Cultural evolutionism explains the genesis and growth of cultural phenomena. It tried to establish a universal pattern of human cultural evolution. By studying and analysing cultural evolution, anthropologists during the 19th century hoped to develop a science of culture that could incorporate universal laws of human nature. Evolutionism in the 19th century was initiated by the works of Charles Darwin. A couple of years prior to Darwin, Herbert Spencer a philosopher visualized evolution to be a cosmic process. The evolutionary lime of progress was from inorganic matter to organic forms that developed culture.
The basic assumptions of 19th century cultural evolutionism were:
All cultures throughout the world developed progressively over time.
Cultural progress took place from simple to complex forms.
Cultural evolution let to growth of civilization.
Evolution was regarded as a series of successive stages of development .In the course of cultural advancement all cultures passed through the same stages – all cultures passed through the same stages.
Cultural variation culminated for by the suggestion that different contemporary cultures were at different stages of evolution because the rate of evolution was different in each case, being slow in certain cases and fast in other cases.
It was the belief in Social Darwinism that led to the belief that some societies were better equipped than others to dominate and rule. Natural selection operated to eliminate those which did not have the requisite capacities and capabilities while encouraging the survival of the fittest.
Edward Tylor, Lewis Henry Morgan and James George Frazer were the classical evolutionists.
Edward Tylor is called the Father of Anthropology because Anthropology became the science of culture. In his book entitled Primitive Culture published in 1871, he defined culture as a complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and other capacities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.
He was also convinced that all cultures were capable of progress because he believed in psychic unity of mankind. He also explained 'The Comparative Method' and defined the concept of survivals are as processes, customs, opinions and so forth 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 and they thus remain as proofs and examples of an older condition of culture out of which a newer one has been evolved.
Edward Tylor's contribution is tremendous in tracing the evolution of religion. According to him, religion is the belief in spiritual beings termed as animism. He considered that the belief in spiritual beings had arisen in response to an intellectual need. Animism and the consequent belief in life after death in the form of soul must have laid the foundation for the first form of worship- ancestral worship. These ancestral spirits might have been deified. There would have existed several such ancestral deities. Polytheism or the belief in several gods would have resulted. Later on the conception of one Supreme Being above all minor deities would have eventually evolved giving rise to the concept of Monotheism.
Lewis Henry Morgan in his Ancient Society wrote about Cultural Evolutionist position in 19th century. He wrote extensively about evolution of specific social institutions like Marriage, family and Kinship but also constructed a general sequence of human history. The Comparative Method was explicitly used Morgan to show how some of the contemporary people of the world represent the earlier stages of human evolution. He constructed his theories on the basis of data gathered from personal field work as well as information gathered from missionaries, government personnel and other agents.
Morgan is often called the Father of Kinship Studies. He was the first to typify the kinship terminologies of the world into descriptive in which lineal kin are differentiated from collateral kin and classificatory in which lineal kin are merged with collateral kin. Morgan published his works on kinship in the Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity.
He discussed five kinship terms in the evolution of family – Consanguine is based on group marriage within the same generation. The Punaluan based on a form of group marriage in which brothers were forbidden to marry sisters.
The Syndyasmian or pairing family, a transitional form between group marriage and monogamy in which husband or wife could end the marriage at will as often as he or she wished.
The Patriarchical a supreme authority was vested in the male head.
The Monogamian based on monogamy and female equality and progressively resembling the modern nuclear unit.
Promiscuous hordes ------> Matrilineal kin groupings ------> Tribes------> Confederacies = basis for Kinship
James George Frazer is famous for his work The Golden Bough published in 1914.He never did any fieldwork but developed his theories based on other people's ethnographic researches. All primitive people were mentally irrational and hence superstition pervaded primitive thought.
Frazer came up with three stage evolutionary development
Magic------> Religion ------> Science
According to Frazer in the first stage of human society magic played very important role. But then man must have realized that there could be some superior power above him that controls him and his activities. He must have submitted himself to this superior power. It is here when magic was replaced by religion. Later on science which is based on factual correlations between cause and effect would have evolved as man also evolved mentally.