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