Cultural evolution is the structural development (change) of a society over time. In this sense, it is the cultural equivalent of biological evolution. The ideas of cultural evolution and of the evolution of societies provide a set of theories that anthropologists (see anthropology and cultural anthropology) have both promoted and criticized throughout its long history. Modern usage of the term by anthropologists does not necessarily refer to directional change (e.g. from simple to complex or 'primitive' to 'civilized'), but instead refers to the body of theory to explain why and how cultures change over time.
Cultural anthropologists and sociologists assume that human beings have natural social tendencies and naturally form shifting groups - and that this forms a basic trait of the Hominids or Hominidae. But they further argue that particular human social behaviors have non-genetic (i.e. purely social, or cultural) causes and dynamics. They use the word "society" to refer to a group with more or less clear boundaries that reproduces itself over time and has a degree of relative autonomy (thus, a family or a football team may exemplify a social group, but not a society). Cultural evolution holds that over time human societies adapt towards optimal forms of organization in response to changing social and environmental stimuli. In early (late 19th and early 20th century) versions of cultural evolution, it was assumed that there were a set of increasingly sophisticated stages that societies move through (e.g. 'band', 'tribe', 'chiefdom', and 'state'). There is also great variability about what constitutes as 'optimal' form of organization. Often this is measured in terms of complexity. On this account, highly evolved cultures exhibit a high division of labor. Others argue that highly evolved societies are those which provide maximum freedom and benefit to their members. Other argue that evolution is to be measured by how well societies are adapted to their ecological environment. The 18th-century theories were given a language and legitimacy by Charles Darwin's theory of the evolution of species through natural selection. Some theorists have applied Darwin's language metaphorically to social dynamics. Others have argued that biological and social evolution operate in identical ways; this is frequently connected with Social Darwinism. Others have argued that there is no connection between biological and social evolution.
The concept of cultural evolution is contentious for several reasons. First, many argue that it rests on a concept of 'optimal organization' which is ethnocentric. Thus, the concept of cultural evolution is fundamentally unscientific since it relies on a value judgment about what constitutes 'optimal.' Second, the concept of cultural evolution relies on the idea that cultures are externally bounded, internally organized entities seeking to maintain an optimal goal state. However, since it is often difficult to draw bright and clear boundaries around where one society begins and another ends, determining the unit of analysis in accounts of cultural evolution is often difficult or impossible.
Today, the concept of cultural evolution continues to be used by academics, especially anthropologists and archaeologists. Additionally, it appears in a number of contemporary political ideologies as diverse as Marxism, Gaians, Ecoregional Democracy and the new tribalists.
These theories seem to assume that optimizing the ecology and the social harmony of closely-knit groups is a more desirable or necessary evolution of societies than the various paths proposed by earlier theorists. A 2002 poll of experts on Nearctic and Neotropic indigenous peoples (reported in Harper's Magazine) revealed that all of them would have preferred to be a typical New World person in the year 1491, prior to any European contact, rather than a typical European of that time. Evolution of societies in an ethical direction may well be driven by such choices.
This approach has been criticized by pointing out that there are a number of historical examples of indigenous peoples doing severe environmental damage (such as the deforestation of Easter Island and the extinction of mammoths in North America) and that proponents of the goal have been trapped by the European stereotype of the noble savage. Anthropologists consider social evolution a Western myth seldom based on solid empirical grounds. Critical theorists argue that notions of social evolution are simply justifications for power by the elites of society.
Postmodernists question whether the notions of evolution or society have inherent meaning and whether they reveal more about the person doing the description than the thing being described. Observing and observed cultures may lack sufficient cultural similarities (such as a common foundation ontology) to be able to communicate their respective priorities easily. Or, one may impose such a system of belief and judgment upon another, via conquest or colonization. For instance, observation of very different ideas of mathematics and physics in indigenous peoples led indirectly to ideas such as Lakoff's "cognitive science of mathematics", which asks if measurement systems themselves can be objective.
Contemporary application of cultural evolution is often informed by dual inheritance theory which posits that humans are products of both biological evolution and cultural evolution, each subject to their own selective mechanisms and forms of transmission (i.e. in the case of biology, genes, and for culture possibly memes). The focus of research for evolutionary anthropologists is therefore on both the mechanisms of cultural transmission and the selective pressures that influence cultural change. This version of cultural evolution shares little in common with the stadial evolutionary models of the early and mid-20th century.
History of the theory of cultural evolution
Prior to the 18th century, Europeans predominantly believed that societies on Earth were in a state of decline. European society held up the world of antiquity as a standard to aspire to, and Greece and Rome produced levels of technical accomplishment which Europeans sought to emulate. At the same time, Christianity taught that people lived in a debased world fundamentally inferior to the Garden of Eden and Heaven. During the Enlightenment, however, European self-confidence grew and the notion of progress became increasingly popular. It was during this period that what would later become known as 'cultural evolution' would have its roots.
While earlier authors such as Montaigne discussed how societies change through time, it was truly the Scottish Enlightenment which proved key in the development of cultural evolution. After Scotland's union with England in 1707, several Scots thinkers pondered what the relationship between progress and the 'decadence' brought about by increased trade with England and the affluence it produced. The result was a series of 'conjectural histories.' Authors such as Adam Ferguson, John Millar, and Adam Smith argued that all societies pass through a series of four stages: hunting and gathering, pastoralism and nomadism, agricultural, and finally a stage of commerce. These thinkers thus understood the changes Scotland was undergoing as a transition from an agricultural to a mercantile society.
Philosophical concepts of progress (such as those expounded by the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel) developed as well during this period. In France authors such as Helvetius and other philosophes were influenced by this Scottish tradition. Later thinkers such as Saint-Simon developed these ideas. Comte in particular presented a coherent view of social progress and a new discipline to study it -- sociology.
These developments took place in a wider content. The first process was colonialism. Although Imperial powers settled most differences of opinion with their colonial subjects with force, increased awareness of non-Western peoples raised new questions for European scholars about the nature of society and culture. Similarly, effective administration required some degree of understanding of other cultures. Emerging theories of social evolution allowed Europeans to organize their new knowledge in a way that reflected and justified their increasing political and economic domination of others: colonized people were less-evolved, colonizing people were more evolved. The second process was the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism which allowed and promoted continual revolutions in the means of production. Emerging theories of social evolution reflected a belief that the changes in Europe wrought by the Industrial Revolution and capitalism were improvements. Industrialization, combined with the intense political change brought about by the French Revolution forced European thinkers to reconsider some of their assumptions about how society was organized.
By the mid-nineteenth century notions of cultural evolution developed a firm coherence. Herbert Spencer developed an avowedly-scientific theory of "social evolution". He argued that societies over time progressed, and that progress was accomplished through competition. Slightly afterwards, Charles Darwin published his work on biological evolution, which would become a model for cultural evolution in the future. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels developed a theory of cultural evolution in which the internal contradictions in society created a series of escalating stages that ended in a socialist society. E. B. Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan worked with data from indigenous people to examine the 'less developed' stages of civilization. These 19th century ethnologists used these principles primarily to explain differences in religious beliefs and kinship terminologies among various societies.
Notions of cultural evolution settled a set-back in the early 20th century. Cultural anthropologists such as Franz Boas used sophisticated ethnography and more rigorous empirical methods to argue that Spencer and Tylor's theories of evolution were speculative and systematically misrepresented ethnographic data. Additionally, they rejected the distinction between "primitive" and "civilized" (or "modern"), pointing out that so-called primitive contemporary societies have just as much history, and were just as evolved, as so-called civilized societies. At the same time, the devastating World Wars that occurred between 1914 and 1945 crippled Europe's self-confidence. After millions of deaths, genocide, and the destruction of Europe's industrial infrastructure, the idea of progress seemed dubious at best.
The cold war period was marked by rivalry between two superpowers, both of which considered themselves to be the most highly evolved cultures on the planet. The USSR painted itself as a socialist society which emerged out of class struggle, while sociologists in the United States (such as Talcott Parsons) argued that the freedom and prosperity of the United States represented a high level of cultural evolution. At the same time, decolonization created newly independent countries who sought to become more developed -- a model of progress and industrialization which was itself a form of cultural evolution.
Within the academy cultural anthropologists such as Leslie White and Julian Steward sought to revive an evolutionary model on a more scientific basis. White was heavily influenced by Herbert Spencer and Henry Lewis Morgan and attempted to renew this older tradition -- a position that became known as 'unilinear' cultural evolution. Steward, on the other hand, was a keen naturalist and influenced by the Modern Synthesis in biology. He argued that that different environments and technologies would require different kinds of adaptations, and that cultures are in a changing relationship with a changing environment -- a position known as 'multilinear evolution.' In Evolution and Culture, Marshall Sahlins and Elman Service attempted to synthesize White's and Steward's approaches. Other anthropologists, building on or responding to work by White and Steward, developed theories of cultural ecology and ecological anthropology. The most prominent examples are Peter Vayda and Roy Rappaport. (See also Marvin Harris's Cultural Materialism.)
Interest in ecology also influenced an activist culture in the 1960s, which produced a variety of political and philosophical programs which emphasized the importance of bringing society and the environment into harmony. Current political theories of the new tribalists consciously mimic ecology and the life-ways of indigenous peoples, augmenting them with modern sciences. Ecoregional Democracy attempts to confine the "shifting groups" or tribes, within "more or less clear boundaries" that a society inherits from the surrounding ecology, to the borders of a naturally-occurring ecoregion. Progress can proceed by competition between but not within tribes, and it is limited by ecological borders or by Natural Capitalism incentives which attempt to mimic the pressure of natural selection on a human society by forcing it to adapt consciously to scarce energy or materials. Gaians argue that societies evolve deterministically to play a role in the ecology of their biosphere, or else die off as failures due to competition from more efficient societies exploiting nature's leverage.
Today most anthropologists continue to reject 19th century notions of progress and the three original assumptions of unilinear evolution. Following Steward, they take seriously the relationship between a culture and its environment in attempts to explain different aspects of a culture. But most cultural anthropologists now argue that one must consider the whole social environment, which includes political and economic relations among cultures. As a result, the simplistic notion of 'cultural evolution' has grown less useful and given way to an entire series of more nuanced approaches to the relationship of culture and environment. In the area of development studies, authors such as Amartya Sen have developed an understanding of 'development' and 'human flourishing' that also question more simplistic notions of progress, while retaining much of their original inspiration.