantitative analysis and, using comparative data from 250 societies, he was able to demonstrate the utility of the HRAF. Murdock recognized that Morgan’s study of kinship was instrumental in shaping the quantitative-comparative approach he developed in Social Structure.

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  • jesteenburns  On February 26, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    With the reemergence of Evolutionary thought we see a revitalized effort to prove that anthropology truly is akin to the natural sciences. Over the past 100 years evolutionary theorists and their academic descendants have always had a foothold abroad. During the Boas years however this was lacking in the United States. With Leslie White and Julian Steward this all changes. Evolution comes back, and it is presented in a much more elaborate and scientific manner than was previously seen. Specifically Whites work really shows a different approach to the same idea presented in the previous century. He is said to be influenced by Morgan and follows the overall pattern of evolutionary change. Throughout his article he describes the same lineal path of evolution, however he also improves upon the short comings of the era, mainly that there was too much ethnocentrism on the anthropologist part during the previous time period, a feature metaphoric of his own academic life (being and evolutionary theorist originally thought by Boasian influence). This is a very important aspect, and a great improvement to the theory. This evolution also has a less generic path, that being that many different things can happen in civilization however it always moves in the direction of complexity. Going back to the natural sciences, White really lays it out with the ability to add measurement and standards to back his theory. He has even created equations that demonstrate how civilizations evolve. This is mostly driven by means of technology mixed with energy and need-servingness of the action, serving his overall premise of matter and motion driving culture. He also leaves room for impeded progress in his model, when lack of new technology is a factor in a mature society. One of the best aspects of White’s writings are that unlike most of the Evolutionists of the 19th century ( at least the material that we read) is that he really gets into concrete examples and mentions a variety of different cultures to which this applies, showing a bit more of a universal aspect than was previously demonstrated, which after all is the goal of making these scientific measurments.

  • Elizabeth  On February 27, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    Energy and the Evolution of Culture
    Leslie White (1900-1975)
    Leslie White begins his first paragraph, “Everything in the universe may be described in terms of energy” (223). Energy is metaphorically described by White as a ball of energy, whether it is the “galaxy, stars, or molecules” He translate this “energy” as culture. Culture is a kind of behavior, a behavior that a (thing) man, planet, animal etc, maybe treated as a manifestation of energy. White explains, the purpose of culture is “to serve the needs of man” and how to do so is by; ways of satisfaction, aka companionship and serving with the external world aka tools and weapons. With these two things, culture is then created and “energy” was set in place to help drive the two ways of serving the needs of man in a culture.
    White also explains that man cannot do without one or the other and that both are needed for this energy of culture to survive. For example, in order for the needs of a man to be met, the man either first needs to find a (thing) [companion, singing, dancing, myth making etc.] to feed the man’s soul, next the man will need to externally feed the man’s needs by exploiting the earth’s giving and literally feed himself so that he can continue to have “energy” to obtain the first portion. White expresses that man cannot go without the other, without the second example the first example will not exist.
    White further explains that this energy of culture also includes the building of sustainability by creating high intensify energy. When the energy is made, the energy then needs to be expended elsewhere. White uses the example of “cutting woods,” he states that if the energy that is put into cutting the wood, the amount of woods cut should be great, and the end product of how great this wood cutting would be show cased.
    White’s theory of culture working as an energy or as a unit universally is quite compelling. I honestly, agree that with one you cannot succeed to one’s fullest potential without the other. So in saying so, I quite agree with White theory on how energy formulates culture.

  • Dale H.  On February 28, 2012 at 8:46 am

    White. I agree that the human race is a constant (since everyone is equal) but is the habitat also a constant? Is it true that there are only three factors to be considered in any cultural situation (1) amount of energy used (2) the method or means by which it is used (3) what human “need” this energy then serves with everything else being a constant not to be considered in the equation? (p 225) White’s ideas, descriptions, and equations are interesting. I agree that they are a measurement tool but I don’t agree that they are the “whole ball of wax” when determining cultural development. I really have difficulty agreeing with his statement on p. 228 that unless a society or mankind devises new ways to harness energy “cultural development will come to an end.” We are back to the chicken and the egg thing; which comes first, culture or energy?

    Steward’s cultural core and cultural type theories make more sense to me as an uneducated unenlightened undergraduate student trying to make sense of the world. The idea that cultures in similar environments would develop similar responses (within logical limits) appears to be reasonable, definitely more reasonable than White’s energy/culture ideas. Note 10 on p. 246 about Steward’s tendency to rationalize away aberrations or variables not fitting the pattern, which Steward says are “explained by diffusion or some special local factors”, (p. 246 text) is interesting. That makes me think of someone who may be more interested in proving himself correct than in truly determining what is correct.

    “Murdock focused his efforts on the evolution of aspects of social structure such as kin terminology, family structure, and marriage patterns.” P. 222 Again, that seems a reasonable or even an essential part of any cultural evolutional explanation. The Human Relations Areas Files (HRAF) he created is something I would like to use one day.

    I think all have pieces of a very large puzzle where most of the pieces will never be found.

  • surey  On February 28, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    White’s essay was interesting as it to brings ideas from Morgan and Marx’s theories. White mentions how cultures are created through the amount of resources and energy a culture has and the use of those to help the society to survive and continue living in their environments. He has a equation to measure the accumulation of resources of a culture, which I believe is impossible to do. It sounds good and made sense but their are just too much to a culture besides those, to be measure by. He supports many of the 19th century theories that the only problem with their theory was the ethnocentrism and evolution ideas, but some of the ideas were correct. Though I agree to some level with White’s ideas, he puts it in a different perspective from earlier theorists. He described “culture as a kind of behavior,” to make it more “secure” for humans. For example, White mentions how accidents happen to make life secure and it does not matter how it came to be. I agree to this essay, because humans adapt to their environments and creates a culture to which they known to have help their group lived, I thought. White essay was interesting because culture was a natural thing that happens to allow for cultures to advance or create something new. Though it is seems impossible to measure what a culture does and uses to see how much it can advanced technologically, it made some sense.

  • Roxie  On February 28, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    Well, I agree with some of what has been said, there are somethings that I do not agree with. I do agree with something that Dale states “I agree that human race is a constant (since everyone is equal)” is he just being himself, sarcastic or does he mean it? The second part where everyone is equal, is this true? If it is wouldn’t we live in an utopian society. Then we wouldn’t be studying anthropology. Is anyone reading this? Jim.
    And again the chicken and the egg question, isn’t that worn out, yet? I really dont see it that way, the way that I do see things is sort of a continuous circle with no begining and no end. Im a little tired this week so my posting is going to be short. I would like to thank everyone who has and will read my post. if anyone is reading this? Jim.

  • Arlyne Boyer  On February 28, 2012 at 9:48 pm

    I read all your posts Roxie – and I leave a ‘thumbs up’ too!

    My post will be done later, but I’m liking Steward so far…

  • Britty  On February 28, 2012 at 10:40 pm

    “He proposed that cultures in similar environments would tend to follow the same developmental sequences and formulate similar responses to their environmental challenges.” (Steward). The idea that culture changes based on environment is something of a conundrum, exactly like the chicken and the egg question, does environment cause culture to evolve or does the culture cause our environment to change? The change in cultures, when the environments are the same, can be seen to evolve an simular paterns. It is just like that in the animal world when two different types of animals evolve simular traits and characteristics that operate in the same way. Such as a bat and bird, they both evolve to have wings to be able to fly. There environment called for the ability to fly and therefore they evolved. They weren’t part of the same line in the evolutionary aspect but they evolve the same type of appendage. The same goes for human culture, two cultures evolve the same due to their environment and therefore have simular “appendages.” Culture responds to environments in similar ways even though the cultures may not seem the same, or look the same.

  • Martha T.  On February 29, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    Steward seems to be getting caught up in fitting things into categories. As previously said, fitting the square peg into the round hole. Some groups didn’t fit exactly into the patrilineal band model proposed by Steward, but he disregarded these factors to make his theory fit. On the other hand, other bands did not have a “determining” factor, and then therefore was not considered a patrilineal band in this respect. Organizing things in this way does have some merit, but since everything doesn’t fit neatly into the pre-organized categories, some groups are going to fall through the cracks almost indefinitely. This seems to be a common problem in anthropology. Everyone is just so eager to throw things into cute little boxed categories that they don’t pay attention when things are in the wrong boxes. Or in no box at all.

  • Rosalva  On March 1, 2012 at 12:36 am

    I agree with both Dale and Martha about Steward that he might be more interested in proving his theory and fitting everything together to prove his theory of how cultures are organized. Leslie White had some interesting thoughts as to how energy and culture work. It does make sense that you need energy and that this would affect the outcome of the product, but not sure if we can base everything on just energy and culture. So if energy includes over exploiting our resources and we cannot further develop because we had met our exceeding limitations than maybe the human might come up with something else to harness energy somewhere else so we can continue to develop.

  • Arlyne Boyer  On March 10, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    Julian Steward was influenced by geography and the role humans (and their technologies) played in the environment. This is a concept I understand and I think it is quite evident today that our role as humans on the landscape has a profound affect on the environment, and vice versa.

  • Corrina Correa  On March 21, 2012 at 9:48 am

    Human beings have exploited the outside environment for thousands of years. The physical, biological (biotic), and cultural environments have been utilized for survival, adaptation, evolution, and expansion. Mentally “mapping” these three sub- environments, knowing the seasons and patterns, knowing where things are, and how to access them is technological information. Sharing such information and expressing this information is what creates and expands culture. People learn about the land, its plants and animals, and their relationships to cooperating and non-cooperating other human beings. People define their relationships and express some level of access and control over the resources in their “environment”. They learn where valued minerals are, where valued plants and animals occur, in terms of their seasonality, relative abundance, relative predictability and relative mobility. Since they operate within adjustable levels of cooperation and non-cooperation with other human groups, they create complex and rich ways to express these relationships.

    Cultures change because of changes in the physical, biotic or cultural environments and because of population growth. Population growth forces people to change their relationships to these environments. Technologies in human society for production, distribution, storage, and consumption can be changed to increase carrying capacity. In addition, cultural systems can change to increase access to, and control over, valued resources in all of these environments and can create changes often seen in evolutionary terms in anthropology. I don’t think there is anything linear about the changes or which variable or combination of variables will change. There can be gradual changes in existing variables or a change in degree so great as to be a change in “kind” of the variable. For example, gathering can intensify within a natural system. Groups can shift to fire to modify this system (low level plant/animal management) to increase their value, but still gather. Groups can then begin to manipulate the plants and/or animals such that they are no longer natural species, and are now dependent on humans. Groups are no longer gatherers, they are plant/animal managers (i.e.- agriculturalists/herders or burners).

    The concept of the chicken an egg applies here since people affect these environments which creates and develops a distinguished culture that can be applied within a geographical region, but without these environments established in the first place cannot initiate the changes.

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