Classifying Cultures: Grade v. Clade

When we account for human history in evolutionist or developmental terms, we nearly always fall into the trap of teleology and progressivism. Even when evolutionist schemes are carefully and empathetically rendered (I’m thinking here of Robert Bellah), the unstated implication is that some groups have developed more complex ideas than others. While this may be true in some domains (i.e., knowledge related to materials, technology, and science), it is not true of other domains (i.e., worldviews, cosmologies, and religion).

The problem with cultural evolutionary or historical developmental schemes is that they continue to be rendered gradistically rather than cladistically. Decades ago, most evolutionary scientists abandoned (teleological and progressive) gradistic classification, with its subjective weighing of characters or traits deemed to be “primitive” or “advanced,” and moved to cladistic classification which recognizes that all existing forms are equally evolved, with some being more derived than others.

Here, for example, is a gradistic representation of primate evolution:


The message being sent is clear: humans are the most evolved primates, with all other primates being “primitive” forms that stopped evolving at various junctures millions of years ago. When viewed this way, primate evolution appears to be matter of developmental trending towards humans. This is gradistic, progressive, teleological, and wrong.

Here, by way of contrast, is a cladistic representation of primate evolution:


The message of this diagram is quite different: all extant primates are equally evolved. There are no progressive trends and none are more “primitive” or “advanced” than others. Some groups may be more derived than others, but existing adaptive diversity is not graded, valued, or judged. This is the correct view.

If the same thing were done when it comes to human history and culture, we would recognize that hunter-gatherers are not developmentally arrested and have not failed to develop or advance along with the majority of (agricultural and industrial) humanity. In fact, the majority of recently extant hunter-gatherers represent groups who rejected agriculture, and either retreated from or fought against it in an effort to preserve a preferred way of life. These were deliberate and considered choices.

In a recent critique of Jared Diamond, Wade Davis took issue with the ideas of progress, development, trending, and advance which are implicit in Diamond’s work:

There is no hierarchy of progress in the history of culture, no Social Darwinian ladder to success. The Victorian notion of the savage and the civilised, with European industrial society sitting proudly at the apex of a pyramid of advancement that widens at the base to the so-called primitives of the world, has been thoroughly discredited. The other peoples of the world are not failed attempts at modernity, let alone failed attempts to be us.

The very premise of Guns, Germs and Steel is that a hierarchy of progress exists in the realm of culture, with measures of success that are exclusively material and technological; the fascinating intellectual challenge is to determine just why the west ended up on top. In the posing of this question, Diamond evokes 19th-century thinking that modern anthropology fundamentally rejects. The triumph of secular materialism may be the conceit of modernity, but it does very little to unveil the essence of culture or to account for its diversity and complexity.

Consider Diamond’s discussion of the Australian Aborigines in Guns, Germs and Steel. In accounting for their simple material culture, their failure to develop writing or agriculture, he laudably rejects notions of race, noting that there is no correlation between intelligence and technological prowess. Yet in seeking ecological and climatic explanations for the development of their way of life, he is as certain of their essential primitiveness as were the early European settlers who remained unconvinced that Aborigines were human beings. The thought that the hundreds of distinct tribes of Australia might simply represent different ways of being, embodying the consequences of unique sets of intellectual and spiritual choices, does not seem to have occurred to him.

In truth, as the anthropologist WEH Stanner long appreciated, the visionary realm of the Aborigines represents one of the great experiments in human thought. In place of technological wizardry, they invented a matrix of connectivity, an intricate web of social relations based on more than 100 named kin relationships. If they failed to embrace European notions of progress, it was not because they were savages, as the settlers assumed, but rather because in their intellectual universe, distilled in a devotional philosophy known as the Dreaming, there was no notion of linear progression whatsoever, no idealisation of the possibility or promise of change. There was no concept of past, present, or future. In not one of the hundreds of Aboriginal dialects and languages was there a word for time.

The entire purpose of humanity was not to improve anything; it was to engage in the ritual and ceremonial activities deemed to be essential for the maintenance of the world precisely as it was at the moment of creation. Imagine if all of Western intellectual and scientific passion had focused from the beginning of time on keeping the Garden of Eden precisely as it was when Adam and Eve had their fateful conversation.

Clearly, had our species as a whole followed the ways of the Aborigines, we would not have put a man on the moon. But, on the other hand, had the Dreaming become a universal devotion, we would not be contemplating today the consequences of climate change and industrial processes that threaten the life supports of the planet….

Traditional societies…remind us that our way is not the only way. A child raised in the Andes to believe that a mountain is a protective deity will have a relationship with the natural world profoundly different from that of a youth brought up in America to believe a mountain is an inert mass of rock ready to be mined. The mythology of the Barasana and Makuna people is in every way a land management plan revealing how human beings once thrived in the Amazon rain forest in their millions. Take all the genius that enabled us to put a man on the moon and apply it to an understanding of the ocean, and what you get is Polynesia. Tibetan Buddhism condenses 2,500 years of direct empirical observation as to the nature of mind. A lama once remarked that Tibetans do not believe that Americans went to the moon, but they did. Americans may not believe, he added, that Tibetans can achieve enlightenment in one lifetime, but they do.

The voices of traditional societies ultimately matter because they can still remind us that there are indeed alternatives, other ways of orienting human beings in social, spiritual and ecological space.

While I don’t agree with all that Wade says in this essay (which I encourage you to read in full), his conception of human history and cultural diversity is correctly cladistic rather than normatively gradistic. We can be evolutionists without being progressivists. So no more evolutionary trees or progressions. Everything (including human cultures) that exists is part of an equally evolved ball. In this cladistic representation of all life on earth, humans are a single point — equally evolved with all other life forms:


Now imagine a similar ball that represents all recently existing and existing human societies or cultures. Each society or culture is a single point at the outer surface, equally as developed — in diverse and various ways — as the others. We need to stop thinking in terms of stages, advances, accumulations, and progressions, and begin thinking in terms of locally adaptive derivations.

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10 thoughts on “Classifying Cultures: Grade v. Clade

  1. Paul

    I am conflicted on this issue. You claim that humans are not particularly special and thus undeserving of a depiction at the tip of the evolutionary tree. On the other hand, Wade espouses a view that humans must act as arbiter in preserving diversity for the welfare of the species. Are we god — or are we not?

    My feeling is that there must be a footnote to the human clade in your diagram. Our hierarchical societies and complexities can potentially yield a worldview such as Wade’s — or any of the conquerors in Diamond’s work — that result in behaviors that modify other clades (or human sub-clades) outside the normal workings of nature. Alternatively, I could include these worldviews within nature and let fate work everything out. Free will versus fate. If we want both, who is to be judge when to intervene and when to “live and let die”?

    I really do not want to have a fatalistic worldview. Like Wade, I want to save these groups. Unlike Wade, I want to save them for the simple reason that they are interesting and unique, not for some kumbaya bullshit about 7000 voices being a collective “repertoire” for dealing with problems on a “never-ending journey”. If Diamond is on to anything, it might be that this journey may not be as long as we would like.

    Thanks again for your blog. I read it… religiously.

  2. Cris Post author


    I’m conflicted on this issue and every other issue that comes to mind. All my claims and assertions here (in this blog) are provisional, subject to change and revision upon further review, evidence, thought, or argument.

    Because you’ve been appropriately reading the blog “religiously,” which I take to mean symbolically and ambiguously and scientifically, you know that I don’t have any answers, just lots of (hopefully) informed questions.

    I’m searching for truth with an emphatic small “t” and am not all sure I can find it. It’s a beautiful, shifting, kaleidoscopic mess.

    I’ll have to think more about the substance of your response before commenting in any further detail.

    Thanks for reading and happy discovery trails.


  3. jayarava

    “All life is equally evolved” is something that Lynn Margulis used to say. All life is the result of 3.5 billion years of evolution and adapting to environments – including the simplest bacteria. Sometimes simplicity succeeds where complexity fails. Since we are manifestly out of sync with the environment one could argue that we’re less evolved – that modern culture has been a wrong turn. The Australians have sustained their lifestyle for 40,000 years (probably more). We’re at 10,000 years and it’s unlikely we can sustain it for another 10.000, and in our folly we’re wiping out other species and fouling the whole planet. And we’re supposed to be the intelligent ones (compared to bacteria).

    The cladistic models seem to have many applications for understanding populations – languages and ideas in particular.

  4. Alan

    Wade Davis has completely misread Diamond and Darwin as well.
    It is not Indonesia who needs the UN to rescue it from a militaristic neighbor, but Papua New Guinea. It was not Spain that lost over 80% of its population along with its freedom to guns, germs and steel wielding invaders. Diamond is not arguing primitive but competitive, and is demonstrably correct.

    For his part, Diamond has called the Neolithic Revolution ‘The biggest mistake in the history of man’. Diamond agrees with Davis that humans must learn to manage their lives if we are to survive our own ‘progress’.

  5. Cris Post author

    There are many different kinds of “progress,” with material, technological, and population increase being only one of them. There are so many normative variables buried in your measuring stick of “group competition” that one scarcely knows where to begin in deconstructing it. This view is a caricature or cartoon of Darwin.

  6. Pingback: Primitivist Assumption | Genealogy of Religion

  7. Jason

    I agree the word “evolved” and “evolution” can be tricky. Nowadays, people tend to say “simple” and “complex”. However, it seems fairly obvious that at first there was a bow and arrow, then an atlatl, then handgun, then a machine gun. All of these are not equal representations of the same level of ‘evolution’. They are in fact based on cultural progressions through time, developed by trial and error among other methods and technological ‘advancements’.

  8. Cris Post author

    “Simple” and “complex” are just code words for a just-so story about certain types of derived societies who privilege their position and judge all others by that position. Just because technology advances or progresses, it does not mean that everything else comes along for the ride. I’ve written about this issue in numerous posts, including this one that might interest you. Foraging societies may be “simple” in terms of technology, but this has nothing to do with cognition or symbolic or social complexity.

  9. Jason

    I like your blog. Even though I disagree with some issues. I would say that it is wrong to judge more complex societies as superior or better than more simple societies. That’s the key. But I don’t believe they are all equal. Cultures are vastly different. They are not all equal and they are not all the same.
    The facts are that modern societies with skycrapers did not come first in human history. Simpler h/g societies did. There is a loose progression, from simpler (mainly technologically speaking) to more complex. You’ll notice that it is generally agreed that in the chronology, we go from bands of hunter/gathers, to tribes, to chiefdoms, to states. We do not go from states, to chiefdoms, to tribes, to hunter/gathers. There is one loosely building upon another and advancing (mainly because human beings are clever and always thinking of more efficient ways to do things). You are correct that this does not mean its teleological or that Western European societies are at the apex. But you seem to want to totally dismiss any progression at all. Perhaps there is a bit of of both, progression and cladism. The very valid point of cultural relativism is to say that one is not superior to the other, just a different adaptation. Anyway, you gotta a great blog. Keep up the good work.

  10. Cris Post author

    I’m glad you like it and thanks for the kind words. I did not say that all societies are “equal” or the “same.” I said they are all “equally evolved”: that is, they each have a history of equal time depth and development.

    We can compare and contrast different societies in all sorts of interesting and not-interesting ways, but I don’t find the classical-progressive cultural evolutionist typology to be very enlightening. In fact, I deem it pernicious: it blinds us to all manner of interesting issues.

    The old progressive typology (i.e., the one you are using with “stages” and “levels”) is, in my estimation, an impediment to clear thinking.

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