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[Anna Schwartz] Tylor and Morgan

This text was produced by Anna Schwartz while the person was a student at Macalester. It was distributed for in-class review. Any use of this text necessitates you to contact the person directly for copyright purposes.

From: “Anna Schwartz”
Sent: Friday, September 17, 2004 9:21 AM
Subject: Tylor/Morgan crib sheet

Anna Schwartz
Sir Edward Burnett Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan

Both Tylor and Morgan were unilineal evolutionists. They studied and believed strongly in the evolution of culture. They viewed human society as existing at different levels of civilization. These varying levels were a result of cultures being at different stages of development which could be “classified and arranged, stage by stage, in a probable order of evolution” (Tylor 1871). They believed that different cultures could be traced along this evolutionary scale and that all cultures came from the same beginnings. However, both believed that Western culture was at the more developed end of the evolutionary scale. Both believed that all human cultures have the same potential but some have achieved more than others. Tylor states clearly that man is “homogenous in nature, though placed in different grades of civilization.”

The concept of psychic unity was central to the philosophies of both Tylor and Morgan. This concept assumes that there is uniformity to human thought and action. This means that the general study of humans can be done in order to understand the individual because there is little room for variability. Tylor refers to a “likeness in human nature” and states that “the character and habit of mankind at once display that similarity and consistency of phenomena…” in order to describe this uniformity. Morgan also refers to the, “natural logic of the human mind” (Morgan 1877) in order to show how humans use logic to think and react in universal ways. This assumed uniformity allows for the comparative method which both Tylor and Morgan built their theories around. The “regularity of composition of societies” as Tylor puts it, makes it possible then to generalize whole nations.

Tylor established one of the most widely used definitions of culture (MGW, 41). He believed that human culture could be studied rationally and systematically just like a physical science. He believed that reason played a central role in the development of human culture and so if development is rational then it can be studied logically. “…Our thoughts, wills, and actions accord with laws as definite as those which govern the motion of waves, the combination of acids and bases, and the growth of plants and animals.” (Tylor 1871). He talked of how human behavior can even be predicted statistically. Along these lines, there is not complete free will since behind all actions are motives which act as a deciding force (“natural cause and affect”). Things only seem random to those who don’t notice the connection.

Tylor explained religion, not defending it, but attempted to explain why people believe certain things along the evolutionary scale. He thought that people held certain beliefs because the society they lived in gave them reasonable causes to believe those things. The principles and reasons for the formation and development of “savage religion” are rational; it is just that they exist within a society of ignorance. Animism didn’t appear accidentally, but because it is the natural way which humans would use reason to explain things like death and dreams. However, this doesn’t mean that the beliefs themselves are sound. Tylor believed that religion is becoming more rational and therefore better as it evolves from animism to polytheism to monotheism.

“Survivals” are one way of showing proof of development. Survivals are “processes, customs, opinions…which have been carried on by force of habit into a new state of society different from that in which they had their original home.” In other words, ways of life which have survived one generation and still play a role in the next. The appearance of similar traits, habits and other phenomena of culture in different parts of the world shows psychic unity.

For Morgan, the evolution of family (kinship systems) and subsistence patterns was one of the central ways to trace the evolution of culture. He believed human evolution from savagery to barbarianism to civilization occurred through “accumulations of experimental knowledge” (Morgan, 1877). By examining inventions and discoveries as well as primary institutions, this evolutionary progress could be mapped. From the first to the last ethnical period, humans progressed as subsistence sources enlarged with technological and social progress. He also looked at Subsistence, Government, Language, the Family, Religion, House Life and Architecture, Property in order to see growth.

Because within these philosophies, broad generalizations are easily made, the comparative method is easily implemented by both Tylor and Morgan. This method is used in order to show how certain races are near similar grades of civilization. With this method, time in history and geographical location become unimportant. Both Tylor and Morgan compared societies around the world disregarding dates or locations. Morgan says that, “the condition of each is the material fact, the time being immaterial” (Morgan 1877). People all have the same origins and race does not explain cultural differences.

Both Tylor and Morgan discussed some idea of living fossils which help in tracing the history of culture as it develops. “Less developed” societies were seen as having examples of living fossils or “primitive” cultural practices which were still kept in place by some societies. By examining aspects of a culture that was further behind on the evolutionary scale one could glimpse aspects of previous stages of cultural development.

Progress is the main goal of evolution for both Tylor and Morgan. For Tylor progress is about increasing rationality. He believes that traditional beliefs will eventually give way to reason and that humans will figure out which practices are “good” and which are not. For Morgan, progress is mainly technical and social. As institutions and beliefs improve, mental progress will follow. In addition, moral progress (he used incest as an example) will evolve. Just as there is uniformity in thought, so to will there be uniformity in progress. “The history of the human race is one in source, one in experience, and in progress.” (Morgan, 1877).


Tylor and Morgan grounded their writings in much of the same beliefs. Where would Tylor and Morgan disagree on topics or see them from different sides?

Tylor was seen as a progressivist for rejecting race as an explanation of cultural differences, yet he states that some races are further developed than others. How does he justify and explain his views of race and difference in evolution levels within certain cultures?

What role does property play in the evolutional stages according to Morgan and Tylor?

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