Evolutionism is a term commonly employed to designate a number of similar, usually nineteenth-century anthropological theories that attempt to account for the genesis and development of religion. Although the term evolutionism could be used to describe a collection of theologians such as Pierre Teilhard De Chardin (1881–1955) and others belonging to the school of theistic evolution, this article will focus strictly on the uses of the term within the development of anthropological science.
Evolutionist theories of religion's origin hold in common a presupposed "psychic unity of mankind"; that is, they assume that all human groups are possessed of a more or less common developmental pattern (though the shape of this pattern differs from theorist to theorist) and that therefore significant clues as to how religion originated—and in turn as to what religion essentially is—can be detected through a study of the religious lives of the world's "primitive" peoples. If evolutionist assumptions are correct, it should follow that commonalities displayed among groups at each level of development will reveal, when set in diachronic order, a necessary "psychic history" of the human race.
Influences on Evolutionist Thought
Evolutionist anthropological theories represent one manifestation of the nineteenth century's enthusiasm for developmental schemata that find their bases in what might loosely be called a philosophy of history. This philosophy of history declares that human development is rectilinear and progressive and that the mind tends necessarily toward greater and greater rationality and complexity. The idea of progress, especially in its component notion that history is unidirectional and proceeds by way of identifiable stages, is older certainly than the beginning of the nineteenth century. Indeed, one may speculate that there is a nascent "evolutionism" at work already in the Pauline formulation that, with the appearance of Christ, an age of grace supplanted and rendered obsolete an earlier age of law. (To trace "scientific" evolutionism's origins to the beginnings of Christian historiography provides some insight regarding the apologetic purposes that evolutionist thinking seems always to serve.) But for convenience one may point to the philosophical work of G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831) as having planted the seed that led, by the nineteenth century's close, to the full flowering of the evolutionist creed among those who considered themselves the first truly scientific investigators of the phenomenon of humans.
In his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Hegel launched a revolution in thinking about the human past. Put simply, the Hegelian system declares that history (by which Hegel and his followers mean the history of the world as a whole) reveals the progressive manifestation of Geist (spirit) in the world: a process that leads eventually to spirit's self-actualization and to human self-understanding. History, according to Hegel, propels itself forward through a dynamic process, within which each successive age "resolves and synthesizes" the antagonisms of earlier eras. Each historical period therefore not only results from what has gone before, but also in some sense contains within itself the self-understanding of earlier eras. Locating anthropological evolutionism's foundation in Hegelian philosophy may therefore help one comprehend what amounts to a "genetic obsession" on the parts of the participants in the debates that raged during the late nineteenth century, debates that had as their crux a question concerning what constitutes the essential—that is, the originary—form of religious consciousness. To identify this originary form would be to uncover an essential element of human beings, for it was generally held among evolutionist theorists that religious belief was the distinguishing characteristic setting the human apart from the animal. This endeavor may seem odd given much of the later history of scientific anthropology, but it makes sense when placed within the context of a fledgling scientific discipline that had not yet weaned itself of philosophical anthropology.
More directly influential than Hegelian philosophy upon the development of scientific anthropological evolutionism, however, is the work of Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), the English polymath and, with the Frenchman Auguste Comte (1798–1957), cofounder of the discipline of sociology. Even before Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) revolutionized biological science, Spencer had landed on evolution as the principle that accounts for all change, whether inorganic, organic, or mental (if one may so characterize the quality that separates the development of human societies and individuals from mere organic growth). In his essay "Progress: Its Law and Cause" (1857), Spencer first gave voice to what may be called the essential element of anthropological evolutionist dogma:
The advance from the simple to the complex, through a process of successive differentiations, is seen … in the evolution of Humanity, whether contemplated in the civilized individual, or in the aggregate of races; it is seen in the evolution of Society in respect alike of its political, its religious, and its economical organization; and it is seen in the evolution of all those endless concrete and abstract products of human activity. (Spencer, 1914, p. 35)
Having thus laid the theoretical groundwork for his never-to-be-completed "natural history of society," Spencer nevertheless managed to construct the first systematic sociology of religion in English, one of the tasks undertaken in his three-volume Principles of Sociology (1876–1896). In this work he identifies the origin of religion (which, Spencer says, supplanted an aboriginal atheism) in what he perceives to be the universal practice among primitive peoples of worshipping the ghosts of their ancestors. He then goes on to trace the further evolution of religious consciousness through polytheism and monotheism. According to Spencer, religion culminates in agnosticism—a metaphysical position girded by the "positivist" epistemological principles that are the earmarks of the scientific age and of the scientific historiography, epitomized in Spencerian sociology—that helps to inaugurate this new era of human development. That Spencer considered agnosticism a genuinely religious position bears noting insofar as one may be tempted to see the work of Spencer and other evolutionists as antagonistic toward religion. It is nearer the case to say that at least some of these thinkers sought, among other agendas, to defend what they found to be the "spiritual maturity" of the age of science to which they belonged.
Tylor and His Critics
Among theorists of religion, E. B. Tylor (1832–1917) perhaps best deserves to be called an "evolutionist." Tylor's work, more than that of any other scholar, invites one to identify evolutionism with British "armchair" anthropology of the late nineteenth century. Influences on Tylor include Spencer (whose "ghost theory" of the origin of religion closely resembles the animistic hypothesis forwarded by Tylor) and F. Max Müller (1823–1900), the German-English philologist whose etymological investigations helped inspire Tylor's researches into the Urgrund (primeval ground of being) of religious consciousness.
Before proceeding to a description of the theory of religion's origin advanced by Tylor, one should note what is perhaps the most significant characteristic of Tylor's (and indeed of other evolutionist theorists') manner of thinking about religion. It goes without saying that "religion" is, for these writers, at root one thing. But beyond this it is worth emphasizing that in this framework religion is essentially of an intellectual or cognitive kind. Evolutionist theories of religious development proffer histories of religions within which religion is single-mindedly construed as belief; the affective dimensions of religious experience are simply elided or are written off as so much superstructure.
This intellectualist approach to anthropological research is clearly seen in Tylor's famous "minimum definition of Religion" as "belief in Spiritual Beings." Tylor's intellectualism—and that of his contemporaries—has been harshly derided and largely superseded by twentieth-century anthropologists. And yet this at least ought to be said in its favor: for all their concern to distinguish between modern, Western rationality and the "primitive" mentality of "savage" or "low" races, it is yet the case that the nineteenth-century initiators of anthropological discourse were the first Europeans to conceive of the human race as a single entity; they were the first, that is, to accord to "savages" human minds. Though they were termed "primitive," the religions of "low races" were recognized as religions. (It is clearly a part of Tylor's purpose to put the lie to what he considered the slanderous reports of missionaries and adventurers concerning the godlessness of the tribal peoples they encountered.) Moreover, in so doing, the evolutionists—who, through their examinations of "primitive" people, hoped to uncover keys to human nature per se—helped overturn the privileged position of the European scientific observer, no matter how far such an outcome may have been from their intention. Certainly the work of Tylor and others, especially James G. Frazer (1854–1941), was instrumental in revolutionizing classical studies and thus in altering forever the picture of antiquity, and hence of the West's own intellectual heritage.
Tylor's name has come to be identified with the term animism or, as he also called it, "the doctrine of souls." He first proposed this as the most rudimentary stage of religious belief in a paper titled "The Religion of Savages," published in the Fortnightly Review in 1866. Tylor's monumental influence upon succeeding generations of students of religion can be measured by the fact that, although Tylor's theory of religion's origin has long since been discredited, the term animism is still widely used to describe the religious beliefs of those peoples who have as yet resisted conversion to one or another of the "great" missionary religions. In articulating the concept and the conceptual basis of animism, however, Tylor did not mean to describe an obsolescent form of religious consciousness but rather to identify the constant center or core of religious belief. The following passage, extracted from Tylor's masterwork Primitive Culture (1871), both points up the universality of animistic belief and identifies the conceptual maneuver responsible for engendering the animistic hypothesis:
At the lowest levels of culture of which we have clear knowledge, the notion of a ghost-soul animating man while in the body, and appearing in dream and vision out of the body, is found deeply ingrained.… Among races within the limits of savagery, the general doctrine of souls is found worked out with remarkable breadth and consistency. The souls of animals are recognized by a natural extension from the theory of human souls; the souls of trees and plants follow in some vague partial way; and the souls of inanimate objects expand the general category to its extremest boundary.… Far on into civilization, men still act as though in some half-meant way they believed in souls or ghosts of objects. (Quoted in Waardenburg, 1973, pp. 216–217)
Tylor's doctrine of "survivals"—that is, his claim that, although they may over the course of time lose much or even most of their original meanings, elements of the primitive worldview perdure within and continue to exercise influence upon the mindsets of more advanced cultures—is also hinted at in the foregoing passage. For Tylor, as for perhaps the latest of his heritors, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the child is truly father to the man. Both of these thinkers depended, whether consciously or not, upon the Hegelian principle that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. For Tylor, as well as decades later for Freud, the investigation of the mental life of primitive races provided insight into the psychic infancy of humankind and so to the inevitable hurdles that must be overcome in order for the human species to achieve psychic adulthood.
Within British anthropological circles, criticism of Tylor's animistic hypothesis came from two corners. The first of Tylor's critics was the Scottish folklorist Andrew Lang (1844–1912). Though Lang's constructive contributions to anthropological science were minimal, he dealt a devastating blow to the notion that animism represented the earliest stage of religious consciousness. In his book Myth, Ritual, and Religion (1887), he pointed to the overwhelming evidence of what he termed "high gods" among many of those peoples who until then had been characterized by anthropologists as being too primitive to be able to conceptualize so abstractly as to arrive at any notion resembling that of an omnipotent, creative deity. Though Lang turned his attention toward other interests during the remainder of his career, his critique of Tylor laid the foundation for the massive researches into the topic of "primitive monotheism" that were later conducted by Wilhelm Schmidt (1868–1954).
The second blow to the animistic hypothesis was struck by R. R. Marett (1866–1943), Tylor's disciple, biographer, and successor to the position of reader in social anthropology at Oxford University. In an essay titled "Preanimistic Religion" published in the journal Folklore in 1900, Marett, drawing on the ethnographic data compiled in Melanesia by the Anglican missionary R. H. Codrington, advanced the claim that animism had been preceded by a pre-animistic stage of religious consciousness characterized by belief in an impersonal force or power that invests persons and objects, rendering them sacred. Marett, borrowing from the Melanesian vocabulary supplied by Codrington, termed this "electric" force mana. In accord with the evolutionist principles outlined earlier, belief in mana possesses, for Marett, both diachronic and ontological priority. One hears an echo of Tylor in Marett's proposition, in the article "Mana" that he contributed to James Hastings's Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, that mana and taboo (which Marett conceives of as mana's "negative" complement) together constitute "a minimum definition of the magico-religious"
While neither Lang nor Marett disavowed evolutionist principles, it is worth noting that the criticisms leveled against Tylor by these writers eventually had the effect of helping to undermine the cogency of evolutionist explanations of the origin and development of religion, insofar as the work of each served to invite anthropologists to a closer examination of actual ethnographic data.
Further History of Evolutionist Theories
The early twentieth century saw the demise of "armchair" approaches to anthropological research as anthropologists began to conduct detailed, long-term studies of tribal peoples within the contexts of these peoples' actual habitats. One effect of this focus on field research was the production, especially during the middle decades of the twentieth century and within the Anglo-American anthropological tradition, of great numbers of immensely detailed monographs on the day-to-day lives of primitive societies. The quest for a comprehensive and systematic natural history of humankind was gradually abandoned.
This abandonment undoubtedly found one of its sources in an awakening to the theoretical inadequacies of the evolutionist approach to human culture. It began to become clear to anthropological researchers that the systematic theoreticians of humankind's development employed, in their search for the unvarying laws underlying what they perceived to be the relentless progress of human societies toward ever more complex and rational forms, a logic that was wholly circular. In the mere designation of some societies as "primitive" and others as "advanced" a host of culturally engendered presuppositions were employed, and a host of significant theoretical questions were begged. Another inadequacy of evolutionist thinking that began forcibly to strike the notice of scholars of religion was the fact that this mode of explanation ignores the trading of cultural elements, which so evidently has always figured importantly in the change, and especially the complexification, of human societies. (It should be noted that few evolutionists adhered strictly to a doctrine of absolute rectilinear evolution. Spencer admitted the possibility that racial differences accounted for the multiple and apparently irreconcilable directions taken by different cultures, and even the archevolutionist Tylor, in his early work, proposed "diffusionist" explanations for the puzzling appearance of "high" cultures among the Indians of Mesoamerica.) This insight alone was responsible for the instigation of what one may loosely term a school of thought regarding the origins and development of religious phenomena: that of the so-called diffusionists.
Twentieth-century anthropological science also saw the interest in religion as an (or the) essential element in the life of human societies fall out of fashion. From the 1920s through the 1960s, many anthropologists, especially those who received training in England or the United States, focused their attention on kinship relations, economic arrangements, and the like—aspects of society, that is, that they considered more tractable to the "hard," objective studies they were intent upon pursuing. (There were of course exceptions to this trend—E. E. Evans-Pritchard [1902–1973] and Raymond Firth [1901–2002] stand as two of the more important—but even these scientists concentrated their efforts on conducting meticulous examinations of the religious lives of particular societies.) It may not be too inaccurate to generalize to the effect that the nineteenth-century obsession with origins (as a concomitant of the grandiose quest to discover the foundational design of human progress) was replaced in the twentieth century, at least among Anglophone anthropologists, by an obsession with "objectivity."
But to generalize in this manner is dangerous insofar as it ignores, first, the continuing influence of evolutionist anthropological theory on continental anthropological science, and second, the powerful, hardly diminishing influence of evolutionist theory upon Western culture generally. Though there is too little space in this brief treatment to do more than mention them, one may list Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857–1939) as among the continental heritors of evolutionist theory. The debate concerning the nature of "primitive" as opposed to "civilized" (or rational) forms of mentation that was refueled by Lévy-Bruhl continues, though in different, structuralist guise, even in the early twenty-first century.
Though his work represents what many consider a dead end in terms of a continuing influence on anthropological thought, James G. Frazer (1854–1941) produced what must count as the single most imposing monument of evolutionist theory, The Golden Bough (1890), which in its third edition (1911–1915) ran to twelve volumes. Not only the most prolix of evolutionist theorists, Frazer was also the most doctrinaire, convinced that human culture's development is governed by unvarying natural laws and that the human race has evolved, mentally and physically, in uniform fashion. Frazer's temper was utterly intellectualist; his evolutionary scheme, which posits the successive replacement of an aboriginal magical mode of thought by first a religious and then a scientific mode, finds its basis in Frazer's conviction that human culture's development is effected as later generations of human beings awaken to the errors and the resultant practical inefficacy of their predecessors' worldviews. (A reading of The Golden Bough prompted Ludwig Wittgenstein's [1889–1951] trenchant remark to the effect that, when Frazer reports on a primitive European peasant woman pulling a doll from beneath her skirt during a fertility rite, he seems to think that she is making some sort of mistake and actually believes the puppet to be a child.)
The influence of Frazer's work on later anthropological theory has been negligible, aside perhaps from the significant impact it had on classical studies. Yet Frazer's Golden Bough rates as one of the century's most celebrated books because of its profound effect on the literary and artistic dimensions of Western culture, and because of its formative influence on psychoanalytic theory, which with Marxism (itself utterly dependent upon evolutionist assumptions regarding history) stands as a ruling ideology of the twentieth century. Though the axioms of the psychoanalytic model for understanding the human mind and its cultural products probably owe more to evolutionist biology and its philosophical antecedents than they do to British anthropological theory, it is nevertheless the case that the work of Freud (especially his late work) drew heavily upon that of Frazer. Frazer's Totemism and Exogamy (1910) was a direct influence upon Freud's Totem and Taboo (1918). The latter, The Future of an Illusion (1928), and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) constitute Freud's contribution to evolutionist theory. Seeking to demonstrate the logical coincidence of the behavior of neurotics with the "obsessional" practices of primitive peoples, Freud aimed to map a theory of culture whose purposes are both descriptive and prophylactic, insofar as (in the manner of clinical psychoanalytic method) to understand past conflicts that live on within an unconscious realm—whence they continue to exert control over human destiny—is to take a sure step toward resolving these conflicts and thereby achieving psychic health or emotional (and by implication political) maturity. It may need no pointing out that Freud identifies the coming of the race's adulthood with the waning of religious belief.
Freud's influence on anthropological science during the middle decades of the twentieth century was minimal, but Freudian-based anthropological theory seemed to experience a rejuvenescence in the late twentieth century, as Melford E. Spiro's Oedipus in the Trobriands (1982) demonstrates. As for the medical import of Freud's program for human destiny, it again is instructive to observe that evolutionist theory has consistently coupled a descriptive aim with an apologetic and heuristic intention. This has remained true of evolutionism from its modern origins in the thought of Hegel and Spencer down through its modern embodiments both in Marxist historiography and political practice and in Freudian theory and psychoanalytic technique.
Modern Perspectives: Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology
The application of the neo-Darwinian model prevalent in modern biology to the evolution of human behaviors and social structures was brought to the fore with the publication of Sociobiology by Edward O. Wilson of Harvard in 1975. Wilson's observations of behavior among the social insects became the focal point of his theoretical approach to understanding the origin and evolution of human institutions. At the heart of this theory is the assumption that human behaviors at both the individual and group levels must confer a reproductive advantage if they are to be preserved over evolutionary time. Furthermore, it is assumed that, in order for selection to take place (in the Darwinian sense), such behaviors must in fact be genetically determined. It is only fair to say that Wilson, contrary to his most vocal critics, is not as strict a reductionist or genetic determinist as this sounds. Nevertheless the use of Darwinian principles for understanding the origins and continued existence of human behaviors flows naturally out of Wilson's approach.
Religion was not discussed per se in Wilson's 1975 book. However, in his later book Consilience (1998) he devotes an entire chapter to the origins of ethics and religion. He subscribes to the same kind of primitive-origin hypothesis as did Tylor and Frazer. Wilson argues that the development of religious instincts is encoded in the genes and that such genetic material conferred a reproductive survival advantage on those groups who exhibited it. He suggests that tribal religious systems served to unify those groups that employed them, and that such systems spring from the inevitable result of the human brain's genetic evolution.
The Darwinian approach taken by Wilson and others to understanding the origins of human behavior finds even greater application in the emerging field of evolutionary psychology. Led by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby at the University of California, Santa Barbara, this field attempts to derive Darwinian models for the origins of all human behaviors.
One of the principle tenets of evolutionary psychology is that the current form of the human brain took shape during a period called the environment of evolutionary adaptation, or EEA. While most place this era in the late Pleistocene, the EEA is really thought of as a composite of selective pressures that served the adaptation of humans' present brain structure. It is thought that during this period of evolutionary history those physical components of human brains that resulted in specific behaviors conferring reproductive advantage or fitness were under selective pressure. In this view, the origins of religious impulse would also be accounted for as a product of the EEA.
The physical nature of the religious experience has been investigated by neuroscience. A number of investigators have reported that the religious impulse could be located to the temporal lobe of the brain. In these studies the link to religious feelings and brain structure go hand in hand with the idea that the adaptation of the brain includes the origin of religion per se.
The work of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology has been critiqued by several evolutionary biologists, including Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002). Their argument is that the research agenda of both fields is entirely too reductionistic and deterministic. Gould in particular took issue with the conclusions of evolutionary psychology, writing that "the chief strategy proposed for identifying adaptation is untestable and therefore unscientific" (quoted in Rose and Rose, 2000, p. 120).
Nonetheless in this modern version of evolutionism one sees the same process as that which motivated Spencer, Tylor, and Frazer in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. The motivation to give an anthropological and even materialist explanation for the occurrence of religions persists in the early twenty-first century.
Animism and Animatism; Durkheim, Émile; Dynamism; Freud, Sigmund; Kulturkreiselehre; Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien; Müller, F. Max; Power; Schmidt, Wilhelm; Structuralism; Supreme Beings; Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre.
A good introduction for the layperson to the impact on Western thought of various ideas of history is R. G. Collingwood's The Idea of History (Oxford, 1946). Good surveys of the evolutionist movement in anthropology (and its decline) are Eric J. Sharpe's Comparative Religion: A History (London, 1975) and Jan de Vries's The Study of Religion: A Historical Approach (New York, 1967). E. E. Evans-Pritchard's insightful and amusing critique of "intellectualist" theories of religion, among which he includes the evolutionist mode, is in his Theories of Primitive Religion (Oxford, 1965). Edward O. Wilson's Consilience (New York, 1998) is easily accessible for most readers; see also his Sociobiology (Cambridge, Mass., 1975). A collection of essays critical of evolutionary psychology is contained in Hilary Rose and Stephen Rose, Alas, Poor Darwin (New York, 2000), including Stephen Jay Gould's "More Things in Heaven and Earth," cited above. See also G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (New York, 1977); Herbert Spencer, Essays: Scientific, Political, and Speculative (New York, 1914) and Principles of Sociology (Westport, Conn., 1975); E. B. Tylor, "The Religion of Savages," Fortnightly Review (1866) and Primitive Culture (London, 1871); Jacques Waardenburg, Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion, vol. 1, Introduction and Anthology (The Hague, 1973); R. R. Marett, "Preanimistic Religion," Folklore (1900) and "Mana," in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings; Andrew Lang, Myth, Ritual, and Religion (London, 1887); James G. Frazer, Totemism and Exogamy (London, 1910) and The Golden Bough, 3d ed. (1911–1915); Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo (New York, 1918), The Future of an Illusion (New York, 1928), and Civilization and Its Discontents (New York, 1930); and Melford E. Spiro, Oedipus in the Trobriands (Chicago, 1982).
James Waller (1987)
Mary Edwardsen (1987)
Martinez Hewlett (2005)
"Evolution: Evolutionism." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 27, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/evolution-evolutionism
"Evolution: Evolutionism." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved May 27, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/evolution-evolutionism
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.