Neo - evolutionism


Neoevolutionism is a school of anthropology that is interested in long-term cultural change and the similarities in developmental patterns that may be found among disparate, unrelated civilizations.

The anthropological theory is a broad term used to refer to the various models, ideas, and concepts that anthropologists have proposed over the course of the discipline's history. These theories seek to explain the development of culture and society and how human societies adapt to changing environments and circumstances. Early anthropological theory refers to the various models proposed by anthropologists in the early stages of the discipline. These models sought to explain the development of culture and society, often drawing on ideas from biology and evolutionary theory.

Classical Evolutionists

The classical evolutionists were some of the earliest anthropologists to propose evolutionary models for cultural development. They believed that cultures evolved linearly and progressively, with each culture building upon the achievements of the previous one. According to this theory, all societies would eventually evolve to become like Western societies.

One of the most notable classical evolutionists was Herbert Spencer, who believed that societies evolved from simple to complex through a process of natural selection. Another significant contributor was Lewis Henry Morgan, who proposed that societies evolved through three stages: savagery, barbarism, and civilization.


Neo-evolutionism is an anthropological theory that was popularized in the mid-twentieth century. Neo-evolutionism posits that cultural evolution follows a predictable sequence of stages, with each stage characterized by greater complexity in the organization of society, technology, and social institutions. According to Neo-evolutionism, human societies progress from simple to complex forms of social organization through a series of stages. The level of technological advancement, social organization, and cultural complexity defines these stages. The stages are usually categorized as savagery, barbarism, and civilization.

Savagery is the first stage, and the use of simple tools and the absence of formal social organization characterizes it. Barbarism is the second stage, characterized by the development of agriculture, pastoralism, and the emergence of more complex social institutions such as chiefs and tribal councils. Finally, civilization is the most advanced stage, characterized by the development of cities, states, and complex political institutions.

Julian Steward's (U.S.A) Theory

Julian Steward was a prominent American anthropologist and a key figure in developing neo-evolutionist theory. He is known for his concept of cultural ecology, which proposed that culture and environment are closely linked and that cultural practices develop in response to environmental challenges.

Steward believed that societies were constantly adapting to changes in their environment, and that understanding the relationship between culture and environment was crucial to understanding cultural evolution. He argued that human societies could be studied in terms of their adaptive strategies, which he referred to as cultural ecology. According to Steward, cultural ecology involves the study of how human societies interact with their environment, including how they use resources, manage land, and engage in economic and social activities.

Steward's theory of cultural ecology helped to shift the focus of anthropological research from the study of static cultural systems to the study of dynamic cultural processes. It emphasized the importance of understanding how culture and environment interact to shape the evolution of human societies, and it provided a framework for analyzing the cultural change in a more holistic and interdisciplinary manner.

Leslie White (U.S.A) Theory of Cultural Evolution

Leslie White was an American anthropologist who proposed the theory of cultural evolution, which suggests that all cultures evolve through the same stages of technological development. According to White, each stage builds upon the achievements of the previous one, leading to an overall increase in cultural complexity over time.

White believed that technological progress was the driving force behind cultural evolution, and that understanding technological change was essential to understanding cultural development. He argued that human societies progress through several stages of technological development, including hunting and gathering, horticulture, agriculture, and industry. At each stage, society becomes more complex and more efficient at producing goods and services.

White's theory of cultural evolution also emphasized the importance of energy capture and consumption in driving cultural change. He argued that societies that can capture and consume more energy can support larger populations and more complex social structures, leading to further cultural evolution.

Criticism of White's Theory

While White's theory of cultural evolution has been criticized for its oversimplification of cultural change and its failure to account for cultural diversity, it remains an influential framework for understanding the evolution of human societies. His emphasis on the importance of technological change and energy consumption has contributed to ongoing debates about the relationships between culture, technology, and the environment.


In conclusion, anthropological theory has evolved significantly, with classical and neo-evolutionists proposing different models to explain cultural development. While the classical evolutionists believed in a linear and progressive model of evolution, the neo-evolutionists rejected this approach. They proposed a more complex model that took into account the unique histories and experiences of individual cultures. Regardless of the model, it is clear that anthropological theory will continue to evolve and adapt as new research and discoveries are made.


Q1. What are the main criticisms of Neo-evolutionism Anthropology?

Ans. The three most important pieces of information related to the criticisms of Neo-evolutionism Anthropology are −

  • Neo-evolutionism has been criticized for viewing cultural change as linear and unidirectional

  • It oversimplifies the relationship between humans and their environment and may not account for human agency in cultural change

  • Critics argue that Neo-evolutionism is too deterministic, as it assumes societies must inevitably progress toward more complex forms

Q2. What is the relationship between Neo-evolutionism and cultural ecology?

Ans. Neo-evolutionism and cultural ecology are related in that they both focus on the relationship between humans and their environment. However, while Neo-evolutionism emphasizes the evolution of cultural complexity, cultural ecology emphasizes how humans adapt to their environment. Cultural ecology posits that humans are influenced by their environment, but they also have agency in shaping their environment. In contrast, Neo-evolutionism tends to view humans as passive recipients of environmental and social forces.

Q3. How does Neo-evolutionism Anthropology contribute to contemporary anthropology?

Ans. The three most important pieces of information related to how Neo-evolutionism Anthropology contributes to contemporary anthropology are −

  • Neo-evolutionism's emphasis on the relationship between humans and their environment has influenced the development of environmental anthropology

  • Its focus on the evolution of political organization has influenced the study of political anthropology

  • Neo-evolutionism's approach to cultural change has influenced the study of cultural evolution, particularly in the development of computational models of cultural evolution.

Updated on: 04-Apr-2023

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