Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

3.6: Cultural Evolution Revisited

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)


    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Leslie White,1969 (CC BY 4.0 by Regents of the University of Michigan).

    In the mid-1900s, Leslie White began to question the anti-evolutionary Boasian paradigm and began to re-examine the works of nineteenth-century evolutionists. His goal was to correct the ethnographic errors and identify any positive contribution that theories of cultural evolution offered to a science of culture (Harris & Johnson 2007). He is known for his advocacy for Neoevolutionism and the scientific study of culture, which he called culturology. White viewed his own approach to cultural evolution as a synthesis of historical and functional approaches because it combined the diachronic scope of one with the generalizing eye for formal interrelations provided by the other.

    Definition: Neoevolutionism

    The label for the evolutionary perspective associated with Leslie White and his followers (Sidky 2004).

    Evolutionist theories were no longer racist and biological determinism was rejected (Fog 2011). For White, the primary function of culture and the one that determines its level of advancement is its ability to harness and control energy. White's law states that "culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased" (Sidky 2004). White places technology as a key factor that drives evolutionary progress. White's argument on the importance of technology can be summarized as follows:

    1. Technology is an attempt to solve the problems of survival.
    2. This attempt ultimately means capturing enough energy and diverting it for human needs.
    3. Societies that capture more energy and use it more efficiently have an advantage over other societies.
    4. Therefore, these different societies are more advanced in an evolutionary sense.

    As a result of his work, White inspired a new generation of anthropologists who became a leading force in innovative anthropological thought.


    Ecology is a biological term for the interaction of organisms and their environment. Cultural ecology is a theoretical approach that attempts to explain similarities and differences in culture in relation to the environment. Highly focused on how the material culture related to basic survival (i.e. subsistence), cultural ecology was the first theoretical approach to provide a causal explanation for those similarities and differences. Developed by Julian Steward in the 1930s and 1940s, cultural ecology became an influential approach within anthropology, particularly archaeology. Elements of the approach are still seen today in ethnoecology, political ecology, human behavioral ecology, and the ecosystems approach (Tucker 2013).

    Definition: ecology

    The study of interactions between animal and plant populations in the context of their habitat (Sidky 2004).

    Definition: Cultural Ecology

    The anthropological approach focusing on the effects of the environment on labor patterns and their effects on the organization of other aspects of culture (Sicky 2004).

    Using Steward’s approach, anthropologists compare cultures in order to determine what factors influence similar cultural development or, in other words, similar adaptations. In cultural ecology, it is the culture, not individuals, that adapt. This approach assumes that culture is superorganic, a concept Steward learned from Alfred Kroeber.

    Unidentified Native Man and Julian Steward outside Wood Building, Bow and Quiver of Arrows Leaning Against Wall Nearby
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Julian Steward and a Native Man, 1940. (Public Domain; Bureau of American Ethnography via Wikipedia)

    Steward proposed that we could begin to understand these adaptations by first examining the cultural core, as this was the critical cultural component that dealt with the ability of the culture to survive. The cultural core was comprised of the technology, knowledge, labor, and family organization used to collect resources from the environment (Tucker 2013). He then thought that examination of behaviors associated with the cultural core was necessary, which included the organization of labor. Thirdly, Steward advocated for examining how social institutions and belief systems were impacted by subsistence-related behaviors. According to the cultural ecology school of thought, cultural similarities were explained by adaptations to similar environmental conditions, causing the approach to be labeled environmental determinism. Cultural changes were due to changing environmental conditions. Since environmental changes were not predictable, cultures changed in multiple directions. Cultures that may have been similar at one point might become dissimilar if environmental conditions changed. Conversely, cultures that were dissimilar could become similar. This idea of multi-directional change is called multilinear evolution and is one of the major departures from earlier evolutionary explanations of culture.


    Cultural materialism is one of the major anthropological perspectives for analyzing human societies. It incorporates ideas from Marxism, cultural evolution, and cultural ecology. Materialism contends that the physical world impacts and sets constraints on human behavior. The materialists believe that human behavior is part of nature and therefore, it can be understood by using the methods of natural science. Materialists do not necessarily assume that material reality is more important than mental reality. However, they give priority to the material world over the world of the mind when they explain human societies. This doctrine of materialism started and developed from the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marx and Engels presented an evolutionary model of societies based on the materialist perspective. They argued that societies go through the several stages, from tribalism to feudalism to capitalism to communism (Harris & Johnson, 2007). Their work drew little attention from anthropology in the early twentieth-century. However, since the late 1920s, anthropologists have increasingly come to depend on materialist explanations for analyzing societal development and some inherent problems of capitalist societies. Anthropologists who heavily rely on the insights of Marx and Engels include neo-evolutionists, neo-materialists, feminists, and postmodernists.

    Definition: Cultural Materialism

    The anthropological approach that attempts to account for cross-cultural similarities and differences by focusing on the material constraints on human activity, such as mode of production, mode of reproduction, and ecological factors (Sidky 2004).

    Cultural materialists identify three levels of social systems that constitute a universal pattern: 1) infrastructure, 2) structure, and 3) superstructure (Harris & Johnson 2007). Infrastructure is the basis for all other levels and includes how basic needs are met and how it interacts with the local environment. Structure refers to a society’s economic, social, and political organization, while superstructure is related to ideology and symbolism. Cultural materialists like Marvin Harris contend that the infrastructure is the most critical aspect as it is here where the interaction between culture and environment occurs. All three of the levels are interrelated so that changes in the infrastructure results in changes in the structure and superstructure, although the changes might not be immediate. While this appears to be environmental determinism, cultural materialists do not disclaim that change in the structure and superstructure cannot occur without first change in the infrastructure. They do, however, claim that if change in those structures is not compatible with the existing infrastructure the change is not likely to become set within the culture (Harris & Johnson 2007).


    Fog, A. Cultural Selection. Dordrecht: Springer, 2011.

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

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

    Tucker, Bram. “Cultural Ecology.” In Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology: An Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, edited by R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms, 142-147. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference, 2013.

    A derivative work from:

    "Cultural Anthropology Theories, continued" by WikiEducator under CC BY-SA 4.0.

    "Leslie White" by New World Encyclopedia under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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