Evolutionary Anthropology & Religion

Since its formation as a distinct discipline in the 1860s, anthropology has been centrally concerned with religion. Despite this fact, the standard origins story for early anthropology rarely mentions this focus. Two of anthropology’s founders, Edward Burnett Tylor and John Lubbock, devoted the better part of a decade to research and writing about animism, spiritualism, and religion. Both considered animism-religion to be a defining characteristic of humanity, and as a consequence both deemed it essential for anthropology — as a foundational matter — to unravel and explain religion. This aim, though implicit, resonates with Marx’s famous statement that “the premise of all criticism is the criticism of religion.”

In 1865, Tylor published Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization. That same year John Lubbock published Prehistoric Times. These are counted as seminal works in the formation of the new discipline known as anthropology. Tylor and Lubbock immediately resumed their research programs with a view toward publishing books that would establish anthropology as a science. In 1870, Lubbock published The Origin of Civilisation (1870) and and a year later Tylor published Primitive Culture (1871). These books, along with Henry Lewis Morgan’s Ancient Society (1877), established the field of evolutionary anthropology.

What is usually lost in this dry (cultural evolutionist) accounting is the extent to which Tylor and Lubbock were concerned with religion. In The Origin of Civilisation, Lubbock devotes four chapters (nearly 40% of the book) to religion and related topics. Tylor placed even more emphasis on the subject. In the first volume of Primitive Culture, he devotes five chapters to things which he considered to be modern survivals of ancient religion. In the final chapter (which runs to 76 pages), he introduces the topic for which he remains most famous: animism. In the second volume of Primitive Culture, Tylor devotes the succeeding six chapters to the same subject. Chapters 11-17 all bear the same title: “Animism.” In the penultimate chapter, Tylor covers “Rites and Ceremonies” and in the final chapter he discusses the implications of his findings for modern religion and theology. Not content with this outpouring, Lubbock revisited all these issues in 1911 with the publication of Marriage, Totemism and Religion.

Though Tylor, Morgan, and to a lesser extent Lubbock are recognized as the founders of anthropology, today they are not widely acclaimed or accorded much honor. In survey courses and introductory textbooks, they are usually condemned for their belief in progressive cultural evolution, a paradigm which asserted that humans evolved biologically and culturally from savagery to barbarism to civilization, finally reaching an evolutionary apogee in the form of Europeans and western civilization. This was undoubtedly a normative and ethnocentric scheme based on the idea that small-scale or “primitive” societies found in remote areas of the world were delayed and in some cases stalled on this progressive track. Because “savages” were developmentally arrested, they were viewed as exemplars or “survivals” of earlier cultural stages.

This standard accounting — and the ultimate rejection of this view by Boas and his students — is correct insofar as it goes; the problem is that it does not go very far. It is a story that wholly ignores the fact that anthropology’s founders considered religion to be a defining characteristic of humanity. The study or science of humanity, therefore, had to explain and account for it. Tylor and Lubbock took up this task with vengeance.

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