Human Progress and Cultural Evolution

In his influential 1871 opus Primitive Culture, anthroplogist Edward Tylor argued that the scientific study of culture should be based upon the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin. The Victorians were great believers in human progress, surrounded as they were with dozens of exotic societies, simple and complex, farmers, hunters, and herders. They considered their own civilization the pinnacle of all human achievement. Hardly surprisingly, they thought of human prehistory in terms of ladder-like, evolutionary progress. Although this theoretical framework was abused by racists to argue for the inferiority of non-whites, Tylor argued that all people shared the same basic capabilities, but cultures had evolved more or less depending on their history. He saw primitive cultures as childlike, while Western culture was naturally the most advanced and thus the most evolved. He also came up with the concept of cultural survivals, “processes, customs, and opinions, and so forth, which have been carried on by force of habit into a new state of society different from that in which they had their original home, and they thus remain as proofs and examples of an older condition of culture out of which a newer has been evolved.” His definition of culture remains one of his most important contributions to the discipline: “Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, 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."

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