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Evolutionary anthropology

Recall that historical linguistics, begun in the late 18th C, was dominant in Europe through the 19th C. In the late 19th C when anthropology emerged as a discipline it too had an evolutionary approach: members of the ``advanced'' Western civilisations were assumed to represent the height of rational thinking while the mental activity of people from other groups was said to be of an inferior kind.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) British philosopher and sociologist, a major figure in scientific and intellectual circles of the Victorian era, was a proponent of the evolutionary theory several years before the publication of the The Origin of Species in 1859. Spencer applied Darwin's biological evolution to philosophy, psychology and the study of society - what he called ``synthetic philosophy'' and later came to be known as ``Social Darwinism''.

Basing his ideas (as did Lévi Bruhl after him) on published reports, often anecdotal, of missionaries, travellers and early anthropologists, Spencer held that people with higher physical and mental traits make greater social advances, and in turn those living in more developed societies have experiences that further promote their intellectual faculties. Characteristics of primitive thinking that he enumerated were, a lack of conception of general facts, of ability to anticipate future, limited concepts, no abstract ideas or ideas of causality - but acute senses, quick perceptions, quick imitative learning of simple ideas, child-like thinking and rapid development reaching an early limit. Spencer extended these ideas to origin and abilities of lower socio-economic classes within the industrialised nations.

Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920)'s pioneering work on cultural/ folk psychology namely Völkerpsychologie was mentioned in sec. [*]. Wundt aimed to find psychological explanations based on data from ethnology. He contrasted stages, such as ``primitive'', ``totemic'', ``age of heroes and gods'' and ``enlightened age of humanity'', and associated each with a distinctive type of thinking. Unlike other evolutionary theorists of his time, Wundt believed that primitive and civilized man had the same intellectual capabilities: they just exercised them differently. Wundt's students included Emile Durkheim, Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski.

The British Evolutionary School in Anthropology was led by Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), the American School by Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) and the German or Continental School by Johnn Jacob Bachofen (1815-1877). Tylor was a contemporary of Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), Gottlob Frege (1848-1929) and Paul Broca (1824-1880).

Edward Tylor (1832-1917) Published in 1871 his book Primitive Culture. Founded the discipline of Anthropology, emphasising empirical work rather than speculation; mounted a rationalist attack on divine inspiration and religious beliefs.

Tylor defined culture as ``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.'' This definition emphasised the learnt and therefore changeable, as opposed to the inherited characteristics of different peoples. Tylor believed that all groups harbour vestiges of past practices (eg. saying ``God bless you'' on sneezing) and that behaviour can be understood when seen in past and present context: even the most irrational customs are products of reasoning. This ``rational'' view of culture was basic to the evolutionary viewpoint.

Though Tylor believed in an evolutionary scheme of cultures (savagery, barbarism, civilisation) he took a major step towards a relativistic point of view by asserting that ``culture'' (and the potential for its advancement) exists among all people - so helping to bridge the gulf between the rude savage and the English gentleman.

In methodology, Tylor devised adhesion: finding out which customs hang together by determining the correlation between massive lists of practices in various cultures. This statistical approach contrasted with metaphysical speculation (as of his influential contemporary Sir James Frazer ``The Golden Bough'', 1890). See Upadhyay and Pandey, pp. 47-53.

In 1898 the Cambridge Anthropological expedition set off for the Torres Straits in the South Pacific. It was a landmark in the history of Anthropology. Experts in psychology, medicine, linguistics and music went, focused not just on higher cognitive functions (as earlier?), but on sensory discrimination, visual illusions, colour perception. Findings eg.: language might influence seeing or grouping of colour; Papuans had a keen sense of observation despite normal visual acuity; perception of spatial relations might be culturally conditioned; documentation of capacious memories for family geneologies.

See Keith Hart: The place of the 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Straits (CAETS) in the history of British social anthropology, Lecture given in the opening session of a conference held at St. John's College, Cambridge, ``Anthropology and psychology: the legacy of the Torres Strait expedition, 1898-1998'', 10-12 August 1998.

Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) Elaborated on the three major stages proposed by Tylor, added sub-stages (see Upadhyay and Pandey, p. 56):

Morgan tied up aspects of socio-political organisations with economic pursuits and technological development. Major problem with his scheme, apart from its rigidity, was the use of synchronic data for diachronic reconstruction.

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Next: Alternatives to evolution Up: Anthropology Lecture 1 Previous: The Enlightenment   Contents