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  Evolutionism (from Latin evolvere, ‘to roll out’) is a movement in anthropology and sociology which was much in vogue in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It refers to theories of change in which development is seen to go through stages of increasing complexity and diversification. It is closely related to the idea of progress and technology, which is most prevalent in capitalist society.

Evolutionism gained currency in the 19th century with Charles Lyell\'s geological theories, Herbert Spencer\'s sociological ideas and especially with Charles Darwin\'s 1859 work On the Origin of Species. It was thought that organisms and human populations pass through the same stages of progression. Human society was compared to a biological organism and the notion of ‘the survival of the fittest’ was used to explain the development from one stage to the next. Around this time, physical anthropology (focusing on human beings) and social anthropology were also closely linked together. Notable anthropological advocates of evolutionist theories in the 19th century include Louis Henry Morgan and Edwin Tyler. They elaborated upon a scheme from hunting/savagery, through herding/barbarism to civilization. Marx and Engels, influenced by the works of Morgan, applied evolutionary theories in positioning their own stages of social and economic relations, principally that of ‘primitive’, ancient or ‘slave’, feudal and capitalist modes of production. James Frazer concentrated his evolutionist theories on magic, religion and society, which are synthesized in his famous work The Golden Bough (1926-36).

In sociology, the starting point for classical evolutionary thought was the observation that historical comparisons of different types of human society suggests a movement towards increasing complexity. Classical evolutionists assumed that social change was inevitable, universal and progressive. Only one path of development was believed to exist: each society would pass through a linear sequence of developmental stages. Sociological evolutionists developed the comparison between societies and biological organisms: both grow and develop, and as they do so they become increasingly complex and internally differentiated (as societies become more complex areas of social life which were formally intermingled become clearly separated). Social change results in an increasingly complex but more tightly integrated society.

Neo-evolutionism developed in the 1960s as a response by functionalist sociologists—in particular Talcott Parsons—to the criticism that functionalist theory, which emphasized social integration and harmony, was unable to explain social change. Sociologists returned to the classical evolutionism of the 19th century. However, neo-evolutionists part company from their classical predecessors on two main counts: they propose multiple paths of social development (as opposed to a single one); and they place greater emphasis on the mechanics of change between evolutionary stages (which, they argued, the classical evolutionists had neglected). The neo-evolutionist school believes that the process of change is intimately linked to a given society\'s social institutions—these are the fabric of social life and include the political and economic systems, religion, family, education and so on. The mechanisms of social change, it is argued, can be explained in terms of the needs of a given society to maintain these structures.

Neo-evolutionist accounts of social change contain three main elements. They argue that all social change is the result of the processes of differentiation (the idea that as societies develop all aspects of life become increasingly diverse and separated from each other), reintegration (regulatory mechanisms which counteract the tendency towards disintegration entailed by differentiation and change) and adaption (the direction of differentiation and reintegration is determined by the need of society to adapt to its environment).

One of the main neo-evolutionist contentions is that human civilization has increased in its efficiency and mastery of the environment, so that the kinds of societies which have emerged in later periods of history are more efficient and powerful than earlier types. Critics have questioned such assumptions, and most recently environmentalists drawing attention to human destruction of the planet have seriously questioned the so-claimed ‘adaptive’ capacity of modern societies. DA RK

See also convergence thesis; culture; dependency theory; diffusionism; functionalism; historical sociology; holism; Marxist anthropology; primitivism; scarcity; sociobiology; structuralism; structure; system; systems theory; theories of modernity.Further reading J.W. Burrow, Evolution and Society; , P.Q. Hirst, Social Evolution and Sociological Categories; , T. Parsons, Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives; , Elman R. Service, A Century of Controversy: Ethnological Issues From 1860-1960; , George Stocking, Jnr, Race, Culture and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology.



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