Origins of the Concept of Culture

Herodotus, a Greek historian who lived in the 5th century B.C., gave us one of the first accounts about culture. He wrote at length about his travels throughout the Persian Empire, which included parts of Asia and Africa and much of Middle East. He wrote about the cultural and racial diversity of these regions, noticing the different ways people lived in certain regions as compared to people who lived in others. Due to Herodotus’ account, many people attributed cultural diversity to racial differences.

From the 5th century to the 15th century, European countries began sending out explorers throughout the world in search of new sources of goods and other materials. The resulting contacts with other cultures sparked the Europeans’ interest in cultural diversity.

The English word “culture” came into use during the Middle Ages; it comes from the Latin word for cultivation, as in raising food crops. We can say, then, that the idea for the word originally referred to people’s role in controlling environment.

By the 18th century, many European scientists and philosophers believed that culture had gone through several progressive stages of development. Edward Tylor, a British anthropologist, was among the firsts to broach the idea of cultural evolution. Later on, during the 19th century, many people in Europe used the term culture to refer to controlling the unrefined tastes and behaviors of other people, usually those from the lower classes. The word culture then became associated with intellectual training, refined tastes, and the mannerisms of the upper class. Anthropologists use the term civilization to refer to the same thing; however, in this context, civilization also refers to the height of cultural evolution. In other words, a cultured person-to the anthropologists-is a civilized person.

Scientific discoveries that started in the 19th century pointing to a much, much, older Earth made anthropologists, scientists, and philosophers rethink their previously held views about the world and its people. New ideas were introduced on biological, social, and cultural development as scientists acquired evidence of an older planet and the changes it underwent over hundreds of millions of years.

In 1865, British naturalist Sir John Lubbock advanced the theory that human societies had gone through long stages of cultural development, with each stage marked by technological advancements. He viewed the so-called primitive societies as representing humankind’s earlier cultural stages. According to Lubbock, the stages of humans included the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age), the Neolithic (New Stone Age), the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. He also stated that other aspects of cultural development, such as morality and spirituality, go hand-in-hand with each stage of humanity’s technological advancement.

In 1864, British philosopher Herbert Spencer published his work, “Principles of Biology,” wherein he put forward his own theory on biological and cultural evolution. Spencer argued that everything in the world-including humans and human societies-advance toward perfection. He coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” for he believed that evolution was characterized by constant struggle for survival, and that the weak die. Stronger and more durable races and societies replace the weak ones until finally only stronger and more advanced people remain. His theory on evolution actually preceded Darwin’s. Basically, he applied what was subsequently known as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to people and societies; that they are subject to the same laws of natural selection like the plants and animals are in nature.

Other writers labeled this as Social Darwinism, which was used by western colonizers to justify their conquest of other countries. However, Herbert Spencer had always been a critic of imperialism.

Another anthropologist, the American Lewis Henry Morgan (considered as one of the founders of modern anthropology, along with Tylor) also added his own theory on cultural evolution. He believed that technological progress is the force that drives forward social, or cultural, progress; that any social change, including ideologies, institutions, or organizations, have their beginning in technological change. In his work Ancient Society, Morgan called the evolutionary stages ethical periods: Savagery, Barbarism, and Civilization. They are further divided by technological inventions, namely, fire, bow, and pottery in Savagery; metalworking, animal domestication, agriculture in Barbarism; and alphabet and writing in Civilization. Although he may not have intended his theories to advocate racism, Morgan did believe that western culture is the most advanced form of civilization, and that Europeans were the most advanced people, both culturally and biologically.

Most anthropologists during this period developed theories on cultural development that are both racist and ethnocentric (a belief that one’s culture is superior to other cultures), even though they may not have advocated the use of their theories to promote racism. Nevertheless, others did use them to justify colonialism and exploitation of other people and their lands.

Technological advancements in the 20th century, especially in the fields of transportations and communications, made it easier for some aspects of culture to spread from society to society. This is diffusion. Anthropologists had also developed research methods for studying cultures of small societies. One method, known as ethnology, compares the anthropologists’ findings with the findings of other studies. From there, they developed universal theories about culture.

Culture and cultural exchange have undergone rapid changes in the last several decades; technology, as Morgan theorized, had a major role in these changes. Today, television and the Internet make it very easy for us to learn how people in other parts of the world live, and we learn that customs and behaviors that seem to be very strange to others may be perfectly normal to another. This is cultural relativism-the principle that one’s beliefs and activities should be interpreted in terms of one’s culture.