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)


1. Herbert Spencer The Social Organism (1860)

2. -Lewis Henry Morgan, Ethnical Periods (1877)

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?

Slides on Unilneal evolution(Mullooly)

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  • Ian Whiting  On January 28, 2015 at 11:06 am

    In the mindset of many late-19th century thinkers, both biology and human culture were seen to progress in a unilineal manner from simple to more complex. Consider early models of human evolution, which led in a direct path from single-cell organisms to the ultimate, almost predestined goal of “modern man.” SImilarly, European societies (including white, Christian America) were seen as the pinnacle and ultimate goal of all human cultures. This narrative was a convenient transformation of earlier imperialist ideologies which based the inferiority of indigenous peoples on religious grounds. Placing these societies on a lower level than their own grew out of and justified the loss of land, genocide and cultural assimilation of the period. In a tragic irony, the theories of unilineal cultural evolution led governments and private organizations to “jump the gun” and create civilizing missions for the purpose of fast forwarding this “natural process.”
    In the 21st century, we now know that human evolution was not a simple unilineal path. We are also trying to escape the past designations of non-Western cultures as explicitly inferior. Yet the ghost of 19th century social evolutionism nevertheless haunts our understandings of human culture. Despite our best attempts to abandon the biases of the past, anthropological theory is still fixated on the implications behind the inherent differences in complexities of human societies. A small-scale society with less specialization of labor is neither the hand-to-mouth primitive culture nor the utopia dreamt up by romantics. If we are unable to escape the implied statements of value attached to these variations of human society, then we risk falling into the same fallacies as our 19th century forebearers.

  • Brionna Mendoza  On January 28, 2015 at 9:41 pm

    In its historical context, one could see how 19th-century evolutionism would make sense in regards to the development of culture. Western life was rapidly changing and making technological advancements. Take, for example, the development of the railroad, which allowed for easy, rapid travel and trade in advanced Western countries. One couldn’t help but to look down upon “primitive” societies who slowly migrated from place to place with pity and condescension from atop the apparent pinnacle of modern civilization.
    How could such a gap between members of the same species exist? Anthropological figures, heavily influenced by recent work from Darwin, provided explanations for this. Since all human beings shared a similar mind, though some were more developed than others, their cultural trajectory was also similar and progressed toward the same destination, which was considered to be the pinnacle of civilization that the Western world had already achieved. The underdeveloped societies, however, did serve a helpful purpose by acting as a model for the earlier stages of development that human culture evolved through. This is best exemplified by L.H. Morgan’s work, which defined three stages through which humanity worked through: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Advancement through the hierarchy was dependent on the achievement of certain ideas or institutions, like the use of a bow and arrow or the concept of property.
    In retrospect, this theory is obviously very flawed. There are many more factors that influence the development of a culture other than just possessing a brain that is part of the universal “human trajectory” in pursuit of an amorphous concept of civilization.

  • Chong  On January 28, 2015 at 10:19 pm

    19th century anthropologists suggested that cultural evolution is a natural progressive process like that of a living organism. They both grow from simple to complex structures. They start out small and independent then grow into bigger groups and work together. Just like how biological organs have their different functions for the body, different social groups also have their own function and place for society. This creates competition and class structure, where the best is on top and have the most power and is the overseer of the rest of the group. For example, in society, the government is the leader and their purpose is to give society what they need to become better. Which ever path one society takes to grow, it is beyond many paths. These societies may be compared to other societies to reach the ultimate goal of growing to the best that they can be.

  • Catelynn Danell  On January 29, 2015 at 12:22 pm

    19th century theorists believed that the evolution of societies is paralleled to evolution of the human body. Separate societies evolve in complexity over time, such as how the human brain has slowly changed to fit demands of human evolution. Society evolves under the influence of structures on its individual parts. The demands of society changes its parts. This causes society to gain complexity over time. This is similar to evolution of the human brain. Higher mental demands over physical ones caused changes to the human body. This can be seen in the larger brain mass and higher mental capacities of modern humans when compared to that of ancestral ones. Its individual parts changed to meet the demands of the whole.

    Within societies and human anatomy the lower components that make them up are essential to their normal functioning. In societies this can be seen in corporations or governmental structures. In the body, the brain, which controls the functions of the body, depends on the efficient functioning of the rest of the body to maintain homeostasis. This creates a system of mutual dependency; all parts depend on one another to maintain their environment. Similar to the body, society’s goal is to maintain order among its parts.

  • Monica Kiser  On January 29, 2015 at 7:54 pm

    The evolution of human culture could be described as a living organism or body. There are many different parts of a living organism that work together in order for it to survive and reproduce to pass on its genes. Culture can be viewed in the same manner because it is made up of the norms, values, and symbols that govern a society. These parts must work together in order for a society to get the most from its environment. They exploit their resources in their niches and develop strategies. In doing this culture survive and its practices are passed on to the next generation. As culture is being passed on it evolves in order to benefit the society in which practices it. When people migrate to other parts of the planet they take with them their culture. When they interact with others they tend to have an influence on one another. Culture practices will be adopted into other cultures, ever changing them. I do not believe there is a progression of society. Instead societies do whatever necessary to take advantage of their environment and in doing so they adopt ways in which they pass on to the next generations. These ways get integrated into these societies, sometimes being modified ever so slightly creating a new way to do things. This is the evolution of human culture which is just as diverse as human species are.

  • dkcruz22  On January 29, 2015 at 10:59 pm

    When looking at the two authors (Spencer and Morgan). We can say that we are getting both lineal and unlineal evolution. Because like in the power point one is suggesting progression and the other is saying that it’s the way of life.

  • Selena  On January 29, 2015 at 11:10 pm

    In a historical context, there is an obvious progression with these things (subsistence, government, etc). Over time, new generations come up with different ways to organize themselves, to gather food, to communicate, to prioritize, etc…. Progression in the general sense of the term is simply moving from one thing to the next.
    But it seems like the ideas of Morgan and others are about progression in a certain direction, from the bottom up. Building, bettering, improving. It sounds much more evaluative, and that’s where the idea turns sour for me. “Early” cultural stages are described as simplistic, underdeveloped, and infantile, while later stages (esp. civilization) are depicted as superior and preferred. The goal, then, for societies is to grow out of savagery and barbarism and become civilized. Ironic, too, that the people involved with this idea come from a culture they’d classify as civilized. Like the comment above mentioned, this all seems like a nice way to justify imposing one’s own culture onto another (all in the name of “progress”).
    I don’t think societies progress in an upward direction like that. I see them as simply changing, for better or worse is a matter of perspective. When there are shifts in necessity and values among a group, their practices change to adapt. That’s all that’s happening; no need to classify it with terms like savage vs. civilized.

  • Alfred L.  On February 1, 2015 at 1:37 pm

    One crucial difference between the evolution of life and the evolution of culture is that life cannot revert to simpler forms, whereas culture can. The Maya, for example, were a complex state society until their decline, in which they abandoned their cities and government. A way in which the evolution of culture and life may be analogous is that both life and culture are shaped by their environment. Also, time does not necessarily invoke complexity, especially if a particular form of life or culture is well enough suited to its environment to be unaffected by any selective pressures; thus we get “living fossil” organisms and cultures that have remained relatively unchanged for a large amount of time.
    Large societies of people tend to be more complex simply because more complex ways of governing and feeding people need to be created in order to support larger populations of people. This does not imply any sort of progression towards a more perfect form but merely an adaptation to the environment, the ultimate goal of every society: to sustain itself, and this may involve a progression of complexity, a regression of complexity, or a more or less static existence.

  • Sunny S  On February 13, 2015 at 12:39 pm

    During that time, many did not know what evolution was and it was a myth to society. With time and darwin more and more societies became aware. So to say that there is difference between of evolution and evolution of culture. I would strongly disagree. What define culture to a youth is what his/her parents taught them. So as evolution as happened so has culture evolution happened. Because has we changed our cultures have changed so in that respect evolution of life and culture are the same because they are constantly evolving.

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