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The past and future of the evolutionary taxonomy of cultures

Tehrani, J.J.

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Anthropology was originally conceived as a bridge between the natural and social sciences. Its remit was to fill in the gaps in knowledge about human history between the emergence of our species and the appearance of the first civilizations in written history. However, this project soon became embroiled in a destructive debate between “evolutionists” and “diffusionists”. The evolutionists believed that cross-cultural similarities in social organisation, subsistence technology, etc. were independently discovered by societies as they progressed toward higher stages of civilization. The diffusionists, on the other hand, argued that most cultural innovations were invented only once and spread from their point of origin through migration or contact between societies. While the diffusionists ultimately won that debate, their critique of classical social evolutionism did not extend to Darwinian approaches to culture and were in fact highly compatible with the latter. The failure of Darwinian theory to take root in social anthropology can be explained by a critique of diffusionism launched by Boas and his followers, which has only recently been challenged. Modern phylogenetic analysis of culture provides a new approach for resolving the evolutionist-diffusionist debate, and promises to deliver the still unfulfilled goals of the Victorian founders of anthropology.


Tehrani, J. (2010). The past and future of the evolutionary taxonomy of cultures. Journal of cultural and evolutionary psychology, 8(2), 169-182.

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date Jun 1, 2010
Deposit Date Apr 25, 2014
Publicly Available Date Apr 28, 2014
Journal Journal of Evolutionary Psychology
Print ISSN 1589-5254
Electronic ISSN 1589-7397
Publisher Akadémiai Kiadó
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 8
Issue 2
Pages 169-182
Keywords Cultural evolution, Cultural phylogenetics, Diffusionism, Social Anthropology.


Accepted Journal Article (324 Kb)

Copyright Statement
The archived file in DRO is not the final published version of the paper. Tehrani, J. J. (2010) 'The past and future of the evolutionary taxonomy of cultures.', Journal of evolutionary psychology., 8 (2). pp. 169-182.

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