Nineteenth-Century Evolutionism

Nineteenth-Century Evolutionism

This was a period in science and human thought that affected great changes in how people understand the world and human development.

Notable people of this era include:
Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace,
Herbert Spencer,
Sir Edward Burnett Tylor,
Lewis Henry Morgan,
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Notable publications include:
-Herbert Spencer, The Social Organism (1860)
-Lewis Henry Morgan, Ethnical Periods (1877)
-Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook (1845-1846)
-Edward Burnett Tylor, Science of Culture (1871)

The readings from this section share some similar tendencies, one among these is the idea of human interaction as an evolutionary process.  Spenser’s theory is very unilateral in suggesting that civilization progress, or evolve.  His writing gives an analogous view of civilization and human interaction as a biological organism, suggesting that the social factors of human interaction have evolved from simplistic to more complicated.  This is also intertwined with  authors such as Taylor, who also compare anthropology with the natural sciences, echoing the sentiments of Darwinian theory by applying the idea to human civilization.  Feuerbach takes this idea a step further with the productions of intercourse, adding more specific elements of human interaction into what is basically the same idea presented by Spencer and Taylor.   It is important here to focus on material and its role as a driving force in this evolutionary theory.

Based on this idea, and the more in-depth literature that supports it, we would like to discuss the following:

In the spirit of 19th Century Evolutionism:  Explain the evolution of culture in the terms of the evolution of life, or as an analogy of a living organism or body, or a progressive process of change, or as the development of mental capacities.  You may want to consider: the evolution of simple to complex societies, interdependency, class structure, religion, materialism, technology innovation or art, knowledge/ education, subsistence, roles and structure of the family, government,  division of labor, or speech.  How are all these ideas related, or how are all societies related to one another?  Is there a progression of society, and if there is, what is the ultimate goal of society?

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  • jumpinhare  On January 23, 2014 at 8:54 pm

    Reblogged this on jumpinhare and commented:

    An example of the evolution of culture through the use of technology can be demonstrated by looking at the progression of medical advancements. Morgan identified these stages as; middle savagery, upper savagery, lower barbarism, middle barbarism, upper barbarism and civilization.
    500BC- treated illnesses with magic and herbal remedies. Use of supernatural powers of a shamans, gods, witch doctors. Illnesses would be healed with herbal medicines and some crude attempts at surgery.
    500-1400AD- Superstition still ruled the beliefs about medicine. Medical schools and hospitals were beginning to be built to look at medicine as a science. First identification of measles and small pox.
    1400-1600- Study of anatomy and dissection dead bodies. Discovery of that the heart recycles blood and acts as a pump to circulate it throughout the body. Doctors were expensive or not reachable so the use of midwives and herbal remedies continued. Minor surgeries such as bloodletting, boil removal, and removal of teeth were commonly done at local barbershop.
    18th/19th century- experimental use of live smallpox vaccines, use of ether for anesthesia, discovery of bacteria which led to the use of antiseptics.
    20th /21st century- discovery of X-rays, ultrasound and CAT and MRI scans. Penicillin is first used. Research and technology like lasers improved medical procedures. Organ transplant, embryonic stem cell treatments, cloning of the first mammal.
    In keeping with Morgan’s theory of uniform and progressive cultural evolution the technology that is currently in use would place our culture in the “civilized” stage while other cultures that continue to utilize traditional/indigenous medicine would be classified as the “savagery or barbaric” stages of evolution.

  • Jenise  On January 23, 2014 at 9:06 pm

    I think that the idea of a unilateral evolution of cultures and societies is something that is attractive to most people, simply because it is some thing that we mistakenly “see” happening around us. We hear tales of civilizations improving because they are using more tech or western medicine, through colonization we saw the “savages” becoming enlightened, or cultural-ized; as if western culture is the highest pinnacle of “civilization.” However, I don’t see it that way. Each culture is in and of itself a unique human experience. I don’t think we can classify something as complex as culture as a process and fit it into steps leading towards an ultimate goal of “civilization.” In the same way that we do not see an earthworm as a “backwards” creature left behind by evolution, we cannot see a tribe of bushman as a group needing western civilization’s rescuing arms.

    • Yolanda  On January 27, 2014 at 12:20 am

      I agree completely. The idea of a unilateral style of evolution is attractive. It creates a set destination and predictability to the often chaotic nature of nation-states. While the economy and foreign relations with neighbors can change, at least we are evolving to some greater, brighter more civilized version of ourselves. It is naïve and idealistic, but comforting. The problem with the idea of a unilateral style of evolution is that it both categorizes and places values to different types of societies and assumes that western society will work for every civilization. It suggests that some societies are more evolved, and in the eyes of many also more civilized, than others. Lewis Henry Morgan categorized them as Savagery, Barbarism, and Civilization, with western society often falling into this category. This idea then furthers the idea that western society will work for every civilization. It causes us to view civilized western society as the pinnacle, or at least on the way to the pinnacle, of human civilization. Western society is merely a type of civilization, with its own culture norms that work for this particular society. It is not an end goal or stepping stone in civilization. Furthermore it causes us to devalue other civilizations, all of which are unique and often work with the culture norms of the area.

  • kQ  On January 23, 2014 at 10:28 pm

    These readings are a little bit complex but what I can gather its that societies grow at a rapid rate rather than “slowly augment in mass”, because the ultimate goal of a society its to thrive. I understand that some people can compare societies with living organisms because they form, grow and die. While this is true with organisms, it is not always the case of all societies. What I mean by that its that societies don’t really die, they just get modified some way or another. On the other hand evolution happens to living organisms but it is also seen in societies around the world.

    • Carley  On January 26, 2014 at 12:17 pm

      I agree that these readings were a bit difficult and I also agree with your response completely. Societies do not die, they simply just morph (or I guess you could say evolve) into something else. Cultures can and do change all the time. When you say that some people believe societies grow and die, do you mean the specific culture itself dies because they are changing into something different or the people all leave and join a different society?

  • Reyna Alvarenga  On January 24, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    The evolution of culture has been occurring ever since.Civilizations have been changing ever since new adaptions and people have entered their world. Now, it has become more common to adapt different culture norms in one’s culture without guilt or shame because now we can interact with different people and their cultures it is easy to adapt a trait or evolve our own culture with a mixture of someone else’s. An example,would be the faith believers of the Catholic Church, that now have been open more and adapted new ideas that before were taboo or never talked about. Of course there is always going to be people that do not agree and will disobey with the rules, but soon after those broken rules will become a norm if not implemented in some sort.

  • kimico  On January 25, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    Analyzing cultural evolution within a culture can allow us to see changes that take place over very long (or sometimes not so long) periods of time. We can see how different practices are adapted to better suit the people of a particular society whose needs are constantly changing. A culture might evolve like a business evolves, possibly a small “mom and pop” store with one location. However as revenue increases it makes sense to open more stores and offer more products and services, getting rid of those that don’t work and modifying others to create something better. This company might continue to expand until they are no longer a small, family owned business, but a corporate giant that looks completely different from its original design. Or, maybe it didn’t become a corporate giant, but rather ownership is passed on to continuing generations. This doesn’t mean the small company didn’t evolve, they simply chose to continue their “way of life,” if you will, and remain local. In such a way cultures evolve, some growing and changing until they are unrecognizable from their original state, while others manage to maintain some or all of their ethos. Either path is still one of evolution but the outcome tends to look different. I don’t think it’s quite accurate to compare cultures to one another to get a sense of which one is more or less evolved or “civilized;” this is a binary way of thinking. There are so many factors that contribute to the functionality of cultures and their technology that cross comparisons don’t do them justice. I view comparing two cultures to one another evolution-wise like comparing apples to oranges, it just doesn’t translate. A car might seem like “civilized” technology while a donkey appears to be in one of the three stages of savagery. Yet, if I live in a rural area with dirt roads, potholes and lush vegetation, is a car really the best mode of transportation? Maybe I only need to use the donkey once in a while to pick up supplies from the neighboring community. Using a donkey doesn’t make me a “savage,” it’s simply what works best for the environment and culture I live in. Riding a donkey down Herndon Avenue during 5 o’clock traffic might not work so well, though.

    • Momo  On January 26, 2014 at 7:10 pm

      This topic is intriguing especially because of the fact that many people tend to believe such an idea that cultures progress on a linear system when they do not. It’s a misperception simply because we are all bias in our own ways.This Darwinian biological evolutionary theory taken and applied to social evolution made common sense in the 19th Century because the philosophers didn’t see anything more than their understanding of their world. It could be infer that pseudoscience was at play during this time. As the text had mention, European expansion during the 15th Century had a large impact on natural sciences and philosophy. This led to new discoveries of plants and animals that soon later couldn’t be defined or explained in “biblical terms”. Along comes Charles Darwin and his natural selection, which changes the way we see life and these other Western philosophers such as Herbert Spencer, Lewis H. Morgan, and Edward B. Tylor who set the stages for cultural evolution. This idea that all cultures start off as being savagery and eventually “grow” reaching civilization was the belief of the 19th Century Evolutionism.

      • Jannet C.  On January 27, 2014 at 11:28 pm

        I also found it intriguing mostly because we laugh at the idea of people misleading biology and applying it to culture. Though just like you said people were just trying to find an explanation to how things work around them. Now it seems funny their explanation on culture progressing on a linear system but because of that we have found that it is not the case.

  • Kaleb Greer  On January 26, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    Social evolution can be compared to a living organism. Living organisms started from a small cell and evolved into a larger being. Society starts from a small unit of people and progresses into a larger aggregation. A tribe starts out then over s period of time that tribe become a town. The town then will continue to progress and turn into a city. From here the city will continue progressing. Similarly, an organism will continue adapting and evolving. The simple structure of the society would begin to become more complex as the society grew into a larger aggregation. A cell becomes more complex as it evolves due to the need to sustain it self more efficiently. Both society and living organisms grow from a collection of independent units into being composed of independent parts. Society begins evolves due to the increase in population. When the population increases the society has to adapt in a way to allow for all the population to be sustain with the community. Societies are thus all related due to the fact they must evolve to survive. Each society started from a small unit of people and grow in numbers making society more complex. The difference in the stages of thru evolution of society separates each community from each other. In this theory there is a progression of society. The ultimate goal is to grow and evolve into a more complex society.

    • J  On January 27, 2014 at 4:21 pm

      Though there are diverse societies, with many different structures to sustain themselves, they all share the basic need to survive and impart a legacy to society. This is the general idea I was able to conclude on your comment, and I do agree with you, that the goal of a society is to adapt and survive. A important lesson I learned is, that a culture is whatever the people of that culture say it is. Things will inevitably change through time, the technology, population growth, rules, norms, values etc. If the individuals of a culture accept the changes, and are able to sustain and support each other as a whole unit to form a society, then they have learned to adapt and survive.

  • Art M.  On January 26, 2014 at 4:01 pm

    During the 19th century, the idea of culture was that there was a hierarchy based on the notion that Europe was the most advanced civilization in the world at the time and the other civilizations and cultures around the world, especially in the Americas and Africa, were primitive and lagging behind in development. It’s similar to the idea of biological evolution they had, especially the idea that animals were constantly evolving until they evolve into “perfect” creatures. Lewis Henry Morgan went on to support this idea by creating a hierarchy of Civilization, where all the cultures around the world were analyzed and arranged into one of three major tiers:
    Savages, who were people with cultures that used stone tools, worshipped nature, and used hunter/gathering techniques to gather their food;
    Barbarians, who used iron tools, worshipped gods, gathered food by using pastoralism, horticulture, and/or subsistence agriculture, and started creating culture by passing down myth and creating pottery and other works of art;
    And Civilized people, who used steel tools, worshipped a single God or used science as religion, gathered food through intensive agriculture and started creating factories, and created Culture through literature, art, theatre, music, etc.
    The view of this is based on the European’s notion that there is one collective culture that every human is a part of and that Culture keeps on changing and evolving until they reach a perfect ideal, which the Europeans saw as an industrial culture, without the worship of a higher being, living in a state of utopia. The Europeans saw that they were closer to that ideal than the other cultures around the world and sought to help them reach that state with them. The problem that Anthropologists saw later on was that the idea of culture being a single unit that affects everyone was incorrect and though cultures do evolve or, better yet, change over time, they all don’t follow the same route to “perfection” that 19th century cultural evolutionists used to believe.

  • Larson  On January 27, 2014 at 4:18 pm

    I agree with the idea of “cultural evolution”. I believe that society changes based on need. If medicine or technology is progressing then there is an obvious need for adaption. Its a matter of moving forward with your society rather than staying behind and not allowing for an evolution. Cultures to me in relation to the organism idea is that they are complex. No culture is simple. Looking at humans one can noticeably see the changes in thought and ways of living through out the years. The complexity changes with every new development within that society. As humans change and grow their society must follow suit and change as well.

  • K  On January 28, 2014 at 11:01 am

    Throughout history there has always been the desire to be the “most advanced” civilization. 19th century evolutionists saw the progressive growth of civilization as an organism: a breathing, living, ever-changing object which is perfected over time. Small-scale societies that live off the land and survive while being self-sufficient are seen as the inferior society. However, a society which is completely dependent on one another and constantly attempts to grow economically is supposed to be “superior”. By making society and living more complicated a society has “grown up” like a child entering teenage adolescence. Religion has also played a significant role in the “growth” of society by “educating inferior” people and societies through forced missionary work and churches. The people needed to be saved and educated to help them grow into an appropriate and advanced society. However, today there are several advantages to holistic medicinal and religious practices that are in danger of being lost forever due to the world-wide obsession of “progress”. As stated by several of my other peers, “cultural evolution” is the most basic explanation of societal progress and 19th century evolutionists believed this was the most realistic explanation for anthropological education and advancement.

  • pthoj91  On January 28, 2014 at 12:33 pm

    The idea of evolution in culture based on the evolution of life is that it depends on the factor on what causes it to evolve. There are social factors such as how the society evolve to change culture. An example would be at one time in life everyone was equal until surplus came into play. This could be a theory on why we have social class. Such as religion, who came up with religion? It could be used as an explanation on what happens when you die. This could be an example of how culture came from life experiences. The understanding of life cycles could have explained how religion came to explain why things happen. Culture could also change and evolve based on society to live a better life.

  • Peter  On January 28, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    I believe and think that ‘culture evolution’ evolve with the unilateral of ecology or environment, why? Depending on the area, climate, substances surrounding the people of that particular area; they adapt entirely to the area where they live in. Thus, evolution of life is directly affected to the evolution of culture.

  • QueenOfTheNile  On January 30, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    I think that societies…depends on which angle you are looking from. We could look at it from a distance or be right in the center of a society. But the reading were complex to some degree. The way that they relate is through the evolution of how society develop in culture. For example, life, climate, area, food, etc. It also can evolved depending on the people in culture.

  • Jasdeep  On February 4, 2015 at 12:01 am

    The process of evolution has definitely been active regarding the alterations within our societies. There are so many different areas in which we have evolved to better serve the needs of our people and our society as a whole. Although evolution is a biological process, things we simply utilize everyday have been modified over time to become more successful. One example of this is medicine. We have came so far with science that we are able to create pharmaceuticals to prevent people from death. NATURALLY, these individuals should have died off according to the process of evolution. We are manipulating the idea of natural selection. Many people who are alive today and functioning well within society wouldn’t have stood a chance years and years ago. We have socially and culturally evolved in order to have a better functioning society. Almost everyone is given equal opportunity and naturally this would never be the case. Although evolution has brought us to our maximum physical and cognitive abilities, we have tampered with mother nature’s ways. This could be a bad thing because manipulating genetics means manipulating the process of an evolution that’s unnatural (picking the babies sex, eye color, etc.) The main goal here is ultimate progression.

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