Classical Social Evolutionism Versus Neo-Evolutionism

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The second half of the nineteenth century marked the dawn of evolutionary thought beyond human biology into human society and culture. This paradigm grew rapidly over the next century as well, with understanding of human society and culture becoming more complex and detailed with every new theorist. The onset of social evolution was considered to be analogous with biological evolution, however it’s main pitfall laid in the fact that it didn’t consider a historical account for it. Theorists such as Linneaus, Buffon, Lamarck, all dealt with evolutionary questions to discern ideas of individual differences, whether it be in relation to adaptation to an environment or even potential driving changes in organisms; evolution had been up for deliberation, although it’s scope was limited to biology. The ‘Age of Enlightenment’ came forward only with Charles Darwin, who declared that only the individuals that survive to reproduce will pass on their genes, and only mutations that enable this survival will be favoured. This suggested adaptations only favour those who have the ability to survive in a competitive environment, and therefore the famous “survival of the fittest” sprouted out of Darwin’s thought.

When it comes to Anthropology however, while Darwin received considerable credit for his theory’s biological implications, social and cultural connotations were also beginning to attach themselves to it. The forefathers of Evolutionary Thought in Anthropology however, dated themselves before Darwin, since Tylor and Morgan were also actively interacting with the same ideas of evolution in human society in the same year – 1871 (Barnard, 2000). Evolution here onwards was then categorised as unilinear, universal, multilineal and more recently, Neo-Darwinism. These definite categories of evolution and anthropology therefore gave it an edge over the biological or archaeological theories since those were mainly based on conjecture without necessary and enough scientific evidence.

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The unilinear trope adopted the idea that a dominant sequence of development follows wherein all societies pass through the same stages at different rates. Classical social evolutionism utilises this idea, and theorists such as Morgan, Spencer and Tylor have delved into research of various aspects of culture (kinship, language, religion, technology) to understand and analyse this phenomenon. The universal school emerged in the 20th century with the advent of more rigorous scientific methodology in the form of ethnography and archaeology to gather evidence supporting the stage by stage approach of evolution (savagery, barbarism, civilisation). The multilinear school was primarily devised by Julian Steward to counter the vague generalisations of unilinear evolution and incorporate the role of the environment and geography as a focal point. Lastly, neo darwinism takes on a dual focus with integrating sociobiology and the revolutionist school of thought (Barnard, 2000).

The aim of this paper is limited to only classical social evolutionism and neo-evolutionism, in terms of understanding the scope of the theories. It explores the theoretical background for the theories on the basis of the ideas propounded by its theorists, the merits and demerits of the theory and finally, the paper concludes with comparing classical social evolutionism and neo-evolutionism.

Social Evolutionism

The hallmark of the 1850’s was the beginning of social evolutionary schools of thought, with the onset of a “golden age” of evolutionary thinking in both sociology and anthropology. Social Evolution can be referred to as a form of social change that displays a directional sequence of integration and advancement (Sanderson, 2001). The onset of social evolution then also prompted the idea of Social Darwinism, wherein individuals from this school believed that the “industrial advances and burgeoning economic and military power” presented Western societies as being at the most advanced stage of social evolution. This implied that if biological evolution suggested progress and “survival of the fittest ”, it was rightful for Wester societies to dominate those that were less technologically advanced (McGee and Warms, 2004). The most significant thinkers amongst the many of this era were thinkers such as Herbert Spencer, Lewis Henry Morgan, Edward and Burnett Tylor.

Elaborating and expanding on the theorists’ schools of thought, Spencer’s belief was that evolution was progressive and evolutionary change signified movement from simple to complex states. In Social Organism (1860), he postulated that evolution was a “moral force” that focused on transmission of learned behaviours from one generation to the next (McGee and Warms, 2004). Spencer explains how societies grow and expand over time, with their structures and functions becoming both differentiated and specialised, which later move on to achieving higher levels of integration. He further went on to elaborate on this mechanism by making reference to an organic analogy whereby society functions as a body with its set of organs that ensured its functioning and maintenance. Therefore, through this he was able to draw from Darwin’s biological evolution and make similar contentions for the mechanisms underlying social evolution, which was – evolutionary progress occurred since life was a struggle for survival and those with superior skills and traits succeeded (Sanderson, 2006).

Morgan and Tylor on the other hand, build upon similar ideas, advancing this argument as evolution comprising phasic stages of cultural development, wherein societies move from simple to complex. While both the theorists are categorised as unilineal evolutionists and shared similar theoretical foundations, they differed in terms of culture, particularly in terms of the aspect of culture they studied. Morgan’s research primarily focused on family and subsistence patterns of Native Americans in particular, and in Ancient Society (1977), he set forth his theory of “ethnical periods’ ‘ of human cultural development. He assorts societies into a sequential manner by judging their level of technological development, whether it be in terms of subsistence patterns (savagery, barbarism, civilization) or family-kinship (consanguine, punaluan, syndyasmian, patriarchal, monogamian). His theory differs from Spencer’s when it comes to the aspect of competition, since Morgan proposed technological advancement or “germs of thought” that sparked the transition from one stage to another (McGee and Warms, 2004).

In comparison, Tylor branched his study out towards “survivals” or cultural remnants that signified cultural development, and argued this by stating that earlier stages of development could be studied through reconstruction (McGee and Warms, 2004). Tylor’s approach was therefore, more diachronic by using myths, religion, and language to reconstruct the past histories. His primary research on religion, where he focuses on the evolution of enlightened monotheism arising from polytheism and animism. However, a common ground between Morgan and Tylor lies in their belief in the “psychic unity of mankind”, which implies that while cultural development took place parallely however at independent stages for different societies. Spencer, Morgan and Tylor therefore, laid down the foundations of social evolutionism or unilineal evolutionism. The century after saw Marx and Engels as two more proponents of social evolutionism with their extensive study on the historical development of capitalism. Both these theorists validated their theories through Morgan’s emphasis on material achievements and technology, since Marx as well as Engels believed conflict to be the driver of social change.

Gathering the arguments for classical social evolutionism or unilinear evolutionism, one can see that cultural diversity as a phenomenon was not of importance to these theorists, but rather it was prioritised more for being an indicator of movement from one stage of evolution to another (Barnard, 2000). The main criticism of classical social evolutionism lay in the fact that most of the theorists merely utilised sufficient primary research to substantiate their claims, and yet constantly attempted to objectify their theories. Further, the ethnocentric worldview practiced by most of these theorists created larger gaps in their research dampening the rigor of the science itself. The practice of this same Arm-Chair Anthropology is what was the major drawback of Anthropology as a discipline, and led to anti-evolutionary theories and movements.


Neo-Evolution marked the shift of evolutionary paradigm from a sequence of phasic stages of development to techno-environmental approach, that focused on cultural ecology. The adoption of this theoretical basis emerged out of revival of evolutionary thought with the intention of retaining only certain constructs of the theory. Neo-evolutionary theories follow from large amounts of empirical evidence, which it was able to achieve from archaeology as a foundation for research on material culture. Largely, neo-evolutionism draws the relation between long term cultural changes that are generalised and short term changes that are more ecological and local to the environment (Brick, 2012). Further, they may also address ethnological characteristics of such features with their respective historical trajectory. The major proponents of neo-evolutionism were Leslie White and Julian Steward, who hypothesised two contrasting orientations for the theory.

Leslie White, taking on from Morgan’s unilineal evolution follows in line with a directional sequenced approach to complexity of societies. According to White, the lack of a non-ethnocentric and scientific method of research was the major pitfall of classical social evolutionism. Emphasising the role of technology, White theorised that change in technology marked the stages of evolution, and further, he proposes three analytical levels of culture – technological, sociological and ideological. He drew inspiration from Marx, and therefore his focus on technology and energy is prominent, as seen in Energy and the Evolution of Culture, where he explains the role of technology affecting society’s institutions and value systems. White states, “culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the instrumental means of putting the energy to work is increased.” This implies, technological determinism serves as an indicator that measures cultural change to measurable absolute standard (Pepper, 1960). Therefore, the main criticism for White’s theory rested in the fact that it didn’t take any other dynamic factors into consideration such as human personality or unspecific social change which could alter the defined course of evolution. Another proponent belonging to the neo-evolutionary thought is Gordan Childe, who asserted that prehistory and history are relatively the same except for their methodology, and the ages of humankind were defined by technology that would find evidence in archaeological record. His beliefs aligned much with White’s, who as seen earlier, champions the technology and energy as indicators-of-development case. Both of them also belonged to the universal school of evolutionism and therefore draw from Morgan and Spencer.

Julian Steward however, advances his argument through multilineal evolution, whereby he postulates cultural ecology to explain that cultures in similar environments follow the same developmental sequence and then accordingly respond to the environment. These features were generally associated with subsistence patterns and were categorised as cultural cores, and further cultural types could be identified from them in a hierarchy of complexity. Steward’s main contention was that societies did not undergo a universal sequence of development and adapted to the needs and pressures of their own distinct environment (McGee and Warms, 2004). He thus, defines evolution as more specific and relative implying parallels between cultures can develop independently without any link between them, merely as a result of the histories of the respective cultures. Steward also borrows from Kroeber (1915), by adopting a diachronic approach to understand evolution, taking into account the geography and environment. Therefore, the broad basis of Stewards multilineal evolution laid in sociocultural integration (to the environment) which then defined increasing complexity of this particular adaptation.

Neo-evolutionism thus moved beyond the sequential stages of development and broadened its expanse to factoring in other variables that could impede these stages progression. It’s adoption of historical development to explain change, while taking into account the cultural ecology of the society and thereby attribute evolution to beyond one specific factor. While acknowledging these merits, another point to attend to is that cultural relativism is another perspective it employs. Unlike previous evolutionary theories, neo-evolutionism looks at cultures from the standard of their own, rather than comparing them to another standard. Taking into account the criticism of neo-evolutionism, the role of social institutions and unforeseen social change is lost, in the sense that these factors are not considered to impact cultural development. Secondly, their emphasis on the causation of techno-environmental causation somewhere loses the essence of evolutionary thought in the first place.

Comparing Social Evolutionism and Neo-evolutionism

The paradigms that both social evolutionism and neo-evolutionism belong to are although resting on the same foundation, they present two very stark differences in their theoretical approach. While social evolutionism rests it’s belief that societies evolve in levels of complexity, based on economy and subsistence, neo-evolutionism states that societies do not undergo a stage to stage transgression, and rather focuses more on the factors that contribute to development. Therefore, a shift in the paradigm of evolutionary thought is prominent, which indulges itself in an area of speculation rather than proven evidence that says otherwise. Neo-evolutionism was much more widely accepted amongst scholars, as a more tangible school of thought, since it deemed societies at the standard of their own rather than comparing them, while also studying their development patterns through historical development. However, neo-evolutionism failed too, largely because they over-prioritised the factors causing development rather than the development itself. The focus shifted from evolution to what causes evolution and therefore, neo-evolutionism adopted a selectivist view of culture itself.

Classical social evolutionism was refuted and considered problematic because of the lack of scientific validity of it’s claims, and the lack of evidential research to support these claims. The major proponents of the theory did not study cultures in the specifics of the stages that they asserted these societies were situated in, and therefore most of their claims were purely conjecture. Theorists like Tylor however, did actively participate in studying the cultures he was writing about, however another demerit of social evolutionism also lies in its etic ethnocentric view of the world. All of these theorists recognise their own cultures as being superior and as something cultures of lower level have to strive for and therefore, adopt the face of arm-chair anthropology. Neo-evolution on the other hand, improvised upon this shortcoming and operationalised rigorous methodology to support its claims, through ethnographies and material culture records. More importantly, it accounts for historical development since many of its theorists belonged to the Boasian Historical Particularism school of thought, and therefore they don’t view cultures as isolated groups succeeding the scale of progression from one level to another. They adopt a more holistic view entailing the ecology, technological developments, and other such related factors, and specify the roles these play in evolving society. Therefore, Neo-evolutionism is closer to the Darwinian school of thought rather than Classical Social Evolutionism, which is more Social Darwinian.


The two schools of thought – Social Evolutionism and Neo-Evolutionism present stark contrast in the foundations of their very ideas, as has been presented above. Classical evolutionism was accepted for it’s times since it gave anthropologists one of the earliest and most fundamental conceptions of human society – evolution. Arm-chair anthropology however, was the pitfall for the entire discipline itself, and anthropology lost all acclaim until World War II. Post this, the revival of evolutionary thought, which although presented novel ideas and thoughts was also a reawakening of the discipline. Neo-evolutionism was widely accepted by scholars all around the world, since it mitigated the primary downfall of social evolutionism – primary research and evidence. It gave the discipline of Anthropology the scientific rigour it was chasing in order to establish itself as a social science. Both these schools of thought offer a multitude of ideas, that although haven’t necessarily been accepted since, yet they situated the substructure for anthropological theory as a whole.

Theorists like Morgan, Spencer, Steward, Marx amongst many others, proposed ideas way ahead of their times. Even in conjecture, they suggested theories that replicated biological evolutionary models into society and culture in a manner that was acceptable and observable in those times. While both these theories have their own merits and demerits, the strong contentions that they posed and challenged explained a great deal about society and culture to the extent of explaining development, and raising questions for the future of the species.


  1. Antweiler, C. (1991). Transgenerational Cultural Dynamics: From Neo-Evolutionism To a Truly Evolutionary Theory. Cultural Dynamics, 4(3), 270–289.
  2. Barnard, A. (2000). History and Theory in Anthropology. Cambridge University Press.
  3. Brick H. (2012) Neo-Evolutionism Anthropology, the Cold War, and the Beginnings of the World Turn in U.S. Scholarship. In: Solovey M., Cravens H. (eds) Cold War Social Science. Palgrave Macmillan, New York
  4. McGee, R. J., & Warms, L. R. (2004) Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
  5. Pepper, G. (1960). Leslie A. White’s Theory of Cultural Evolution. The American Catholic Sociological Review, 21(4), 319-330.
  6. Sanderson, S. K. (2001). Social Evolution: Overview. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 14279–14286.

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