Morgan, Taylor & White

From Cultural evolution to Culturology with a capital C

‘Culture…, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.’

Taylor, 1958:1 cited in Moore, 2012:5

Anthropologists frequently assume that human social dispositions are developed via non-genetic causes and dynamics put simply, that behavioral patterns are the product of social interactions within a social environment. Inside this environment, societies and individuals exist and adapt to a diverse conglomeration of conditions, thus, as environmental conditions adjust it is inevitable that social societies likewise alter. Numerous theories of social or cultural evolution often seek to explain aberrations in dynamics between societies by positing that different societies have attained different stages of development. Although theories, such as those proposed by Leslie White and the earlier Victorian evolutionists, Lewis Henry Morgan and Edward Burnett, provide patterns for understanding the underlying relationships between technology and social structures, or values, variations exist in their ability to describe the mechanisms of diversity and change.

Sociocultural evolutionism, Identifiable with scholars such as Tylor and Morgan, was the dominant theory of early sociocultural anthropology and social discourse. Although early theories were developed autonomously, advocates of sociocultural evolution benefited through the publication of Charles Darwin’s works, who’s ideas of biological evolution provided an attractive vision of societal development. Classical social evolutionists developed various theories and while they acknowledge that evolution-like processes culminate in social progress, sociocultural evolutionism attempts to formalize social thinking along scientific lines influenced by biological evolutionary theory. They advanced that if the evolution of organisms occurred according to discernible, deterministic laws, logic dictated that societies could similarly do so. Human society was thus comparable to a biological entity, and social science concepts became resultant factors of societal development. This conception of progression heralded notions of a series of preordained developmental stages through which human societies advance, typically, savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Accordingly, Nineteenth-century unilineal theories, equating Western culture and technology with progress, proposed that societies gradually progressed from primitive to civilized. However, to make such theories work, some driving force must be substituted for the environment as a selecting agent. This force may be a teleological law of nature[1] that carries all matter from the simple to the complex, from the unordered to the ordered (Alland 1970:32-33).

Observing indications of the importance of culture within each society, while remaining subject to the process of evolution, Tylor focused on the evolution of culture worldwide, considering all aspects of culture as products of human thought. Opler explains that,

“in Taylor’s view, mental life has an evolution of its own and one that has enormous implications for all the rest of culture and for the further progress of culture…. as we have seen, he also taught… that man[kind]’s… endeavors remain on a humble, brutish level until certain intellectual goals are reached and obscuring mental confusions are eliminated (Opler 1964:135-136 cited in Langness 2005:212).

Although conditionally dependant on the notion that no dissimilarity existed between cultures and societies, Taylor, believing in this sequence of development, proposed that these societies represented sequential stages of cultural progression. In opposition to the prejudices of his era toward non-Europeans, Taylor regarded mankind as homogeneous in nature thus eliminating hereditary variation as an explanation for cultural difference (Applebaum 1987:33). He believed in scientific methodology and the importance of empirical, evidence based theory. As such, any social trait remaining inexplicable was the result of insufficient data (Applebaum 1987:33).

Like Taylor, Morgan (1985[2]) also differentiated between three stages of development marking them by technological developments, such as fire, archery, and pottery in the savage era, domestication of animals, agriculture and metalworking in the barbarian era and alphabet and writing in the civilization era. Resultantly, Morgan proposed an association between social and technological progression. He viewed technology as the force behind social progress and any change in social institutions, organizations or ideologies originated with technological change (Applebaum 1987:35)

Morgan believed that invention and discovery influenced brain size[3] and that, between this and,

“the growth of institutions, the human mind necessarily grew and expanded; … [leading science] to recognize a gradual enlargement in the brain itself, particularly of the cerebral portion. The slowness of this mental growth was inevitable in the period of savagery, from the extreme difficulty of compassing the simplest invention out of nothing, or with next to nothing to assist mental effort” (Morgan 1985:37).

He also implied the importance of the feedback system involved, between brain and behavior, and similarly between thought and culture. He did not believe cultural evolution could be studied independently of the mind. White alternatively argued that culture evolves independent and distinctive of the mind (Langness 2005:211). Morgan additionally validated developmental connections between social forms and the institution of property (Alland 1970:34). Alland (1970:34) states that, “man changes his environment, through the adaptive mechanism of culture, and this changed environment then acts as a selective agent on mans physical structure as well as his behavior”.

Both Tylor and Morgan worked with data from indigenous people, who were purportedly representative of earlier stages of cultural evolution providing insight into the process and progression of cultural evolution. Tylor and Morgan, concerned with culture in general not as individual cultures, elaborated their theories of unilineal evolution, specifying categorization criteria dependant upon growth within fixed systems of humanity, through examination of the modes and mechanisms of this growth.

Following the establishment of contemporary[4] theories of cultural relativism and multilineal evolution, anthropologists, such as Leslie White, sought the revival of evolutionary models with greater scientific foundation. This resulted in the establishment of neoevolutionism. White advocated a theory of cultural evolution that he claimed, “does not differ one whit in principle from that expressed from Taylor’s Anthropology (1881), although of course the development, expression and the theory may – and does – differ at some points[5] (White 1959:ix cited in Moore 2012:161). White rejected traditional conceptions of ‘primitive’ and ‘modern’ societies arguing that societies should be distinguished proportionately to the quantity of energy harnessed, and that increased energy represented greater social differentiation (Langness 2005:153). White, who championed the theories of Taylor, Morgan (Applebaum 1987:16) and other nineteenth century evolutionists, viewed himself as being in “the direct line of evolutionary theory from Morgan to Taylor” (Langness 2005:153; Perry 2003:48). His materialistic conception of evolution and progress, despite being based on a very 20th century notion: technology as the solution to mans problems (Moore 2008:187), remained firmly rooted in the nineteenth century mirroring those of the classical evolutionists.

White studied the ideas of Taylor and Morgan concluding that their propositions of evolution were not incorrect, rather they lacked adequate substantiating data. The model devised by White was significantly more sophisticated. In it he argues, firstly, that culture is transmitted symbolically with no genetic or hereditary basis. Second, culture is the principle means of environmental adaptation and enquiry into issues of existence. These enquiries consigned to three classes: physical environmental adaptation, human social life, and life and the nature of the universe (Moore 2008:187). Third, and more specifically, cultural responses to these fall into three corresponding realms[6]: technological, sociological and ideological. The primary or technological realm exists where the process of change begins in society. The secondary or sociological realm includes groups and institutions, such as the family, law, and the state. The tertiary realm, or ideological, comprises of societies value and belief systems. Each level was constructed above the previous, and although interaction existed, ultimately technological components were the determining factors responsible for cultural evolution. Echoing Morgan’s earlier theory White wrote, “in addition to the exploitation and processing of materials taken from nature, any social systemwill be determinedby … technological factors as well” (White 2007:20). He visualized the institutional order of a society as a mediating factor between its technological base and its ideology. With this he sought to determine a unit of study, subject to quantification, that was universal and not culture-bound. That standard was energy (Applebaum 1987:201). He claimed changes in existent energy levels originated with new discoveries or inventions and become transformed into alternate types of technology. This new technology eventually affects social institutions, value systems and ideology, consequently, entire societies, as integrated social systems, change and reach new evolutionary levels (Applebaum 1987:201)

White, determined to make anthropology a science of culture not of society[7], adamantly opposed biological and physiological reductionism and advocated broader notions of culture by advancing ideas similar to Kroeber’s superorganicism (1952) which White (1959:28) termed culturology (Langness 2005:151). Moore (2012:162) writes that White’s theory and science of cultural evolution were not separate endeavors, but “two prongs of the same general attack against historical particularism”. White believed that culture was evolving and saw anthropology as the science of culture (White 1959:231 cited in Applebaum 1987:201). He proposed that three processes operated within the human social organism: historical, evolutionary, and formal-functional (Applebaum 1987:201). Culture became a superorganic entity who’s only explanation was in terms of itself,

“a continuum of interacting elements, [who’s] process of interaction [has] its own principles and its own laws. To introduce the human organism into a consideration of cultural variations is therefore not only irrelevant but also wrong, it involves a premise that is false. Culture must be explained in terms of culture. Thus, paradoxical though it may seem, the most realistic and scientifically adequate interpretation of culture is one that precedes as if human beings did not exist” (White 1969:141 cited in Langness 2005:152).

This concept of the superorganic separated mans biological and cultural development. Whites assumption that culture begets culture, and that alterations transpire at the superorganic level, opposes ideas of biological change as occurring somatically at the organismic level (Alland 1970:32). Unless this conflict can be resolved biological models will remain only of limited significance for cultural evolution. Even though White concludes that human beings are the “carriers of cultural traditions” (White with Dillingham 1973:37 cited in Langness 2005:152) like, Kroeber, he refuses to concede any human interaction in the cultural process (Langness 2005:152)

Despite numerous similarities, Whites evolutionism was not simply a revision of Morgan’s, but a systematic theory aimed at explaining the entire history of humanity as it related the progression of culture proportionally to technology and mans control over energy. Applebaum (1987:16) commented that, “it suffered from being disembodied in time and space, an essential ahistoricism, but this was a function of its universal generality”. In ‘Energy and the Evolution of Culture’ (1943), White posited that energy was the key factor in societal development, explaining that, through natural selection, the development of new life forms relies upon organisms’ evolved attributes to acquire greater quantities of energy and/or greater efficiency in its use. Similarly, human social life relies upon the acquisition or efficient use of new quantities of energy (Moore 2008:188). White contended that the quantity of per capita energy available per annum assisted in determining the level of cultural progression at any given time and place. White explains that, as

 “other factors remain constant; culture evolves as the amount of energy harnesses per capita per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the instrumental means of putting energy to work is increased. Both factors may increase simultaneously of course” (White 1969:368 cited in Langness 2005:153).

To substantiate this hypothesis White compared cultural and biological systems finding that increased energy concentrations resulted in greater differentiation as well as increased complexity and specialization (Applebaum 1987:201). Thus, as energy expenditure increased, the efficiency of developmental instruments also increased.

In his comparison, White discerned that the quantities of measurable energy differ between various stages of human development, these being personal muscular expenditure, animal domestication, agriculture, natural resources, and nuclear energy (Perry 2003:49). From this, he formulated, P= ET, where E is a measure of energy consumed per capita per year, T is the measure of efficiency in utilizing energy harnessed, and P represents the degree of cultural development in terms of product produced (Moore 2008:188) For White, cultures primary function, and therefore the principle determinant of development, is its ability to harness and control energy. White claimed, “culture develops as (1) the amount of energy harnessed and put to work per capita per unit of time increases, and (2) as the efficiency of the means with which this energy is expended increases…” (White 1943:345; see also Moore 2008:199; Applebaum 1987:245-46).

White believed that cultural evolution was just as valid and demonstratable as biological evolution and, that societies exhibited change from simple to complex with increasing specialization and differentiation of social groups. He rejected both social anthropological, cultural and personality studies in favor of a newer, more scientific evolutionism, based on ecology or technoenvironmental determination (Langness 2005:151). Although accused of reification of culture, his commitment to cultural evolution expressed itself in his so-called ‘basic law of cultural evolution”. White shared Taylor’s vision that “anthropology had a mission that entailed assembling all the knowledge about man and making it intelligible” (Chagnon in Applebaum 1987:472) and this by necessity depended upon knowledge generated by other disciplines.


 Allard, A. 1970, ‘Adaptation in cultural Evolution: an approach to medical anthropology’, Columbia University Press, New York.

Applebaum, H. (ed.) 1987, ‘Perspectives in Cultural Anthropology’, State University of New York Press, Albany, New York.

Barrett, R.A. 1989, ‘The Paradoxical Anthropology of Leslie White’, American Anthropologist, Vol. 91, pp. 986–999, [online] accessed 29 August 2012, <;.

Darwin, C. 2003, ‘The Origin of Species’, Signet Classics, Penguin books, New York, New York.

Langness, L.L. 2005, ‘The Study of Culture, 3rd Edition, Chandler and Sharp Publishers Inc. Novato, California.

Locke J. 2008, ‘An Essay Concerning Human Understanding’, Oxford University Press, Oxford. UK.

Moore, J.D. (ed.) 2009, ‘Visions of Culture: An Annotated Reader’, AltaMira, Maryland.

Moore, J.D. 2012, ‘Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists’, AltaMira, Maryland.

Morgan, L.H 1985 [1887], ‘Ancient Society’, The University of Arizona Press, Arizona, US.

Perry, R.J. 2003, ‘Five Key concepts in Anthropological Thinking’, Pearson Education, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey

White, L.A. 1943, ‘Energy and the Evolution of Culture’, American Anthropologist,New Series, Vol. 45, No. 3, Part 1 (Jul. – Sep., 1943), Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 335-356,  [online] accessed: 29 August 2012, <;.White L.A. 2007 [1959], ‘The Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilisation to the Fall of Rome’, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California.


[1] Spencer H. 1864, ‘First Principles’, Appleton, New York

[2] Ancient Societies (1877)

[3] Part 1 of Ancient Societies (1877) in entitled “Growth of Intelligence. It is this aspect that often is considered as providing a link to earlier works of John Locke’s, An Essay concerning Human Understanding.

[4] Contemporary in this instance is made from the point of reference of Whites writings

[5] Emphasis added

[6] A 4th realm was later added and referred to as the attitudinal

[7] Here society is seen as the idea as a collective of independent cultures or ‘cultures in the plural’. This is an idea that is also expressed by both Morgan and Taylor


One thought on “Morgan, Taylor & White

  1. Hello there! This post could not be written much better! Reading through this article reminds me of my previous roommate! He always kept talking about this. I’ll send this information to him. Pretty sure he’ll have a great read. Thank you for sharing!|

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