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(Adam Keth Laquio, MA SocSci student, 2019)

Evolutionism is one of the theories of social anthropology that tries to explain the

beginning and development of society. It originated from biology that tackles the development of

species. Because of the growing curiosity on the beginning of society, that started to gain more

audience particularly during the enlightenment period, this word was borrowed by sociologists

and so sprang social evolutionism. However, due to the studies and theories proposed by early

anthropologists, these did not only solved questions in the past but also produced individuals

having ideas almost entirely contrary to its predecessors on the field, resulting, in the later

centuries two major subfields in evolutionism which are Unilineal and Multilineal.

In this paper, I am going to introduce some proponents of social evolutionism. This will

be divided into two subtopics which are Unilineal evolutionism and Multilineal evolutionism.

The proponent’s theory will be briefly stated and examples will be given to briefly explain the


Unilineal Evolutionism is a subfield of evolutionism theory that postulates societies in the

world are one and of the same evolutionary traction. Three of the most common assumptions that

makes society one are Unilineal sequences, Parallel inventions and Psychic unity. Unilineal

sequences means every society undergone the same processes and these are savagery, barbarism

and civilization. Parallel inventions means society develop tools and technology having the same

function. Psychic unity is the innate characteristic of man to have the same way of thinking
resulting to the two former assumptions. The following are some of the proponents of unilineal


EDWARD TYLOR. Can be regarded as the one who fathered the concept of unilineal evolution

when he published his book entitled PRIMITIVE CULTURE. In this book he stated that every

society undergone the same three processes and these are savagery, barbarism and civilization.

This sequences in the end produced what he called Uniformatism wherein it can be observed that

although most of the ways from the past are somewhat replaced by what society have or follow

at present, it cannot be denied that there are salient features that are “vestigial forms” from the

past. In the past, most city-states are rivals and in constant war with each other. Arriving to

another state is dangerous and so inorder to ensure that you have a peaceful intention, shaking of

hands was invented. Not anymore at present we have war (i.e. motivated by conquering of other

territory land) but we still observe hand shake as a daily way of formal greeting. Most of our

transport systems at present are driven by machines and not pulled by animals such as horse and

water buffalo, wheels is a proof of the great inventions of our ancestors that we still carry at this

epoch. In economics, religion was not spared by Tylor when he attributed the slow economic

development of Mexico to their educational system that was controlled by the catholic church.

We know that catholic teaching is centred on sacrifice and contentment implanting to the psych

of the followers or faithful that working hard is not needed, resulting in a slow economic

development of a place, at least in the eye of the observer. In all, what Tylor means is that

everything we have at present, it may be our culture or way of living, stems from what we were

in the past.
HENRY MAINE. His idea is centered on how society was shaped by laws of man. Therefore he

is more interested on the evolution of law because by understanding it, one can understand why

these changes in the society took place. He postulated these continuum:

First. Before, kinship was the basis for group membership. In simple explanation, you cannot

join a particular group if you are not of blood relation to the members. However, due to the

discovery that joining other clans is more beneficial to them, then they turned to territoriality,

where they can have more members from the territory or land which they belong if they start to

connect or collaborate with other group or clan.

Second. It was believed that status of the members of a particular group will be secured if they

maintain their relationship only to this very limited number of population. Realizing that having

exchanges with other group through contracts will only help secure their status but could help

boost their resources, they turned to inter-group collaboration through contracts.

Third. Believing that land is is gift from their ancestors, people in the past have this strong

commitment to exclusivity. However, realizing that there other pastures aside from landholding,

most groups decided to sell their land and instead settled on other way of living.

Fourth. Because societies in the past are small and simple, disputes between members are easily

resolved by the chief that usually holds all power (i.e. executive, legislator, and judiciary). Civil

laws were applied to settle petty disputes between members. But after group complexity evolved,

criminal law developed to solve complex problems.

ADOLF BASTIAN. He proposed a more nuanced way of explaining the Psychic unity of man.

First, he believed that because we all live in the same planet then most often we encounter the

same stimuli (conditions) rendering us to develop ways and tools that are in most way the same.
Most activity of human involve cutting things so one society develop cutting tools which are

made up of stone or metal. If another society will develop the same tool it is for the same

purpose which is for cutting and not for laundry or any other purpose. Second, the slight

difference of our innovations was brought about by the differing local conditions that each

society has. The tropical climate in the Philippines made our early ancestors wear clothes that

cover only the lower part of the body. That was our way of dressing. But because China is in the

Cyclonic zone of the planet making them experience colder weather throughout the year, made

them develop a way of dressing that covers the entire body. Third is diffusion that according to

Bastian first took place on more advanced societies because they have more capacity to travel.

These travels introduced them to other society’s culture and innovations such as technology that

they borrowed for their local advancement. All these paved the way to parallel inventions that

propelled the development of each society through time.

Unilineal evolution paved the way for more studies especially that there are part of it that

was held questionable. Among the contradictions raised against them is that unilineal

evolutionists are armchair anthropologists because most of them did not perform any fieldwork

or did not really immersed themselves to the different societies, rather they only based their

theories on the accounts made by missionaries and travellers, eliciting subjective accounts of

places or ethnocentric view on other culture and society. This prompted future evolutionists and

cultural anthropologist to develop the Multilineal evolutionism.

Multilineal evolutionism is on objective judgement and so from it cultural relativism

evolve as a way o n explaining local phenomena based on the nature or culture of that particular
society. Aside from it, considerations on various factors that are coming from different places

(early proof of globalization) is paramount in building this concept.

LESLIE WHITE. Does not refer to individual culture but a universal one, wherein the world

posses only one culture although it is a combination of influences that are coming from different

societies. With influences, he is more interested on these three components: technological,

sociological and ideological. Technologies were shared from place to place resulting to

innovations and improvements that modern society enjoys. Among these are pulley, wheel,

steam engine then computer. Gunpowder and gun originally came from China in a way of fire

lance. Through the Silk Road this technology came to Europe that they then improvised resulting

to what we have known at present. By sociological he meant the social influences brought about

by way of living, education, the sharing of products and goods, the introduction of festivities and

culture through different medium such as media. Ideological are belief system, may it be

religious, or political. At first ideological differences results to conflict and war just like what

happen during the Korean War, Cold War and the Vietnam War. But because differences cannot

be resolved through conflict, ultimately societies came to realized that integration is a way

forward. These three constitute the very factors for survival and advancement since as population

continuous to grow each group has to adjust their consumption to sustain their needs and wants

based on what the environment could provide. In fact White said "man as an animal species, and

consequently culture as a whole, is dependent upon the material, mechanical means of

adjustment to the natural environment". With that, human consumption of nature’s energy

became the centre of his theory. This may be the reason why the Americans failed during the

Vietnam War. There was this book by Neil Sheehan, a correspondent of New York Times, who
wrote a book entitled A Bright and Shining Lie which tackles the failure of USA mission in

Vietnam. One of the reasons being sighted was the American soldiers’ lack of understanding of

the importance of rice on the subsistence of most Vietnamese. According to John Paul Vann, a

renowned planner whose opinion wasn’t heeded, soldiers even use rice fields as battlefield. In

war, gaining the support of the populace can help ensure success. What they did, ultimately, is a

failed propaganda since by way of it they cannot win the people, who are majority peasants, to

be on their side. American anthropologists’ campaign not to support the war affected this failure.

White postulated that we progressed in energy consumption because we evolved from mere

using our muscle, then domestication of animals to agriculture. What follows is the use of coal,

oil gas and so on and later nuclear innovation was included. In the end, he argued that the more

energy a country uses, the more prosperous it becomes.

JULIAN STEWARD. He is concerned on cultural ecology. In his theory we can understand the

significance of being mindful about energy consumption. He also sighted different determining

factors for development and these are, among others, technology, economics, political system,

ideology and religion. He has two way of understanding social situation: Diachronical and

Synchronical. Diachronical opens the beginnings or past in order to understand the present. In

understanding the Moro rebellion in Mindanao, our common answer is in a diachrinical sense

such as it was an unfinished revolution against foreign invaders and they are protecting their land

with a doctrine called “pusaka” which means stewardship of the sacred gift which is land that

they inherited from their ancestors. We can also understand the continuing Moro rebellion in a

Synchronical sense by way of looking the injustices being committed against them by the

majority Christian population in the country and their need of political autonomy and reform
such as the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). Applying this to political economy (since leadership

means controlling the livelihood and businesses of one place in one way or another), he

developed the Easter Island Syndrome. Having lived during the 20th century, he observed the

incessant (almost non-stop) abuse to the environment. He opined that this might led to the total

destruction of the ecology leading to the extinction of species living in one place or on the entire

planet. Easter Island is located at the Pacific under the continent of Oceania. The statues that

remains is a proof that there was once a rich civilization that once lived there. However due to

over abuse of nature, this resulted to the extinction of everything that a civilization would need

forcing the community to flee somewhere else. What remains are the structures that most of its

parts are covered with land due to soil erosion because there are not enough plants and trees to

support the land anymore. It was theorized that some of those islanders perished or died while

some were able to find another place to settle. Sharing of resources or barter is also prevalent

making the living during the group interaction era simpler than what we could imagine during

the time when people were savages. In sharing of resources like the “potlatch” that the North-

Western American coast settler did, humans started to realize that politics and economy should

go hand-in-hand. At present, if the proposed MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) between

the political and economic will of Duterte and Xi will produced good results, then it would be a

lasting benefit to both their group or country.

ERIC WOLF. He centered his theory on power. He opined that power is inherent to a person.

This power becomes problematic when this is imposed to those inferior. However, if used

properly, subjugation to the weak is beneficial since this is the tenet of leadership or

management. Proof of it is that through power, person having greater influence through different
means, such as kinship, status, wealth, health, can work side by side forming a group of leaders

that a society would need especially at the start of the emergence the sophisticated or diverse

society. Through this, they can form a structure, political, economic and ideological. In order for

power to be properly executed for the benefit of the majority, Wolf applied the ideology of

Marxism in the development of society, although he divided it into two types. First is what he

called System Marxism which is about literal sharing of resources without rendering anyone

inferior to another. Second is the Promethean Marxism. This was derived from the Greek Titan

who was punished by the gods after stealing fire from heaven and giving it to humans that

resulted to human progress. This second type of Marxism by Wolf is about government spending

for the total development of society through public roads, public hospitals, public schools, public

libraries among others. Although early societies have simpler version of this but still it is about

leadership spending of resources for the benefit of its subjects or constituents.

The simplistic way of explaining societal evolution by the Unilinealists paved the way for

Multilinealists. This made most of the early social evolutionist’s idea irrelevant. However, we

cannot deny the fact that a particular thing, specie or theory, evolve because it has a beginning.

In fact some of concepts of the early theories were being carried out by the later social

evolutionists opening again the idea that everything in a society at present carries some vestigial

form from the past. Our history and present is a connected story. It is up to us to see the

connection and the relevance of each to continue our pursuit as a student of anthropology.