Edward Burnett Tylor

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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
Citizenship British
Nationality English
Fields anthropology
Institutions Oxford university
Known for cultural evolutionism
Part of a series on
Anthropology of religion
Social and cultural anthropology

Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (2 October 1832 – 2 January 1917) was an English anthropologist, the founder of cultural anthropology.[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.

Tylor's Life and career[edit]

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 the aged Tylor not long before his death 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]

Tylor's thought[edit]

Classification and criticisms[edit]

Herbert Spencer, evolutionist par excellence.

The word evolution is forever associated in the popular mind with Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, which professes, among other things, that man as a species developed diachronically from some ancestor among the Primates who was also ancestor to the Great Apes, as they are popularly termed, and yet this term was not a neologism of Darwin’s. He took it from the cultural milieu, where it meant etymologically “unfolding” of something heterogeneous and complex from something simpler and more homogeneous. Herbert Spencer, a contemporary of Darwin, applied the term to the universe, including philosophy and what Tylor would later call culture.[7] This view of the universe was generally termed evolutionism, while its exponents were evolutionists.[8]

In 1871 Tylor published Primitive Culture, becoming the originator of cultural anthropology.[9] His methods were comparative and historical ethnography. He believed that a “uniformity” was manifest in culture, which was the result of “uniform action of uniform causes.” He regarded his instances of parallel ethnographic concepts and practices as indicative of “laws of human thought and action.” He was an evolutionist. The task of cultural anthropology therefore is to discover “stages of development or evolution.”

Evolutionism was distinguished from another creed, diffusionism, postulating the spread of items of culture from regions of innovation. A given apparent parallelism thus had at least two explanations: the instances descend from an evolutionary ancestor, or they are alike because one diffused into the culture from elsewhere.[10] These two views are exactly parallel to the tree model and wave model of historical linguistics, which are instances of evolutionism and diffusionism, language features being instances of culture.

Two other classifications were proposed in 1993 by Upadhyay and Pandey,[11] Classical Evolutionary School and Neo Evolutionary School, the Classical to be divided into British, American, and German. The Classical British Evolutionary School, primarily at Oxford University, divided society into two evolutionary stages, savagery and civilization, based on the archaeology of John Lubbock, 1st Baron Avebury. Upadhyay and Pandey list its adherents as Robert Ranulph Marett, Henry James Sumner Maine, John Ferguson McLennan, and James George Frazer, as well as Tylor.[12] Marett was the last man standing, dying in 1943. By the time of his death, Lubbock’s archaeology had been updated. The American School, beginning with Lewis Henry Morgan,[13] was likewise superseded, both being replaced by the Neoevolutionist School, beginning with V. Gordon Childe. It brought the archaeology up-to-date and tended to omit the intervening society names, such as savagery; for example, Neolithic is both a tool tradition and a form of society.

There are some other classifications. Theorists of each classification each have their own criticisms of the Classical/Neo Evolutionary lines, which despite them remains the dominant view. Some criticisms are in brief as follows.[14] There is really no universality; that is, the apparent parallels are accidental, on which the theorist has imposed a model that does not really fit. There is no uniform causality, but different causes might produce similar results. All cultural groups do not have the same stages of development. The theorists are arm-chair anthropologists; their data is insufficient to form realistic abstractions. They overlooked cultural diffusion. They overlooked cultural innovation. None of the critics claim definitive proof that their criticisms are less subjective or interpretive than the models they criticise

Basic concepts[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.

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:[15]

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.

— Tylor[16]


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.[17] 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."[18]

Tylor's evolutionism[edit]

In 1881 Tylor published a work he called Anthropology, one of the first under that name. In the first chapter he uttered what would become a sort of constitutional statement for the new field, which he could not know and did not intend at the time:

"History, so far as it reaches back, shows arts, sciences, and political institutions beginning in ruder states, and becoming in the course of ages, more intelligent, more systematic, more perfectly arranged or organized, to answer their purposes."

— Tylor 1881, p. 15

The view was a restatement of ideas first innovated in the early 1860s. The theorist perhaps most influential on Tylor was John Lubbock, 1st Baron Avebury, innovator of the terminology, “Paleolithic” and “Neolithic.” A prominent banker and British liberal Parliamentarian, he was imbued with a passion for archaeology. The initial concepts of prehistory were his. Lubbock’s works featured prominently in Tylor’s lectures and in the Pitt Rivers Museum subsequently.


A term ascribed to Tylor was his theory of "survivals". 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.

— Tylor[19]

"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.[20] 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.[21]

Studying survivals assists ethnographers in reconstructing earlier cultural characteristics and possibly reconstructing the evolution of culture.[22]

Evolution of religion[edit]

Tylor argued that people had used religion to explain things that occurred in the world.[23] He saw that it was important for religions to have the ability to explain why and for what reason things occurred in the world.[24] 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.[24] 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.[24] To Tylor, the fact that modern religious practitioners continued to believe in spirits showed that these people were no more advanced than primitive societies.[25] 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.[25] 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.[25] He claimed the contemporary belief in God to be a survival, because science could explain the phenomena previously justified by religion.


1861 Anahuac: or, Mexico and the Mexicans, Ancient and Modern. London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts. 1861. 
1865 Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization. London: John Murray. 1865. 
1867 "Phenomena of the Higher Civilisation: Traceable to a Rudimental Origin among Savage Tribes" (PDF). Anthropological Review. Vol. 5: 303–314. 1867. JSTOR 3024922. 
1871 Primitive Culture. Volume 1. London: John Murray. 1871. 
1871 Primitive Culture. Volume 2. London: John Murray. 1871. 
1877 "Remarks on Japanese Mythology" (PDF). The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Vol. 6: 55–60. 1877. JSTOR 2841246. 
1877 . With Herbert Spencer. "Review of The Principles of Sociology". Mind. Vol. 2: 415–429. 1877. JSTOR 2246921. 
1880 "Remarks on the Geographical Distribution of Games" (PDF). The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Vol. 9: 23–30. 1880. JSTOR 2841865. 
1881 "On the Origin of the Plough, and Wheel-Carriage". The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Vol. 10: 74–84. 1881. JSTOR 2841649. 
1881 Anthropology an introduction to the study of man and civilization. London: Macmillan and Co. 1881. 
1882 "Notes on the Asiatic Relations of Polynesian Culture". The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Vol. 11: 401–405. 1882. JSTOR 2841767. 
1884 "Old Scandinavian Civilisation Among the Modern Esquimaux" (PDF). The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Vol. 13: 348–357. 1884. JSTOR 2841897. 
1884 "Life of Dr. Rolleston". Scientific Papers and Addresses by George Rolleston. Vol. I. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. lx–lxv. 
1889 "On a Method of Investigating the Development of Institutions; applied to Laws of Marriage and Descent" (PDF). Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute. Vol. 18: 245–272. 1889. JSTOR 2842423. 
1890 "Notes on the Modern Survival of Ancient Amulets Against the Evil Eye" (PDF). The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Vol. 19: 54–56. 1890. JSTOR 2842533. 
1896 "The Matriarchal Family System". Nineteenth Century. Vol. 40: 81–96. 1896. 
1896 American Lot-Games as Evidence of Asiatic Intercourse Before the Time of Columbus. Leiden: E.J. Brill. 1896. 
1898 "Remarks on Totemism, with Especial Reference to Some Modern Theories Respecting It" (PDF). The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Vol. 28: 138–148. 1899. JSTOR 2842940. 
1898 Three Papers. London: Harrison and Sons. 
1905 "Professor Adolf Bastian: Born June 26, 1826; Died February 3, 1905." (PDF). Man. Vol. 5: 138–143. 1905. JSTOR 2788004. 

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. ^ Goldenweiser 1922, pp. 50–55
  8. ^ "Evolution". The American Educator. Volume 3. 1897. 
  9. ^ The first sentence of Chapter 1 states the founding definition of culture: “Culture, or Civilization, ... is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabiities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”
  10. ^ Goldenweiser 1922, pp. 55–59
  11. ^ Upadhyay & Pandey 1993, p. 23
  12. ^ Upadhyay & Pandey 1993, pp. 33–53
  13. ^ Upadhyay & Pandey 1993, pp. 53–62
  14. ^ Upadhyay & Pandey 1993, pp. 65–68
  15. ^ Giulio Angioni, L'antropologia evoluzionistica di Edward B. Tylor in Tre saggi... cit. in Related Studies[when?]
  16. ^ Tylor, Edward. 1920 [1871]. Primitive Culture. New York: J. P. Putnam’s Sons. Volume 1, page 1.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ Tylor, Edward. 1920 [1871]. Primitive Culture. New York: J. P. Putnam’s Sons, p. 410.
  19. ^ Tylor, Edward. 1920 [1871]. Primitive Culture. New York: J. P. Putnam’s Sons. 16.
  20. ^ Braun, Willi and Russel T. McCutcheon, eds. 2000. Guide to the Study of Religion. London: Continuum. 160.
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ Moore, Jerry D. "Edward Tylor: The Evolution of Culture." Visions of Culture: an Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. Walnut Creek: Altamira, 1997. 24.
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ 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.


Goldenweiser, Alexander A. (1922). "Four Phases Of Anthropological Thought: An Outline". Papers and Proceedings: Sixteenth Annual Meeting, American Sociological Society, Held At Pittsburgh, Pa., December 27–30, 1921 XVI: 50–69. 
Tylor, Edwrd Burnett (1881). Anthropology an introduction to the study of man and civilization. London: Macmillan and Co. 
Upadhyay, Vijay S; Pandey, Gaya (1993). "Chapter1. Evolutionary School". History of Anthropological Thought. New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]