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Boas on unilineal evolution

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In "The Methods of Ethnology," Boas levels several criticisms against the unilineal evolutionists. Which of his arguments did you find most convincing, and why?




the argument that I felt convincing was from page 125,where Boas claims that he doesn't beleive that human evolution is based on psychological need that lead to unilineal evolution but "each cultural group has own unique history,dependent partly upon the perticular inner development of the social group, and partly upon the foreign influences to which it has been subjected."

He gives the example of the Zuni civilization that is studied by Cushing and students of Boas. He mentions that Cushing's physchological explanation that the Zuni culture could be explained based on their mind reaction to its environment and that the culture can be explained as the development going through the stage of evolution. Boas and his students claim that the present culture is consisted of traditional trait and European influence. Although I personally do not know about Zuni culture,I believe that what Boas is saying is more plausible.Acculturationhas led them more similar to the western civilization that is seen as the end of evolution. I believe that without European influence,it might have been more difficult to associate it with the "civilzed." I beleive most of the so-called primitive societies that had interacted with the westerners were influenced by the westerners and do

not have 100% pure trait of their own.

Acculturation has occured in not only in places where it was colonized by the European but non-colonies too.

Even though it might look as if its their traditonal cultures,the cultures have been modified. For example,the hawaiian hula dance or the african masks are modified to satify what the tourists would except them to be. Nowadays it is globalization that is erasing the distinction among cultures.



Foundations of Uniform Evolution

emma roberts

In the beginning of his article (page 122) Boas writes, "as soon as we admit that the hypothesis of a uniform evolution has to be proved before it can be accepted, the whole structure loses its foundation". This statement is very powerful and it shows his strategy of finding the inconsistencies throughout other methodologies. He addresses the counterargument of parallel traits found throughout cultures but noes that they are "distributed so irregularly" that they cannot be a concrete example of unilinear evolution. Unilinear evolution is such a strict definition of how culture evolved (and continue to evolve) that it almost sets itself up to be destroyed. Boas's argument is convincing from the first few paragraphs because he attacks unilineal evolution, a concept that should be so consistent were it true, as flawed due to the inconsistant examples throughout the many observed cultures of the world.



Re: Foundations of Uniform Evolution

Lindsey Scott

I agree with Emma when she states that Boas' argument starts on page 122 of his article.  One of the main problems with unilinear evolution is that it cannot seem to be proven on an acceptable basis.  Boas is able to provide evidence counter to unilinear evolution by using different culutres as examples and this argument truly starts with the quote on page 122 as Emma pointed out.  He starts attacking the theory of unilinear evolution here and doesn't seem to ease up.




Boas & Unilinear Evolution

Alexandra Gagne

Boas makes his feelings on unilinear evolution very clear from the start. He finds fundamental flaws in this theory, which he states on pg. 122, “as soon as we admit that the hypothesis of a uniform evolution has to be proved before it can be accepted, the whole structure loses its foundation.” Boas continues to poke holes in this unilinear argument. Perhaps the most convincing example and point he brings up is on pg. 125. His main idea here is that there is evidence to show that cultures have not evolved according to some greater system that governs all the world’s societies. Instead, different peoples have changed according to the various influences they have come in contact with. His example here is the Zuni culture. Cushing’s argument here is that the people evolved based solely on their environmental conditions. On the other hand, Boas and others, including Parsons, feel as though their then current state was a result of both Spanish and local influences. This is strong evidence to suggest that cultures clearly do not illustrate a neat progression. People come into contact with other groups, environments, and lifestyles. Their culture and history are completely unique, as Boas believes.




Boas' Argument against Unilinear Evolution

Allison Moss

I agree with what Emma and E posted. I think Boas makes an even stronger argument on page 126 when he uses some examples of cultural phenomena found more or less universally and explains why this is possible. For instance, Boas talks about marriage as a method to solve a problem faced by man that has only a few solutions. He touches on the fact that polyandry is found in the world but that it is typically a rare marriage practice. This is a pattern seen more or less throughout the world because of biological rather than cultural needs (126). Boas also mentions how/why laws are so common cross-culturally: "if we look for laws, the laws relate to the effects of physiological, psychological, and social conditions, not to sequences of cultural achievement" (126). I do not completely agree with Boas on this last statement--there are definitely laws in existence today that pertain specifically to culture--but I do think that his overall argument against unilinear evolution is strong. By using examples that a unilinear evolutionist might use and proving how these examples do not really relate to evolution of a culture, Boas is able to present a more convincing argument.



Necessity of Historical Proof

Erin Neill

The argument against unilineal evolution that I found most convincing is found on page 123 when he discusses the relationship between representational designs and geometric designs. He writes that anthropologists have ordered the evolution of forms in such a way that "they show a gradual transition from representative forms to purely conventional geometric forms" (123) He discusses the generalization made by unilineal evolutionists in regards to this subject and suggests that the accepted order may be more accurate reversed (geometric to representational). He points out that their is no historical proof that one form of development is more accurate than the other and therefor the assumptions made by unilineal evolutionists can lack historical proof and therefore legitimacy. Boas took what was an accepted concept of form development and flipped it over to show that without historical context it is impossible to know what came first and what came last and one can't presume unilineal evolution when there is no basis, rather only opinions and speculation as to the natural order of things. I feel that with this example Boas points out a significant and important flaw that I find compelling based on its logic.



The Invalidity of Parallelism in Unilinear Evolution

Dave Schatz

The most convincing argument against unilinear evolution I found in Boas' essay was on p. 122. Here you see a direct line of reasoning against the consistency and logic in the argument for single-path evolution. He cites a point made by Tylor, which claims that there are parallels found in various cultures that connote different stages of development, far from the influence of diffusion. Boas agrees that such parallels exist, but there is a subtle indication that modern Western civilization is the echelon towards which all cultures develop. Here lies the inconsistency. If we admit there be several types of civilization, coexisting and having no affect on one another (no matter their parallels), then it does not necessarily follow that a single line of development exists. This is a jump in argument that Boas is keen to pick up. The argument style assumes what it is trying to prove, a logically invalid model. He also questions the assumption that modern Western civilization truly is the end to which all other will adapt; it seems to come out of nowhere and has no backing whatsoever. This counter would ultimately lead to Boas' considerations of historical particularism, the idea that every civilization has its own unique history and developmental past.



Boas on Unilinear Evolution

Annie Cleary

I agree with Emily in that the most convincing argument can be found on page 125. Here Boas succinctly expresses his ideas, stating “There have been processes of gradual differentiation as well as processes of leveling down differences between neighboring cultural centers, but it would be quite impossible to understand, on the basis of a single evolutionary scheme, what happened to any particular people”, and then continues by providing Cushing’s depiction of Zuni civilization and that of Parsons, Kroeber, and Spier. He structures his arguments off of the foundations of previous anthropological theory and tried to validify his stance by providing concrete and comparable examples.


I also find it pertinent to mention the footnote on page 122. Throughout Franz Boas’ criticism of unilinear evolution, we see a methodological dissection of ideas. He presents the positions of several theorists but rather than focusing on identifying ideological flaws he critiques their methods as “sloppy”. As explained, “while Boas couches his arguments against social evolution in methodological terms, his ultimate reasons for making such arguments are deeply held moral convictions”. Boas strongly disagreed with the hierarchical association and western European superiority associated with the unilineal evolutionary thought.




Boas' criticism of Unilineal Evolution

Lindsey Scott

I agree with several other people in that Boas' most convincing argument lies on page 125. Here he is discussing culutral change, and from what I understand of unilineal evolution, societies develop along one path. But Boas brigns up a good point through discussing the differences in culutres and societies. In his argument, Boas states that we see "that each cultural group has its own unique history, dependent partly upon the peculiar inner development of the social group, and partly upon hte foreign influences to which it has been subjected" (125). He then furthers his argument by stating that "it would be quite impossible to understand, on the basis of a single evolutionary scheme, what happned to any particular people" before ringing the Zuñi culture in as an example. I think Boas makes his strongest argument here because it is difficult to picture a society moving and developing along a single path without stopping to see what other influences may have aided the culture in their development. Boas brings this idea to the foreground with his example of the Zuñi culture.


re:The Invalidity of Parallelism in Unilinear Evolution

Chelsey Megli

I have to agree with Dave. I think Boas' strongest argument, particularly when looked at retrospectively today is his dissection of the assumptions of historical particularism. He separation of cultural parallels from Western end stages is what really helped fortify his later arguments. Just because trends exist and cultures have certain parallels does not specifically indicate that those cultures are moving towards a single stage, nor is there evidence for the Western-like evolution historical particularism points towards. Boas' ability to find these jumps in logic shared by previous theorists is what makes his theories so compelling.



re:The Invalidity of Parallelism in Unilinear Evolution

Savannah Fetterolf


While I understand why some believe that the information on page 125 of Boas’ essay is the most convincing argument against unilinear evolution, I do not feel as though this is the strongest part of his argument.  In my opinion, Boas offers a better argument on pages 122-123 which is based on actual examples.  As Dave mentioned, Boas directly addresses Tylor’s argument in this section, carefully outlining it before suggesting that an “orthogenetic” model of the development of civilization is not an appropriate way to account for the cultural variety found in the modern world.  He also offers a concrete example of why unilineal evolution is not a valid hypothesis when he discusses the existence of similar patterns of development in decorative forms throughout multiple cultures.  Citing the work of Putnam, Stolpe, Balfour, and several others, Boas does not question their findings, but poses the idea that none of this can be proven absolutely true without historical proof.  Boas then broadens this argument to apply to cultures by implying that Tylor and other unilinear evolutionists do not have historical proof to support their theories.




re:The Invalidity of Parallelism in Unilinear Evolution

Lauren Deal


I have to agree with the others in the class who have argues that the strongest argument is presented on 122-123. I think it is this argument, complete, as Savannah points out, with examples, in which Boas best counters the diffusion argument. It is also in this section that he begins to outline his major emphasis on fieldwork and methodology. It is also in this section that he begins to distinguish American from European anthropology, saying that American Anthroplogy is "primarily interested in the dynamic phenomena of cultural change and [tries] to elucidate cultural history" essentially through fieldwork. I find this argument the most productive because it not only provides evidence against the prevelant theories of the age but also explains hows those conclusions are reached. I think that this methodology is so essential to his later conclusions about the flaws of unilinear evolution, that it could not have been left out of this article and truly creates the foundation upon which the rest of his arguments rest. 



Negating Unilineal Trends

Heddy Waters


            Boas says, “…we may recognize at the same time that certain typical parallelisms do occur” (126).  I do think this is an important approach, which makes a convincing argument against unilineal evolution, because Boas mentions the parallelisms that could lead one to assume and support the theory, but then counters them by looking at them in depth and in their cultural contexts. 

For example, he references seemingly striking parallelisms like the progressivity of tools and utensils, but also negates the trend by showing other phenomena that did not parallel, like animal domestication.  Also, he refers to marriage as a universal institution, and thus a parallelism, but one biologically driven, and not a result of a cultural hierarchy.  Further, he mentions philosophical views, which are influences by economic and social conditions.

By looking at parallels that do occur in the cultural context, one might believe that there are grounds for the theory of unilineal evolution.  But Boas draws attention to the fact that even they must be analyzed more closely to find the cultural basis behind them. 

Thus, I completely support the statement on page 126: “if we look for laws, the laws relate to the effects of physiological, psychological, and social conditions, not to sequences of cultural achievement.”  All “sequences of cultural achievement” which might support the unilineal evolution theory, really further contain an underlying condition which engendered its development. 



Supporting Boasian Thought

Sara Coburn


    Boas makes a valid point on p. 126 when he states that, “if we look for laws, the laws relate to the effects of physiological, psychological, and social conditions, not to sequences of cultural achievement.” This stands as the most convincing point made in his argument in my mind because he is expressing his support for biological Darwinism that is separate from social Darwinism. Boas is essentially saying that if we related universal laws of cultural history to every cultural development in the world, we would be oversimplifying mankind’s many and separate pieces of cultural history. Boas rejects migration and diffusion as reasons for their being parallelisms in cultures in two different parts of the world because he thinks that there is a only a finite number of ways to do things anyway, so it is unjust to commend one culture’s development as only an arm or an extension of a culture who they did not necessarily come into contact with. I think it’s horribly presumptuous of unilineal evolutionists to assert such universals on cultural achievement because it points only to nature creating all of culture. Boas’ argument here is very compelling to me because it reminds us that culture is not just a biological basis, but shares an environmental shaping as well. I think Boas is referring the nature-nurture interaction of individual cultures, and if we only use nature to explain human cultural achievements, then of course we are only going to find biological results of culture. Boas is trying to expand beyond human biological universals to say that there is more than what meets the naked eye of parallelisms in various cultures. We risk losing the uniqueness of every culture if we try to explain these parallelisms through cultural diffusion and migration.


Re: Foundations of Uniform Evolution

Sara Coburn


    I agree with Emma and Lindsay regarding the weakness of unilineal evolutionary theory holding up. It is true that the theory crumbles before it is put up to the test of scientific reasoning to back up unilineal evolution. I think Boas is very reasonable in the way he words it on p. 125 "...rather we see that each cultural group has its own unique history, dependent partly upon the peculiar inner developments of the social group, and party upon the foreign influences to which it has been subjected." Here he is giving something to unilineal evolutionists, but not much. They are all or nothing in his mind and so of course the foundation of unilineal theory will fall before cultural relativism comes into full throttle.

    Not to mention, Boas is more open-minded and does not want to blend in all cultures as if they all come from the same place.



Boas and Unilinear Evolution

Ojaswi Kafle


I think right at the start of his article, on page 122, Boas makes a couple of very good points. He writes that “as soon as we admit that the hypothesis of a uniform evolution has to be proved before it can be accepted, the whole structure loses its foundation.” I was very drawn to this statement because it questions what makes scholars and the likes believe that unilineal evolution actually takes place. Boas writes that the “hypothesis implies the thought that our modern Western European civilizations represents the highest cultural developments towards which all other more primitive cultural types tend…” Although the world was a very different place in the 1920s than it is now, especially in terms of ethnocentric thought processes, I thought it was very important that Boas questioned the racist implication placed on the hypothesis. If the hypothesis of this uniform evolution cannot even be proved before we move on to explaining this form of evolution, how can there be any structure to the arguments made by unilineal evolutionists?





Parrallelisms in cultural developments

Ojaswi Kafle 

I agree with Heddy that another important point he makes is the one concerning parallelism in cultural developments. I think it was very important that he discuss this issue. By addressing the similarity in marriage through out the world, Boas shows that although different cultures may have very similar institutions, this is in response to a limited number of choices presented to the people; it does not reflect the so-called cultural evolutionary stages.





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