Cultural evolution

From Academic Kids

Cultural evolution is the structural change of a society and its values over time. In this sense, it is the cultural equivalent of biological evolution, though the causal mechanisms can be different. Cultural anthropologists and sociologists assume that human beings have natural social tendencies and naturally form shifting groups. But they further argue that particular human social behaviors, and culture, have non-genetic causes and dynamics(i.e. they are learned in a social environment and through social interaction). Societies exist in both social (i.e. interacting with other societies) and biotic (i.e. interacting with natural resources and constraints) environments, and adapt themselves to these environments. It is thus inevitable that all societies change.

Cultural evolution also refers to different theories that describe and explain such changes — theories have been both promoted and criticized by anthropologists. Today anthropologists distinguish between "unilinear cultural evolution" (or "social evolutionism") and "multilinear cultural evolution." Although theories of unilinear evolution has fallen out of favor, some cultural anthropologists and many archeologists still work within the framework of multilineal evolution. Modern usage of the term by anthropologists does not necessarily refer to directional change (i.e. orthogenetic, teleological or progressive) change, but instead refers to a general body of theory to explain why and how cultures change over time.

Theories of cultural evolution have been used to explain or justify a variety of social movements and political ideologies as diverse as Marxism, Gaians, Ecoregional Democracy and new tribalists. Unfortunately, certain kinds of cultural evolutionary theory (mainly unilineal) have also been used in the past to justify forms of Scientific racism, including policies of Colonialism, Slavery, and Eugenics.


The historical context of theories of cultural evolution

Prior to the 18th century, Europeans predominantly believed that societies on Earth were in a state of decline. European society held up the world of antiquity as a standard to aspire to, and Greece and Rome produced levels of technical accomplishment which Europeans sought to emulate. At the same time, Christianity taught that people lived in a debased world fundamentally inferior to the Garden of Eden and Heaven. During the Enlightenment, however, European self-confidence grew and the notion of progress became increasingly popular. It was during this period that what would later become known as 'cultural evolution' would have its roots.

While earlier authors such as Montaigne discussed how societies change through time, it was truly the Scottish Enlightenment which proved key in the development of cultural evolution. After Scotland's union with England in 1707, several Scots thinkers pondered what the relationship between progress and the 'decadence' brought about by increased trade with England and the affluence it produced. The result was a series of 'conjectural histories.' Authors such as Adam Ferguson, John Millar, and Adam Smith argued that all societies pass through a series of four stages: hunting and gathering, pastoralism and nomadism, agricultural, and finally a stage of commerce. These thinkers thus understood the changes Scotland was undergoing as a transition from an agricultural to a mercantile society.

Philosophical concepts of progress (such as those expounded by the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel) developed as well during this period. In France authors such as Helvetius and other philosophes were influenced by this Scottish tradition. Later thinkers such as Saint-Simon developed these ideas. Comte in particular presented a coherent view of social progress and a new discipline to study it -- sociology.

These developments took place in a wider context. The first process was colonialism. Although Imperial powers settled most differences of opinion with their colonial subjects with force, increased awareness of non-Western peoples raised new questions for European scholars about the nature of society and culture. Similarly, effective administration required some degree of understanding of other cultures. Emerging theories of social evolution allowed Europeans to organize their new knowledge in a way that reflected and justified their increasing political and economic domination of others: colonized people were less-evolved, colonizing people were more evolved. The second process was the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism which allowed and promoted continual revolutions in the means of production. Emerging theories of social evolution reflected a belief that the changes in Europe wrought by the Industrial Revolution and capitalism were improvements. Industrialization, combined with the intense political change brought about by the French Revolution forced European thinkers to reconsider some of their assumptions about how society was organized.

Unilineal Evolution

Theories of unilinear cultural evolution have their origin in the Enlightenment notion of progress. By the mid-nineteenth century, philosopher Herbert Spencer developed an avowedly-scientific theory of "social evolution." He argued that societies over time progressed, and that progress was accomplished through competition. Anthropologists Sir E.B. Tylor in England and Lewis Henry Morgan in the United States worked with data from indigenous people, whom they claimed represented earlier stages of cultural evolution that gave insight into the process and progression of cultural evolution. Morgan would later have a significant influence on Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who developed a theory of cultural evolution in which the internal contradictions in society created a series of escalating stages that ended in a socialist society (see Marxism).

Their analysis of cross-cultural data was based on three assumptions:

  1. contemporary societies may be classified and ranked as more "primitive" or more "civilized;"
  2. There are a determinate number of stages between "primitive" and "civilized" (e.g. band, tribe, chiefdom, and state),
  3. All societies progress through these stages in the same sequence, but at different rates.

Theorists usually measured progression (that is, the difference between one stage and the next) in terms of increasing social complexity (including class differentiation and a complex division of labor), or an increase in intellectual, theological, and aesthetic sophistication. These 19th century ethnologists used these principles primarily to explain differences in religious beliefs and kinship terminologies among various societies.

The critique of unilineal evolution

Although some 19th-century theories, such as Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism used the language of Charles Darwin's theory of the evolution of species through natural selection, their assumption that all societies progress through the same stages in the same order is incompatible with Darwinian theory.

The early 20th century inaugurated a period of systematic critical examination, and rejection of unilineal theories of cultural evolution. Cultural anthropologists such as Franz Boas used sophisticated ethnography and more rigorous empirical methods to argue that Spencer, Tylor, and Morgan's theories were speculative and systematically misrepresented ethnographic data. Additionally, they rejected the distinction between "primitive" and "civilized" (or "modern"), pointing out that so-called primitive contemporary societies have just as much history, and were just as evolved, as so-called civilized societies. They therefore argued that that any attempt to use this theory to reconstruct the histories of non-literate (i.e. leaving no historical documents) peoples is entirely speculative and unscientific. They observed that the postulated progression, which typically ended with a stage of civilization identical to that of modern Europe, is ethnocentric. They also pointed out that the theory assumes that societies are clearly bounded and distinct, when in fact cultural traits and forms often cross social boundaries and diffuse among many different societies (and is thus an important mechanism of change). Later critics observed that this assumption of firmly bounded societies was proposed precisely at the time when European powers were colonizing non-Western societies, and was thus self-serving. Many anthropologists and social theorists now consider unilineal cultural and social evolution a Western myth seldom based on solid empirical grounds. Critical theorists argue that notions of social evolution are simply justifications for power by the elites of society.

At the same time, the devastating World Wars that occurred between 1914 and 1945 crippled Europe's self-confidence. After millions of deaths, genocide, and the destruction of Europe's industrial infrastructure, the idea of progress seemed dubious at best. These conditions provided the context for new theories such as cultural relativism and "multilineal cultural evolution."

Multilineal evolution

By the 1940s cultural anthropologists such as Leslie White and Julian Steward sought to revive an evolutionary model on a more scientific basis. White rejected the opposition between "primitive" and "modern" societies but did argue that societies could be distinguished based on the amount of energy they harnessed, and that increased energy allowed for greater social differentiation. Steward rejected the 19th century notion of progress, and instead called attention to the Darwinian notion of "adaptation," and argued that all societies had to adapt to their environment in some way. He argued that different adaptations could be studied through the examination of the specific resources a society exploited, the technology the society relied on to exploit these resources, and the organization of human labor. He further argued that different environments and technologies would require different kinds of adaptations, and that as the resource base or technology changed, so too would a culture. In other words, cultures do not change according to some inner logic, but rather in terms of a changing relationship with a changing environment. Cultures would therefore not pass through the same stages in the same order as they changed -- rather, they would change in varying ways and directions. He called his theory "multilineal evolution."

The anthropologists Marshall Sahlins and Elman Service wrote a book, Evolution and Culture, in which they attempted to synthesize White's and Steward's approaches. Other anthropologists, building on or responding to work by White and Steward, developed theories of cultural ecology and ecological anthropology. The most prominent examples are Peter Vayda and Roy Rappaport. By the late 1950s, students of Steward such as Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz turned away from cultural ecology to Marxism, World Systems Theory, and Dependency theory. (See also Marvin Harris's Cultural Materialism.)

Today most anthropologists continue to reject 19th century notions of progress and the three original assumptions of unilineal evolution. Following Steward, they take seriously the relationship between a culture and its environment in attempts to explain different aspects of a culture. But most cultural anthropologists now argue that one must consider the whole social environment, which includes political and economic relations among cultures. As a result, the simplistic notion of 'cultural evolution' has grown less useful and given way to an entire series of more nuanced approaches to the relationship of culture and environment. In the area of development studies, authors such as Amartya Sen have developed an understanding of 'development' and 'human flourishing' that also question more simplistic notions of progress, while retaining much of their original inspiration.

Sociobiological theories of cultural evolution

Sociobiologists have argued for a dual inheritance theory, which posits that humans are products of both biological evolution and cultural evolution, each subject to their own selective mechanisms and forms of transmission (i.e. in the case of biology, genes, and for culture possibly memes). This approach focuses on both the mechanisms of cultural transmission and the selective pressures that influence cultural change. This version of cultural evolution shares little in common with the stadial evolutionary models of the early and mid-20th century. This approach has been embraced by many psychologists and some cultural anthropologists, but very few physical anthropologists.

Contemporary moral and political debates over cultural evolution

The cold war period was marked by rivalry between two superpowers, both of which considered themselves to be the most highly evolved cultures on the planet. The USSR painted itself as a socialist society which emerged out of class struggle, while sociologists in the United States (such as Talcott Parsons) argued that the freedom and prosperity of the United States represented a high level of cultural evolution. At the same time, decolonization created newly independent countries who sought to become more developed -- a model of progress and industrialization which was itself a form of cultural evolution.

There is, however, a tradition in European social theory from Rousseau to Max Weber that argues that this progression coincides with a loss of human freedom and dignity. At the height of the Cold War, this tradition merged with an interest in ecology to influence an activist culture in the 1960s. This movement produced a variety of political and philosophical programs which emphasized the importance of bringing society and the environment into harmony. Current political theories of the new tribalists consciously mimic ecology and the life-ways of indigenous peoples, augmenting them with modern sciences. Ecoregional Democracy attempts to confine the "shifting groups" or tribes, within "more or less clear boundaries" that a society inherits from the surrounding ecology, to the borders of a naturally-occurring ecoregion. Progress can proceed by competition between but not within tribes, and it is limited by ecological borders or by Natural Capitalism incentives which attempt to mimic the pressure of natural selection on a human society by forcing it to adapt consciously to scarce energy or materials. Gaians argue that societies evolve deterministically to play a role in the ecology of their biosphere, or else die off as failures due to competition from more efficient societies exploiting nature's leverage.

Thus, some have appealed to theories of cultural evolution to assert that optimizing the ecology and the social harmony of closely-knit groups is more desirable or necessary than the progression to "civilization." A 2002 poll of experts on Nearctic and Neotropic indigenous peoples (reported in Harper's Magazine) revealed that all of them would have preferred to be a typical New World person in the year 1491, prior to any European contact, rather than a typical European of that time.

This approach has been criticized by pointing out that there are a number of historical examples of indigenous peoples doing severe environmental damage (such as the deforestation of Easter Island and the extinction of mammoths in North America) and that proponents of the goal have been trapped by the European stereotype of the noble savage.

Today, postmodernists question whether the notions of evolution or society have inherent meaning and whether they reveal more about the person doing the description than the thing being described. Observing and observed cultures may lack sufficient cultural similarities (such as a common foundation ontology) to be able to communicate their respective priorities easily. Or, one may impose such a system of belief and judgment upon another, via conquest or colonization. For instance, observation of very different ideas of mathematics and physics in indigenous peoples led indirectly to ideas such as Lakoff's "cognitive science of mathematics", which asks if measurement systems themselves can be objective.

See also



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