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Theories of Cultural Evolution: Human Stages, Historical Materialism & Neo-Malthusian

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  • 0:03 Cultural Evolution
  • 0:35 Edward Tylor
  • 1:24 Karl Marx
  • 2:21 Thomas Robert Malthus
  • 3:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will seek to explain the theories of cultural evolution. In doing so, it will highlight the works of Edward Tylor, Karl Marx, and the Malthusian catastrophe of Thomas Robert Malthus.

Cultural Evolution

When the word 'evolution' is used, many people tend to think of the theories surrounding the origins of humanity. However, when speaking of cultural evolution, this is not the case. On the contrary, having very little to do with physical traits, cultural evolution simply denotes cultural development and progression. Keeping this difference in mind, today's lesson will center on the theories of cultural evolution, specifically the theories of Edward Tylor, Karl Marx, and Thomas Robert Malthus. We'll get things rolling with Edward Tylor.

Edward Tylor

One of the main scholars in the fields of early cultural evolution was Edward Tylor. Living from 1832 to 1917, Tylor believed that cultures move through three definite stages of progression, savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Sort of like a man climbing up a ladder, he asserted all societies climb up these three stages of cultural evolution; some are just simply further along in the climb than others.

Adding to his rather controversial theory, Tylor asserted that the cultures he deemed savage continued to resemble the ancient past because they simply hadn't figured out how to manipulate their environment. When they gained the know-how to do this, they too would progress. Unfortunately, his use of the words savage and barbarism served to add to the cultural superiority that was already all too prevalent among the modernized West.

Karl Marx

Leaving the stages of Tylor, we now come to the work of Karl Marx, the author of the historical materialism approach to cultural evolution.

According to his historical materialism approach, culture evolved due to the necessity to produce in order to survive. Stating it very simply, culture progressed as populations increased and thus, material needs increased.

With this increase of needs, man began entering into social relationships with one another. However, these relationships weren't random, existing in a vacuum. Instead, they were based on division of labor, the assigning of different tasks of the manufacturing process to different people in order to improve efficiency and productivity.

Unlike Tylor, who staged progression from savagery to civilization, Marx asserted that cultural evolution moved through the three modes of production. They are primitive communism, or group ownership; to feudalism, or power based on land ownership; to eventually capitalism, or the free market economy.

Thomas Robert Malthus

Leaving the works of Marx, we now land on the theories of Thomas Robert Malthus, the originator of the Malthusian catastrophe. With this rather ominous name, the Malthusian catastrophe theory asserts that inevitably, cultural progression will be halted by famine and disease due to overpopulation. Ironically, while many scholars were asserting that human culture was moving toward great advancement, if not mere perfection, Malthus asserted that overpopulation would bring this to a screeching halt of sorts.

In other words, the natural resources of the Earth would not be able to keep up with population growth. Sooner or later, this would lead to famine and disease, which would, in turn, check population growth and cultural development.

As an offshoot of the Malthusian catastrophe sprung the Neo-Malthusian principle. Those who hold to this principle agree that population growth is a major concern. Therefore, neo-Malthusian supporters assert that population growth must be curved for the use of contraception and birth control. To those who hold to the neo-Malthusian principle, this is the best way to ensure that there will be enough resources handed down to secure the survival of future generations.

Lesson Summary

When speaking of cultural evolution, or cultural development and progression, there are many different theories and viewpoints.

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