Social Evolutionism

By Heather Long and Kelly Chakov

Basic Premises

In the early years of anthropology, the prevailing view of anthropologists and other scholars was that culture generally develops (or evolves) in a uniform and progressive manner. The Evolutionists, building upon the success of  Darwin’s theory of evolution, but not drawing much inspiration from his central contribution of the concept of natural selection, sought to track the development of culture through time.  Just as species were thought to evolve into increasing complex forms, so too were cultures thought to progress from  simple to complex states. Initially it was thought by many scholars that most societies pass through the same or similar series of stages to arrive, ultimately, at a common end. Change was thought to originate principally from within the culture, so development was thought to be internally determined.

The evolutionary progression of societies had been accepted by some since the Enlightenment. Both French and Scottish social and moral philosophers were using evolutionary schemes during the 18th century. Among these was Montesquieu, who proposed an evolutionary scheme consisting of three stages: hunting or savagery, herding or barbarism, and civilization. This tripartite division became very popular among the 19th century social theorists, with figures such as Tylor and Morgan  adopting one or another version of this scheme (Seymour-Smith 1986:105).

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Europeans had successfully explored, conquered and colonized many heretofore unknown (to them) parts of the globe. This global movement led to novel products and peoples that lived quite different lifestyles than the Europeans proved politically and scientifically problematic. The discipline of anthropology, beginning with these early social theories arose largely in response to this encounter between the disparate cultures of quite different societies (Winthrop 1991:109). Cultural evolution – anthropology’s first systematic ethnological theory – was intended to help explain this diversity among the peoples of the world.

The notion of dividing the ethnological record into evolutionary stages ranging from primitive to civilized was fundamental to the new ideas of the nineteenth century social evolutionists. Drawing upon Enlightenment thought, Darwin’s work, and new cross-cultural, historical, and archaeological evidence, a whole generation of social evolutionary theorists emerged such as Tylor and Morgan. These theorists developed rival schemes of overall social and cultural progress, as well as the origins of different institutions such as religion, marriage, and the family.

Edward B. Tylor disagreed with the contention of some early-nineteenth-century French and English writers, led by Comte Joseph de Maistre, that groups such as the American Indians and other indigenous peoples were examples of cultural degeneration. He believed that peoples in different locations were equally capable of developing and progressing through the stages. Primitive groups had “reached their position by learning and not by unlearning” (Tylor 2006:36). Tylor maintained that culture evolved from the simple to the complex, and that all societies passed through the three basic stages of development suggested by Montesquieu: from savagery through barbarism to civilization. “Progress,” therefore, was possible for all.

To account for cultural variation, Tylor and other early evolutionists postulated that different contemporary societies were at different stages of evolution. According to this view, the “simpler” peoples of the day had not yet reached “higher” stages. Thus, simpler contemporary societies were thought to resemble ancient societies.  In more advanced societies one could see proof of cultural evolution through the presence of what Tylor called survivals – traces of earlier customs that survive in present-day cultures. The making of pottery is an example of a survival in the sense used by Tylor. Earlier peoples made their cooking pots out of clay; today we generally make them out of metal because it is more durable, but we still prefer dishes made of clay.

Tylor believed that there was a kind of psychic unity among all peoples that explained parallel evolutionary sequences in different cultural traditions. In other words, because of the basic similarities in the mental framework of all peoples, different societies often find the same solutions to the same problems independently. But, Tylor also noted that cultural traits may spread from one society to another by simple diffusion – the borrowing by one culture of a trait belonging to another as the result of contact between the two.

Another nineteenth-century proponent of uniform and progressive cultural evolution was Lewis Henry Morgan. A lawyer in upstate New York, Morgan became interested in the local Iroquois Indians and defended their reservation in a land-grant case. In gratitude, the Iroquois adopted Morgan, who regarded them as “noble savages.”  In his best-known work, Ancient Society, Morgan divided the evolution of human culture into the same three basic stages Tylor had suggested (savagery, barbarism, and civilization). But he also subdivided savagery and barbarism into upper, middle, and lower segments (Morgan 1877: 5-6), providing contemporary examples of each of these three stages. Each stage was distinguished by a technological development and had a correlate in patterns of subsistence, marriage, family, and political organization. In Ancient Society, Morgan commented, “As it is undeniable that portions of the human family have existed in a state of savagery, other portions in a state of barbarism, and still others in a state of civilization, it seems equally so that these three distinct conditions are connected with each other in a natural as well as necessary sequence of progress”(Morgan 1877:3). Morgan distinguished these stages of development in terms of technological achievement, and thus each had its identifying benchmarks. Middle savagery was marked by the acquisition of a fish diet and the discovery of fire; upper savagery by the bow and arrow; lower barbarism by pottery; middle barbarism by animal domestication and irrigated agriculture; upper barbarism by the manufacture of iron; and civilization by the phonetic alphabet (Morgan 1877: chapter 1). For Morgan, the cultural features distinguishing these various stages arose from a “few primary germs of thought”- germs that had emerged while humans were still savages and that later developed into the “principle institutions of mankind.”

Morgan postulated that the stages of technological development were associated with a sequence of different cultural patterns. For example, he speculated that the family evolved through six stages. Human society began as a “horde living in promiscuity,” with no sexual prohibitions and no real family structure. In the next stage a group of brothers was married to a group of sisters and brother-sister mating was permitted. In the third stage, group marriage was practiced, but brothers and sisters were not allowed to mate. The fourth stage, which supposedly evolved during barbarism, was characterized by a loosely paired male and female who lived with other people. In the next stage husband-dominant families arose in which the husband could have more than one wife simultaneously. Finally, the stage of civilization was distinguished by the monogamous family, with just one wife and one husband who were relatively equal in status.
Morgan believed that family units became progressively smaller and more self-contained as human society developed. His postulated sequence for the evolution of the family, however, is not supported by the enormous amount of ethnographic data that has been collected since his time. For example, no recent society that Morgan would call savage indulges in group marriage or allows brother-sister mating.

Although their works sought similar ends, the evolutionary theorists each had very different ideas about and foci for their studies. Differing from Morgan, for example, Sir James Frazer focused on the evolution of religion and viewed the progress of society or culture from the viewpoint of the evolution of psychological or mental systems. Among the other evolutionary theorists who put forth schemes of development of society including different religious, kinship, and legal institution were Maine, McLellan, and Bachofen.

It is important to note that most of the early evolutionary schemes were unilineal. Unilineal evolution refers to the idea that there is a set sequence of stages that all groups will pass through at some point, although the pace of progress through these stages will vary greatly. Groups, both past and present, that are at the same level or stage of development were considered nearly identical. Thus, a contemporary “primitive” group could be taken as a representative of an earlier stage in the development of more advanced types.

The evolutionist program can be summed up in this segment of Tylor’s Primitive Culture which notes: “The condition of culture among the various societies of mankind…is a subject apt for the study of laws of human thought and action. On the one hand, the uniformity which so largely pervades civilization may be ascribed, in great measure, to the uniform action of uniform causes; while on the other hand its various grades may be regarded as stages of development or evolution, each the outcome of previous history, and about to do its proper part in shaping the history of the future (Tylor 1871:1:1).”

Points of Reaction

One debate arising from the evolutionist perspective was whether civilization had evolved from a state of savagery or had always coexisted with primitive groups. Also, the degeneration theory of savagery (that primitives regressed from the civilized state and that primitivism indicated the fall from grace) had to be fought vigorously before social anthropology could progress. Social evolutionism, therefore, offered an alternative to the contemporary Christian/theological approach to understanding cultural diversity.  As a result 19th century social evolutionism  encountered considerable opposition in some quarters.. This new view proposed that evolution was a line of progression in which the lower stages were prerequisite to the upper. This idea seemed to completely contradict traditional ideas about the relationships between God and humankind and the very nature of life and progress. Evolutionists criticized the Christian approach as requiring divine revelation to explain civilization. In short, social evolutionism offered a naturalist approach to understanding sociocultural variation within our species.

As already suggested social evolutionism was a school of thought that admitted much divergence of opinion.  Tthere were debates particularly concerning which sociocultural complex represented the most primitive stages of society. For example, there were many arguments about the exact sequence of emergence of  patriarchy and matriarchy.

Karl Marx was struck by the parallels between Morgan’s evolutionism and his own theory of history. Marx and his collaborator, Friedrich Engels, devised a theory in which the institutions of monogamy, private property, and the state were assumed to be chiefly responsible for the exploitation of the working classes in modern industrialized societies.  Marx and Engels extended Morgan’s evolutionary scheme to include a future stage of cultural evolution in which monogamy, private property, and the state would cease to exist and the “communism” of primitive society would re-emerge albeit in a transformed state.

The beginning of the twentieth century brought the end of evolutionism’s initial reign in cultural anthropology. Its leading opponent was Franz Boas, whose main disagreement with the evolutionists involved their assumption that universal laws governed all human culture. Boas argued that these nineteenth-century individuals lacked sufficient data (as did Boas himself) to formulate many useful generalizations. Thus, historicism and, later, functionalism were reactions to nineteenth century social evolutionism.  But a very different kind of anthropological evolutionism would make  a comeback in the late 20th century as some scholars began to apply notions of natural selection of sociocultural phenomena.

Leading Figures

Johann Jacob Bachofen (1815-1887). Swiss lawyer and classicist who developed a theory of the evolution of kinship systems. He postulated that primitive promiscuity was first characterized by matriarchy and later by patrilineality. He linked the emergence of patrilineality to the development of private property and the desire of men to pass property on to their children. Morgan (Seymour-Smith 1986:21) concurred with Bachofen’s postulation that a patrilineal stage followed matrilineality.
Sir James George Frazer (1854 – 1873). Educated at Cambridge, he was the last of the great British classical evolutionists. Frazer was an encyclopedic collector of data (although he never did any fieldwork himself), publishing dozens of volumes including one of anthropology’s most popular works, The Golden Bough. Frazer summed up this study of magic and religion by stating that “magic came first in men’s minds, then religion, then science, each giving way slowly and incompletely to the other” (Hays 1965:127). First published in two volumes and later expanded to twelve, Frazer’s ideas from The Golden Bough were widely accepted. Frazer subsequently studied the value of superstition in the evolution of culture arguing that it strengthened respect for private property and for marriage, and contributed to the stricter observance of the rules of sexual morality.
Sir John Lubbock (1834-1914; Lord Avebury). A botanist and antiquarian who was a staunch pupil of Darwin. He observed that there was a range of variation of stone implements from more to less crude and that archaeological deposits that lay beneath upper deposits seemed older. He coined the terms ‘Paleolithic’ and ‘Neolithic’. The title of Lubbock’s influential book, Prehistoric Times: As Illustrated by Ancient Remains and the Customs of Modern Savages, illustrates the evolutionists analogies to “stone age contemporaries.” This work also countered the degenerationist views in stating “It is common opinion that savages are, as a general rule, only miserable remnants of nations once more civilized; but although there are some well-established cases of national decay, there is no scientific evidence which would justify us in asserting that this is generally the case (Hays 1965:51-52).” Lubbock also advanced a gradual scheme for the evolution of religion, summarized in terms of five stages: atheism, nature worship (totemism), shamanism, idolatry, and monotheism.
Sir Henry James Sumner Maine (1822-1888). English jurist and social theorist who focused on the development of legal systems as the key to social evolution. His scheme traces society from systems based on kinship to those based on territoriality, from status to contract and from civil to criminal law. Maine argued that the most primitive societies were patriarchal. This view contrasted with the believers in the primacy of primitive promiscuity and matriarchy. Maine also contrasted with other evolutionists in that he was not a proponent of unilinear evolution (Seymour-Smith 1986:175-176).
John F. McLellan (1827-1881). A Scottish lawyer who was inspired by ethnographic accounts of bride capture. From this he constructed a theory of the evolution of marriage. Like others, including Bachofen, McLellan postulated an original period of primitive promiscuity followed by matriarchy. His argument began with primitive peoples practicing female infanticide because women did not hunt to support the group. The shortage of women that followed was resolved by the practice of bride capture and fraternal polyandry. These then gave rise to patrilineal descent. McLellan, in his Primitive Marriage, coined the terms ‘exogamy’ and ‘endogamy’ (Seymour-Smith 1986:185-186).

Lewis Henry Morgan (1818 – 1881). One of the most influential evolutionary theorists of the 19th century, he has been called the father of American anthropology. An American lawyer whose interest in Iroquois Indian affairs led him to study their customs and social system, giving rise to the first modern ethnographic study of a Native American group, the League of the Iroquois in 1851. In this work, he considered ceremonial, religious, and political aspects of Iroquoian social life. He also initiated his study of kinship and marriage which he was later to develop into a classica comparative theory in his work, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity (1871). This latter work is widely considered to be a milestone in the development of anthropology, establishing kinship and marriage as central areas of anthropological inquiry and beginning an enduring preoccupation with kinship terminologies as the key to the interpretation of kinship systems. His Ancient Society is the most influential statement of the nineteenth-century cultural evolutionary position, to be developed by many later evolutionists and employed by Marx and Engels in their theory of social evolution. Adopting Montesquieu’s categories of savagery, barbarism, and civilization, Morgan subdivided the first two categories into three sub-stages (lower, middle, and upper) and gave contemporary ethnographic examples of each stage. Importantly, each stage was characterized by a technological innovation that led to advances in subsistence patterns, family and marriage arrangements and political organization (Seymour-Smith 1986:201).
Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832 – 1917). A British anthropologist, who put the science of anthropology on a firm basis and discounted the degeneration theory. Tylor formulated a most influential definition of culture: “Culture or civilization 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.” He also elaborated the concept of cultural “survivals.” His major contributions were in the field of religion and mythology, and he cited magic, astrology, and witchcraft as clues to primitive religion. In Tylor’s best known work, Primitive Culture, he attempts to illuminate the complicated aspects of religious and magical phenomena. It was an impressive and well-reasoned analysis of primitive psychology and far more general in application than anything which had been earlier suggested. Tylor correlates the three levels of social evolution to types of religion: savages practicing animism, barbarians practicing polytheism, and civilized people practicing monotheism. Another notable
accomplishment of Tylor was his exploration of the use of statistics in anthropological research.

Key Works

  • Frazer, James George. 1890 [1959]. The New Golden Bough. 1 vol, abr.
  •  Lubbock, John. 1872. Prehistoric Times: As Illustrated by Ancient Remains and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages. New York: Appleton.
  • Maine, Henry. 1861. Ancient Law.
  • McLellan, John. 1865. Primitive Marriage.
  • Morgan, Lewis Henry. 1876. Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family.
  •  Morgan, Lewis Henry. 1877. Ancient Society or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress rom Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr.
  • Tylor, Edward B. 1871 [1958]. Primitive Culture. 2 vols. New York: Harper Torchbook.

Principal Concepts

These terms are added only as a supplement; more elaborate understandings can be discerned from reading the above basic premises:
unilinear social evolution – the notion that culture generally develops (or evolves) in a uniform and progressive manner. It was thought that most societies pass through the same series of stages, to arrive ultimately at a common end. The scheme originally included just three stages (savagery, barbarism, and civilization), but was later subdivided in various manners to account for a greater amount of sociocultural diversity.
psychic unity of mankind – the belief that the human mind was everywhere essentially similar. “Some form of psychic unity is …implied whenever there is an emphasis on parallel evolution, for if the different peoples of the world advanced through similar sequences, it must be assumed that they all began with essentially similar psychological potentials” (Harris 1968:137).
survivals – traces of earlier customs that survive in present-day cultures. Tylor formulated the doctrine of survivals in analyzing the symbolic meaning of certain social customs. “Meaningless customs must be survivals. They had a practical or at least a ceremonial intention when and where they first arose, but are now fallen into absurdity from having been carried on into a new state in society where the original sense has been discarded” (Hays 1965: 64).
primitive promiscuity – the theory that the original state of human society was characterized by the lack of incest taboos and other rules regarding sexual relations or marriage. Early anthropologists such as Morgan, McLellan, Bachofen and Frazer held this view. It was opposed by those scholars who, like Freud, argued that the original form of society was the primal patriarchal horde or, like Westermark and Maine, that it was the paternal monogamous family (Seymour-Smith 1986:234).
stages of development – favored by early theorists whoembraced a tripartite scheme of social evolution from savagery to barbarianism to civilization. This scheme was originally proposed by Montesquieu, and was further developed by the social evolutionists, most influentially by Tylor and Morgan.


The Comparative Method Harris (1968:150-151) has an excellent discussion of this approach. “…The main stimulus for [the comparative method] came out of biology where zoological and botanical knowledge of extant organisms was routinely applied to the interpretation of the structure and function of extinct fossil forms. No doubt, there were several late-nineteenth-century anthropological applications of this principle which explicitly referred to biological precedent.In the 1860’s, however, it was the paleontology of Lyell, rather than of Darwin, that was involved. … John Lubbock justified his attempt to “illustrate” the life of prehistoric times in terms of an explicit analogy with geological practices:
“… the archaeologist is free to follow the methods which have been so successfully pursued in geology – the rude bone and stone implements of bygone ages being to the one what the remains of extinct animals are to the other. The analogy may be pursued even further than this. Many mammalia which are extinct in Europe have representatives still living in other countries. Our fossil pachyderms, for instance, would be almost unintelligible but for the species which still inhabit some parts of Asia and Africa; the secondary marsupials are illustrated by their existing representatives in Australia and South America; and in the
same manner, if we wish clearly to understand the antiquities of Europe, we must compare them with the rude implements and weapons still, or until lately, used by the savage races in other parts of the world. In fact, Van Diemaner and South American are to the antiquary what the opossum and the sloth are to the geologist (1865:416).”

All theorists of the latter half of the nineteenth century proposed to fill the gaps in the available knowledge of universal history largely by means of a special and much-debated procedure known as the “comparative method.” The basis for this method was the belief that sociocultural systems observable in the present bear differential degrees of resemblance to extinct cultures. The life of certain contemporary societies closely resembled what life must have been like during the Paleolithic, Neolithic, or early state-organized societies. Morgan’s view of this prolongation of the past into the present is characteristic:
“…the domestic institutions of the barbarous, and even of the savage ancestors of mankind, are still exemplified in portions of the human family with such completeness that, with the exception of the strictly primitive period, the several stages of this progress are tolerably well preserved.

They are seen in the organization of society upon the basis of sex, then upon the basis of kin, and finally upon the basis of territory; through the successive forms of marriage and of the family, with the systems of consanguinity thereby created; through house life and architecture; and through progress in usages with respect to the ownership and inheritance of property.” (1870:7)
To apply the comparative method, the varieties of contemporary institutions are arranged in a sequence of increasing antiquity. This is achieved through an essentially logical, deductive operation. The implicit assumption is that the older forms are the simpler forms.


The early evolutionists represented the first efforts to establish a scientific discipline of anthropology (although this effort was greatly hampered by the climate of supernatural explanations, a paucity of reliable empirical materials, and their engagement in “armchair speculation”). They aided in the development of the foundations of an organized discipline where none had existed before. They left us a legacy of at least three basic assumptions which have become an integral part of anthropological thought and research methodology, as outlined by Kaplan (1972: 42-43):

  • the dictum that cultural phenomena are to be studied in naturalistic fashion
  • the premise of the “psychic unity of mankind,” i.e., that cultural differences between groups are not due to differences in psychobiological equipment but to  differences in sociocultural experience; and
  • the use of the comparative method as a surrogate for the experimental and laboratory techniques of the physical sciences


Morgan believed that family units became progressively smaller and more self-contained as human society developed. However, his postulated sequence for the evolution of the family is not supported by the enormous amount of ethnographic data that has been collected since his time. For example, no recent society that Morgan would call savage indulges in group marriage or allows brother-sister mating. In short, a most damning criticism of this early social evolutionary approach is that as more data became available, the proposed sequences did not reflected the observations of professionally trained fieldworkers.

A second criticism is for the use by Tylor, McLellan, and others of ‘recurrence’ – if a similar belief or custom could be found in different cultures in many parts of the world, then it was considered to be a valid clue for reconstructing the history of the development, spread, and contact among different  human societies. The great weakness of this method lay in the evaluation of evidence plucked out of context, and in the fact that much of the material, at a time when there were almost no trained field workers, came from amateur observers.

The evolutionism of Tylor, Morgan, and others of the nineteenth century is rejected today largely because their theories cannot satisfactorily account for cultural variation. Why, for example, are some societies today lodged in “upper savagery” and others in “civilization.” The “psychic unity of mankind” or “germs of thought” that were postulated to account for parallel evolution cannot also account for cultural differences. Another weakness in the early evolutionists’ theories is that they cannot explain why some societies have regressed or even become extinct. Also, although other societies may have progressed to “civilization,” some of them have not passed through all the stages. Thus, early evolutionist theory cannot explain the details of cultural evolution and variation as anthropology now knows them. Finally, one of the most common criticisms leveled at the nineteenth century evolutionists is that they were highly ethnocentric – they assumed that Victorian England, or its equivalent, represented the highest level of development for mankind.

“[The] unilineal evolutionary schemes [of these theorists] fell into disfavor in the 20th century, partly as a result of the constant controversy between evolutionist and diffusionist theories and partly because of the newly accumulating evidence about the diversity of specific sociocultural systems which made it impossible to sustain the largely “armchair” speculations of these early theorists” (Seymour-Smith 1986:106).

Sources and Bibliography

  • Barnard, Alan 2000 History and Theory in Anthropology. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
  • Carneiro, Robert L. 2003 Evolutionism in Culture: A Critical History. Westview Press: Boulder, CO.
  • Ellwood, Charles Abram 1927 Cultural Evolution: A Study of Scoial Origins and Development. The Century Co.: New York.
  •  Evans-Pritchard, Sir Edward 1981 A History of Anthropological Thought. Basic Books, Inc.: New York.
  • Feinman, Gary M. And Linda Manzanilla 2000 Cultural Evoltution: Contemporary Viewpoints. Plenum Publishers: New York.
  • Frazer, James George 1920 The Golden Bough. MacMillan and Co.: London.
  • Harris, Marvin 1968 The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture. Thomas Y. Crowell: New York.
  • Hatch, Elvin 1973 Theories of Man and Culture. Columbia University Press, New York.
  • Hays, H. R. 1965 From Ape to Angel: An Informal History of Social Anthropology. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
  • Kaplan, David and Robert A. Manners 1972 Culture Theory. Waveland Press, Inc., Prospect Heights, Illinois.
  • Kuklick, Henrika 1991 The Savage Within: The Social History of British Anthropology, 1885-1945. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
  • Lubbock, John 1868 On the Origin of Civilisation and the Primitive Condition of Man.
  • Maine, Henry Sumner 1861 Ancient Law. The Crayon, 8:77-80.
  • McGee, R. Jon and Richard L. Warms 1996 Anthropological Thought: An Introductory History. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Pub. Co.
  • Moore, Jerry D. 2008 Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. AltaMira Press.
  • Ogburn, William F. And Dorothy Thomas 1922 Are Inventions Inevitable? A Note on Social Evolution. Political Science Quarterly, 37:83-98.
  •  Ritchie, David G. 1896 Social Evolution. International Journal of Ethics, 6:165-181.
  • Tylor, Edward B. 1874 Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Customs. Holt: New York
  • Tylor, Edward B. 2006 The Science of Culture. In Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory. Paul A. Erickson and Liam D. Murphy, eds. Pp. 29-41. Canada: Broadview Press.
  • Seymour-Smith, Charlotte 1986 Macmillan Dictionary of Anthropology. Macmillan, New York.
  • Stocking Jr., George W. 1968 Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. The Free Press, New York.
  • Stocking Jr., George W. 1995 After Tylor: British Social Anthropology 1888-1951. The University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Winthrop, Robert H. 1991 Dictionary of Concepts in Cultural Anthropology. Greenwood Press, New York.