In response to Chronicle 317, Gabriel Andrade has pointed out that Boas’ skeptical empiricism was not only a reaction to racialism but above all a rejection of the originary speculations of early evolutionary anthropologists, notably J. F. McLennan (1827-81) and Lewis H. Morgan (1818-81), the dominant figure in American anthropology in the late 19th century. These highly unparsimonious unilinear models of human evolution cast discredit on the idea of a unitary definition of the human, and along with it, the conception of anthropology as a science that takes as its point of departure an originary model of its emergence, constructed by means of the “scenic imagination.”

In his first major work on family structures, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1868-70), Morgan designates the most primitive level of human organization as that of “promiscuous intercourse,” which he describes as:

. . . the lowest conceivable stage of barbarism in which mankind could be found. In this condition man could scarcely be distinguished from the brute, except in the potential capacity of his endowments. Ignorant of marriage in its proper sense, of the family, except the communal, and with the propensity to pair still undeveloped, he was not only a barbarian but a savage; with a feeble intellect and a feebler moral sense. His only hope of elevation lay in the fierceness of his passions, and in the improvable character of his nascent mental moral powers. (487)

This notion of the “lowest conceivable stage” of mankind is typical of 19th-century anthropology. Although Morgan is a good Darwinian, he cannot help seeing early humanity not as a new development from previous species–in which case he would have to ask what circumstances made so qualitative an improvement possible–but as the “lowest” form of man, devoid of all human traits save “potential capacity.” Lacking access to today’s considerable knowledge of primate ethology, Morgan’s distasteful vision of the first humans reflects the need to reconcile Darwinian gradualism with our intuition of qualitative superiority to the animals. Instead of positing a fundamental transformation at the outset, Morgan defines the early human as a “brute” with “potential capacity”–failing to remark that this “potential capacity,” reminiscent of the Enlightenment notion of “perfectibility,” cannot be explained in evolutionary terms unless it can be shown to have an adaptive value in the concrete circumstances of these creatures’ lives–a paradox resolvable only by the emergence of this “capacity” in a collective event.

Seven years later, in his magnum opus Ancient Society (1877), Morgan expands his discussion of the stages of human social evolution to include four different criteria: invention (of material techniques), government, family, and property. In the “family” category, the lowest form Morgan discusses is the “consanguine” family, in which all members of the same generation are designated by the same terms, with the men and women of my own generation called brothers and sisters, and sons and daughters indistinguishable from nephews or nieces. Extrapolating yet farther back, Morgan once again claims that

it will be perceived that the state of society indicated by the consanguine family points with logical directness to an anterior condition of promiscuous intercourse. (417-18)

Morgan presents his data within the framework of a strictly linear progression through a series of stages of “savagery,” “barbarism,” and “civilization.” In the third chapter, “Ratio of Human Progress,” Morgan reascends this scale of development from civilization to the

infantile period of man’s existence, when mankind were learning the use of fire, . . . and when they were attempting the formation of articulate language. In a condition so absolutely primitive, man is seen to be not only a child in the scale of humanity, but possessed of a brain into which not a thought or conception expressed by these [later developed] institutions inventions and discoveries had penetrated;–in a word, he stands at the bottom of the scale, but potentially all he has since become. (37)

The near-“brute” of the earlier work is now described as a “child”; but this metaphoric parallel between phylogeny and ontogeny is even less explicatory than the previous analogy; if all species are constantly evolving into new ones, what unique difference between our species and all the others is hinted at by this image of rebirth?

Designating the first stage of human organization by “promiscuous intercourse”–an idea inherited from McLennan, although Morgan disagrees with the latter about the place of the later stage of polyandry–suggests, against Darwin’s own admonition that sexual jealousy must have been present in humanity from the beginning, that the first humans enjoyed a Rousseauian freedom from mimetic conflict. The absence of sexual constraints at the outset allows human potential to realize itself through their gradual imposition, but this model implies that the apes from which humans evolved had no constraints of their own, although it avoids emphasizing this implication through the use of the metaphor of “infancy.” Thus early humans are described as apprentices preoccupied with learning such fundamental techniques as fire and language rather than with mutual (adult) interactions. Morgan’s only reflection on language origin appears in a footnote on p. 36, where after remarking on the current abandonment of speculation on this subject “by common consent,” he returns to Lucretius’ suggestion that the first language must have been gestural.

The “infantile” state of Morgan’s early humans spares them from Hobbesian conflict, which, as we have seen, even their “sexual promiscuity” is not presumed to provoke. McLennan, more concerned with mimetic rivalry than Morgan, had derived man’s primordial promiscuity from a complex and dubious speculation: because early humans’ survival depended crucially on (male) “braves and hunters,” they presumably engaged in female infanticide, resulting in a scarcity of women; as a consequence, their choice was either to quarrel over women and separate, or “in the spirit of indifference, [indulge] in savage promiscuity” (Primitive Marriage, Chicago 1970 [1865], p. 68-69). But when McLennan explains this possibility by the fact that “savages are unrestrained by any sense of delicacy from a copartnery in sexual enjoyments,” he too evacuates the Hobbesian problem, suggesting that those who quarreled and separated, cut off from the group, would simply die out, leaving those less prey to mimetic desire to survive and multiply. Thus because of his failure to equate the origin of humanity with that of interdiction, McLennan is obliged to make modern humans descend from those proto-humans farthest from mimetic crisis, that is, those who are the least human.

We may sum up our analysis as follows: Rather than understanding human social order and communication as resulting from the breakdown of their proto-human forms, early evolutionary anthropology implies that our animal ancestors had neither social order nor language, yet refuses to take the next step of defining the human by their emergence. Instead, it paints a picture of originary humanity that, consciously or not, owes more to the Bible than to ethnology, in which representation and interdiction begins with the human, but not the human with representation and interdiction. Humanity emerges from its “infancy” by a gradual, unconscious process within which language and other modes of representation arise, not as solutions to ethical crises but as by-products of increasing intelligence, just as the entire sequence is a movement from darkness to light, from primitive to barbarian to civilized society. As Morgan puts it,

With the production of inventions and discoveries, and with the growth of institutions, the human mind necessarily grew and expanded. . . The slowness of this mental growth was inevitable, in the period of savagery, from the extreme difficulty of compassing the simplest invention out of nothing, or with next to nothing to assist mental effort; and of discovering any substance or force in nature available in such a rude condition of life. (37)

This conception is not only incompatible with the originary hypothesis as I have proposed it, it is irreconcilable with an originary event of any kind. No allusion is made to any crisis or other singularity that would explain why the emergence of our species should be understood as a rebirth described by metaphors of “infancy” rather than as merely one in an endless chain of life forms evolving into each other by the process of natural selection.


Franz Boas, the product of an intellectual tradition, as exemplified by his mentor Rudolf Virchow, hostile to Darwinist determinism, reacted with justified skepticism to the linear evolutionary schemas of McLennan, Morgan, and others. However guilty Boas may be of having thrown out the anthropological baby with the pseudo-evolutionary bathwater, the baby could hardly have survived weighted down with these sweeping gradualist speculations. Boas’ stricture that in human history, as a result of the diffusion of cultural elements across social boundaries, “equal causes” do not produce “equal effects” is a simple but damning indictment of Morgan’s methodological claim that a human community’s degree of savagery or barbarity is all we need to know in order to predict its family structure, technology, and mode of social organization.

It must be noted, however, that what makes cultural diffusionism a uniquely human phenomenon is that, unlike their animal ancestors, humans communicate through representations. Of course Boas was not unaware of this difference, but he felt no obligation to explore its conditions of emergence; no more than Morgan or McLennan does he conceive the origin of humanity as a scenic event. The historical role of Boas’ empiricism is to sweep away his predecessors’ imprudently content-rich models of human evolution, leaving an empty space at the origin in which the singularity of representation can be more easily perceived. In this respect, Boas may be regarded as a necessary precursor of generative anthropology.