|Very popular, among young people today, are backpacks. This popularity puts students in a good position to appreciate how anthropology, as a new science, was defended long ago by Edward B. Tylor. (If any one person deserves recognition as the founder of anthropology, it is he.) With so many other subjects to study, why, he asked, should students be burdened with yet another? Well, he answered, a backpack adds yet more weight to be carried; but it more than pays for itself by making everything else so easy to carry! Just so, he suggested, anthropology more than pays for itself by “pulling things together,” thereby making the educational load not harder but easier to bear (Tylor 1909 [orig. 1881]:v).
Anthropology, in the United States, has four subfields: biological, archaeological, cultural, and linguistic. Together they comprise the “study of humanity.” Anthropology’s diversity, which makes it so integrative for students, makes it rather confusing to the public. (“You’re an anthropologist? So where have you been digging?”)
Largest of the four subfields, in number of anthropologists specializing in it, is cultural anthropology. People have followed different ways of life in different times and places; making sense of this diversity is the central task of cultural anthropology. Its key concept is culture itself. Tylor gave us the most famous definition. Culture, he wrote, is “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (Tylor 1924 [orig. 1871]:1). Cultural evolutionism is a theoretical approach that seeks to describe and explain long-term processes of culture change. To do this it draws on all subfields.
Cultural evolutionism’s great early achievement was the defeat of degenerationism. According to this theory, human culture had originated at a fairly “high” level, after which some cultures “degenerated” to “lower” levels while others “rose” to yet “higher” ones. Foremost among scholars putting degenerationism to rest was Edward B. Tylor himself. Using his extensive knowledge of the anthropological evidence that already had accumulated by around 1865, Tylor showed that “high” cultures quite certainly had originated in a state resembling that of the “low” cultures still observable in some parts of the world; and that there was no evidence that any of the latter had come into being by “degeneration” from a “higher” condition of culture (Tylor 1964 [orig. 1865]).
Science does not claim to give absolute certainty. Evidence, however, overwhelmingly favors the conclusion that up until only ten or fifteen thousand years ago all humans had lived from the beginning in small, nomadic bands that survived by hunting and gathering the wild food sources around them. In view of the ingenuity and durability of foraging culture, anthropologists no longer call it “low,” our own culture “high”; but looking past the ethnocentric terminology, we can see that the conclusion drawn by Tylor and others has been reinforced by all subsequent findings. Social evolution surely began everywhere with very small societies; and culture has been transformed in those times and places where, for reasons still being vigorously investigated, societies grew into villages, chiefdoms, nations, and empires. Though degenerationism had been motivated by religion (especially the story of the Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis), it did have testable implications; therefore it could be–and was–rejected through the application of reason to empirical evidence. The defeat of degenerationism was a great step in science.
Despite this early victory, cultural evolutionism’s scientific progress has been slow. Variables are difficult to define, let alone to measure exactly; there are no laboratories in which to conduct experiments. Without accomplishments as impressive as those of physics, chemistry, or biology, cultural evolutionists need to have faith in the ability of science to illuminate much that remains, for the time being, shrouded in obscurity. Truly eloquent was Edward B. Tylor’s expression of such optimism:
|Tylor, Edward B.
1909 [orig. 1881] Anthropology: An Introduction to the Study of Man and Civilization. New York: D. Appleton.
1924 [orig. 1871] Primitive Culture. 2 vols. 7th ed. New York: Brentano’s.
1964 [orig. 1865] Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization. Paul Bohannan. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.