Table of Contents
Part II: Primitive Cultures:The Problem
of Their Historical Origin
The Changing Climate of Opinion
DURING THE nineteenth
century, partly as a result of the development of more rapid
means of travel, partly as a result of the establishment of the
British Empire, making it possible for people to journey safely
in many parts of the world hitherto considered inaccessible,
and partly as a result of an extraordinary increase in missionary
activity, the ways of primitive people became a subject of popular
interest to an unprecedented extent. The Journal of the Royal
Anthropological Institute recently carried an article entitled
"Anthropology and the Missionary," which paid tribute
to the great service done by these earlier missionaries in the
understanding of primitive cultures. (1) Such men as Livingstone in Africa, for example, receive
prominent mention. But the list is surprisingly large. Acknowledgment
is made of the scholarliness of the writings of these pioneers.
The rise of large publishing houses
which greatly accelerated the dissemination of this kind of literature
also helped to bring before the civilized world in Europe and
America the unexpected diversity of patterns of living, and the
cultural backwardness (viewed materialistically) of a very large
part of the world's population.
It was during the latter half of
the nineteenth century that genuinely Christian scholars formed
themselves into societies to present papers before the public,
which were an attempt to show how the rapid extensions of knowledge
in this and other areas were related to Scripture, and particularly
to the Old Testament. Always the assumption was that the Bible
is true and that when the findings of these young sciences were
not in harmony with it, the fault lay not with Scripture but
with the sciences. This approach is revealed clearly in the earlier
papers of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute in
1. Rosenstiel, Annette, "Anthropology
and the Missionary", Journal of the Royal Anthropological
Institute, vol.89, Part 1, Jan.-June, 1959, p.107-115.
1 of 18
London, (2) the Exeter Hall Papers
presented before the newly formed YMCA, (3) and the Present Day Tracts contributed by some of
the greatest authorities of the times. (4) These papers dealt with geology, astronomy, archaeology,
and so forth ‹ and not a few with the question of the origin
of civilization and how primitive cultures had come into existence.
It is important to an understanding
of the events which followed to realize that initially it was
not at all thought that such primitive cultures were representative
stages through which Western civilization had passed. The biblical
record of the childhood of mankind starting with the creation
of a completely human and highly intelligent being, Adam, followed
by the rapid rise of city life, the almost immediate appearance
of trades and skills evidencing a division of labour supportable
only by a higher civilization ‹ all these were seen by most
people as normal to the beginnings of human history. No primitive
stages were visualized for man as a whole during this process.
When, for the first time, stone arrowheads and associated fossil
remains were brought to the attention of the public, they were
not taken to be manifestations of man in the making, but as the
relics of man under condemnation. (5) The existence of primitive people was unanimously
interpreted as proof of the Fall of man. Very few people
2. For example, the very first volume of the
Transactions of the Victoria Institute published in 1866 contained
papers on the existing relations between Scripture and science,
on the difference in scope between Scripture and science, on
the various theories of man's past and present condition, on
the origin of speech, on miracles, on the lessons taught us by
geology in relation to God, on the mutual helpfulness of theology
and natural science, and on the past and present relations of
geological science in relation to the Sacred Scriptures. In the
succeeding years papers were presented with such titles as, "Some
Uses of Sacred Primeval History," "The Common Origin
of the American Races with Those of the Old World," "On
True Anthropology," and on "Man's Place in Creation."
These papers were written, in many cases, by men who were prominent
figures in England and on the Continent.
3. The Exeter Hall Papers, published in London by Nisbet, were
even earlier, running from 1845 to 1865; and being addressed
to a more popular audience were not quite as scholarly but dealt
with the same basic problems. It is some reflection on the seriousness
of the membership of the YMCA in those days that these papers
treated such serious subjects as "Patriarchal Civilization,"
"Biblical Statements in Harmony with Scientific Discoveries,"
"The Natural History of Creation," "Geological
Evidence of the Existence of the Deity," "The Common
Origin of the Human Race," "God in Science," and
4. The Present Day Tracts were a series of learned papers in
13 volumes published by the Religious Tract Society from 1883
on. They, too, dealt with problems such as "The Age and
Origin of Man Geologically Considered," "The Mosaic
Authorship and Credibility of the Pentateuch," "The
Philosophy of Mr. Herbert Spencer," "Points of Contact
Between Revelation and Natural Science," "The Ethics
of Evolution Examined," and so forth.
5. Wendt, Herbert, I Looked For Adam, Weidenfeld and Nicolson,
London, 1955, p.15 ff.
considered them as evidence
of man's evolution. So firm was the belief in the idea that Adam
was a vastly superior being and early civilization reflected
some of this superiority, and that the Christian civilizations
of the day had somehow preserved this superiority, that all other
forms of culture were looked upon as decadent, and primitive
people as the most degenerate of all. The idea of any kind of
progress apart from Christian influence was simply not countenanced.
But another and entirely different
view of history was beginning to find favour in England and elsewhere
as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the great advances
being made in technology, advances which seemed to be completely
independent of any Christian indebtedness. This took the form
of a philosophy that was Darwinian in spirit but actually owed
nothing to him. Some of the most generative concepts of this
particular view of history, such as the survival of the fittest
for example, were borrowed from Spencer and others who shared
his views. Tennyson's famous poem, In Memoriam, which
pictures Nature as red in tooth and claw was actually published
ten years before The Origin of Species. What is even more
important in the context of this Doorway Paper is that during
the latter half of the nineteenth century the social anthropologists
who wrote about primitive people in general had also been strongly
influenced by the Spencerian philosophy of progress. And they,
entirely independent of Darwinism, were busily engaged in ordering
and arranging these primitive cultures in tidy little evolutionary
sequences. Thus as Melville Herskovits pointed out: (6)
It is essential for an understanding
of cultural evolutionism that it be regarded as more than just
a reflex of the biological theory of evolution, where it is customarily
held to have been derived. Teggart, the student of intellectual
history, has pointed out how Darwin's work The Origin of Species
that appeared in 1859 was "just too late to have an effect
upon the remarkable development of ethnological study in the
second half of the nineteenth century." The works which
initiated this development, such as the contributions of the
Germans, Waitz, Bastian, and Bachhofen, or the English scholars,
Maine, McLennan and Tylor, appeared between 1859 and 1865. This
means that they were being planned and written about the same
time Darwin was carrying out his researches and organizing and
writing down his conclusions. Teggart, moreover, shows that cultural
and biological evolutionism differed in certain important theoretical
respects. He points out that "Tylor, in 1873, and McLennan,
in 1876" were "disclaiming dependence upon Darwin,
and maintaining their allegiance to an earlier tradition of development
or evolution. The concept of evolution, in ethnology is, in fact,
distinct from the type of evolutionary study represented in Darwin's
When Maine and
McLennan began to publish their views, they
6. Herskovits, Melville J., Man and His
Works, Knopf, New York. 1950. p.464.
had not the slightest
doubt as to the propriety of arranging the cultural materials
to demonstrate evolutionary progress. Things had always improved
in the past, and they would therefore continue to do so in the
future. Science was merely accelerating a natural process, performing
more and more miracles as the Church unhappily seemed able to
perform fewer and fewer. A very concrete heaven could be built
right here on earth, and the appeal to a spiritual heaven to
come in another world increasingly lost its force. Morality based
on man-to-God relationships was being steadily replaced by ethics
based on man-to-man relationships. A person could be good and
completely non-Christian. Of this new spirit Melvin Rader wrote: (7)
At the dawn of modern science,
men were immensely confident that its uses would be beneficent.
The great medieval seer, Roger Bacon (one of the first "moderns")
was fired by the deep enthusiasm for the new world that science
could create. It would reveal the past, present and future, and
secure the vast improvement and the indefinite prolongation of
life. Similarly such Renaissance thinkers as Giordano Bruno,
Leonardo da Vinci., and Tomasso Companella, harbingers of the
modern scientific and technological revolution, were intoxicate
with its infinite promise. Such optimism found ample expression
in the work of Francis Bacon who believed that science would
enlarge the bounds of human empire to the effecting of all things
possible and in writing the New Atlantis, jubilantly imagined
the Utopia he believed scientific progress would achieve.
In its initial
stages of development such an intellectual climate was completely
suited to the launching of a work like The Origin of Species.
It was almost inevitable, for as Calverton rightly pointed out:
The very simultaneity with which
Darwin and Wallace struck upon the theory of natural selection
and the survival of the fittest was magnificent proof of the
intense activity of the idea at the time. Every force in the
environment, economic, and social, conspired to the success of
As we have already
noted, anthropology in its initial stages developed entirely
independently of Darwinism. But it was not long before its findings
were recognized as providing additional confirmation of Darwin's
views as applied to human origins. The literature of this new
discipline quickly gained popular acclaim, because it so completely
suited the "zeitgeist" of the time. Yet this popularity
was in the end to prove a hindrance. For anthropology began to
achieve the status of a science chiefly because of its evolutionary
bias in much the same way that geology and zoology were considered
7. Rader, Melvin, "Technology and Community,"
Scientific Monthly, June, 1949, p.502.
8. Calverton, V. F., "Modern Anthropology and the Theory
of Cultural Compulsives," in The Making of Man, Modern
Library, Neew York, 1931, p.2, and italicized statements on p.27.
because they subscribed
to the view that everything must be explained in completely naturalistic
terms without any appeal to the supernatural. The hindrance lay
in the fact that evolutionary principles were soon uncritically
applied where they never should have been and when the mistake
became apparent to anthropologists themselves, they did not dare
to speak out against the tendency for fear of being termed unscientific.
Lack of courage on the part of
those who could see what was happening, led younger students
to get an entirely biased view of the evidence. Thus, to use
the words of Abram Kardiner. (9)
The study of "primitive
man" held out high hopes that it would supply valuable information
about man's cultural evolution. In a measure ‹ a small one
‹- this hope was satisfied. But when a new area of investigation
is the byproduct of a parent hypothesis, it is natural that its
first efforts will be directed by sustaining its progenitor.
The study of primitive man was
therefore biased at its inception. The great names of Edward
B. Tyler, James Frazer, Lucien Levy-Bruhl, and Emile Durkheim
were associated with these early efforts. They were determined
to show cultural evolution by demonstrating that archaic, simple
forms of thought and social organization changed into more complex
and integrated forms.
The fallacy of this early approach
was not only that it colored the conclusions from observed data,
but also that it dictated what data should be considered relevant.
This is where the theory of cultural evolution did its greatest
damage. For these evolutionists were not studying the adaptation
of primitive man to his environment. They hopped, skipped, and
jumped from one culture to another, picked what they wanted from
each, and fitted it into their master plan.
humanistic philosophy was reinforced in its popular appeal by
the prodigious labours of the Higher Critics who steadily succeeded
in providing thoughtful people with more and more excuses for
dismissing the authority of Scripture by pronouncing it essentially
mythological. There was no doubt that everything tended to evolve,
and the Bible was wrong in its emphasis on the natural tendency
of man to degenerate. In the opposing camp, a quite formidable
array of Christian scholars were insisting with equal assurance
that the evidence from archaeology and ethnology were completely
against any such universal progress. There was no doubt that
everything tended to degenerate, and the Bible pointed to the
final and utter corruption of all things pertaining to the cultures
of the world. Perhaps both views have been in error by exaggerating
one side of the picture only. Not everything degenerates -- nor
does every thing evolve into something higher.
9. Kardiner, Abram, in a review of "Posthumous
Essays by Bronislau Malinowski," in Scientific American,
June, 1918, p.58. An excellent illustration of how this bias
operated will be found, with reference to Eoliths, in H. V. Vallois
and M. Boule, Fossil Men, Dryden, New York 1957, p.101.
we shall see, there has been a change of opinion even among non-Christian
anthropologists, and the initial artificial evolutionary sequences
created by Maine and Tylor, et. al., have been largely
repudiated in their original form, though they are still often
used for teaching purposes. However, it should be noted that
when modern authorities state their disbelief in "Evolution,"
they do not mean by this that they doubt man's animal ancestry,
but only that they are rejecting the kind of cultural evolution
which, to use Wallis' words, "dominated the findings"
of the earlier social anthropologists. The point is an important
one, because Christian writers who are not aware of this background
sometimes quote modern authorities as having repudiated the theory
of the evolution of man as a whole. This is a mistake. These
writers are referring only to cultural evolution and not to biological
evolution. But this is a recent change of mind. Such a change
has resulted partly from the fact that the vastly prehistoric
times could no longer be fitted into the older scheme and partly
because of more refined methods of dating. Wilson Wallis a few
years ago said in an address before the American Association
in 1947, certain basic assumptions are currently made by anthropologists
when dealing with prehistoric man. (10) To use his words, "The further we proceed into
the gloom of the prehistoric, the clearer our vision. Hence things
which could not possibly be inferred if the data were contemporary
man, can, thanks to this illumination in the gathering dusk of
remote ages, be inferred with confidence." Of course, the
secret is that when there is no possibility of being proved wrong,
one can afford to state with complete assurance that one is right.
In fact, this tendency to take advantage of the scarcity of the
data has been sharply rebuked by such men as Harry L. Shapiro
of the American Museum of Natural History, who remarked: (11)
No doubt the competitive struggle
for attention for one's ideas may motivate the form in which
they are presented, and unquestionably many of us in our zeal
may speak with honest if unwarranted conviction: but this does
not excuse anthropology or anthropologists from the consequences
of what we permit to stand as anthropological gospel. . . [What
is needed is] the development of a rigorously critical attitude
towards the speculations and developments embodied in anthropological
writings. This is all the more essential since anthropology,
as well as the other social sciences, lacks the experimental
procedures that exert a profound salutary control on the growth
of the experimental sciences. Among them, a claim can be immediately
10. Wallis, Wilson, "Pre-Suppositions
in Anthropological Interpretations," American Anthropologist,
vol.50, 1948, p.560.
11. Shapiro, Harry L., "The Responsibility of the Anthropologist,"
Science, vol.109, l949, p.323, 326.
under similar control in hundreds of
laboratories. . . On the contrary our investigations do
not lend themselves readily to this kind of testing. . . It
is for this reason that I regard it as essential for the continued
health of anthropology that we be severely critical in appraising
the theories and investigations that are issued as representative
But one also notes an amazing failure
to examine the fundamental assumptions and premises of new lines
of investigation which, like a new fashion in women's wear, appear
to exercise a kind of tyranny that no one dares to question.
I do suggest that such critiques
are desirable, and I do know a number of anthropologists who
do not hesitate privately or in their classrooms to offer critical
comment ‹ yet they are strangely silent in print.
Perhaps he had
in mind Wallis, who in the same connection and on another occasion
had also written: (12)
Since the day of Darwin, the evolutionary
idea has largely dominated the ambitions and determined the findings
of physical anthropology, sometimes to the detriment of the truth.
are comparatively recent. But even when anthropology was a young
science divorced from any reference to biblical statements, there
were notable exceptions to the general rule that the most prominent
authorities were dedicated to the evolutionary idea. In fact,
E. B. Tylor himself, who has been quite properly called the Father
of anthropology, and who firmly held the progressive view of
culture which evolution seemed to demand nevertheless was not
unaware of the fact that cultural degeneration was very real.
Thus in his classic work he wrote with keen insight: (13)
It does not follow from such
arguments as these that civilization is always on the move or
that the movement is always progress. On the contrary, history
teaches that it remains stationary for long periods and often
To understand such decline of culture
it must be borne in mind that the highest arts and the most elaborate
arrangements of society do not always prevail, in fact they may
be too perfect to hold their ground for people must have what
fits their circumstances.
There is an instructive lesson
to be learnt, from an Englishman at Singapore, who noticed with
surprise two curious trades flourishing there. One was to buy
old English ships, cut them down and rig them as junks. And the
other was to buy English percussion muskets and turn them into
old fashioned flint locks! At first sight this looks like mere
stupidity, but on consideration it is seen to be reasonable enough.
It was so difficult to get Eastern sailors to work ships of European
rig that it answered better to provide them with the clumsier
craft they were used to; and as to the guns, the hunters far
away in the hot damp forests were better off with gun-flints
than if they had to carry and keep a dry stock of caps. In both
cases what they wanted was not
12. Wallis, Wilson, "The Structure of
Prehistoric Man," in The Making of Man, Modern Library,
New York, 1931, p.75.
13. Tylor, E. B., Anthropology, Hill and Co., New York,
1904, pp.14, 15.
the highest product of civilization,
but something suited to the situation and easier to be had.
Now the same rule applies both
to taking in new civilizations, and keeping up old. When the
life of the people is altered by a migration into a new country,
or by war and distress at home, or mixture with a lower race,
the culture of their forefathers may be no longer needed or possible
and so dwindles away.
Such degeneration is to be seen
among the descendants of Portuguese in the East Indies, who have
intermarried with the natives and fallen out of the march of
civilization, so that newly-arrived Europeans go to look at them
lounging about their mean hovels in the midst of luxuriant tropical
fruits and flowers as if they had been set there to teach by
example how man falls in cultures where the need of effort is
Another frequent cause of loss
of civilization is when people once more prosperous are ruined
or driven from their homes like those Shoshonee Indians who took
refuge from their enemies the BlackFoot, in the wilds of the
Rocky Mountains where they now roam. They are called "Digger
Indians" from the wild roots which they dig for as part
of their miserable subsistence. Not only the degraded state of
such outcasts, but the loss of particular arts by other peoples,
may often be explained by loss of culture under unfavorable conditions.
For instance, the South Sea Islanders though not a very rude
people when visited by Captain Cook, used only stone hatchets,
and knives, being indeed so ignorant of metal that they planted
the first iron nails they got from the English sailors in the
hope of raising a new crop. Possibly their ancestors were an
Asiatic people to whom metal was quite well known, but who through
emigration to ocean islands, and separated from their kinsfolk,
lost the use of it and fell back into the Stone Age.
Here is a great
authority writing at a time when the concept of progress dominated
everyone's thinking and required the interpretation of all history
to lend its support, nevertheless drawing attention to the fact
that there are circumstances in which devolution and not evolution
is almost inevitable. As a matter of fact, one of the great Christian
protagonists of that day, Sir William Dawson, enunciated the
principle that if mankind enjoyed a high civilization at the
very beginning we might often expect to find a very low civilization
at the end by reason of its initial brilliance, because the more
refined a culture the more sensitive it is to imbalance and decay.
When such a culture broke down, it would probably sink as much
lower as it had once been higher, the more advanced its earlier
stages, the more degraded its later. A gentlewoman becoming a
pioneer wife might be found in greater straits for her gentility
than her laundry woman, but the subsequent findings of her rude
handicrafts would be no indication whatever of whether she were
a primitive or a cultured person. Accustomed to silk, she could
not weave for herself the coarsest sackcloth, accustomed to silverware
she would be able to devise only the crudest of wooden spoons,
having no palette or paints she would scarcely exhibit her highly
trained artistic talents except
in the crudest way. Should
we subsequently come upon these evidences of her presence, must
we therefore conclude that she was member of a tribe scarcely
civilized at all? As Dawson put it: (14)
As well might it be affirmed
that a delicately nurtured lady is an "utter barbarian"
because she cannot now build her house or make her own shoes.
No doubt in such work she would be far more helpless than the
wife of the rudest savage, yet she is not on that account to
be held as an inferior being.
To us now this
conclusion seems almost self-evident although; at the time Dawson
wrote, scarcely anyone paid any attention to his arguments. But
inevitably the artificiality of these reconstructions of cultural
history became apparent even to those who had not the slightest
doubt that man began his career as little more than an ape. Today
the tide of opinion has begun to turn and modern authorities
often take pains to show the weaknesses of some of these earlier
views. I think one reason for this is that we no longer have
any recognized and authoritative Christian school of thought
upholding the biblical view of man's early superiority and subsequent
degeneracy. Therefore social anthropologists today are no longer
afraid of being accused of a Christian bias when they look with
more favour upon the possibility of cultural devolution. Such
frank admissions are no longer felt to give any comfort to the
Let me illustrate this point by
a few extracts from recent literature. To quote Herskovits again:
Every exponent of cultural evolution
provided an hypothetical blueprint of the progression he conceived
as having marked the development of mankind, so that many examples
of nonlinear sequences have been recorded. Some of these progressions
were restricted to a single aspect of culture, as has been indicated.
Not all students, moreover, were equally insistent on the inevitability
of the developmental stages they sketched. As we move away from
the heyday of the evolutionary hypothesis, we encounter a greater
degree of tentativeness and flexibility. Yet some sequence is
always described in these latter works, whatever exceptions to
them may be noted.
Of the evolutionary sequences that
were formulated in the classical works of this school, none is
more specific than that given in Morgan's Ancient Society.
Three principal periods in human socio-cultural development
were distinguished by Morgan ‹ savagery, barbarism, and civilization.
The first two of these were each held to have been divided into
older, middle, and later periods, marked by conditions of society
to which were applied the designations lower, middle and upper
status of savagery or barbarism.
goes on to illustrate how Morgan re-arranged history
14. Dawson, Sir J. William, The Story of
the Earth and Man, Hodder and Houghton, London, 1903, p.390.
15. Herskovits, Melville, Man and His Works, Knopf, New
York, 1950, p.467.
to validate his interpretation.
Starting with the very primitive Australians with descent through
the female, he then drew a line leading to the American Indians
with a change in descent from the females to the males. The sequence
then moved to Grecian tribes in the protohistoric period, with
descent firmly established in the male line, but no strict monogamy.
The last entry in this ascending scale was, of course, represented
by modern civilization with descent in the male line and strict
adherence to monogamy. This was only one of Morgan's sequences
and was constructed to show how what he considered was a very
loose family organization had evolved into a close one. On this
sequence Herskovits commented as follows: (16)
But this series, from the point of
view of a historical approach, is quite fictitious, since only
the last two items in it are historically related. In terms of
actual time, the series should be arranged in this way:
Civilization. American Indians. Australian
Placed in this fashion, it is
at once seen to be no series at all, but rather a comparison
of data existing on a given plane, arranged according to a predetermined
scheme of development.
This is an illustration
of a principle which was applied right across the board to the
development of art, religion, toolmaking, etc. Thus European
prehistory was neatly divided into a series of ages, Paleolithic,
Mesolithic, and Neolithic. The fact that the American Indians
were still living in the Old Stone Age (Paleolithic) when Europe
was passing through an Industrial Revolution did not at the time
appear to challenge this neat little scheme of things. Sir William
Dawson wrote his Fossil Men and Their Modern Representatives
as a protest against such blindness, but in spite of the
fact that he wrote with authority and eloquence, and without
rancour, it seems that no one paid much attention to his work.
(17) However, as
we have said, the tide is turning.
A recent symposium in Chicago at
which experts from several countries presented papers covering
the whole field of anthropology, included a paper by Hallam L.
Movius entitled "Old World Prehistory: Paleolithic."
He opened with these words: (18)
16. Ibid., p.476.
17. Dawson, Sir J. William, Fossil Men and Their Modern Representatives,
Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1883, viii and 354 pp., index and
18. Movius, Hallam L. Jr., "Old World Prehistory: Paleolithic,"
in Anthropology Today, Chicago, 1953, p.163.
the last twenty-five years, our knowledge of the Paleolithic
period has been greatly extended beyond the confines of Western
Europe. This has not resulted in the establishment of as coherent
a picture of man's early attempts to develop a material culture
as was originally expected. For, when we examine the bewildering
array of primitive Stone Age assemblages that are constantly
being augmented by fresh discoveries, we can hardly compose them
into anything even remotely approaching the ordered general scheme
conceived by the early workers.
It all seems
so very obvious now. Ruth Benedict stressed this when she pointed
Early anthropologists tried
to arrange all traits of different cultures in an evolutionary
sequence from the earliest forms to their final development in
Western civilization. But there is no reason to suppose that
by discussing Australian religion rather than our own we are
uncovering primordial religion, or that by discussing Iroquoian
social organization we are returning to the mating habits of
man's early ancestors.
Since we are forced to believe that the
race of man is one species it follows that man everywhere has
an equally long history behind him. Some primitive tribes may
have held relatively closer to primordial forms of behavior than
civilized man, but this can only be relative and our guesses
are as likely to be wrong as right. There is no justification
for identifying some one contemporary primitive custom with the
original type of human behavior.
But Ruth Benedict
herself almost fell into the trap of stating that early man must
have been somewhat like modern primitives. Or, to put it slightly
differently, that our primitive contemporaries are in effect
our contemporary ancestors. However, there must have been a fundamental
difference between early man and modern primitives because, in
the Middle East at least, culture though beginning in a comparatively
simple way, very rapidly advanced into complexity, whereas backward
people today no longer seem to have the power to elevate themselves.
Contact with higher civilizations
sometimes brings a great advance, but almost as frequently it
brings their extinction. In examining the question of how civilization
arose in the first place, Lord Raglan had this to say:
The term "backward races,"
which is almost universally applied to savages . . . implies
that they are now in the stage that we were in a
19. Benedict, Ruth, Patterns of Culture,
Mentor Books, New York, 1951, pp. 6 and 17. See also on this
subject Herskovits, ref.6, p. 618; Goldenweiser, Alexander, Anthropology,
Crofts, New York, 1945 p.507; Shapiro, H. L., Race Mixture,
UNESCO, Paris, 1953, pp.31, 32; also Lowie, R. H. Social
Organization, Rinehart, New York, 1948, pp.122 ff.; Evans-Pritchard,
Social Anthropology Cohen West, London, 1951, p.24.
20. Raglan, Lord, How Come Civilization? Methuen, London,
thousand years ago, and, if left alone,
would in time rise to something similar to the stage in which
we are now.
Not a single fact can be adducted
to support this theory. All the available evidence suggests that
no savage society, if left to itself, has ever made the slightest
progress. The only change that takes place in isolated societies
is change for the worse.
This lack of
evolutionary sequence applies in the realm of man's religious
history also. Thus E. O. James in a paper read before the Royal
Anthropological Institute said: (21)
It is impossible to maintain
a unilateral evolutionary development in religious thought and
practice in the manner suggested by the rationalistic classifications
of Tylor and Frazer, following along the lines of the "Law
of the Three Stages," enunciated by Auguste Comte. Neither
the Euhemeran speculation that the idea of God arose in ancestor-worship,
revived by Herbert Spencer, nor the Frazerian evolution of monotheism
from polytheism and animism as a result of a process of the unification
of ideas, can be reconciled with the shadowy figure of a tribal
Supreme Being now known to have been a recurrent feature of the
primitive conception of Deity.
Largely as a result of the persistent
researches of Pater Wilhelm Schmidt, following the lead of Andrew
Lang who in 1895 first called attention to the High Gods of Low
Races in his Making of Religion, it is now fairly established
that, independent of influences from missionaries, or any other
contacts with higher cultures, the recognition of an All-Father
is an integral element in the religion of such simple people
as the Pygmies, the Fuegians, the Australian aborigines, the
Californians, and the Andamanese. This cannot be described as
monotheism in the strict sense of the term, since there is no
suggestion of a single omnipotent Deity being the ground and
source of all existence; or even as monotheism, inasmuch as the
All-Father is not the sole god of his people like Jehovah in
pre-exilic Israel. Nevertheless, the belief in Supreme Beings
precludes a clear-cut evolutionary interpretation of the idea
of God as distinctly stratified as the geological sequence in
pointed out how misleading the theory of evolution became when
applied to other human institutions and activities. He warned
that "having been impregnated almost fatally with the seed
of evolutionary thinking, we like to conceive of everything in
the history of culture as a series of transformations."
(22) He then went
on to show how misleading such thinking can be. For example,
he said: (23)
Nor is it true, as some social
scientists have once supposed, that the primitives were addicted
to communal or group ownership rather than the ownership of things
by individuals. The patent facts do not at all support this a
priori conception which must be regarded as one of the ad
hoc concoctions of the evolutionists who were looking for
21. James, E. O., "Reality and Religion,"
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol.80,
22. Goldenweiser, A., Anthropology, Crofts, New York,
23. Ibid., p.47.
something less specific than individual
property from which it could be derived, and who found this "something"
in communal ownership.
Even with regard
to early art history, evolution proved wanting as a key. It was
assumed at first that pictorial representations would naturally
precede the use of symbols, since the latter are of a higher
conceptual order. But this, too, proved to be unsupported by
the evidence from prehistory. (24) As we have shown in another Doorway Paper, (25) evolutionary theory applied
to the origin of language proved to be a block to any further
understanding of the problem and has since been discarded. At
the moment no "satisfactory" alternative has been found.
Darwin himself remarked upon the stimulating effect of mistaken
theories as compared with the sterilizing effect of mistaken
But a false theory can be very useful in spite of its falsity,
provided only that it is not erected into a dogma and presented
as fact. Theories are essential to the progress of understanding
in science because they structure experiment and inspire the
asking of pertinent questions. When facts do not support the
theory, it may be modified and continue to serve as inspiration
for further investigation. But when a theory which is tentative
is presented as fact, it no longer serves to inspire questions
but rather to predetermine answers. To my mind, this is the present
position of evolutionary theory. It has become "fact"
and to challenge it is to run the risk of excommunication. In
Medieval times, too, excommunication was one of the penalties
for challenging the accepted view of things. At that time the
test of whether any new theory was true or false was, as John
Randall points out, whether it fitted harmoniously into the orthodox
systems of belief and not whether it could be verified by experiment.
(27) This is exactly
the position today; ecclesiastical dogma has been replaced by
biological dogma (28)
which, as "dogma," has been detrimental to the truth.
24. Ibid., p.166.
25. Custance, A. C., "Who Taught Adam to Speak?" Part
VI in Genesis and Early Man, vol.2 in The Doorway Papers
26. White, Andrew D., A History of the Warfare of Science
With Theology, Braziller, New York, 1955, p.43.
27. Randall, John H. Jr., The Making of the Modern Mind,
Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1940, p.98. Carl C. Lindegren pointed
out that "the chronological sequence in which scientific
discoveries are made has a direct bearing upon the way in which
they are interpreted." As a consequence of this he says,
"Data that confirm a well established theory are generally
accepted without critical evaluation" (Science, July
6, 1956, p.27). See also on this P. G. Fothergill, Historical
Aspects of Organic Evolution, Hollis and Carter London, 1952,
28. During the International Symposium on Anthropology held in
New York under the chairmanship of A. L. Kroeber in 1952, there
was remarkable freedom of discussion and criticism of the tendency
of some authorities to become emotionally dogmatic when orthodox
views were challenged in any way. For example, see the remarks
made by M. Bates with reference to the domineering attitude of
Dobzhansky, as reported in An Appraisal of Anthropology Today,
edited by Sol Tax et al, University of Chicago, 1953,
One of the unexpected results of archaeological research
was the quite frequent validation of classical historians like
and others, and upon occasion quite remarkable confirmations
of specific traditions which had formerly been considered entirely
fictitious. A good illustration of this was the rediscovery of
Troy. But archaeology in general in the Middle East area tended
to strengthen greatly our confidence in much that had been viewed
as an illustration of the rather natural desire of any people
to glorify their own past history. Melvin Kyle summed up the
situation this way: (30)
Archaeology, in both the
Biblical and the classical fields, has started without assumptions
and has proceeded uniformly towards trustworthiness of ancient
documents. The whole underlying Homeric stories, the account
of the ruined palace and splendour of King Minos and the story
of Menes, the first king in Egypt, all formerly regarded as legendary
or mythical, have now taken their place in sober history. Herodotus,
and Strabo and Josephus, so often charged with inaccuracies,
have again and again been found to be correct. In the biblical
field not a single statement of fact has been finally discredited.
have been some of these findings. No one took the story of the
Golden Fleece seriously until it was found that the traditional
home of this fabled pelt had in earlier times been the scene
of much gold mining activity. The natives apparently panned gold
from the local streams and were in the habit of using sheep skins
with the wool still intact as sieves. Such skins became heavily
gilded, the gold being recovered subsequently by burning them.
(31) It seems highly
likely that one of these was seized by a traveller who did not
understand its purpose or origin and the trophy finally came
to Colchis where it easily became the basis of the classical
story. From this same heroic age came the stories of Nestor and
Telemachus. Nestor has come to life, and with his resurrection
much that was mythical has turned out to be history. Even the
bath tub in which Telemachus was refreshed by Nestor's youngest
29. The Illustrated London News (Dec.
10, 1927, p.1058) contained an article by Margaret Taylor on
the unique rock painting in Southern Rhodesia, which shows a
whole orchestra about to begin a performance! The circumstances
surrounding this painting are believed to confirm a statement
made by Herodotus which was completely discredited because it
stated that about 600 B.C. Pharaoh Necho sailed round Africa.
This was held to be extremely unlikely. But it appears that it
may very well have occurred, this orchestra having belonged to
the Egyptian king.
30. Kyle, Melvin G., "The Antiquity of Man According to
the Genesis Account," Transactions of the Victoria Institute,
London, vol.57, 1925, p.127.
31. Simpich, Frederick, "Men and Gold," National
Geographic Magazine, Apr., 1933, p.482.
the first "Order
of the Bath," may have been re-discovered. (32) When Layard recovered
for us much of Assyria's past, its fabled kings and conquerors
likewise became historic characters.
When early Christian societies,
to which reference has already been made, were being formed,
a great number of papers appeared dealing with the traditions
of ancient people and their relationship to the biblical record.
A number of very learned works of a more extended nature appeared
dealing with the same subject including those of Lord Arundell
of Wardour, (33)
Francois Lenormant, (34)
and, of course, Alexander Hislop with his famous The Two Babylons.
(35) This general
interest in Middle East traditions was extended in due time to
an interest in the traditions of people from other parts of the
world, such as is reflected in the work of Charles F. Keary (36) and, of course, more extensively
in the writings of Sir James Frazer (37) whose massive scholarship and extraordinary literary
eloquence earned him worldwide recognition. It may be noted in
passing that Frazer had no desire to uphold the veracity of Scripture
nor do his writings reflect any great spirit of reverence. The
revival of interest in tradition which called forth his monumental
work was evidently very widespread and extended far beyond the
circle of Christian readers. Writing at the time of this surge
of fresh interest, the great Orientals scholar, George Rawlinson
pointed out the significance of this increasing verification
of traditions in so far as they relate to the origin of civilization
and the condition of early man. He said: (38)
It will scarcely be denied that
the mythical traditions of almost all nations place at the beginning
of human history a time of happiness and perfection, a "golden
age" which has no features of savagery or barbarism, but
many of civilization and refinement. In the Zendavesta, Yima-khshaeta
(Jemshid), the first Aryan king, after reigning for a time in
the original Aryanem vaejo, removed with his subjects to a secluded
spot, where he and they enjoy uninterrupted happiness. In
32. Blegen, Carl W., "King Nestor's Palace,"
Scientific American, May, 1958, p.111 and photo of the
33. Arundell, Lord, of Wardour, Tradition: Principally with
Reference to Mythology and the Law of Nations, Burns, Oates
and Co., London, 1872, xxix and 431 pp., index.
34. Lenormant, Francois, The Beginnings of History According
to the Bible and the Traditions of Oriental People, Scribners,
New York, 1891, xxx and 588 pp., with appendices.
35. Hislop, Alexander, The Two Babylons, Partridge, London,
1903, 3rd edition, xxiv and 320 pp., index and illustrations.
36. Keary, Charles F., Outlines of Primitive Belief Among
the Indo-European Races, Scribners, New York, 1882, xxi and
534 p., index.
37. Frazer, Sir James G., The Golden Bough: The Magic Art
and the Evolution of Kings, 2 vol. edition, Macmillan, New
38. Rawlinson, George, The Origin of Nations, Scribner,
New York, 1878, pp.10-11.
this place was "neither overbearing,
nor mean-spiritedness, neither stupidity nor violence, neither
poverty nor deceit, neither puniness nor deformity, neither huge
teeth nor bodies beyond proper measure." The inhabitants
suffered no defilement from the evil spirit. Their cattle were
the largest, best, and most beautiful breed; their food ambrosial,
and never failed them. The Chinese speak of a "first heaven"
and an age of innocence, when the "whole creation enjoyed
everything that was good, all beings were perfect in their kind."
Mexican traditions tell of the "golden age of Tezeuco,"
and Peruvian history commences with the "Two Children of
the Sun" who established a civilized community on the borders
of Lake Titicaca. And of course the Greeks pointed in the same
way to a beautiful past. Such is the voice which reaches us on
all sides from the dim and twilight land, where the mythical
and the historical seem to meet and blend together inseparably.
Of course, Rawlinson is
speaking for the most part of people known to us only as civilized.
However, primitive people also have many traditions concerning
their own origin and past history and almost invariably they
look back upon a past very different from their present situation.
As we shall see later, some of them have traditions of techniques
such as the making of pottery, canoes, woven fabrics, and even
the making of fire which they no longer were able to do. In one
instance there was a recollection of terms appropriate only for
a culture which supported a king and his court, but these terms
no longer applied to anything extant in their culture. (39) The conflict of cultures
in the Indus Valley when a high initial civilization was virtually
wiped out by invading hordes of barbaric Aryans, led to an epic
literature, the Rig Veda, written by the latter to commemorate
their victory. The care taken subsequently to preserve this record
with exactitude illustrates how much importance was attached
to traditions related to the earliest steps towards nationhood
taken by any people. In this connection Stuart Piggott wrote:
I think we are justified in
accepting the Rig Veda, on archaeological grounds, as a genuine
document of the period, preserved intact by the constant fear
of the consequences if the magic word were altered by a hairsbreadth.
It is a curious
thing that tradition, preserved by word of mouth where literature
is not in existence, may be even more perfectly preserved, perhaps
because the absence of writing makes it more necessary to exercise
memory. For example many of the traditions of the Iroquois Indians
in North America were recorded by early missionaries
39 The Polynesians in their eastward drift
into the Pacific lost textiles, pottery, metalworking, and gave
up the use of the bow. See Roland Dixon, Building of Cultures,
Scribner, New York, 1928, p.280. For reference to loss of
words regarding court life, see Rich Taylor, New Zealand and
Its Inhabitants, undated, p.6 as quoted by Lord Arundell,
40. Piggott, Stuart, Prehistoric India, Penguin Books,
Eng., 1950, p.256.
in the "Jesuit
Relations" during the first half of the 17th century. Franz
Boas investigating the same subject about 300 years later found
that the descendants of these same Indians had preserved the
same traditions word for word in spite of all the cultural changes
that had taken place during the interval. The fact is that people
in reduced circumstances tend to cling all the more tenaciously
to any recollections they may have of a once happier past. As
W. J. Perry put it: (41)
In dealing with native tradition
it must always be remembered that the accounts of the beginnings
of their culture are usually among the most cherished possessions
of any community. Often, where youths are initiated into the
tribe when they are about to become men, they are taught the
traditions, and are enjoined to preserve them as close secrets,
to keep them from the knowledge of women, children, and the uninitiated.
Among many peoples a knowledge of his family-tree is an essential
part of the training of a member of the ruling group. So greatly
do peoples the world over value their traditions.
In his History
of Science George Sarton remarked upon the fact that some
of the Greek philosophers were highly suspicious about the desirability
of teaching anyone to write: He said: (42)
This was because mnemonic traditions
were so satisfying that many people, including highly educated
ones, did not feel the need of writing. For example, such traditions
must have been very strong in the Golden Age of Hellenism; otherwise
Socrates' diatribe against the art of writing in Phaidros would
hardly be intelligible.
The aid to memory
resulting from written records was felt to be detrimental to
the powers of memory. We ourselves are so accustomed to keeping
records that we never fail to marvel at the feats of memorization
found among unlettered people. Where the Bible is scarce it is
not unusual to find native Christians who have memorized prodigious
sections of it and are word perfect in recitation. It is a curious
thing that the Higher Critics argued against the reliability
of the early chapters of the Bible on the grounds that since
they were not supposed to have been put into writing till the
time of Ezra, and since writing had not even been known before
Moses, the very detailed nature of these early records told strongly
against the possibility of their transmission over so many centuries
without error. They were therefore fabrications. Paradoxically,
anthropologists and others were at the same time pointing out
that the preservation of oral tradition was the more exact as
the culture had less means for keeping written records.
41. Perry, W. J., The Growth of Civilization,
Penguin Books, Eng., 1937, p.137.
42. Sarton, George, A History of Science, Harvard, 1952.
pp.111 and 116.
The so-called myths of Genesis which had been thus
dismissed as of no historic importance, are increasingly turning
out to be recorded fact. It is true that such validation has
not yet applied much beyond Abraham, and the periods prior are
still very largely unsupported from archaeology, but the confirmations
already available are so remarkable that one's confidence in
the earlier portions of Scripture is greatly strengthened.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
Previous Chapter Next
While one cannot suppose that Adam
had at first the technical skills which would enable him to proceed
at once to the creation of a high civilization, there are statements
in the Genesis record that we shall subsequently consider, which
clearly imply an exceedingly rapid development of culture from
simple to complex. The Flood introduced a very serious break
into this development. But Noah and his family re-established
the process so that once more within a very few centuries a high
civilization flourished in a number of centers including Asia
Minor, Egypt, Palestine, the Indus Valley, and in Mesopotamia.
Scripture records an event, however,
which disrupted this ancient civilization and led to the forced
dispersal of man, at the time of the building of the Tower of
Babel, in such circumstances that many of those who migrated
surrendered one element after another of the basic culture, descending
lower and lower in the scale (except in a few notable instances)
as they receded further and further from their original home.
In the next chapter we shall examine from archaeology some of
the evidence which supports the general conclusion that the trend
of culture is not normally towards improvement but towards degeneration
This does not mean that no culture evolves in the commonly accepted
sense of the term, but rather that there is no law of evolution
which would guarantee that each succeeding generation will inevitably
improve upon the techniques of their forebears in such a way
that, for example, a crude toolmaking industry automatically
becomes a superior one, that superstition becomes an elevated
religious faith, that grunts become speech, that scribbles become
fine art, that a promiscuous herd becomes a monogamous family.
Then in the chapter following we shall give some examples of
the breakdown of whole cultures under conditions which probably
paralleled quite closely those prevailing in these earliest times.
And finally we shall consider some of the factors which may have
accounted for the extraordinarily rapid rise of civilization
at the very beginning of human history.