Robert L. Carneiro. Evolutionism in Cultural Anthropology: A Critical History. 339 pp., 10 b/w illus., bibl., index. Boulder: Westview Press, 2003. (Reprinted by Routledge in 2018)
Efram Sera-Shriar (Editor). Historicizing Humans: Deep Time, Evolution, and Race in Nineteenth-Century British Sciences (with an Afterword by Theodore Koditschek). 320 pp., 13 b/w illus., notes, bibl., index. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018.
At first sight, these two books do not have much in common. Evolutionism in Cultural Anthropology is a single-author monograph by one of the “last” great neo-evolutionist anthropologists of the twentieth century, Robert L. Carneiro, who died in June 2020, aged 93; Historicizing Humans is a collective volume by a new generation of historians of science. One is profoundly presentist; the other is profoundly historicist. One is mainly dedicated to anthropology and archaeology in the twentieth century, with shorter chapters on the “classical” evolutionists; the other (as indicated in the title) is focused on the nineteenth century only, and across various disciplines. Carneiro dialogs with dead scholars as inspirational intellectual interlocutors while Sera-Shriar and the contributors to his edited volume do not. One book aims at covering transversal themes, concepts, and methods in North America and Britain (with but a few references to German scholars) while the other deploys eight selected case studies in Britain and the Empire. Other disparities between the two volumes could certainly be enumerated.
And yet, as in a strange mirror-like gaze, they stand in dialectical tension with each other, the two volumes eventually resulting in complementary anti-histories of anthropology and related sciences, in the sense that they both bring forgotten or marginal figures to the center of disciplinary history (while never losing sight of the canonical champions). Differently equipped and with contrasting sensibilities, both Sera-Shriar and Carneiro are focused on the place of evolutionism in the history of anthropology, a fundamental point of intersection between the two volumes. The difference here is that Sera-Shriar reveals understudied figures and alternative approaches to human antiquity at the height of evolutionist positivism and rationalism, while Carneiro’s twentieth-century victors are, to his own regret, anti-evolutionist anthropologists. This is exactly why he puts the spotlight on the remaining evolutionary anthropologists who were, despite their attempts to fight back, mostly forced to a defensive position. But Carneiro’s critical study is not only a history of evolutionism and neo-evolutionism; it is also dedicated to culturalism as “anti-evolutionism,” the same applying to other currents, such as British social anthropology, studied from the perspective of their representatives’ anti-evolutionist bias. Carneiro goes against the flow by referring in negative terms to mainstream minor classics such as The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformations of an Illusion (1988) by Adam Kuper (b. 1941) and by criticizing Edmund Leach’s (1910-1989) rebuke of evolutionist anthropological thinking.
Sera-Shriar’s volume also illustrates divergent understandings of prehistory and primitiveness in the nineteenth century, but in relation to the thesis of conflict between science and religion. In fact, his volume challenges this thesis in that spiritual tones, influences, and inclinations, from biblical to mystical, were also detectable in the writings of more than a few evolutionist scholars. Carneiro does an analogous exercise by exploring evolutionist slips in the writings of the fiercest anti-evolutionist anthropologists—even Franz Boas—as if, “Deep down, no one [could] really deny that there has been a tremendous amount of cultural evolution from the Paleolithic to the present” (185). The historicist approach of Sera-Shriar possibly prevents him from saying that recovering humankind’s prehistorical past is among the greatest scientific legacies of the nineteenth century. The fact remains that the prehistorical past became a given in twentieth-century anthropology, although an invisible one, ignored as an irrelevant or eccentric research topic by many social and cultural anthropologists. Bearing this in mind, perhaps there is some truth to the conflict between science and religion after all. It was more than an invention by John William Draper (1811-1882) in his History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), and Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918) in A History of The Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896).
The comparison between Carneiro and Sera-Shriar is also related to the old discussion on who writes the history of anthropology, why, and how. To put it bluntly, should we be on our guard against the theoretical bias of an anthropologist playing the role of a historian of science? Carneiro’s mentor in that regard was none other than Leslie White (1900-1975), who is better known as one of the fiercest proponents of evolutionism in the twentieth century. In the preface, Carneiro reveals another facet of White’s trajectory:
“Readers will quickly notice my extensive use of quotations. This is not happenstance but a matter of conscious design. My graduate training in anthropology was under Leslie A. White at the University of Michigan, and his influence on me will become readily apparent in the pages that follow. One aspect of White’s teaching and writing that struck me from the start was that in discussing a theorist’s opinions, White never simply alleged that he had said thus and so. Invariably he was meticulous in quoting the person’s very words. […] Ever since […] I have tried in my own writing to emulate Leslie White by never paraphrasing when I could quote.” (xi-xii)
White’s historiographic authority could be jeopardized by his own evolutionist bias if an unlikely defendant, George W. Stocking, Jr. (1928-2013), had not come to his rescue in 1965 during a quarrel with Morris Edward Opler (1907-1996). The latter had made a critique of White for distorting the evolutionism of Edward B. Tylor (1832-1917) through decontextualized quotes, and he contrasted this approach to Stocking’s “faithful[ness] to text and context in quoting from Tylor” (Opler 1964: 126). Opler had, however, dared to disagree with Stocking on certain issues. Stocking reacted:
“Anyone seriously interested in the history of anthropology can only applaud Professor Opler’s concern for the uneven quality of its results and the distortions produced by looseness, enthusiasm and pleading […]. Unfortunately, however, critique of looseness and special pleading itself raises issues of historical method […]. In each case, Opler argues that White has wrenched the passage from its context and thus distorted its meaning. However, an examination of passage and context suggests that in several instances this is by no means clearly the case.” (Stocking 1965: 130, 139)
I sustain that Carneiro’s presentism, manifest in his benevolent appreciation of classical evolutionists, does not translate into inaccuracy. On the contrary, the chapters dedicated to expounding their texts are a treasure trove of rare quotes, helping to dissipate enduring misrepresentations. Carneiro discusses several important issues, such as chronological priority in the use of the word evolution, warnings against speculation on the earliest levels of culture, importance attached to diffusion, absence of unilinearity, (in)consistency of the creed in the psychic unity of the human species, variety and intricacy of cultural causation, and the compatibility of natural selection with various determinants of cultural evolution. Some readers may be shocked by the fact that, true to himself, Carneiro applies to disciplinary history a methodology resembling the evolutionist propensity for abstraction. To illustrate, nay, demonstrate each point, he draws connections across primary sources by various anthropologists, from Herbert Spencer (1920-1903) to Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881), from John F. MacLennan (1827-1881) to James George Frazer (1854-1941), thus avoiding a separate, in-depth treatment of each case. Counterbalanced by comments on individual variants, this may be unfashionable, but hardly illegitimate historiography. Particularly significant is Carneiro’s expert definition of the differences between Darwinian and Spencerian concepts, a theme that pervades the entire book as Carneiro himself equates evolution with Herbert Spencer’s notion of increased complexity. Before leaving their “reign” behind, Carneiro praises nineteenth-century anthropologists “for their bold and vigorous theorizing” (73). “To be sure,” he adds, “the classical evolutionists were not without their shortcomings,” their “preconceptions,” “errors of fact,” and “faulty judgments”; but the following generations “seized on these inadequacies, magnified them beyond their true proportions, added some preconceptions of their own, and gave to the world a distorted picture of what cultural evolutionism had been” (ibid.).
Historicizing Humans, in comparison, is an exploration of the dimmest corners—and unexpectedly significant minutiae—of the archival labyrinth, with contributors focused on lesser-known books by lesser-known evolutionist thinkers. Allow me to highlight three contributions that are good exemplars of this kind of approach: Chris Manias’s “Contemporaries of the Cave Bear and the Woolly Rhinoceros: Historicizing Prehistoric Humans and Extinct Beasts, 1859-1914” (Chapter 1); Thomas Simpson’s “Historicizing Humans in Colonial India” (Chapter 5); and Ian Hesketh’s “The Future Evolution of ‘Man’” (Chapter 8).
Chris Manias firstly expounds narratives of progressive human supremacy over Pleistocene animals, such as John Lubbock’s (1834-1913) in Prehistoric Times (1865). Resorting to living ethnographic parallels, particularly the “Hottentots,” Lubbock concluded that “Ice Age Europeans were likely similarly fearless and effective” (26). Lubbock’s views on the subject were materialized in a series of paintings by French-born artist Ernest Griset (1843-1907), one of which, The Mammoth Hunt, is reproduced on the cover of Historicizing Humans. Manias reveals that there were, however, alternative interpretations, such as Worthington George Smith’s (1835-1917), emphasizing terror, weakness, and defenselessness before primeval predators. More or less obscure figures who paid greater detail to Paleolithic art, for example William Johnson Sollas (1849-1936) and Herbert Green Spearing (c.1849-1929), contributed to a sense of empathy with the hunter-artists, “almost bringing them on as collaborators in paleontological reconstruction” (34). While the disappearance of prehistoric animals was seen by some as a victory opening the way to domestication, others discussed the subject with a melancholic sense of “loss and tragedy” (43). Religious notes could be found even in triumphant accounts, such as Louis Figuier’s (1819-1894) L’Homme primitif (1870), the English version of which, Primitive Man, was published in London in the same year: “Thou hast changed the whole aspect of the globe, and mayst well call thyself the lord of creation! […] But look to it, lest thy pride lead thee to forget thy origin. […] Submit thyself before thy Lord and Master, the God […] who has reserved for thee still higher destinies in another life” (cit. 39).
In Chapter 5, “Historicizing Humans in Colonial India,” Thomas Simpson goes one step further in the rediscovery of “arcane” literature in the history of anthropological sciences by focusing on nineteenth-century Indian scholars, such as Chandra Chattopadhyay (1838-1894) and Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who creatively combined Darwinism and traditional Hindu texts “that dwarfed Western estimates” (133) of human (and animal) antiquity. Simpson makes a call for decentering the history of science through an understanding of circulation and hybridism in both directions. This is perhaps best symbolized by the words of Bombay-born British Sanskritist, Sir Monier Monier-Williams (1819-1899), who spoke of Hindus being “Darwinian centuries before the birth of Darwin, and evolutionists centuries before the doctrine of evolution had been accepted by the Huxleys of our time” (cit. 134).
The fascinating, final chapter by Ian Hesketh, “The Future Evolution of ‘Man’,” creatively challenges the conflict thesis between science and religion by highlighting “the mythological meaning of evolution” (195) in a series of forgotten works that projected humans, nay, their souls, into an apocalyptic future. Following the discovery of the second law of thermodynamics by Rudolf Clausius (1822-1888), published in English in 1856, and the announced burning out of the sun, various forms of theistic—or should we say “animistic”—evolutionism took shape. The aftermath of humankind’s “evolutionary epic of life” (204) was the subject of books as diverse as Martyrdom of Man (1872) by William Winwood Reade (1838-1875), Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism (1880) by Edwin Ray Lankaster (1847-1929), and The Future Life (1884) by John Page Hopps (1834-1911). To those who might argue that these were eccentric views, Hesketh replies in anticipation that none other than Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) proposed his “spiritualist solution” in his widely read book Darwinism (1889).
The tendency to recover understudied figures and texts is also present in Chapter 2, “Of Rocks and ‘Men’: The Cosmogony of John William Dawson” by Nanna Katrine Lüders Kaalund, and Chapter 4, “The History of the ‘Red Man’: William Bollaert and the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas” by Maurizio Esposito and Abigail Nieves Delgado. Kaalund does an exegesis of an obscure book Archaia; or, Studies of the Cosmogony and Natural History of the Hebrew Scriptures (1860), with an updated version published in 1877 as Origin of the World According to Revelation and Science. Thanks to his reinterpreting the days of Genesis as geological periods, J. W. Dawson (1820-1899), principal of McGill University in Montreal, illustrates the adoption of scientific idiom by scripturally-minded scholars. In Esposito and Nieves Delgado’s analysis of the creationist-polygenist views sustained by ethnologist W. Bollaert (1807-1876)—who, nevertheless, accepted the “unbiblical” deep time as “a possibility” (111), they explicitly address the importance of “moving away from the big names of the history of science who are too often at the forefront of the secondary literature,” in order to better appreciate “the vast web of people and interests involved in the production of certain kinds of knowledge” (93).
Behind an apparently similar historiographic strategy, the reasons for Sera-Shriar et al. to rediscover figures erased from disciplinary memory contrast with those by Carneiro to do the same. In the first case, it is mainly a matter of uncovering epistemic networks in the history of anthropological sciences and an inclination to rewrite this history in a thorough and unexpected way; while in the second case it is a matter of rescuing the evolutionary anthropological sensibility, with its peculiar—some might say cursed—relationship with the nineteenth-century disciplinary past. To be sure, Carneiro’s writing is also provocative, but in a very different manner. In Evolutionism in Cultural Anthropology, the rediscovery of evolutionist excluded ancestors starts in the chapter dedicated to the ascendancy of anti-evolutionism, in which they appear under poetic formulas such as “flickering candles” (96) and “remaining islands of evolutionism” (87). Edward Westermarck (1862-1939), author of The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas (1906), among other works, is one example. Carneiro’s retrospective perception of a hostile environment must be put into perspective, though, as the cohabitation of evolutionists with avant-garde anthropologists was more pacific in Malinowskian Britain than in the Boasian US—where, according to Alexander Lesser (1902-1982), “‘evolution’ was a dirty, dangerous word” (cit. 124). Moreover, Carneiro does not abstain from evoking authors with a more visible place in the historical record of sciences other than anthropology. This is the case of sociology, which remained more hospitable to the concept of evolution. A paradigmatic case is that of sociologist Albert Galloway Keller (1874-1956), author of Societal Evolution: A Study of the Evolutionary Basis of the Science of Society (1915). Carneiro spotlights a later work in four volumes, The Science of Society (1927-28), which was Keller’s extension of a manuscript left by his teacher William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), thus illustrating a special bridge between nineteenth- and twentieth-century evolutionists. “Today it sits gathering dust on library shelves,” Carneiro regrets (92).
In Chapter 6, “Early Stages in the Reemergence of Evolutionism,” Leslie White’s triumphant entrance on the scene takes place. Carneiro provides a thorough analysis of White’s ideas and a juicy description of his exercises in iconoclasm, particularly the legendary confrontation during the 1939 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Chicago, when White presented his paper entitled “The Evolutionary Approach” and Boas stood up to walk out in silence. If White has a captive place in the history of anthropology, the same applies to Julian H. Steward (1902-1972), whose defense of “multilinear evolution” in opposition to White’s “universal evolution” Carneiro discusses in detail. “Compared to White’s more combative, sometimes strident advocacy of cultural evolution, Steward’s espousal of it was more modulated and tempered,” Carneiro writes. “Thus in the early days of resurgent evolutionism, Steward’s version of it, being blander, was therefore more acceptable to those ethnologists and archaeologists who were beginning to be intrigued by the possibility that there might be something valid and useful in the concept after all, and were cautiously groping their way toward it” (114-15). A passage in which he defends Morgan against Steward tells of Carneiro’s full engagement with dead anthropologists, and his coping with “anthropolitically”-incorrect terminology: “How could Steward have maintained that the evolutionary scheme thus encapsulated had ‘entirely collapsed’? Could he point to a single region of the world where Barbarism had preceded Savagery, or where Civilization had preceded Barbarism?” (115)
Despite his fame, the place of Australian-born British archaeologist V. Gordon Childe (1892-1952) in the history of anthropology is less obvious, but Carneiro portrays him as “the third member of the triumvirate that led the way in resurrecting cultural evolutionism” (115), thanks to his concepts of Neolithic revolution and urban revolution, in Man Makes Himself (1936) and What Happened in History (1942). “Although Childe never concerned himself with New World prehistory, these two books of his were widely read by American archaeologists, and opened their eyes to the great intellectual gains to be made by focusing less on chronology and typology and more on the dynamics of the culture process” (117).
According to Carneiro, the Darwin Centennial of 1959 gave a boost to neo-evolutionism, which gained “respectability” in the next decade with anthropological luminaries such as Elman Service (1915-1996) and Marshall Sahlins (1930-2021). In the following chapters, Carneiro does not, however, fail to detect significant tensions between fellow neo-evolutionist anthropologists and archaeologists, for reasons that somehow anticipated the fin-de-siècle malaise and the second casting-out of evolutionism from the anthropological mainstream. When Service—following in the footsteps of Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg (1901-1973)—proposed his fourfold evolutionary sequence of sociopolitical forms consisting of band, tribe, chiefdom, and state, Morton Fried (1923-1986) reacted against the use of the term “tribe,” calling it (after “race”), “the single most egregious case of meaninglessness” in anthropology (138). Instead, so-called “tribes” were a response to dislocation and disruption phenomena provoked by European colonialism. Service’s sequence, however, came to exert “an enormous influence on archaeologists,” namely processual or “new” archaeologists (139).
To my knowledge, no other history of “cultural anthropology” pays as much attention to archaeology and its representatives as Carneiro’s; and while some of the names profiled are celebrities to practicing archaeologists nowadays, I dare say that most are complete strangers to contemporary social and cultural anthropologists who have no interest in remote time—precolonial or prehistorical. I think this generalization is valid for Europe at least, but one should bear in mind that the institutional cohabitation of cultural anthropology and archaeology (a “survival” legacy of the Boasian four-field conception of anthropology, or “sacred bundle”) is no longer self-evident in the US after “unwrapping the sacred bundle” (Segal and Yanagisako 2005). This is an additional reason why Evolutionism in Cultural Anthropology reads as disciplinary anti-history. Carneiro analyzes the work of a plethora of archaeologists with diverse understandings of the symbiosis with ethnology—such as Lewis Binford (1931-2011), Kent Flannery (b. 1934), Colin Renfrew (b. 1937), Richard A. Gould (1939-2020), or Bruce Trigger (1937-2006), himself the author of A History of Archaeological Thought (1989). To those standing against the principle of ethnographic analogy to reconstruct prehistorical settings, Carneiro candidly replies: “If an archaeologist, of whatever stripe, chooses to deprive himself of this tool, he does so to his own impoverishment” (144). Carneiro’s lifetime adherence to that principle is transparent in this passage on the symbiotic relationship between evolutionist ethnology and archaeology:
“After all, though set apart by the different methods they employ, the two are but complementary ways of studying the same phenomenon. Prehistoric societies and living ones are in no way categorically distinct. They are the same sort of thing. The principal difference between them is that one class of them survived while the other perished. Still, the latter, as long as it was “alive,” operated in essentially the same way as ethnographically known societies facing similar sorts of challenges and attempting to meet them in similar ways.” (140)
In some cases, disciplinary pride might explain archaeological reaction against ethnological encroachment. However, some of the tensions within archaeology ultimately echoed the transformations of social and cultural anthropology, with discussions on abandoning the words “savage” and “barbarian” taking place as late as the 1970s. The comparative method and the objective rating of cultures—exemplified by Carneiro’s own work—had long been the core reasons of all distaste for neo-evolutionism, but they were now judged unacceptable for political and not just for scientific reasons. Carneiro analyzes the work of several Marxist anthropologists, for example Stanley Diamond (1922-1991) and Thomas C. Patterson (b. 1937), and concludes that “Marxist anthropologists in general have often appeared to be uncomfortable with evolution.” This is because they equated neo-evolutionism with “the alleged sins of classical evolutionism, thereby discrediting both” (221). Moreover, Marxist anthropologists resorted to “such value-laden epithets as ‘oppression,’ ‘subjection,’ ‘subordination,’ ‘enslavement,’ ‘exploitation,’ and the like” (219)—to the dismay of Carneiro himself as enthusiast of evolutionist accomplishments on the formation of state societies through the consolidation of a ruling power. Following an analysis of the growing tensions between neo-evolutionism and post-structural, post-modern, and post-colonial social theory in anthropology, Carneiro acknowledges that fewer studies exist in the late twentieth century and does not hide his disdain for post-processual archaeology. This gives him the occasion, however, to identify in the final chapter the last flickering candles and “few staunch islands” of evolutionism (288):
“After all, the most salient feature in human history is the fact that, beginning as small, simple Paleolithic bands, human societies were eventually transformed into the large, powerful, and complex states of today. And tracing the course of this transformation – this evolution – and laying bare the factors and forces that brought it about, remains the most challenging and rewarding task any anthropologist can undertake.” (ibid.)
Carneiro’s closing words could be mistaken for a nineteenth-century statement. His deep-time sensibility is out of time to the point of becoming a challenge to twenty-first century anthropologists. In turn, Sera-Shriar’s edited volume is, notwithstanding its historicism, perfectly attuned to the present. In the introduction to Historicizing Humans, Sera-Shriar explains how his collective project moves beyond previous research by combining three historiographical points that, while not individually novel, engender “a new narrative” when called together: the cross-comparison of multiple disciplines, a critique of the center-periphery model in imperial studies, and a broader understanding of developmental theories beyond Darwinism. His own contribution to the volume, “Scientific Naturalism, Primitive Culture, and the Evolution of Religion,” illustrates this combination: his hypothesis that Edward B. Tylor’s “secularizing theory” (88) was unwittingly affected by Western religious views in missionary ethnographic sources emphasizes the role of the colonial world in shaping evolutionist theses. The same applies to other contributions, such as Helen Kingstone’s chapter on “The Comparative Method in ‘Shallow Time’” and Gregory Radick’s chapter on “How and Why Darwin Got Emotional About Race.” Kingstone shows the ways in which the colonial space was equated with the recent history of Britain’s northern fringes (Scotland to Ireland) in authors as varied as Walter Scott (1771-1832), Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), and Francis Galton (1822-1911). Radick analyzes the import of the Queries about Expression that Darwin circulated within a large colonial network to amass data for The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) and that helped consolidate his views on the common ancestry of the human races.
In a beautifully written afterword, “Historiographical Reflections on the Historicization of Humans in Nineteenth-Century British Sciences,” Theodore Koditschek questions the ways in which the assessment of nineteenth-century science can be superficial when dominated by “our own conceits of moral superiority as supposedly enlightened postcolonials” (218). At the same time, he creatively updates the Paleolithic trope:
“As historians have begun to look with greater dispassion into how human origins were understood in the nineteenth century, the stereotype has been greatly complicated, and a strange, alien environment has come into view. Epistemologically distant from our own mental universe, these nineteenth-century visions still point a broken path to our current ways of thinking. As we gaze upon this newly discovered intellectual landscape, we find ourselves emerging from our own Brixham cave of ignorance to survey an alien, yet also vaguely familiar, scene: a half-recognizable ancestral habitat filled with strange conceptual creatures that we can still identify as the distant progenitors of our own.” (ibid.)
Inadvertently, this Brixham cave filled with obscure nineteenth-century anthropologists gives a new meaning to Robert L. Carneiro’s views, inviting readers to half-recognize the strange conceptual creatures peopling his history of evolutionism and neo-evolutionism, including Carneiro himself. A dialectical reading of his book and Sera-Shriar’s is fruitful for current historians of anthropology confronted with the old, existential dilemma: what is the purpose of studying disciplinary pasts? The answer is that the history of anthropology is never just about anthropologists in shallow time; it is also about humankind in deep time.
Kuper, Adam. 1988. The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformations of an Illusion. London and New York: Routledge.
Leach, Edmund. 1982. Social Anthropology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Opler, Morris E. 1964. “Cause, Process, and Dynamics in the Evolutionism of E. B. Tylor.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 20 (2): 123-144.
Stocking Jr., George W. 1965. “’Cultural Darwinism’ and ‘Philosophical Idealism’ in E. B. Tylor: A Special Plea for Historicism in the History of Anthropology.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 21 (2): 130-147.
Trigger, Bruce. 1989. A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Segal, Daniel A. and Sylvia J. Yanagisako. 2005. Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle. Reflections on the Disciplining of Anthropology. London and Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
 Leach viewed “the varieties of human society as alternative systems of moral order rather than as a sequence of specialized adaptations to different economic circumstances” (see Leach, Social Anthropology, 121) and spoke of evolutionary theory as “irrelevant for the understanding of present day societies” (quoted in Carneiro, Evolutionism in Cultural Anthropology, 85).