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3.2: Cultural Evolution

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    Before taking a closer look at the development of the various theoretical frameworks in anthropology, we need to first understand what a theory is. A theory is "an explanation of laws and statistical associations" (Ember & Ember 2004), or, as Lavenda and Schultz (2012) define it, "a theory is a formal description of some part of the world that explains how, in terms of cause and effect, that part of the world works." The important thing to remember is that a theory is a possible explanation for phenomena we find in a culture, but it is never unquestionably true and, as we will see, may at some point be proven untrue. A theory may suggest an explanation, and the evidence may support that explanation, but at some point, new evidence may be collected that proves the theory false. As is the case with the theory of cultural evolution.

    Definition: theory

    A formal description of some part of the world that explains how, in terms of cause and effect, that part of the world works.


    E. B. Tylor, Lewis Henry Morgan, and Herbert Spencer all played a part in the development of the theories of cultural evolution. The primary assumption of cultural evolution is that societies develop from simple to complex, albeit at different rates, which explains why different types of societies exist in the world. These theories would later be proven untrue and rejected by future anthropologists such as Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Lewis Henry Morgan, 1908.

    Unilineal Evolution

    Proposed in the 19th century, Unilineal Evolution, is typically regarded as the first theoretical framework in anthropology. Originally proposed by E.B. Tylor, unilineal evolution suggests that all cultures evolved through three sequential stages: savagery, barbarism, and, finally, civilization (Sidky 2004). Lewis Henry Morgan further subdivided savagery and barbarism into sub-categories: lower, middle, and upper (Sidky 2004). These stages were based primarily on technological characteristics (see Figure 3.2.2) but included other things such as political organization, marriage, family, and religion. Since Western societies had the most advanced technology, they put those societies at the highest rank of civilization. Societies at a stage of savagery or barbarism were viewed as inherently inferior to civilized society, namely, Euro-Americans. (Sidky 2004). Although Morgan acknowledged that there is no biopsychological difference between races, he was, in fact, a racist. He believed that the people and races who were at the lower stages of cultural evolution were inferior because their mental abilities and brain size had not yet fully developed (Sidky 2004).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Unilineal Cultural Evolution.

    Definition: Unilineal Evolution

    The belief that cultures moved through various stages of development according to different levels of rational knowledge, ending up with something resembling Euro-American lifestyles (Harris & Johnson 2007).

    Social Darwinism

    Herbert Spencer’s theory of cultural evolution, which is often referred to as Social Darwinism, proposed that cultural evolution was linked to biological evolution (Sidky 2004). The central belief of Social Darwinism was that there were innate biological differences that accounted for differences in intelligence, the capacity for language, and the behaviors of the different races and cultures, a view referred to as biological determinism (Sidky 2004). As a result, Euro-Americans were biologically and culturally superior. Spencer also coined the term “survival of the fittest” (Sidky 2004) and advocated for allowing societies to compete, thereby allowing the most fit in society to survive. With these ideas, Spencer opposed social policies that would provide assistance and relief to the impoverished and "inferior races" as it would interfere with the evolutionary process (Sidky 2004).

    Definition: Social Darwinism

    The racist ideological perspective that cultural and biological progress depended on the free play of competitive forces in the struggle of individual against individual, nation against nation, and race against race (Harris & Johnson 2007; Sidky 2004).

    Definition: biological determinism

    The belief that there are innate biological differences in intelligence, the capacity for language, and modes of behavior between human populations which explain cultural differences (Sidky 2004).


    There are two main assumptions embedded in cultural evolutionism: psychic unity and the superiority of Euro-American cultures. Psychic unity of mankind is a concept that suggests human minds share similar thought patterns and will produce similar responses to similar stimuli (Sidky 2004). This means that all people and their societies will go through the same process of development. However, cultural evolutionists believed that psychic unity was dependent upon the stage of evolutionary development a cultural group was at. Of course, the second assumption of Western superiority was not unusual for the time period. This assumption was deeply rooted in European colonialism and based on the fact that Western societies had more sophisticated technology.

    Definition: psychic unity of mankind

    A basic set of elementary thought patterns common to all human minds, which produce similar responses to similar stimuli although expressed with differing permutations in differing contexts (Sidky 2004).

    Nineteenth-century evolutionists contributed to anthropology by providing the first systematic methods for thinking about and explaining human societies; however, contemporary anthropologists view nineteenth-century evolutionism as too simplistic to explain the development of societies in the world. In general, the nineteenth-century evolutionists relied on racist views of human development that were popular at that time. In the early twentieth century, cultural evolutionism was strongly attacked by historical particularists for being speculative, incomplete, ethnocentric, and based on fragmentary second and third-hand reports from travelers and missionaries.


    Ember, Carol R, Melvin Ember, and James G. Duvall. Cultural Anthropology. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2004.

    Harris, Marvin K, and Orna Johnson. Cultural Anthropology. Boston: Pearson A and B, 2007.

    Lavenda, Robert H, and Emily A. Schultz. Core Concepts in Cultural Anthropology. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc, 2012.

    Sidky, H. Perspectives on Culture: A Critical Introduction to Theory in Cultural Anthropology. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Prentice Hall, 2004


    Figure 3.2.1. Lewis Henry Morgan, 1908 from WikiMedia Commons under Public Domain.

    A derivative work from:

    "Anthropological Theory" by WikiEducator under CC BY-SA 4.0.

    3.2: Cultural Evolution is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.