Edward Burnett Tylor

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Sir Edward Burnett Tylor
Edward Burnett Tylor.jpg
Edward Burnett Tylor
Born 2 October 1832
Camberwell, London, England
Died 2 January 1917(1917-01-02) (aged 84)
Wellington, Somerset, England, United Kingdom
Nationality English
Fields anthropology
Known for cultural evolutionism

Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (2 October 1832 – 2 January 1917), was an English anthropologist.[1]

Tylor is representative of cultural evolutionism. In his works Primitive Culture and Anthropology, he defined the context of the scientific study of anthropology, based on the evolutionary theories of Charles Lyell. He believed that there was a functional basis for the development of society and religion, which he determined was universal. Tylor is considered by many to be a founding figure of the science of social anthropology, and his scholarly works helped to build the discipline of anthropology in the nineteenth century.[2] He believed that "research into the history and prehistory of man... could be used as a basis for the reform of British society."[3]

Tylor reintroduced the term animism (faith in the individual soul or anima of all things, and natural manifestations) into common use.[4] He considered animism to be the first phase of development of religions.

Early life and education[edit]

E. B. Tylor was born in 1832, in Camberwell, London. He was the son of Joseph Tylor and Harriet Skipper, part of a family of wealthy Quakers who owned a London brass factory. His elder brother Alfred Tylor became a geologist.

He was educated at Grove House School, Tottenham, but due to the deaths of Tylor's parents during his early adulthood he never gained a university degree.[5] After his parents' deaths, he prepared to help manage the family business, but had to set this plan aside when he developed symptoms consistent with the onset of tuberculosis (TB). Following advice to spend time in warmer climes, Tylor left England in 1855, travelling to Mexico and Central America. The experience proved to be an important and formative one, sparking his lifelong interest in studying unfamiliar cultures.

During his travels, Tylor met Henry Christy, a fellow Quaker, ethnologist and archaeologist. Tylor's association with Christy greatly stimulated his awakening interest in anthropology, and helped broaden his inquiries to include prehistoric studies.

Professional career[edit]

Portrait of Tylor from Folk-Lore, 1917.

Tylor's first publication was a result of his 1856 trip to Mexico with Christy. His notes on the beliefs and practices of the people he encountered were the basis of his work Anahuac: Or Mexico and the Mexicans, Ancient and Modern (1861), published after his return to England. Tylor continued to study the customs and beliefs of tribal communities, both existing and prehistoric (based on archaeological finds). He published his second work, Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization, in 1865. Following this came his most influential work, Primitive Culture (1871). This was important not only for its thorough study of human civilisation and contributions to the emergent field of anthropology, but for its undeniable influence on a handful of young scholars, such as J. G. Frazer, who were to become Tylor's disciples and contribute greatly to the scientific study of anthropology in later years.

Tylor was appointed Keeper of the University Museum at Oxford in 1883, and, as well as serving as a lecturer, held the title of the first "Reader in Anthropology" from 1884–1895. In 1896 he was appointed the first Professor of Anthropology at Oxford University. He was involved in the early history of the Pitt Rivers Museum, although to a debatable extent.[6]

Awards and achievements[edit]

Ideology and Primitive Culture[edit]

Tylor's notion is best described in his most famous work, the two-volume Primitive Culture. The first volume, The Origins of Culture, deals with ethnography including social evolution, linguistics, and myth. The second volume, Religion in Primitive Culture, deals mainly with his interpretation of animism. Fundamental to understanding Tylor's notion is his negative feelings towards religion, and especially Christianity.[citation needed]

On the first page of Primitive Culture, Tylor provides a definition which is one of his most widely recognised contributions to anthropology and the study of religion:[7]

Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.


Unlike many of his predecessors and contemporaries, Tylor asserts that the human mind and its capabilities are the same globally, despite a particular society’s stage in social evolution.[9] This means that a hunter-gatherer society would possess the same amount of intelligence as an advanced industrial society. The difference, Tylor asserts, is education, which he considers the cumulative knowledge and methodology that takes thousands of years to acquire. Tylor often likens primitive cultures to “children”, and sees culture and the mind of humans as progressive. His work was a refutation of the theory of social degeneration, which was popular at the time.[5] At the end of Primitive Culture, Tylor writes, "The science of culture is essentially a reformers' science."[10]


A term ascribed to Tylor was his theory of "survivals". Tylor asserted that when a society evolves, certain customs are retained that are unnecessary in the new society, like outworn and useless "baggage".[11] His definition of survivals is

processes, customs, and opinions, and so forth, which have been carried on by force of habit into a new state of society different from that in which they had their original home, and they thus remain as proofs and examples of an older condition of culture out of which a newer has been evolved.


"Survivals" can include outdated practices, such as the European practice of bloodletting, which lasted long after the medical theories on which it was based had faded from use and been replaced by more modern techniques.[13] Critics argued that he identified the term but provided an insufficient reason as to why survivals continue. Tylor’s meme-like concept of survivals explains the characteristics of a culture that are linked to earlier stages of human culture.[14]

Studying survivals assists ethnographers in reconstructing earlier cultural characteristics and possibly reconstructing the evolution of culture.[15]

Religion as a survival[edit]

Tylor argued that people had used religion to explain things that occurred in the world.[16] He saw that it was important for religions to have the ability to explain why and for what reason things occurred in the world.[17] For example, God (or the divine) gave us sun to keep us warm and give us light. Tylor argued that animism is the true natural religion that is the essence of religion; it answers the questions of which religion came first and which religion is essentially the most basic and foundation of all religions.[17] For him, animism was the best answer to these questions, so it must be the true foundation of all religions. Animism is described as the belief in spirits inhabiting and animating beings, or souls existing in things.[17] To Tylor, the fact that modern religious practitioners continued to believe in spirits showed that these people were no more advanced than primitive societies.[18] For him, this implied that modern religious practitioners do not understand the ways of the universe and how life truly works because they have excluded science from their understanding of the world.[18] By excluding scientific explanation in their understanding of why and how things occur, he asserts modern religious practitioners are rudimentary. Tylor perceived the modern religious belief in God as a “survival” of primitive ignorance.[18] He claimed the contemporary belief in God to be a survival, because science could explain the phenomena previously justified by religion.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Tylor, Edward Burnett". Who's Who, 59: p. 1785. 1907. 
  2. ^ Paul Bohannan, Social Anthropology (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1969)
  3. ^ Lewis, Herbert S. (1998) "The Misrepresentation of Anthropology and its Consequences", American Anthropologist 100: 716–731
  4. ^ "Animism", Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed 2 October 2007.
  5. ^ a b Lowrie, Robert H. (1917). "Edward B. Tylor", American Anthropologist, New Series Vol. 19, No. 2. (Apr. – Jun. 1917), pp. 262–268.
  6. ^ "Edward Burnett Tylor: biography", Pitt Rivers Museum
  7. ^ Giulio Angioni, L'antropologia evoluzionistica di Edward B. Tylor in Tre saggi... cit. in Related Studies[when?]
  8. ^ Tylor, Edward. 1920 [1871]. Primitive Culture. New York: J. P. Putnam’s Sons. Volume 1, page 1.
  9. ^ Stringer, Martin D. (1999). "Rethinking Animism: Thoughts from the Infancy of Our Discipline", The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 5, No. 4. (December 1999), pp. 541–555.
  10. ^ Tylor, Edward. 1920 [1871]. Primitive Culture. New York: J. P. Putnam’s Sons, p. 410.
  11. ^ Wallis, Wilson D. (1936). "Reviewed Work(s): 'The Doctrine of Survivals' by Margaret T. Hodgen", The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 49, No. 193. (Jul. – Sep. 1936), pp. 273–274.
  12. ^ Tylor, Edward. 1920 [1871]. Primitive Culture. New York: J. P. Putnam’s Sons. 16.
  13. ^ Braun, Willi and Russel T. McCutcheon, eds. 2000. Guide to the Study of Religion. London: Continuum. 160.
  14. ^ Moore, Jerry D. "Edward Tylor: The Evolution of Culture," Visions of Culture: an Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists, Walnut Creek, California: Altamira, 1997. 23.
  15. ^ Moore, Jerry D. "Edward Tylor: The Evolution of Culture." Visions of Culture: an Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. Walnut Creek: Altamira, 1997. 24.
  16. ^ Strenski, Ivan. "The Shock of the 'Savage': Edward Burnett Tylor, Evolution, and Spirits," Thinking About Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2006. 93.
  17. ^ a b c Strenski, Ivan. "The Shock of the 'Savage': Edward Burnett Tylor, Evolution, and Spirits." Thinking About Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2006. 94.
  18. ^ a b c Strenski, Ivan. "The Shock of the 'Savage': Edward Burnett Tylor, Evolution, and Spirits." Thinking About Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2006. 99.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]