Category Archives: 06 – Cultural Ecology

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


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.

Julian Steward – “The Patrilineal Band”

All quotes are taken from the reading unless otherwise noted.

After “the ‘mid-century collapse’ of Historical Particularism” a resurrection of the dearly departed “cross-cultural comparison” or evolutionary perspectives on culture, began to crop up. A good example of this is the following reading, where the author states that societies that occur in similar environments develop in the same ways. Defining cultural types as those sharing cultural features forming a “core” of practices associated with subsistence, ranging in complexity from family to multi-family and finally state, hi students later “refined” this series to the “now familiar classifications of band, tribe, chiefdom, and state.” Contrary to unilineal evolutionists, Stewart believed that “cultures could evolve in any number of distinct patterns depending on their environmental circumstances.” Despite being a student of Kroeber, he butted heads with his mentor by his interest in the causes of cultural traits, Krober being the author or “The Eighteen Professions” said many times that anthropology should not be concerned with teleology, in fact anthropologists should not be concerned with causation at all, needless to say the relationship was contentious. Steward’s text is a prime example of how he shows culture to be an adaptation to the environment.

A few definitions to get us started…

Patrilineality – “is a system in which one belongs to one’s father’s lineage. It generally involves the inheritance of property, names or titles through the male line as well.” -Wikipedia

Patrilocality – “is a term referring to the social system in which a married couple resides with or near the husband’s parents.” – Wikipedia
It is important to note that patrilocality is more readily visible through the examination of marriage practices.

Exogamy – In this context, “exogamy is the marrying outside of a specific group.” Particularly, avoiding incest by marrying outside of the immediate family, potentially cross or parallel cousins may be preferred marriage partners.

 A Breakdown of the Reading

It is important to note that a recurring theme that permeates Steward’s writings are far from the Historical Particularists of his day in that he is almost consumed with an interest in discovering “general laws of culture.” In this instance Steward is attempting to find a correlation between environment and the subsequent cultural construction. The result of this study is the notion of, as so termed by Dr. Mullooly, Environmental Determinism.

According to White….(By Jackie)

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.


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)