Neoevolutionary theories are based on empirical evidence from fields such as archaeology, paleontology, and historiography. Proponents[which?] say neoevolutionism is objective and simply descriptive, eliminating any references to a moral or cultural system of values.
While the 19th-century cultural evolutionism attempted to explain how culture develops by describing general principles of its evolutionary process, historical particularism dismissed it as unscientific in the early-20th century. Neoevolutionary thinkers brought back evolutionary ideas and developed them, with the result that they became acceptable to contemporary anthropology.
Neoevolutionism discards many ideas of classical social evolutionism, notably the emphasis on social progress, so dominant in previous sociological evolution-related theories. Neoevolutionism discards the determinism argument and introduces probability, arguing that accidents and free will have much impact on the process of social evolution. It also supports counterfactual history—asking "what if?" and considering different possible paths that social evolution may (or might) have taken, and thus allows for the fact that various cultures may develop in different ways, some skipping entire "stages" others have passed through. Neoevolutionism stresses the importance of empirical evidence. While 19th-century social evolutionism used value judgments and assumptions when interpreting data, neoevolutionism relies on measurable information for analyzing the process of cultural evolution.
Important thinkers for neoevolutionism include:
Ferdinand Tönnies (1855–1936). While not strictly a neoevolutionist himself, Tönnies produced work often[quantify] viewed[by whom?] as the foundation of neo-evolutionism. He became one of the first sociologists to claim that the evolution of society is not necessarily going in the right direction, that the social progress is not perfect—it can even be called a regress as the newer, more evolved societies are obtained only after paying high costs, resulting in decreasing satisfaction of individuals making up that society.
Leslie A. White (1900–1975), author of The Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilization to the Fall of Rome (1959). Publication of this book rekindled interest in evolution among sociologists and anthropologists. White attempted to construct a theory explaining the entire history of humanity. The most important factor in his theory is technology: Social systems are determined by technological systems, wrote White in his book, echoing the earlier theory of Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881). As a measure of societal advance he proposed measuring the energy consumption of a given society (thus his theory became known as the energy theory of cultural evolution). White introduced a formula: C=E*T, where E is a measure of energy consumed, and T is the measure of efficiency of technical factors utilising the energy. This theory resembles the later theory of the Kardashev scale proposed in the 1960s by the Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev (1932–2019). White differentiates five stages of human development:
In the first, people use energy of their own muscles.
Julian Steward (1902–1972), author of Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution (1955, reprinted 1979), developed the theory of "multilinear" evolution, which examined the way in which societies adapted to their environment—a more nuanced approach than White's theory of "unilinear evolution". He questioned the possibility of forming a single social theory encompassing the entire evolution of humanity, however he argued that anthropologists are not limited to descriptions of specific, existing cultures. He believed it possible to develop theories analysing typical, common culture, representative of specific eras or regions. As the decisive factors determining the development of given culture he pointed to technology and economics, and noted secondary factors such as like political systems, ideologies and religion. All those factors push the evolution of a given society in several directions at the same time, hence the multilinearity of his theory of evolution.
Marshall Sahlins (1930–), author of Evolution and Culture (1960). He divided the evolution of societies into "general" and "specific" evolution, seeing general evolution as the tendency of cultural and social systems to increase in complexity, organisation and adaptiveness to their environment. However, as the various cultures are not isolated, there is interaction and a diffusion of their qualities. This leads cultures to deviate from the general evolution and develop in their specific, unique ways (specific evolution).
Gerhard Lenski (1924–2015). In his Power and Prestige (1966) and Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology (1974), Lenski expands on the works of Leslie White and of Lewis Henry Morgan. He views technological progress as the most basic factor in the evolution of societies and cultures. Unlike White, who defined technology as the ability to create and utilise energy, Lenski focuses on information—its amount and uses. The more information and knowledge (especially when they allow the shaping of natural environments) a given society has, the more advanced it is. He distinguished four stages of human development, based on the advances in the history of communication.
In the first stage, information is passed by genes.
^"Neoevolutionism". Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. March 23, 2016. Neoevolutionism, school of anthropology concerned with long-term culture change and with the similar patterns of development that may be seen in unrelated, widely separated cultures.