Cultural Evolution: 19th Century Efforts by Western Societies to Justify Dominance over Other Societies

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The concept of cultural evolution has had a problematic history because its initial usage became linked to 19th century efforts by Western societies to justify their dominance over other societies. Despite this initial misuse, however, cultural evolution remains an important mainstay of anthropological research. As currently used, the concept parallels biological evolution in the sense that societies frequently acquire and spread important traits as they adapt to the pressures confronting them. A very simple example might be a coastal society developing increasingly superior technologies for acquiring food from the ocean in response to the demands of a growing population for food or to the disappearance of land-based food resources. But such adaptations are found in social, political, and economic organization as well as to other facets of a society.

Of course, not every cultural trait emerges as an adaptation. Many – such as the tail fins on cars or details of religious doctrine – arise because of the society’s history, the actions of specific individuals, and other factors which belong to the society itself and are not generally shared with others. But many traits of central importance to a society are adaptations to the society’s problems. Furthermore, as different societies grow in size and complexity, they predictably encounter the same problems. The existence of these common problems creates the basis for the evolutionary “stages” or “types of society” described by Evans because generally human societies reshape themselves in fairly similar ways to solve these problems.

1.With what “modes” of sociocultural integration does Evans categorize pre-industrial societies (p. 23-5)? Subsistence, Economy, Territory, Population and settlement pattern, Community, Society, Politics, Religion

2.Clearly, the terms which Evans uses to label the “modes” of sociocultural integration are adjectives which describe social relationships among individuals in a...
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