How did Victorian anthropologists make sense of cultural difference?


              Anthropology is the study of human cultures and as an academic discipline it has largely developed during the popularisation of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Situating cultural difference in ideas about the survival of the fittest became a theme amongst Victorian anthropologists who saw themselves as products of an evolutionary timeline. This was partly because their own culture was influenced by industrialisation, colonial expansion, increasing secularisation and growing intellectual development. As people began to occupy increasingly respected fields based on their own academic merit and achievement, individual effort had never been so highly regarded.

                This coincided with more sophisticated reports from travellers, missionaries and colonialists coming back to Britain about tribal societies and their physical appearance, language, customs and social structures. These were often at a complete variance to Victorian culture; and the collectors and recipients of information particularly relished exotic differences and the philosophical discussion this encouraged. Anthropologists started to handle the information using scientific methods, and this was usually situated in Darwin’s ideas about natural selection.

                Societies were ranked on a scale of civilisation with European culture at the top. Evidence for the cultural inferiority of ‘savages’ included physio-psychological testing, lack of political complexity and generally any family structure that varied from the norm in Britain. Often these groups were described as separate to the human species, and this particularly concerned Christian academics and organisations as it undermined the idea that these primitives could receive the word of God and become moral. Placing primitives into the Biblical story proved difficult for Christian academics. Often they were constructed as the scattered children of Noah, or they existed in a form of low savagery, where after the Fall of Adam and Eve, they had not received the grace of God’s word, and could only improve their existence through contact with moral Christianity (the European version of course).

                The problem with this conception was the sheer length of time that would be required for tribes to reach the distant places they had, compared the literal Biblical timeline interpretation. Evolutionary anthropologists challenged that during the supposed six thousand years of human existence, rudimentary travel methods could take tribes to such inaccessible locations, and they could have acquired such diverse cultural features. Here the evolutionists were conflicted. On the one hand, if human beings had a single origin from which they had spread over the globe, the time for human evolution would have to be dramatically extended, and the ‘stagnation’ of primitive tribes compared to ‘progressive’ cultures would need to be explained. On the other, if humans did not have a common origin and had evolved in different areas, this meant that humans were different species, and did not explain cultural similarities in distant populations.

                The matter was especially complicated by the need to explain why certain cultures had become so rapidly dominant, and other so unchanging. Using Darwin’s theory of evolution, tribal customs were described as ‘survivals’; that is they had no current societal function and had not been subjected to selective pressures, thereby surviving to the present day. Most evolutionary anthropologists thought that these would be subsumed once tribes had contact with the fitter European culture; hence the need to collect as much data on savages as possible before it disappeared. The effects of colonial exploitation on tribal groups were becoming well-known, contrasting to the benefits civilisation was supposed to bring to their primitive way of life. Diseases, malnutrition, and tribal conflict were not happily mediated with colonial rule and reason; and this challenged assumptions about the universality of European superiority.

                Evolutionary anthropologists thought that primitives offered an insight into the evolution of the human race, a sort of cultural time capsule, and that the stages of their own culture could be traced by placing tribes on a scale of evolution. Women, children and lower classes in Victorian society were also ranked on the evolutionary scale, used to justify their position in society. The physical strength of working classes correlated to the superior strength of hunting tribes, the facial features of children were seen as analogous to measurements of tribal noses. All people were believed to have passed through the stages of evolution in their lifetime- with the gradual development of reason, full intellectual faculty, and social and public involvement. The impulsivity of children and sensuality of women mirrored the loose moral restraint of tribes, pointing to their less evolved state.

                The application of evolutionary thinking to cultural differences in nineteenth century anthropology was an earnest attempt to become more scientific in their explanations of vastly diverse groups of people. This caused much debate over the constitution of an optimal society, the idea of progress and the nature of humankinds’ past. Ironically, early evolutionary anthropology itself underwent a rapid evolution during the Victorian Era, as the academic discipline refined and altered its focus in response to growing information, new methods, and cultural changes at home. Anthropology has come a long way from these ideas, due to information about DNA, archaeology and a deeper understanding of the incredible complexity of different cultures, and today the future of the discipline looks bright.

2 comments on “How did Victorian anthropologists make sense of cultural difference?

  1. jessicawilks says:

    As my report was also on the impacts of Darwinism, I found it very interesting to see how evolutionary theory inspired early anthropological studies! You mention that Victorian anthropologists acknowledged their evolutionary history, so I find it very interesting that they would misinterpret Darwinism so thoroughly when applying it to “lesser” races! Do you think Victorian anthropology was all inspired by Darwinian evolutionism? Or do you think that other earlier theories of evolution, such as Lamarckism, played a part?

    The way Darwin was misinterpreted (I think) is as important as how he was properly interpreted. It’s interesting to note that Darwin did not believe in a linear scale of life being from primitive to advanced (or savage to Victorian), but as being many-branched. So I find it very interesting to discover that Victorian anthropoligists thought this way.

    Thanks for the great read, very interesting article and food for thought!

  2. karlietaylor says:

    What an interesting topic!
    You make an excellent point that the application of evolutionary theory was an earnest attempt to develop scientific understanding. I like to look at the Victorian era as the building blocks for modern society; we have learned from their errors and developed modern scientific theories and social attitudes about cultural difference accordingly. It also goes to show that science is never definitive, who knows what future generations will be saying about our by-then discredited theories.

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