Battle Between the Cultural Evolutionists and the Cultural Relativists

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* Article: Fernlund, Kevin Jon. 2020. “The Great Battle of the Books between the Cultural Evolutionists and the Cultural Relativists: from the Beginning of Infinity to the End of History.” Journal of Big History 4(3): 6-30.



"The idea that societies or cultures can evolve and, therefore, can be compared and grad-ed has been central to modern history, in general, and to big history, in particular, which seeks to unite natural and human history; biology and culture. However, while extremely useful, this notion is not without significant moral and ethical challenges, which has been noted by scholars. This article is a short intellectual history of the idea of cultural evolution and its critics, the cultural relativists, from the Age of the Enlightenment, what David Deutsch called the “beginning of infinity,” to the neo-Hegelianism of Francis Fukuyama. The emphasis here is on Europe and the Americas and the argument is that the universal evolutionism of the Enlightenment ultimately prevailed over historical particularism, as global disparities in social development, which were once profound, narrowed or even disappeared altogether."


The History of the Idea of Cultural Evolution

Kevin Jon Fernlund:

"Humans individually or collectively learn new things all the time, and they may pass on this newly ac-quired knowledge to the next generation through formal or informal means. This is precisely how cultural evolution, or what one might call Lamarckian evolution, works. The idea was discovered and given full expression by the Enlightenment.

The modern idea that cultures have evolved and that they have the capability to progress, however, did not originate with the advent of critical history during the Enlightenment, marked by the eighteenth-century histories of David Hume, William Robertson, and Edward Gibbon. Rather, the idea formed earlier in the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries, when English philosopher Francis Bacon looked back to Antiquity and opined that modern inventions have set the modern world apart from the ancient world.

Bacon observes:

- We should notice the force, effect, and consequences of inventions, which are nowhere more conspicuous than in those three which were unknown to the ancients; namely, print-ing, gunpowder, and the compass. For these three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world: first in literature, then in warfare, and lastly in navigation; and innumerable changes have been thence derived, so that no empire, sect, or star, appears to have exercised a greater power and influence on human affairs than these mechanical discoveries.

Bacon was making the case for the Moderns in the Ancients versus the Moderns debate, which grew out of the Renaissance, with the rediscovery of classical learning, and intensified during the Scientific Revolution. Modern Europeans, Bacon argued, could see farther and better than their ancestors because they had powerful new optical instruments, such as the telescope and the micro-scope. Crucially, because of the scientific method (the testing of hypotheses), the Moderns had the tools and means to think better than the An-cients. Not to be outdone by the scientists, scholars also developed the humanistic method to think better, which perhaps no one expressed better than did the Victorian educator Matthew Arnold. In an essay entitled “Culture and Anarchy” (1869), he wrote that culture ought to be the pursuit of our total perfection by means of get-ting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world; and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.

Implicit in Bacon’s argument for the superiority of the present over the past is the notion of progress, that knowledge could be increased, and that society, therefore, could be improved upon over what it had been before."