The process of cultural evolution is a phenomenon the strict and clear definition of which can hardly be found in contemporary anthropology and philosophy. In most branches of humanitarian knowledge, concepts of cultural and social evolution are viewed within the framework of the entire theory of evolution of human society, which inevitably implies an evolutionary approach to human culture as well. At the same time, the history of cultural evolution conceptualization in anthropological thought proves that the idea of evolving social structures and functions, as well as material culture, throughout a vast period of time has been in this disciple since the middle of the 19th century.
Concepts of Cultural Evolution: The Evolutionist Paradigm
Ideas about the evolution of human culture were formulated for the first time at the end of the 19th century as a logical application of evolutionism to a peculiar branch of cognitive philosophy that was based in turn on an idea of development (mostly progressive in its character) of human beings and human culture over time.
Early ideas about cultural evolution as the essence of human history were expressed by Edward Burnett Tylor in 1865 in his Researches Into the Early History of Mankind, in which basic postulates of further understanding of this phenomenon in ethnology, cultural, and social anthropology were expressed. According to Tylor, in all parts of the world, human culture gradually evolves from its savage stage through barbarism toward civilization; cultural differences among different peoples can be explained by the fact that these groups represent different stages of cultural evolution and have no racial or any other implication. Cultural achievements (innovations) could be invented by the cultural group itself or inherited from previous generations; alternatively, they could be also adopted from neighbors.
In a series of subsequent scientific works (Primitive Culture, 1871; Anthropology, 1881) Tylor improved his understanding of cultural evolution as an immanent process of gradual development that is identical with cultural progress and inevitably means steady perfection of certain cultural phenomena over time. Notwithstanding differences with the so-called degeneration theory of Joseph de Maistre, widely popular at that time, Tylor did not totally exclude the possibility of regressive changes in human culture caused by historical and natural catastrophes.
Based on his own original definition of the historical and social essence of culture taken as a general anthropological concept, Tylor provided numerous examples of so-called evolutionary rows, in frames of which particular genres of cultural phenomena and artifacts were arranged in certain sequences, beginning with their simplest form up to contemporary highly developed versions. The “doctrine of survivals,” or living cultural fossils (archaic cultural elements preserved from one stage of cultural evolution into the next), was another instrument applied by Tylor to prove that changes of culture through time were progressive and gradual.
An original understanding of cultural evolution as a cyclic process was proposed by another early evolutionist, Adolf Bastian. He interpreted the history of humankind as a continuous round of events that were altered only when new challenges (“irritants”) provoked a new turn in the evolutionary process. The more isolated a group is in its life cycle, the more unalterable its culture is, thus providing few chances for evolution. According to Bastian, the deeper the connection certain collectives have with their geographic habitat, the weaker the evolutionary prospects are for their culture.
It should be stressed, nevertheless, that most early evolutionists, such as Lewis Henry Morgan, Herbert Spencer, James G. Frazer, and others, tended to emphasize a stage approach to the interpretation of cultural evolution, stressing universality: Insofar as basic principles of cultural evolution are common for all of humankind, similar stages of cultural evolution yield similar results and outcomes. This thesis was regarded as a substantial background for the creation of global historical periodization of human cultural development and social changes.
Continuity of cultural changes was considered by early evolutionists as one of the basic principles of cultural evolution, and in their understanding these changes were mostly quantitative and did not imply qualitative transformation of the subject under study. Thus, no attempts to explain the history of culture and its components’ origin could be traced in the works of these early evolutionists.
Cultural Anthropology Between World Wars I and II
Formation of national schools in ethnography and cultural and social anthropology at the turn of the 20th century brought new insight into the application of cultural evolution in native culture studies and caused broad diversification in the understanding of the essence of cultural changes in time, not limited to evolutionary methodology.
At this time, cultural history occupied the attention of the anthropologist Franz Boas, who effectively dismantled the idea of orthogenic evolution with respect to human society, stressing at the same time that globalization and generalization in terms of cultural essences carries the risk of veiling the real cultural diversity of the world. He believed that every culture has its own history that is unique and precious. Thus, the development of culture should not be labeled as progressive, cyclic, or regressive as was done by early evolutionists. According to Boas, cultural changes reflect the peculiarities of the inner social development of a group as well as external social and environmental impacts, which cause an elaboration of peculiar modes of life or human behavior.
His followers, representatives of the historical school of cultural anthropology, were far from understanding the history of a culture as an evolutionary process progressive in its inner essence. They tended to explain the dynamics of culture in time mostly by processes of cultural diffusion, which imply broad intercultural interaction. Similar cultural phenomena could be caused by principally different challenges and have different origins.
Further studies in the field of cultural changes in time are connected with the name of Melville Herskovits, who argued that morphological differences between humans, geographic position of a group, and mode of production could not be regarded as the basic determinants of certain cultural origins and changes over time. According to his views, which became the theoretical background of cultural relativism, every culture is equally valuable and important, representing a unique cultural focus that is highly distinctive and often cannot be compared with cultural focuses of other cultures. Denying ethnocentricity in any form, cultural relativists regard the history of humankind as a set of independently developing cultures, each of which is at the same time stable and variable; this cultural variability is the basic source of global culture dynamics in time.
The constructive critique of early evolutionists’ linear understanding of cultural evolution by most ethnological and anthropological schools of the first half of the 20th century provoked a fundamental revision of the theoretical background of evolutionists’ theory of cultural dynamics and gave rise to the peculiar ideology known as neoevolutionism.
Within this framework, evolution is viewed as forward movement stimulated by an indefinite set of reasons, motives, and challenges. Their detection is the focus of most of representatives of this theoretic branch of cultural anthropology. Diversity in understanding of the cultural essence of evolution and the peculiarities of its realization within certain human groups is perhaps the most striking feature of the neoevolutionist understanding of cultural evolution. Interpreting culture as a set of interdependently and pluralistically evolving systems is typical of neoevolutionists. The question of the universality of stages in the historical evolution of culture is another subject of sharp theoretic discussion among neoevolutionists, along with the idea of multilinear forms of cultural evolution.
One of the most widely known versions of neo- evolutionistic interpretation of cultural changes through time is represented in series of monographs by Leslie A. White (Science of Culture, 1949; Evolution of Culture, 1959). According to White, cultural evolution is a unified process of development in which one form is growing through another in chronological consequence; every form of culture in this context is shaped by a combination of different elements of culture. He believed the basic reason for cultural evolution was the improvement of human adaptation to the world, and he suggested that the degree of success of this adaptation could be measured rather precisely.
White believed that energy is the basic source and driving force of any process, cultural evolution included. Energetic richness of a culture is the main criterion of its maturity, and cultural progress could be measured by quantity of energy per capita used annually by its transmitters. In this way, progressive forms of cultural evolution implying improvement of human adaptation were associated with a growth in power consumption.
Julian Steward, another famous representative of neoevolutionism, also tended to link cultural evolution with human adaptation. In his Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution (1955), Steward proposed an original interpretation of culture as a peculiar system of evolution determined by the necessity to adapt to particular geographic environments. Taking into account the variability of geographic situations and the plurality of its changes through time, cultural evolution inevitably displays itself as a multicircuit process resulting in a plurality of cultural phenomena and forms. The origin of the latter he proposed to explain by correlation among peculiarities of natural environment, technological parameters of certain societies, and specific features of its activity (functioning).
Adhering to a pluralistic version of cultural evolution, Steward believed that different cultures could develop in fundamentally different ways, and this difference depends on the plurality of their adaptation to natural environment: Peculiar landscapes elicit an elaboration of peculiar adaptive forms and elements of culture. He put into scientific circulation the notion of “cultural ecology,” which describes the process of human cultural adaptation and the interaction between culture and the natural environment. Cultural adaptation was understood by him as a permanent and perpetual process, inasmuch as no known cultures have failed to adapt perfectly to their niche.
On the basis of his original understanding of the role of natural environment in cultural evolution, Steward detected the phenomenon of “parallel evolution,” which implied that cultures of human collectives living in similar geographic situations and characterized by similar technology evolve similarly, even if they are located far from each other and have no direct or mediated contact.
It is worth mentioning, nevertheless, that Steward was rather far from simplistic explanations of all elements of culture and their changes through time by ecological adaptation. In his works environmental impact on cultural evolution is viewed dualistically: The geographic situation stimulates the elaboration of certain forms of culture and, at the same time, restricts realization of some innovations. He was a proponent of the pluralistic approach to the conceptualization of the role of environment in cultural evolution, suggesting that at the early stages of cultural evolution, human culture mostly was prone to environmental impact, while the cultural compass of societies with highly developed technology is considerably wider.
In contemporary cultural anthropology, neo- evolutionistic ideas concerning plurality and multicircuitry of cultural evolution have been developed by Marvin Harris. In his Cultural Materialism (1980), he argues that cultural evolution results from, and is stimulated by, satisfaction of human needs with the help of technologies that show strict correlation with peculiarities of environment at certain periods of time and imply optimal forms of exploitation of available resources using minimal expenditures of labor and energy.
Recent tendencies in the study of cultural evolution are connected with a symbolist approach to culture as a global phenomenon. One such version is represented by Charles Lumsden and Edward Wilson, who identified the central importance in cultural evolution of a process they call reification, for which the enabling device is symbolization. The central place in this process is occupied by language as the basic means of symbolization, whose origin and changes over time are integral parts of the subject field of cultural anthropologists, linguists, historians, as well as geneticists who are studying gene flows and reconstructing, on this basis, cultural contacts and further cultural changes. Recently, Richard Dawkins introduced the notion of a meme—a replicator of cultural information analogous to the gene. On this basis a wide variety of computational approaches to cultural evolution have been elaborated, most popular among which are Liane Gabora’s MAV (meme and variations) model, David Ackley’s concept of distributed Lamarckian evolution, Lee Spector and Sean Luke’s idea of cognition evolvability, and others.
Olena V. Smyntyna
See also Evolution, Social; Harris, Marvin; Language, Evolution of; Spencer, Herbert; Tylor, Edward Burnett; White, Leslie A.
Ackley, D., & Littman, M. L. (1994). A case for distributed Lamarckian evolution. In C. G. Langton (Ed.), Artificial life III: Proceedings of the Workshop on Artificial Life held June 1992, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. J. (1985). Culture and the evolutionary process. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Gabora, L. (1997). The origin and evolution of culture and creativity. Journal of Memetics—Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 1.
Lumsden, C., & Wilson, E. O. (1981). Genes, mind, and culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Steward J. H. (1955). Theory of culture change: The methodology of multilinear evolution. Urbana, IL: Urbana University Press.
Tylor, E. B. (1958). The origin of culture. New York: Harper. (Original work published 1865)
White, L. (1959). The evolution of culture: The development of civilization to the fall of Rome. New York: McGraw-Hill.