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As Evolutionismus a theoretical orientation is in the anthropology and adjacent Social Sciences referred to, the various development stages of human societies assumes a higher development. This theoretical perspective was subjected to a profound ideology criticism, but is still modified today as neoevolutionism .

Representatives of evolutionism

From the middle of the 19th century, as a result of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution , which was also assessed as a universal model for the social sciences and humanities, a large number of cultural-historical step models were published with which the increase in human development was to be illustrated. The most important representatives were Johann Bachofen (1825–1887), Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881), John Ferguson McLennan (1827–1881), Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917), James Frazer (1854–1941), Friedrich Engels (1820 –1895) and Herbert Spencer (1820–1903). In the 20th century, processing the criticism of evolutionism, the successors neoevolutionism and multilinear evolution developed .

Basic assumptions and classification in terms of the history of science

Shaped by the Scottish and French Enlightenment and industrialization , it was assumed that humanity went through various stages of development from "simple" to " complex  / progressive ". These stages of development are always the same at all times and in all societies ; they are based on a quasi- natural-law regularity, the monocausal as the cause of the alleged unilinear progress. The industrialized Western Christian culture with what was then known as the “civilized peoples” was raised to the highest level. Based on the so-called “primitive peoples” facing them with their “ natural religions ”, development - following the thought of classical evolutionists - would have to advance to the level of “ civilization ”.

The geological model of Charles Lyell (1797–1875) also provided an important prerequisite. With this model it was possible to chronologically classify the finds of primeval stone tools that Jacques Boucher de Perthes had found in what is now France in 1847. This was made possible with the help of a geological layer model. The tool finds had to be about as old as the rock layer in which they were found.

Two conclusions followed. For one thing, the earth and mankind were far older than the biblical conception of the time of creation would allow. On the other hand, the comparative method of geologists for studying cultures was adopted. From the observation of current phenomena, conclusions were drawn about past phases of human development.

In addition, the assumptions of evolutionism allow an explanation of cultural similarities in different peoples by a process that corresponds to the convergent evolution in biology. Under the same or similar environmental conditions, peoples develop similar cultural phenomena even without close direct contact.

From evolutionism went u. a. the social Darwinism out whose representatives evaluated the "results" of the evolution of the human genome and the frequently advocated an active influence on the supposedly "right" development process.


The comparative method is based on the classification of similar ethnographic features. Individual cultural and social phenomena are isolated and classified based on their similarities (criticism). The classification scheme is understood as a stage model of a development.

These early evolutionist theories are based on the three-part periodization of Adam Ferguson (1723–1816) into the stages of development “savagery”, “barbarism” and “civilization” (cf. sociological theories of modernization, which are written in this nimbus)

In addition, evolutionism developed the term “survival”, which denotes survived cultural remnants and from which it was believed that conclusions could be drawn about past times.


  • Evolutionism systematically interprets the coexistence of different cultures in the world as one behind the other: foreign, supposedly primitive cultures are identified with past forms of one's own society. This leads widely into the metaphor of a “childhood stage” of human development, from which the right and even the duty is inferred to educate the supposedly savages , that is, to improve them, to civilize them and to proselytize them , and in the case of resistance to use violence if necessary , as was customary in raising children well into the last century. In this respect, evolutionism is a legitimation for colonialism and the associated violence.
  • Evolutionism was and is accused of ethnocentrism and Eurocentrism and of imposing one's own European view of the world out of the conviction or the need for justification that one should help the “savages” to develop from their lowest level of development.
  • Another allegation is that empirical material was often used selectively by evolutionists, so that divergent empirical material was neglected in the rapid theorization and generalization.
  • It is also criticized that evolutionists use diffusionistic processes, i. H. neglecting to adopt certain cultural elements from other groups.

An example: Lewis Henry Morgan's theories of evolution

Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881) noticed a peculiarity in the 19th century when examining the kinship system of the Iroquois . He found that the Iroquois used the same term to refer to several relatives. In this kinship system, the sister is addressed with the same kinship term as the daughter of the father's brother and the daughter of the mother's sister. However, the daughter of the brother of the mother and the daughter of the sister of the father received a different kinship term (the same applies to the brother, who receives the same designation as father-brother-son and mother-sister-son).

Morgan later found the same system among the Ojibwa (a group of American indigenous people living in the northern United States and Canada) and later among the Tamils in southern India. Morgan assumed - shaped by the status quo of science at the time - that these parallels were evidence of a common ancestry. The kinship system of the Iroquois should correspond to a certain stage of development that every society has gone through. The western family model of a monogamous family is the end point of this development.

Based on these investigations, Morgan developed an "evolutionary story of the family " . At the lowest level, Morgan saw a stage of primordial promiscuity . The consequences of incest would ultimately have led to a ban on sister marriage. This is how a clan exogamy emerged, in which the wives were selected from a different group. In intermediate stages, this development leads first to a patriarchal family and finally to the highest stage of development, the monogamous family.

For the "evolution of human development" Morgan developed a seven-stage evolution scheme. The transition to the next level was marked by “revolutionary innovations”. These technical developments were

  • the use of fire,
  • Bow and arrow,
  • the pottery,
  • the soil cultivation,
  • the discovery of iron,
  • the invention of writing (which would mark the beginning of the stage of civilization).

Morgan's writings were widely received in his day. For example, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels explicitly referred to Morgan in their works on historical materialism . Starting from Morgan's evolutionist sequence of savagery - barbarism - civilization , Engels derived the hierarchical structure of tribal society - slave-holding society - feudal or capitalist society .

From today's perspective, Morgan's theoretical statements are not tenable. In particular, the link between development stages and very specific technological achievements has been criticized (see also criticism ).

See also


  • Marvin Harris: The Rise of Anthropological Theory. Routledge & Kegan, Paul, London 1969, ISBN 0-7100-6325-3 .
  • H.-J. Hildebrandt: Evolutionism in family research in the 19th century. (= Mainzer Ethnological Works. Volume 4). Berlin 1983.
  • Werner Petermann: The history of ethnology. Edition Trickster published by Peter Hammer Verlag, Wuppertal 2004, ISBN 3-87294-930-6 .
  • George W. Stocking Jr .: Victorian Anthropology. The Free Press, New York 1987, ISBN 0-02-931551-4 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Evolutionism  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Klaus E. Müller: Shamanism. Healers, spirits, rituals. 4th edition, CH Beck, Munich 2010 (original edition 1997), ISBN 978-3-406-41872-3 . P. 110.
  2. Stefan Hartmann: Evolutionism . In: Metzler Lexikon Religion. Present - everyday life - media. JB Metzler, Stuttgart / Weimar 2005, vol. 1, p. 336.
  3. Stefan Hartmann: Evolutionism . In: Metzler Lexikon Religion. Present - everyday life - media. JB Metzler, Stuttgart / Weimar 2005, vol. 1, p. 337.
  4. Stefan Hartmann: Evolutionism . In: Metzler Lexikon Religion. Present - everyday life - media. JB Metzler, Stuttgart / Weimar 2005, vol. 1, p. 337 ff.