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American Anthropologist
NEW SERIES VOL.

47

JULY-SEPTEMBER, 1945

No, 3

“ D I F F U S I O N VS. EVOLUTION”:

AN A N T I - E V O L U T I O N I S T FALLACY
By LESLIE A. WHITE

T has been a contention of the Boas school of ethnology for many years that theories of cultural evolution are rendered invalid b y t h e facts of diffusion. T h u s Professor Robert H. Lowie says:’

IOne fact, however, encountered a t every stage and in every phase of society, by itself lays the axe to the root of any theory of historical laws-the extensive occurrence of diffusion. Creating nothing, this factor nevertheless makes all other agencies taper almost into nothingness beside it in its effect on the total growth of human civilization. (Emphasis ours.) I n another place he observes? Theextraordinary extent to which such diffusion has taken place proves that the actual development of a given culture does not conform to innate laws necessarily leading to definite results, such hypothetical laws being overridden by contact with foreign peoples. Finally, Lowie states categorically t h a t “diffusion plays havoc with a n y universal law of ~ e q u e n c e . ” ~ I n his numerouscritiques of evolutionism, Alexander Goldenweiser frequently resorts t o the supposed antithesis between diffusion a n d evolution. Thus z4 The theory of diffusion itself, when further elaborated, became a powerful foe of the simplicist evolutionary scheme, . . the acceptance of the phenomena of diffusion a t their face value is in itself sufficient to negate the evolutionary scheme in its originalform. And,
A further argument against the stage theory in social evolution can be derived from the theory of diffusion. . , It has been shown that every tribe develops its culture not merely out of its inner resources, but a t least in part under the stimulation of extraneous cultural items coming from neighboring tribes. As such items in their origins are

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1 Lowie,

‘Lowie, 1917a, p. 95.1920a, p. 434. (See bibliography at end of article.) *Lowie, 1937, p. 60. Goldenweiser, 1925a, p. 226. 339

340

A M E R I C A N A NTHROPOLOCIST

[ N . S., 47,

1945

obviously independent of the recipient culture, it follows that to admit them is to throw a monkey-wrench into the evolutionary scheme of necessary stages.6 I n a n o t h e r place Goldenweiser cites as a “vital defectof t h e evolutionary approach” t h e failure of evolutionists “ t o appraise a t their t r u e w o r t h t h e processes of cultural diffusion . . . to disregard it c a n n o t b u t proz1efutnL to any theory of historic ( E m p h a s i s ours.) In o t h e r critiques, also, Goldenweiser showed how “ t h e theory of diffusion could b e used as a weapon in.the fight against uncriticalevolutionism,”7 b u t these a r e sufficient for our purpose. Dr. Bernard J. Stern, in his biography of Lewis 11. M o r g a n , h a s t h i s t o s a y a b o u t evolution and diffusion:8 This exposes a t once the itihereiat weakness of arty eoulutioticLry clmsijiculion ojctrllzrrr ; all sequences are disturbed by borrowing of cultural traits from neighboring pcoplei. (Emphasis ours.) Melville J. Herskovits andMalcolm M. Willey m a k e t h e following contribution to t h e discussion:9 The earlier anthropologists antl sociologists . . . posited parallel dcvclopmtmt in every people . . . . Complete systems, with stages of development, culminating in our own particular type of civilization, were posited by such early writcrs as hlorgan, Spencer, Tylor, and others. Ilowevcr, it ha5 I)een found that theother cultural mcchnnism, that of difiusion, constitutctl a grave \tumbling-block to this n pviuri scheme of stage development. . .

.

The belief t h a t evolutionism is negated by diffusion extends beyond t h e m e m b e r s of t h e Boas school proper. T h u s Professor A. I r v i n g IIallowcll, in a11 interesting s u r v e y of “Anthropology: Yesterday and has this to say : One of the...
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