Cultural Ecology and Neo-Evolutionary Thought

Like this post, the era of Cultural Ecology and Neo-Evolutionary Thought is dominated by depictions of Darwin both vulgar (above) and refined (below).

“Atheists prefer certainty and use Darwin’s theory of evolution to state categorically that God does not exist, overegging Darwin in their argument in a way that Darwin himself would be uncomfortable with,” Charles Darwin's great-great-great-granddaughter says.  

I don’t mean the vulgar meaning of vulgarity; rather, I’m using the refined use of the term.  At this point, you may be very confused.  If so, good, because that is a great place to start learning! If you read the definition of vulgar below, you will agree that the vulgar interpretation of “vulgar” is obscenity. Vulgar means “common” or “pertaining to ordinary people”, and can refer to:

Vulgar or common language, the vernacular speech of a region or a people Vulgar Latin, common Latin as distinguished from literary or Classical Latin Vulgarism, an instance of non-standard or non-elite usage in a language, not to be confused with “vulgarity” as a synonym for “obscenity” or “profanity” A vulgar fraction in mathematics, one written in the common way and not as a decimal fraction.

We have swung on a pendulum from armchair anthropologists who took “vulgar interpretations” of Darwin too literally while describing humanity to Boas’ opposite extreme where the notion of social evolution is itself obscene. But the armchair anthropologists’ passion to apply Darwin’s then “new ideas” was very refined in the era that it occurred.

Note the dates of the publications below. Darwin’s _The Origin of Species_ was published in 1859.  Soon after, the notable publications of the “armchair anthropologists include.
-Herbert Spencer, The Social Organism (1860)
-Lewis Henry Morgan, Ethnical Periods (1877)
-Edward Burnett Tylor, Science of Culture (1871)

Boas’ response to these armchair anthropologists is so violent that it would would have been natural for Boas to refer to them as “vulgar Darwinists”. But happily, Boas had more class than that.  In fact, Boas agreed with his reading of Darwin well illustrated here:

The notion of evolution that the Boasians ridiculed and rejected was the then dominant belief in orthogenesis—a determinate or teleological process of evolution in which change occurs progressively regardless of natural selection. Boas rejected the prevalent theories of social evolution developed by Edward Burnett TylorLewis Henry Morgan, and Herbert Spencer not because he rejected the notion of “evolution” per se, but because he rejected orthogenetic notions of evolution in favor of Darwinian evolution.

In fact, Boas thought highly of Darwin as is illustrated below:

I hope I may have succeeded in presenting to you, however imperfectly, the currents of thought due to the work of the immortal Darwin which have helped to make anthropology what it is at the present time. (Boas, 1909 lecture; see Lewis, Herbert 2001b. “Boas, Darwin, Science and Anthropology” in Current Anthropology 42(3): 381–406.

It is funny that it only took one “educational generation” for Darwin to resurface. Two of the dominant voices of neo-evolutionary thought, Julian Steward and Leslie White, both trace their ancestry back to Boas.  Boas taught Sapir who taught White. And Boas taught Kroeber who taught Steward.  Although George Murdock was not part of this lineage, he became Chair of Anthropology at Yale following Sapir’s death in 1938 and so could be considered a Boasian step-child in a sense.

QUESTION: When we speak of Steward, White and Murdock today, should we consider them vulgar Darwinists?

see student slides here

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • kimico  On March 2, 2014 at 3:46 pm

    I find it interesting that Leslie White defined culture based on a society’s institutional adaptations. Although now that I’ve read it it seems completely obvious because we’ve been discussing social evolution (i.e. change and adaptation) for the last six weeks. However it’s a thought provoking idea to look at how a culture has changed rather than simply how they currently live. These changes point to influence and the ways they’ve taken a concept or belief that belonged to another group (possibly not by their own accord) and used it for their own benefit, altering it so that it becomes their own. This reminds me of Spanish influence on Mesoamerican religion. The indigenous population eventually accepted the Christian god into their pantheon of deities, but to the horror of the Spaniards they also incorporated the Devil into their belief system because he too was viewed as a god (albeit a terrible one) that should be acknowledged.

    • kimico  On March 4, 2014 at 9:00 am

      “It only took one ‘educational generation’ for Darwin to resurface” points to the fact that most anything goes in and out and out of “fashion.” Styles come and go, whether it’s clothing, cars, or, in this instance, education. Certain subjects become fashionable or more popular to study, and it was only a matter of time before Darwin came back around in the cyclical way that is life. When these things do resurface it is usually a modified version of the original, so it makes sense that neo-evolution came to be. I suppose they might be considered vulgar for using the basics of Darwinism, but the basics of evolution dictate that change happens over time and cultures do change and adapt over time. Their ability to record this change, however, didn’t seem very sophisticated and this, in my opinion, makes them more vulgar than anything.

  • K  On March 2, 2014 at 8:56 pm

    This wave of anthropology is the reintroduction of science into a cultural world. Neo-Evolutionary ideas try to combine the crude and far-fetched scientific processes of the armchair generation with newer takes from people like Boas on culture and how societies grow over time. As with our previous discussion, there is theory that suggests the industrial revolution is a major factor in the changes of our own society. With White’s equation for energy, technological advancements and cultural progression, we see the idea that as technology advances in a society, the culture of that society in turn is changed around that technology. The cotton gin is a perfect example of a technological advancement that changed the lives of several farmers, and in turn came to change the world of farming culture.

    While this equation may make sense in the short-term there are other things that must be kept in mind. Firstly, just because a society has technological advances this does not mean that they are a superior society. Our society may be easy in comparison to the old days long since past, but we have our own issues and challenges to overcome with our own technological advancements. Secondly, there is a disagreement that has been battled since the beginning of anthropology that must be laid to rest. The problem is the singe-minded thinking that one society is better than another because of A, B or C. In the end, the swinging pendulum must stop so we can see that just because we have a different way of life or different cultural surroundings, this does not and will not make our culture and society a more advanced culture than another.

  • larson1301  On March 3, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    I believe that we can call Stewart, White, and Murdock vulgar Darwinists. Take take for example all of their theories, they all consist of a type of culture adaption societies have gone through. Each of them have their differing theories on how to measure it or whether or not they do it similarly but at the end of the theories it’s the same idea. They all play off this idea of evolution that Darwinists originally spoke of. This idea of change to meet circumstance or change to function more advanced. The reason I agree with the word choice of vulgar is because looking at the time of all of these theorists (even Darwin) it was considered vulgar to speak of evolution and adaptations. The way White took societies energy and change and correlated it with science was unheard of and unheard of. Normally when ideas are so new they cause society to view them as foreign and strange making them, vulgar.

  • Reyna Alvarenga  On March 3, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    It is considerable to call Stewart, White, and Murdock vulgar Darwinists. In their own theories they each talked about culture adaption and each had a different thought on how these societies have gone through this process. I considered it is acceptable to call them vulgar Darwinists because the topics they covered during their time were explicit material that not many people thought were correct to study or analyze. Yet, they went their way and studied them not mattering that society would not agree on them. Stewart, White and Murdock can also be called radicals….changing theories and bringing new ideas to a society that was not ready for them and instead saw them as too vulgar to discuss in such matter

  • CB  On March 3, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    First of all White’s equation seems more philosophical than anthropological to me. It was saying energy and technology, when they come together, make culture. But I believe White was just stating that in all cultures happen when you put in energy and have some sort of technology. It was an idea that not necessarily adds up, because there is no way to measure those things but a way to kind of look at each society as a whole.

    I believe we should look at Stewart, White, and Murdock as vulgar Darwinists because their theories on the kind of evolution that happens through different cultures. It is a way to look at cultures with their own individual cultural evolution and not biological but that we must not make any claims that one culture is better than another.

  • Art M  On March 3, 2014 at 9:35 pm

    Steward, White, and Murdock would be considered vulgar Darwinists because they did focus on the evolution of culture that social Darwinists ignored in favor of supporting Eurocentrism. Steward used the concept of natural selection in studying culture to create the idea of cultural ecology, stating that cultures change in order to adapt to their environment. Steward seems to me to be the most epitomous to vulgar Darwinism because people accept that idea today that cultures adapt to their environments as much as they affect their environment to suit them, like how adobe houses with flat roofs built by Pueblo peoples wouldn’t be effective in Nordic countries where wooden or brick houses with steep roofs would suit them better. White, with his explanation of the energy spent developing tools explains culture change, seems to fit with vulgar Darwinism but his equation makes it seem as though cultures can advance only if enough energy is spent or if a culture is technologically advanced. Murdock started doing comparative studies between cultures and theorized that cultures are inherently similar with few cultures being ‘outliers’ or completely different from the ‘universal’ normal. Murdock’s theory was able to show that even though cultures can change differently, they can still come up with similar ideas that become the ‘norm’.

  • Kaleb Greer  On March 3, 2014 at 10:02 pm

    I would say Steward, White, and Murdock would be considered vulgar. If taken by the definition that vulgar means common or pertaining to the people then they are indeed vulgar. The fact that they created theories using the underlying ideas of Darwinian theory. However, they made the theory their own. The pieces of Darwinian thought that was used was the most common of the theory. It also pertained to the people for it analyzes the evolution and adaption of society.

  • kQ  On March 3, 2014 at 11:01 pm

    As we all know, Boas believed in practice rather than theory. New ways of thinking came with the Borasian era and his followers applied these concepts that we use now in American Modern Anthropology. I find really interesting that right after Boas, many other “Armchair Anthropologist” started to take interest in Darwin’s ideas and Boas’ new practices. I think Vulgar has to do with what most people in a society are more familiar with, but to say that Steward, White and Murdock were vulgar Darwinist I think its pretty safe. Some of their ideas were focus on the people and how cultures change with the introduction of social systems and how human development has different stages. People adapt and cope with changes, that’s what makes societies in the first place.

  • Peter  On March 4, 2014 at 3:02 pm

    Those arm chair guy’s (Lewis, Herbert, and Edward) again! Geeze, I am literally getting tired of these idiotic egocentric behemoth foos. However, to disclaim Darwin theory of Evolution is about as much bull**** you can get with comparative to Creationists. Furthermore, I believe they shouldn’t have “disclaim”, but rather refute the theory only IF, they’ve gone out and did actual field work to prove their approach of evolution theory. It is safe to call them vulgar Darwinists.

  • jumpinhare  On March 4, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    It looks like we all pretty much agree….that is, on classifying the threesome, Steward, White, and Murdock as vulgar Darwinists. The were all pretty focused on people and societies and the transformation that occurs within them. White argued that energy spent in technology and tool use moved cultures forward while Steward believed that societies advanced as their environment forced them to adapt. I had the most difficulty understanding Murdock in his comparative studies between cultures. Above blog from Art M put it simply in that even though cultures appear to be different and evolve differently they still are all somewhat similar. This theory stuff makes my head hurt. Can’t we discuss chimps instead??

  • mirrferr  On May 1, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    I agree as well that they should be considered vulgar, but not necessarily Darwinists, as someone else mentioned because they did their own thing not simply follow what Darwin was saying. If they had indeed done field work, they would have a different approach to their theories I believe, because they could see that their classification is not as valid as they believe.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: