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Unilineal Evolution
Thanks to Wikipedia for much of this.
James Mullooly
What is Unilineal Evolution in
• As used by 19th century cultural
anthropologists, such as Lewis Henry Morgan a now discredited theory that human
civilizations develop linearly in a "sequence of
progress" from savagery, through barbarism, to
finally civilization; see Linear progress (Lewis
Henry Morgan, Ancient Society, 1877)
What is Unilineal Evolution in
• As used in Marxist theory - the idea that,
independent of biological evolution, changes in
the mode of production produced conflicts with
the old structures of society such that the
conflicts could be resolved only by changes in
the political, judicial, and moral values in the
society; see Social determinism
Socio-cultural Evolution
In the unilineal evolution model at left, all cultures
progress through set stages, while in the multilineal
evolution model at right, distinctive culture histories are
Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)
"survival of the fittest"
Edward Burnett Tylor(1832-1917)
“Father of British Cultual Anthropology”
The prototypical Victorian armchair
“band, tribe, chiefdom, state”
Lewis H. Morgan (1818-1881)
“savagery, barbarism and
Karl Marx (1818-1883) &
Friedrich Engels (1820-1895)
Classic Roots
• The 14th century Islamic scholar
Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406)
concluded that societies are living
organisms that experience cyclic
birth, growth, maturity, decline,
and ultimately death due to
universal causes several centuries
before the Western civilisation
developed the science of sociology
through Auguste Comte (17981857) the father of sociology.
Ibn Khaldūn
or Ibn Khaldoun, full name Arabic‫ ابو زيد عبد الرحمن بن محمد بن خلدون الحضرمي‬:, Abū Zayd ‘Abdu r-Raḥman
bin Muḥammad bin Khaldūn al-Ḥaḍramī (May 27, 1332/732AH – March 19, 1406/808AH),
“Pre-Echoing” anthropologists Jared Diamond, the
following quotation is likely the earliest criticism of
“Civilized” life:
It can be noted that those people who, whether they
inhabit the desert or settled areas and cities, live a life of
abundance and have all the good things to eat, die more
quickly than others when a drought or famine comes
upon them. – Ibn Khaldun
Ibn Khaldun lived in north Africa 1332-1406, about a generation after William of Ockham. His
Muqaddimah ('Introduction', namely to a work of history) originated as an attempt to work out
how to decide whether historical sources are credible.
Ibn Khaldun’s Al Muqaddimah
• Ibn Khaldun described a process of the rise and fall of states in his book Al
Muqaddimah - the Introduction to History.
• His explanation of was that there was a constant renewal or replacement of
the ruling group by nomads conquering the towns and settled lands.
• This was followed by a period when the invaders lost the skills of the
desert and acquired the vices and slackness of town life.
– This observation fits very well the history of western Eurasia and north Africa
until quite recent times.
– Only in the 20th century have the nomads of the world become absorbed into the
political systems, as air transport, space surveillance and electronics make it
impossible for anyone to be unreachable by the administrator and tax-man.
• The last nomadic conquest was that of Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud who created
Saudi Arabia in 1921.
• Thus the fall of the Roman empire in the west was, according to Ibn
Khaldun's theory, the result of more vigorous Germanic tribes overcoming
the soft living men of the cities.
Classic Roots of “Sociological and
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,
– Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome far outshined the
Middle Ages in terms of technology.
Classic Roots of “Sociological and
cultural evolution"
• At the same time, Christianity taught that people
lived in a fundamentally inferior world.
• BUT During The Age of Enlightenment,
European self-confidence grew and the notion
of progress became popular.
The Bain of “Progress”
• In the 19th century three great, classical theories
of social and historical change were created:
– the social evolutionism theory,
– the social cycle theory and
– the Marxist historical materialism theory.
• Those theories had one common factor:
– the history of humanity is pursuing a certain social
The Bain of “Progress”
• Thus, each past event is not only chronologically, but
causally tied to present and future events.
• Both Spencer and Comte view the society as a kind of
organism subject to the process of growth –
from simplicity to complexity,
from chaos to order,
from generalisation to specialisation,
from flexibility to organisation.
• They agreed that the process of societies growth
can be divided into certain stages,
– have their beginning and eventual end, and that this
growth is in fact social progress - each newer, more
evolved society is better.
• Thus progressivism became one of the basic
ideas underlying the theory of social
• "Layer after layer of human perfection separates
me from the central Africans who pursued
Stanley with cries of 'meat, meat!' " (Psychologist
and philosopher William James 1890-1891:
Our Readings
Herbert Spencer, The Social
Organism (1860)
This essay was first published in
The Westminster Review for
January 1860 and was reprinted in
Spencer's Essays: Scientific,
Political and Speculative
(London and New York, 1892, in
three volumes).
Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)
"survival of the fittest“
[NOT “natural Selection”-Darwin]
Key part of Spencer’s analysis is
revealed in the following:
Let us set out by succinctly stating the points of similarity
and the points of difference. Societies agree with
individual organisms in four conspicuous peculiarities:
1. That commencing as small aggregations, they
insensibly augment in mass: some of them eventually
reaching ten thousand times what they originally were.
2. That while at first so simple in structure as to be
considered structureless, they assume, in the course of
their growth, a continually-increasing complexity of
People die, societies don’t,
3. That though in their early, undeveloped states, there exists in
them scarcely any mutual dependence of parts, their parts
gradually acquire a mutual dependence; which becomes at last
so great, that the activity and life of each part is made possible
only by the activity and life of the rest.
4. That the life of a society is independent of, and far more
prolonged than, the lives of any of its component units; who are
severally born, grow, work, reproduce, and die, while the bodypolitic composed of them survives generation after
generation, increasing in mass, in completeness of
structure, and in functional activity.
Spencer Passage
• In the one, as in the other, the nutritive materials
circulated are at first crude and simple, gradually
become better elaborated and more
heterogeneous, and have eventually added to them a
new element facilitating the nutritive processes. The
channels of communication pass through similar phases
of development, which bring them to analogous forms.
And the directions, rhythms, and rates of circulation,
progress by like steps to like final conditions.
Spencer Passage
• This passage clearly illustrates that belief they
carried that things were always getting better.
• Ibn Kaldun conversely, presumed that social
organism, like biological ones, died eventually.
• The evolutionists, victims of their firm faith in
“progress” could not imagine such a death
• until WWI (1914-1918).
Consider the following observation
• -Spencer seeks to answer philosophical
questions apart from supernatural causes, and in
so doing attributes what one might consider
supernatural qualities to the natural realm.
Lewis Henry Morgan,
Ethnical Periods (1877)
The theory of human degeneration to
explain the existence of savages and
of barbarians is no longer tenable.
-Lewis Henry Morgan, Ethnical
Periods (1877)
Lewis H. Morgan (18181881)
“savagery, barbarism
and civilisation”
An American ethnologist, anthropologist and
writer. However, his professional life was in the
field of law. As an amateur scholar, he is best
known for his work on cultural evolution and
Native Americans.
The first to do systematic work in kinship.
The psychic unity of mankind
• The postulate of "the psychic unity of mankind" states that all
human beings, regardless of culture or race, share the same basic
psychological and cognitive make-up; we are all of the same kind.
• The postulate was originally formulated by Adolf Bastian, the
"father of German anthropology", who was a classical
German humanist and a cultural relativist.
• Bastian passed it on to his similarly minded student, Franz Boas,
who, as the "father of American anthropology", transmitted it on
to all of his students.
• Edward B. Tylor introduced it to 19th century British
evolutionist anthropology, where it became a fixture, defended
by all the major British evolutionists.
• Today, the postulate is shared by all anthropologists.
The Progress is Moral as well.
• …the gradual evolution of their mental and
moral powers through experience, and of their
protracted struggle with opposing obstacles
while winning their way to civilization. It will be
drawn in part, from the great sequence of
inventions and discoveries which stretches along
the entire pathway of human progress; but
chiefly from domestic institutions, which
express the growth of certain ideas and
What is an ethnical period?
• It will be my object to present some evidence of
human progress along these several lines, and
through successive ethnical periods, as it is
revealed by inventions and discoveries, and by
the growth of the ideas of government, of the
family, and of property.
Ethnical Periods
• Periods
• I. Lower Status of Savagery,
From the Infancy of the Human Race to
the commencement of the next Period.
• II. Middle Status of Savagery,
From the acquisition of a fish subsistence
and a knowledge of the use of fire to etc.
• III. Upper Status of Savagery,
From the Invention of the Bow and Arrow
• IV. Lower Status of Barbarism, From the Invention of the Art of Pottery,
• V. Middle Status of Barbarism, From the Domestication of animals on the
Eastern hemisphere, and in the Western
from the cultivation of maize and plants by
Irrigation, with the use of adobe-brick and
stone, to etc.
• VI. Upper Status of Barbarism, From the Invention of the process of
smelting Iron Ore, w/ the use of iron tools,
• VII. Status of Civilization,
From the Invention of a Phonetic Alphabet,
with the use of writing, to the present time.
Feuerbach: Opposition of the
Materialist and Idealist Outlook (1845-1846)
Karl Marx (1818-1883)
Friedrich Engels (1820-1895)
Who is Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872)?
• As a member of the "Young Hegelians", Feuerbach
criticized what he called Hegel's reduction of Man's
Essence to Self-consciousness, and went on to prove
the connection of philosophical idealism with religion.
In rejecting Hegel's philosophy and advocating
materialism, criticizing religion and idealism, Feuerbach
emphasized the individual, purely "biological"
nature of man [i.e., no “spirit”].
• His critique of Hegel's idealism laid the basis for Marx
and Engels' work.
• Both Marx and Engels were strongly influenced by
Feuerbach, though they thoroughly critiqued him for
inconsistent materialism.
Idealism and Materialism
• Idealism is a class of positions in ontology and epistemology.
Idealism as an epistemological position asserts that everything we
experience is of a mental nature.
– That is, we can only have direct, immediate knowledge of the contents of our
– We can never directly know or experience an external object itself.
• As an ontological position Idealism asserts either that only minds
and the objects of mind exist, or that everything is composed of
mental realities (e.g., thoughts, feelings, perceptions, ideas, or
• As a foundation for cosmology, or an approach to understanding
the nature of existence, idealism is often contrasted with
materialism, both belonging to the class of monist as opposed to
dualist or pluralist ontologies.
(Note that this contrast between idealism and materialism is approximately as to
whether the substance of the world is at base mental or physical — it has nothing to
do with thinking that things should be idealized, or with coveting goods.)
Idealism and Materialism
Hegel & Marx
Communism as cool
The Illusion of the Epoch
• Civil Society and the Conception of History
• The form of intercourse determined by the existing
productive forces at all previous historical stages,
and in its turn determining these, is civil society.
The latter, as is clear from what we have said above, has
as its premises and basis the simple family and the
multiple, the so-called tribe, the more precise
determinants of this society are enumerated in our
remarks above. Already here we see how this civil
society is the true source and theatre of all history,
and how absurd is the conception of history held
hitherto, which neglects the real relationships and
confines itself to high-sounding dramas of princes and
The Illusion of the Epoch
• Civil society embraces the whole material intercourse of
individuals within a definite stage of the
development of productive forces. It embraces …the
life of a given stage and, insofar, transcends the State
and the nation, though, on the other hand again, it
must assert itself in its foreign relations as nationality,
and inwardly must organise itself as State.
• The word “civil society” [bürgerliche Gesellschaft] emerged
in the eighteenth century, when property relationships
had already extricated themselves from the ancient
and medieval communal society.
• Civil society as such only develops with the bourgeoisie;
the social organisation evolving directly out of
production and commerce,
The Illusions of German Ideology
• Questions for discussion:
1. What explanation does Marx give for the character of German
ideology, “the connection of German philosophy with German
2. Can you think of present-day examples of people who criticise
their own “teacher”, but do so within the conceptual and
practical framework they learnt from their teacher?
3. Can you give a plausible and convincing defence of the view
of the “Old Hegelians”?
4. What is the argument between the “Old Hegelians” and the
“Young Hegelians” and why is Marx so contemptuous of the
Young Hegelians?
History: Fundamental Conditions
• Questions for discussion:
1. What are the three “moments” of history, three fundamental
conditions which Marx outlines at the beginning of this section,
and what is the fourth?
2. “Language is practical consciousness that exists also for other
men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally
as well.” Can you explain “for that reason alone”?
3. What does Marx call thr first true division of labour?
4. Marx says that if consciousness conflicts with the existing
social relations, this can only be because the existing social
relations have come into conflict with the forces of production.
Marx and Engels close on a
prophetic note
• “Communism is not a state of affairs which is to
be established, [rather, it is] an ideal to which
reality [will] have to adjust itself.”
• In their estimation, social evolution inevitably
ended up as communism.
Theoretical Problems of the
Cultural Evolutionists
• The theory was deeply ethnocentric; with Western
civilization seen as best.
• It assumed all cultures follow the same path or
progression and goals.
• It equated civilization with material culture (technology,
cities, etc.)
• It equated evolution with progress or fitness,
– i.e., a deep misunderstanding of evolutionary theory.
• It is greatly contradicted by evidence.
– e.g., “savages” were far more peaceful than “civilized”.
Negative Consequences
• Because social evolution was posited as a
scientific theory, it was often used to support
unjust and often racist social practices:
economic inequality within industrialized Europe.
Social Darwinism led to philosophies used by Nazis.
They were Racist
• "no major figure in the social sciences between
1860 and 1890 escaped the influence of
evolutionary racism" (Harris 1968:130).
The Final Rejection of
Unilineal Evolution
• The early 20th century inaugurated a period of
• systematic critical examination, and
• rejection of unilineal theories of cultural
The “Rejector” of Unilineal
• Franz Boas,
– the leader of anthropology's
• used sophisticated
ethnography and more
rigorous empirical methods
to argue that Spencer, Tylor,
and Morgan's theories were
speculative and systematically
misrepresented ethnographic