Cultural Anthropology

Anthropological Theory the Concept of Cultural Evolution



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Why Evolution and Progress Are Not the Same Thing:

The discipline of anthropology has long made use of the concept of evolution. Biological evolution, for example, is the key to understanding the origins of the human species, which is studied by physical anthropology. An understanding of cultural evolution is also important to the discipline, however, particularly for archaeologists and cultural anthropologists. That said, as scientists, we must be very careful to distinguish between cultural evolution and popular ideas of social "progress," for they are not the same thing.

In fact, confusing the two was a mistake made by some of the founders of discipline. The cultural evolutionists who founded European anthropology in the late 1800s, clearly did equate cultural evolution with progress. What the cultural evolutionists proposed is now referred to as a "unilineal" theory of cultural evolution.

Edward Tylor, for example, explained the cultural diversity which was observable in his day by suggesting that all cultures evolved along the same path. The observable differences in the present were then explained by suggesting that each culture had started at different places along this path, and had proceeded along it at different rates. The implication was not only that the /direction/ of cultural evolution was /inevitable/, but also that some societies were more "advanced" than others.

The views of the early cultural evolutionary school were also completely ethnocentric. In other words, they judged all other societies according to the standards of their own. This was quite evident in the language which they employed. Lewis Henry Morgan, for example, distinguished between three evolutionary stages in cultural evolution, each with sub-stages, which he called "savagery," "barbarism" and "civilization."

The clear implication of this view was that the most complex society, namely their own white, European society, was considered to be the ideal type which all other societies would "inevitably" tend to evolve towards. Because they equated evolution with social progress, this view implied several clear value judgments.

First, it implied that European society was superior to all others because it was the most complex. Second, it implied that all non-Western societies, due to their lesser social and technological complexity, were inferior to the West. Third, it implied that all non-Western societies would "inevitably" become Westernized, because this was seen as the direction of cultural evolution and "progress."

The third point of view is also consistent with the pattern of missionizing and colonizing non-Western peoples which was practiced throughout the colonial age, where Western colonial powers attempted to assimilate tribal societies "for their own good." After all, the logic implied, because Western society was both more complex, and the "superior" culture, it knew what was best for tribal peoples better than they did themselves.

The inherent ethnocentrism of early cultural evolutionism was soundly criticized by later anthropologists, and especially by Franz Boas (1928). Boas was the founder of both historical particularism, and of North American anthropology. Boas also introduced the idea of cultural relativism into the discipline of anthropology. Cultural relativism is the opposite of the ethnocentrism which characterized the cultural evolutionists.

Cultural relativism argues that we should not judge other societies according to the values or standards of our own culture, but rather according to the values and standards of the society in question. From this perspective there are no absolute or objective standards for determining which culture is "better" or "worse," nor is this even a relevant question for scientific investigation. Rather, the objective is to record the actual practices and beliefs of specific historical societies.

The critiques of the ethnocentrism of the cultural evolutionists by Boas and others were so effective, that anthropology turned away from the study of cultural evolution all together for almost half a century. In fact, an evolutionary view of cultural (as opposed to biological) evolution was not reintroduced into the discipline until the 1960s, when the whole idea was reinterpreted.

One of the primary scholars to do so was Julian Steward, who was also a cultural ecologist. Steward reinterpreted our understanding of cultural evolution both in order to avoid this ethnocentric assumption, as well as the assumption that evolution is equivalent to progress.

What Steward proposed was that the unilinear model of the cultural evolutionists be replaced by a "multilineal" model. Such a multilineal view implies that cultural development may follow many different paths, and that there is no single over-all pattern of development which all societies "inevitably" follow. Instead, the direction of cultural evolution is seen as /arbitrary/.

This contrast is also closely related to Steward's contrast between "general" evolution (which focuses on all societies) and "specific" evolution. The latter focuses on documenting the /actual/ patterns of development and change of specific human societies in specific times and places.

As Steward pointed out, when you put these ideas together:
1. specific evolution or a focus on particular societies,
2. a multilinear model, or the idea that there are many potential paths of development and,
3. the idea that cultural change is not necessarily equivalent to progress, you get past the ethnocentric implications of the earlier view.

There is no longer one path of development, but many, as many as their are societies. And the most complex society, namely that of the modern Western world, is not necessarily the best. Indeed, as the ecological literature is teaching is, it is also a mistake to assume that the most complex and technologically advanced society is the best adapted or the most sustainable.

Thus, evolution, and particularly evolution towards greater social and technological complexity, is not equivalent to progress. To understand the difference, picture the following. It is game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals. The Toronto Maple Leafs face the New York Rangers to determine the championship. At the end of the game, the Maple Leafs win by one goal in overtime.

Now clearly, the situation has /evolved/ for both teams. The Leafs are now champions, while the Rangers have been defeated. But only one of the two teams has made any /progress/ towards their common goal of winning the Stanley Cup.

And that, in a nutshell, is the difference between progress and evolution. Progress implies both a /goal/ which we are "progressing" towards, as well as an /improvement/ to one's situation as one nears, or achieves that goal. Evolution, on the other hand, simply implies change. And that change may be for better or worse, towards greater or lesser social complexity, and towards sustainability or social collapse.

That all depends upon the choices which we make as human beings.

References, additional readings:

Daniel G. Bates & Elliot M. Fratkin (2003) Cultural Anthropology, Pearson Education.

Franz Boas (1928) Anthropology & Modern Life, Dover Publications Inc.

Carol R. Ember & Melvin Ember (2004) Cultural Anthropology, Pearson Education.

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