The Ladder of Cultural Evolution (A Brief History of Humankind)

An idea isn’t responsible for the people who believe in it. —Don Marquis

In the early twentieth century, anthropologists commonly referred to particular groups of people as "savages." Technically peaking, this was not an insult (though it seldom came off as a compliment). "Savagery" was just a stage in the orderly history of human cultures. There had been a time when all human beings were savages, but then some of them got a cultural promotion—to "barbarians." Or, at least, to "low" barbarians. Barbarism had three subdivisions—lower, middle, and upper—and a culture, after passing through them, could cross the threshold into civilization.

Writing less than two decades after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Morgan depicted human cultures as things that evolve. "It can now be asserted upon convincing evidence that savagery preceded barbarism in all the tribes of mankind, as barbarism is known to have preceded civilization," Morgan wrote. These "three distinct conditions are connected with each other in a natural as well as necessary sequence of progress."

Morgan was one of the world’s first anthropologists. He was an aficionado of American Indian societies, whose depredation by white men he deplored. After Sitting Bull massacred Custer’s men at the Little Bighorn, Morgan came out in defense of Sitting Bull.

That’s not to say Morgan was a radical. In addition to being a self-trained scholar, he was a well-to-do lawyer. Still, his topic was embraced by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who found it consistent with their own teleological view of history. Like them, Morgan traced history’s direction to material factors, including technology. And like them, he stressed changing notions of ownership. They loved his idea that man’s initial, "savage," condition was communal, with no private property. Engels warmly quoted Morgan’s prediction that in the end cultural evolution would restore some of this primal egalitarianism. "Democracy in government, brotherhood in society, equality in rights and privileges, and universal education," Morgan had written, "foreshadow the next higher plane of society to which experience, intelligence and knowledge are steadily tending."

The view that inexorable forces of history had created civilization, that cultures "evolve" in broadly predictable fashion and would keep doing so, was also held by the sociologist Herbert Spencer, who loathed Marxism. Another proponent was John Stuart Mill, whose politics were somewhere between Spencer’s and Marx’s. Back then, the idea of directionality in history was almost conventional wisdom. Ideology entered the picture only when you discussed the mechanism behind history’s obviously patterned course, and extrapolated into the future.


During the early twentieth century, the conventional wisdom changed. The ranking of some societies as "higher" than others seemed increasingly unsavory, especially to scholars on the left. In anthropology, the eminent Franz Boas led an assault on the idea that human cultures tend to move in any particular direction. His most famous student, Margaret Mead, would later summarize the Boasian credo: "We have stood out against any grading of cultures in hierarchical systems which would place our own culture at the top and place the other cultures of the world in a descending scale according to the extent that they differ from ours. . . . We have stood out for a sort of democracy of cultures, a concept which would naturally take its place beside the other great democratic beliefs."

Support for the Boasian perspective was intense and eventually overwhelming. In 1918, an essay in American Anthropologist attacked the idea of cultural evolution as "the most inane, sterile, and pernicious theory ever conceived in the history of science"—and, moreover—"a cheap toy for the amusement of big children." By 1939, another anthropologist could report that "[cultural] evolutionism can muster hardly a single adherent." Meanwhile, the idea of directional history wasn’t faring well among historians, either. During the nineteenth century many of them had seen history as progress fueled by reason; the conscious, rational pursuit of the good would bring ever-expanding freedom and political equality. But after two world wars in which clever technologies had killed millions, the words "rational" and "good" didn’t seem hallmarks of humankind; and, with fascism a recent memory and totalitarian communism still strong, "freedom" didn’t seem to be history’s goal.

Further, hadn’t the enemies of freedom, Hitler and Stalin, believed that history was on their side? Maybe, then, theories of historical directionality weren’t just wrong, but dangerous! After the Second World War, two of the most famous thinkers of this century—Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper—took up arms against such theories. In the slim volume Historical Inevitability, Berlin attacked the notion "that the world has a direction and is governed by laws, and that the direction and the laws can in some degree be discovered by employing the proper techniques of investigation." Popper, in The Poverty of Historicism, announced that he had proved—literally proved—that predicting the future is flat-out impossible.

After Berlin and Popper wrote, the kind of "bigthink" they opposed—"speculative history," or "metahistory"—became an endangered species. In the 1960s, one philosopher of history observed that historians "tend to use the term ‘metahistorian’ to mark deviations from normal professional activity in either the law-seeking or the pattern-seeking direction." Not much has changed since then. The one pattern-seeking work of history to make a big splash over the past two decades—The End of History— was written not by a historian but by a political scientist, Francis Fukuyama. Oddly, pondering laws of history is less deviant behavior for a political scientist than for a historian.

Opponents of "metahistory" have often been candid about their motivations. The dedication to Popper’s topic reads, "In memory of the countless men and women of all creeds or nations or races who fell victims to the fascist and communist belief in Inexorable Laws of Historical Destiny." I’ll argue that Popper’s analysis—and Berlin’s analysis, and Boas’s analysis—was doubly wrong: wrong not just about whether directional views of the past can be valid, but about whether they are especially dangerous.


The war on directionality was not as successful within anthropology as within history. At mid-century, mall pockets of resistance began to develop, notably at the University of Michigan. There a firebrand named Leslie White rebelled against Boasian anti-evolutionism and devoted his life to resuscitating and refining Morgan’s ideas. This revival spawned some advances in the field (including labels less offensive than "savage" and "barbarian"). Indeed, as we’ll see, White’s students and allied colleagues laid a still-usable foundation for reassessing world history. Nonetheless, in the 1970s, as multiculturalism gained popularity, theories that seemed to rank the world’s cultures lost popularity. By the time of White’s death in 1975, cultural evolutionism was falling into neglect, if not disrepute.

Today the one part of anthropology that still harbors much sympathy for evolutionism is not White’s field—cultural anthropology—but archaeology. To be sure, most archaeologists don’t espouse as strong a version of cultural evolutionism as will be espoused in this topic; they don’t believe that the progression toward more complex society was essentially inevitable, from the Stone Age right up to globalization. Still, archaeologists can’t help but notice that, as a rule, the deeper you dig, the simpler the society whose remains you find. Plainly, change in the structure of societies tends to happen sooner or later, and is more likely to raise complexity than to lower it.

In a way, it’s odd that the greatest sympathy for evolutionism is found among scholars who study the distant past. For events of this century, and especially of the last few decades, suggest that the arrow of history identified by some social scientists of the nineteenth century is roughly on target. Lewis Morgan’s essential point was right: the endless impetus of cultural evolution has pushed society through several thresholds over the past 20,000 years. And now it is pushing society through another one. A magnificent new social structure—our future home—is being built before our eyes.

To say that history has a direction is not to embrace all the ideas associated with early cultural evolutionism or nineteenth-century progressivist history. It is not, for example, to say that history is a process of general improvement; or to blithely predict the triumph of freedom and equality in all their dimensions. Indeed, though I think history is on the side of human freedom in one sense, there is another sense in which freedom is shrinking. If there is something magnificent about the social structure that now seems to be emerging—the social structure that history has long been moving us toward—there is something terrifying about it, too. Fortunately, this structure, even if hard to escape in the long run (and unwise to escape in the long run) is by no means inevitable in all its apsects.

Anyway, the question of whether history’s basic arrow will on balance make us freer or less free, will make our lives better or worse, is one I’ll defer for now. I do think that in ome respects history’s basic direction makes human beings morally better, and will continue to do so. But that isn’t the immediate point.When you look beneath the roiled surface of human events, beyond the comings and goings of particular regimes, beyond the lives and deaths of the "great men" who have strutted on the stage of history, you see an arrow beginning tens of thousands of year ago and continuing to the present. And, looking ahead, you see where it is pointing.

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