Monday Morning’s Cultural Evolution

Lewis Henry Morgan

Lewis H. Morgan (via Wiki)

Lewis Henry Morgan wrote a book called “Ancient Society” in 1877.  Today I’m ranting about him to decipher his ideas about culture and civilization, and I can imagine that there are quite a few who still agree with his theories.  In short, we’re all on the same trajectory toward civilization, however some societies are at different stages. African village tribes are simply farther behind us [civilized Western nations] on the trajectory, but they’re rightfully heading in our direction.

(This type of thing is used to justify the superiority of Western classical music to tribal/ indigenous/ folk musics around the world all the time)

Morgan argues that at different points in time, humans have existed in three stages of human progress: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. He states that these three distinct “conditions are connected with each other in a natural and necessary sequence of progress.” (Morgan 15) The central premise involves the progress with which we climb from one rung of humanity to the next, and each of the bottom two stages are further broken up into subcategories (lower/middle/upper) depending on the invention or discovery achieved.

His evidence? The evidence is that we’ve seen it happen – there is known advancement of several branches of humans through two or more of “the three conditions”.  Morgan states, “Progress has been found to be substantially the same in kind in tribes and nations inhabiting different and even disconnected continents while in the same status”. (Morgan 23) Additionally, he believed that arts institutions and modes of life are essentially identical in the same status upon all the continents – i.e during the time of the Greeks/Romans upper barbaric period, we can find the same principle domestic institutions as can be found today in the American Indian domestic institutions.  This is part of the evidence that he cites, stating that we’re all connected – there’s a logical sequence to everybody’s trajectory.

Is this very different from how major world leaders think today? Looking at American, English, French, and Chinese colonialism (for instance), it would appear not. Colonialism is not a far reach from acculturation, and inevitably, assimilation. However with that said, Morgan would consider the Chinese to be in the stages of upper barbarism, as they don’t carry a phonetic language. That would cut out most of the Asian world, although I can’t say I don’t regularly curse the Han for their current acts of Genocide.

But wait – weren’t Adam and Eve’s sons, Cain & Abel, already in the middle barbaric stage? As they dealt with agriculture and livestock, it would seem as though at least religiously, the earliest humans bypassed the first several stages of Morgan’s theory (this is called Mosaic Cosmogony, referring to Moses/Genesis). “Morgan argues that all human societies have passed through different stages of cultural progress and that the ancestors of the most civilized humans were once savages and barbarians. Some societies have progressed through the entire evolutionary sequence while others have developed only to certain stages” (Morgan 14) Therefore the theory of human degradation is used to explain why there are “savages” and “barbarians” today – some people have degraded from the original middle-barbaric status. Some cultures began at higher levels than others. Some went backwards. Edward Tylor didn’t agree with this, and disproved it.

Back to Edward Tylor for a moment, who considered primitive cultures to be like children. His definition of the term culture is likely the most used among anthropologists and ethnomusicologists today:

Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, 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.” (Tylor, Primitive Culture, 1920)

Franz Boas came along not too many years later, and as my partner put it last night when we were chatting, Boas likely scoffed at Morgan (& Tylor) snorting that Morgan would just love to believe that he was at the top of the food chain.


  1. He neglected the fourth stage – decadence – and the fact that it is a cycle, not a progression.

    However, this only applies to people(s) who make the value judgment that “civilisation” (literally “living in towns”) is a good thing per se. It has never attracted, for example, the Australian Aborigines, whose philosophy might be summed up in their proverb “The more you know, the less you need”. (Sorry, I do not know which of the many Aboriginal tribes came up with this gem.)

      1. Oh for an emoticon that signifies irony – it would save me from having to explain myself! 🙂

        [btw, Boas noted for future ref.]

  2. I hear ya, in the late 18th century Abt. Vogler published a set of piano pieces that were derived from “authentic” African sources; Of course he had set them into Western canonical forms (e.g. theme and variations, sonata, etc…). But shouldn’t we cut Morgan (Vogler, John Sullivan Dwight, et al) a break? At least they recognized the importance of music in culture. If they explained it in, er, ‘primitive’ terms, I’d say that was because they were breaking new ground. Perhaps you should consider your own beliefs about where you are on the food chain….

    1. Good point, Joe – of course they were breaking new ground. I’m not advocating nor denigrating…simply climbing through the years of anthropological inquiry. Where am I on the food chain? A lot lower than folks in Washington…

  3. Interesting fact: historians studying ancient Greece wanted it to be a pinnacle that we were either getting back to or falling down from. So if people can’t even agree on what stage a culture is in, what does that say about this theory?

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