Friday, September 7, 2012

Leslie White- The Evolution of Culture ( 1959)


In his book The Evolution of Culture (1959), White claimed to be returning to the concept of cultural evolution used by Tylor and Morgan, but now informed by a century of archaeological discoveries and a much larger ethnographic record. White’s approach has been called general evolution, the idea that over time and through the archaeological, historical, and ethnographic records, we can see the evolution of culture as a whole. For example, human economies have evolved from Paleolithic foraging, through early farming and herding, to intensive forms of agriculture, and to industrialism. Socio- politically, too, there has been evolution, from bands and tribes to chiefdoms and states. There can be no doubt, White argued, that culture has evolved. But unlike the unilinear evolutionists of the 19th century, White realized that particular cultures might not evolve in the same direction. For White, energy capture was the main measure and cause of cultural advance: Cultures advanced in proportion to the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year.
Leslie White was, like Mead, a strong advocate of the importance of culture. White saw cultural anthropology as a science, and he named that science culturology. Cultural forces, which rested on the unique human capacity for symbolic thought, were so powerful that individuals made little difference. White disputed what was then called the “great man theory of history,” the idea that particular individuals were responsible for great discoveries and epochal changes. White looked instead to the constellation of cultural forces that produced great individuals. During certain historical periods, such as the Renaissance, conditions were right for the expression of creativity and greatness, and individual genius blossomed. At other times and places, there may have been just as many great minds, but the culture did not en- courage their expression. As proof of this theory, White pointed to the simultaneity of discovery. Several times in human history, when culture was ready, people working independently in different places have come up with the same revolutionary idea or achievement. Examples include the formulation of the theory of evolution through natural selection by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, the independent discovery of Mendelian genetics by three separate scientists in 1917.
 



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