Mclennan, John Ferguson

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Mclennan, John Ferguson



John Ferguson McLennan (1827–1881), Scottish lawyer and theorist of social evolution, was born in Inverness and died in Hayes Common in Kent. He was educated at King’s College, Aberdeen, graduating with distinction in 1849. He went on to Cambridge, where he stayed until 1855 without taking a degree. In 1857 he was called to the Scottish bar, and in 1871 he was made parliamentary draughtsman for Scotland. In 1874 Aberdeen University conferred on him an honorary doctor of laws degree. McLennan’s laterlife was marred by continual ill health, and much of his work was publishedposthumously, edited first by his brother Donald and then by W. Robertson Smith. After these two had died, the remaining manuscripts were edited by McLennan’s widow, Eleanora, and a friend, Arthur Platt.

McLennan’s legal studies led him to an interest in “symbols,” i.e., survivals in contemporary cultures of previous legal and customary behavior. He noted, for example, that even as late as the nineteenth century Scottish law was replete with feudal concepts. Another of the striking survivals that McLennan described and elaborated upon was the custom of simulated bride capture: as it occurred in ancient Rome, he suggested, it was a symbol of the actual practice of earlier times.

His attempt to account for such survivals led to a theory of the evolution of social forms. In this context he proposed a sequence of familial development in which matrilineal kinship preceded patrilineal. He suggestedthissequence independently of J. J. Bachofen, who first proposed it. He defended his theories, sometimes acrimoniously, against the views of Maine, Morgan, Lubbock, Spencer, and even of Mr. Gladstone. Because McLennan saw contemporary primitive peoples as representing various stages of arrested social development, he believed that historical reconstruction consists in noting trait survivals and discovering functional explanations for them. Thus, when customs appeared to be nonfunctional, he attempted to deduce the earlier context in which they had arisen and in which they had been functional. When, for example, the levirate—wherein a man inherits his brother’s widow—was found to coexist with polyandry in any society, one could conclude that polyandry was a necessary precondition for the levirate. McLennan developed his entire scheme of social evolution on this principle.

McLennan is chiefly remembered for his invention of the terms exogamy and endogamy, and for his analysis of totemism. These concepts emerged from his general scheme of evolution, which ran as follows: Originally, tribes were promiscuous, children being affiliated with the social group rather than with their biological parents. Harsh conditions of existence led to female infanticide. Because of the resulting sex imbalance, and alsobecause these early tribes were always warring, capture came to be the prevailing method of obtaining wives. The corollary of bride capture was exogamy, which obliged men to seek marriage partners outside of their own social group. Such marriages were of the archaic polyandrous type, where no regulated relationship existed among the male partners of one woman. Since paternity could not be biologically determined, kinship was traced through females only.

According to McLennan’s scheme, the capture of foreign women and matrilineal kinship furthered the recognition of subtribal divisions. Thesenew social units continued to be exogamous, while for the larger tribal group, endogamy became possible. It should be noted that McLennan never clarified the identity of the social units involved; Morgan, in rebuttal of McLennan, insisted that the subtribal units were clans. Nevertheless, McLennan’s conception of this early stage of polyandry did take cognizance of what later ethnologists have called local exogamy and the rules of residence attending upon marriage.

As the archaic form of polyandry was transformed into fraternal polyandry, the levirate became common practice. Kinship could then be established through males, and the way was paved for monogamy and polygyny. The thread of functional reasoning runs through all of this deductive reconstruction, but the ethnographic information on which McLennan based his evolutionaryscheme was inadequate and resulted, therefore, in incorrect deductions. Moreover, the assumption of universal stages of social evolution based on no crteria other than kinship rendered his arguments circular. It is fair to say that McLennan was not unique in his faults, which stemmed not so much from his own inadequacies as from the currently accepted mode of evolutionary analysis. His critics were guilty of the same errors.

Of his debates with these critics, the only one that retains its significance is that with Morgan, on the meaning of kinship terms. McLennan (1876) argued—against the views of Morgan in his Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family(1871)—that kinship terms are not indicative of consanguineous relationships but express “degrees of respect” based on” age and station.” This point—that the terms refer to statuses and not to blood relationships—is now accepted; but anthropologists are still divided into those who follow Morgan and attach great significance to terminology and those who, perhaps unwittingly, follow McLennan in thinking that its importance is overrated.

McLennan’s ideas concerning totemism were also part of his parallelist emphasis. He saw the totemic symbols attached to kinship groups as survivals of an earlier, localized worship of fetishes, and the worship of animals, plants, and eventually, of anthropomorphic gods was seen in terms of survivals derived from totemism. Exogamy caused totemic identifications to be dispersed, because they were transmitted through the female line. According to McLennan, totems became gods—often associated with a particular locality—when patrilineal descent groups were formed. His idea of totemism as the most primitive form of religion had wide influence. It is echoed in the work of Freud and Durkheim, and it directly influenced the thinking of Frazer (1887), Jevons (1896), and Robertson Smith (1885; 1889). Robertson Smith, a close friend and collaborator, interpreted the religiousand social evolution of the Semitic peoples in accordance with McLennan’s theories. Tylor (1899) was one of the first of many to criticize McLennan’s totemic theories of the origins of religion. He insisted thattotemism is of “far greater importance in sociology than religion, connected as it is with the alliance between clans which en-sues from the law of exogamy.” This, together with Tylor’s opinion that totemism is an expression of man’s tendency to classify the universe, represents the most influential modern view (see ALevi-Strauss 1962).

J. R. Fox

[For the historical context of McLennan’s work, seeKinship;and the biographies of Bachofen; Lubbock; Maine; Morgan,Lewis henry; Spencer; Tylor. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, see the biographies of Durkheim; Frazer; Freud; Smith, William robertson; West-ermarck.]


1857 Law. Volume 13, pages 253–279 in Encyclopaedia Britannica. 8th ed. Edinburgh: Black.

1865 Primitive Marriage: An Inquiry Into the Origin of the Form of Capture in Marriage Ceremonies. Edinburgh: Black.

(1865–1876) 1886 Studies in Ancient History. New York: Macmillan. → Includes McLennan 1865, 1866fc; and 1876.

1866a Bride Catching.Argosy 2:31-42.

1866Z? Kinship in Ancient Greece.Fortnightly Review 4:569–588, 682-691.

1867 Memoir of Thomas Drummond.... Edinburgh: Edmonston © Douglas.

1868 Totem. Supplement, pages 753–754 in Chamber’s Encyclopedia. London: Chambers.

1869–1870 The Worship of Animals and Plants.Fortnightly Review New Series 4:407–427, 562-582; 7: 194-216.

(1876) 1886 Classificatory System of Relationship. Pages 247–315 in Joh Ferguson McLennan,Studies in Ancient History. New York: Macmillan. 1877a Exogamy and Endogamy.Fortnightly Review New

Series 21:884–895. → A rejoinder by Herbert Spencer appears on pages 895-902.

I877b The Levirate and Polyandry.Fortnightly Review New Series 21:694–707.

1885 The Patriarchal Theory. Edited and completed by Donald McLennan. London: Macmillan. → Published posthumously.

1896 Studies in Ancient History: Second Series. Edited and completed by Eleanora A. McLennan and A. Platt. London: Macmillan.→ Published posthumously.


Bachofen, Johann j. (1861) 1948 Das Mutterrecht. 2 vols. Basel: Schwabe.,

Dureheim EÉmile (1912) 1954 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: Allen © Unwin; New York: Macmillian.→ First published as Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse, le systeme totemique en Australie. A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Collier.

Frazer, James G.(1887) 1910 Totemism and Exogamy. 4 vols. London:Macmillan. → See especially “Totemism” in Volume 1, pages 1-87.

Freud,sigmund (1913) 1959 Totem and Taboo. Volume 13, pages ix-162 in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth; New York: Macmillan. → First published in German.

Jevons, Frank B. (1896) 1914 An Introduction to the History of Religion. 6th ed. London: Methuen.

Leach, Edmund R. 1961 Rethinking Anthropology. London School of Economics and Political Science Mono-graphs on Social Anthropology, No. 22. London: Athlone. → See especially Chapter 1.

LÈvi-strauss, Claude(1962) 1963 Totemism. Boston: Beacon. © First published as Le totemisme aujourd’hui.

Lowie, Robert h. 1937 The History of Ethnological Theory. New York: Farrar © Riehaet. →; See especially Chapter 5.

Lubbock, John(1870) 1912 The Origin ofCivilization and the Primitive Condition of Man: Mental and Social Conditions of Savages. 7th ed. New York: Long-mans. © Chapter 3 is devoted almost entirely to McLennan’s theories.

Maine, Henry sumner (1861) 1960 Ancient Law: Its Connection With the Early History of Society, and Its Relations to Modern Ideas. Rev. ed. New York: Dut ton; London and Toronto: Dent.→ A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Beacon.

Maine, Henry sumner (1875) 1893 Lectureson the Early History of Institutions. 6th ed. London: Murray.

Morgan, Lewis H. 1871 Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family. Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, Vol. 17, art. 2, Publication No. 218. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Morgan, Lewis H.(1877) 1964 Ancient Society. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap.→ A long note to Chapter 6 deals with McLennan.

Smith, Willia robertson(1885) 1903 Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia. New ed. London: Black.

Smith, William robertson (1889)1959 The Religion of the Semites. New York: Meridian.→ First published as Lectures on the Religion of the Semites.

Spencer, Herbert (1876) 1925 The Principles of Sociology. New York: Appleton.→ Volume 1, Part 3, “Domestic Institutions,” is a long dialogue with McLennan.

Tylor, Edward B. 1899 Remarks on Totemism,With Especial Reference to Some Modern Theories Respecting It.Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 28:138–148.

Westermarck, Edward A. (1889) 1922 The History of Human Marriage. 5th ed., rev. New York: Allerton.→ Criticizes McLennan’s notion of “primitive promiscuity.”

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