Classical Evolutionism – Evolutionary Theory in Anthropology

Classical Evolutionism - Evolutionary Theory in Anthropology image
  • Classical Evolutionism was introduced by 19th-century scholars and is also known as unilineal evolutionism or 19th-century evolutionism.
  • It emerged around the time Darwin’s theory was gaining traction in the second half of the nineteenth century.
  • It developed concurrently in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany.
  • These scholars ultimately suggested that civilizations evolve/progress unilineal from savagery to barbarism to civilization.


  • Anthropology started as a discipline concerned with the evolution of culture and society. Pioneers in the field of evolution include Henry Maine, E.B. Tylor, Mclienan and Frazer from England, Morgan from the United States, Bachofen from Switzerland, and Adolf Bastian from Germany.
  • Herbert Spencer defined evolution as the transformation of an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity into a definite, coherent heterogeneity through continuous invention, integration, and diffusion.
  • According to classical evolutionists, culture evolved independently in the world across periods of savagery, barbarism, and civilization.
  • They are not professional anthropologists and base their hypotheses on secondary data provided by missionaries, travelers, and others.
  • They were able to recreate developmental stages in a historical context by contrasting existing cultures to the past.
  • Twentieth-century diffusionists and cultural relativists later criticized their unilinear scheme.
  • Leslie White and Julian Steward in the United States, and Gordon Childe in the United Kingdom, later restored the evolutionary scheme.
  • White and Childe proposed the Universal Evolutionary Scheme, while Steward proposed the Multilinear Scheme.
  • While Classical Evolutionism refers to evolutionism from the nineteenth century, Neo Evolutionism refers to evolutionism from the twentieth century.


  1. The essence of evolution is consistent throughout and is governed by basic rules.
  2. Unilinearity: Since all populations go through the same phases of evolution, evolution is unilinear. Culture develops in the same order everywhere, and the stages of evolution in a single line reoccur at various times and in different locations.
  3. Rectilinearity: It denotes a continuous upward and onward progression of evolution in a straight line. Despite stops and relapses, there is a forward and upward movement. This means that there is a specific path of evolution.
  4. Psychic Unity of Mankind: It means, everywhere human culture has evolved in the same way, and every cultural evolution has gone through the same stages since the human mind thinks in the same way everywhere.
  5. Skipping of stages: It is possible for cultures to skip a stage sometimes. For example, the people of the south of the Sahara simply copied the civilizations from the north and they skipped the peasant or barbarism stage.
  6. Differences in evolutionary potential: Simpler societies have a greater capacity to incorporate new elements than complex societies. This is due to the fact that the latter is already saturated. For example, as compared to their civilized neighbors, the Chenhus of AP have a greater capacity to absorb innovations.
  7. Differential rates of evolution: Societies evolved at different rates; some societies developed rapidly, while others developed slowly.
  8. Diffusion and Independent Invention: Societies develop not only through independent innovation (invention) but also through diffusion.
  9. Evolution is iso-sequential and iso-directional, but not iso-rate (i.e. different societies evolve at different rates).
  10. Thinkers constructed a chronology of various institutions such as marriage, family, and kinship:
    • Sexual promiscuity – polyandry – monogamy
    • Matrilineal – Patrilineal
    • Animism – Polytheism – Monotheism
    • Frazer – MagicReligion – Science
    • Kinship Terminology – Classificatory to Descriptive
    • Status to Contract
    • Civil Law to Criminal Law
    • Kinship Organization to Territorial Organization


Criticism of classical evolutionism are as follows:

  • Classical evolutionism is based on the questionable presumption of mankind’s psychic unity. This assertion is not backed by proof.
  • Classical evolutionists did not seek evidence of evolutionary stages in reference to a specific society.
  • They are not uniform in defining the characteristics of stages of evolution.
  • Classical evolutionists made no attempt to study inventions. It actually assumed that cultures were totally separated from one another while still paralleling one another.
  • The comparative method is crude and inherently defective.
  • They labeled some cultures as savages, others as barbarians, and others as civilized. This demonstrates ethnocentrism which is fundamentally opposed to cultural relativism (Franz Boas).


Despite harsh critique, the following works of nineteenth-century evolutionists should not be overlooked.

  1. E.B. Tylor founded anthropology as a study of culture and a distinct discipline at Oxford University in 1884.
  2. They introduced the philosophy of culture and advanced the tenet that race and culture had no relationship (psychic unity)
  3. They established the principles of cultural continuity and orderly growth.
  4. Evolutionism provided anthropology with a vast amount of cultural information for further research and discovery.
  5. They also acknowledged and established the skipping of stages of cultural evolution, as well as recognized diffusion.
  6. They regarded survivals as significant landmarks for recognizing previous stages of civilization.

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