The Progressive Roots of American Anthropology (versus the Tea Party last time)

Two seemingly unrelated evens have occurred in my life the last two days which have caused me to think. I spent the day yesterday helping out with the campaigns of some of the local candidates here in Southeastern Michigan. Obviously the overall effect was not as successful as I would have liked. I can’t say, really, how much the election results had to do with the “Tea Party” phenomenon–compared with some of my experiences last year in Central Massachusetts I have to say I ran into relatively few of those types. What I have run into, though, is the idea that, especially in America, things do not get better; and, usually voiced as a more general principle, that any attempt to make things better on the general level (versus on the level of individuals or nuclear families) is impossible.  The immediate effect of these ideas on political will, for example, is that projects like building bridges, formulating a system of universal health care, or, you know, creating and protecting agencies that might help regulate food, education, safety or financial standards for the collective good–all of these are seen as at best misguided fantasies spouting phony accomplishments, at worst infringements of individual liberties.

The other thing that happened was that I sat down, perhaps for the first time, to really read (as opppossed to do the grad seminar preparation for) Lewis Henry Morgan‘s Ancient Society. I had no real reason why, besides it was the first book on my iBook shelf (so thank my iPad and The Gutenberg Project, or was it Google Books?). Now, I’ve taught LHM several times in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology courses, usually using him as a foil that sets up Boasian Anthropology and, later Malinowskian fieldwork.  But what I don’t think I ever fully appreciatted was both the context in which Morgan’s work was written, and specifically what it was written against.

The first part, the context, is made explicit in the very first words:

The great antiquity of mankind upon the earth has been conclusively established. It seems singular that the proofs should have been discovered as recently as within the last thirty years, and that the present generation should be the first called upon to recognize so important a fact.

Wrap your head around that.  What must have it been like to understand oneself as among the first generation to realize the enormous antiquity of homo sapiens?  There are at least two directions one can move out of that fundamental fact: either you could view that long history as one of gradual decline–a Biblical Fall–or you can take the tack that Morgan believed was supported by the evidence.  In fact, Morgan frames his preface with two epigrams, the first from Whitney’s Oriental and Linguistic Studies:

“Modern science claims to be proving, by the most careful and exhaustive study of man and his works, that our race began its existence on earth at the bottom of the scale, Instead of at the top, and has been gradually working upward; that human powers have had a history of development; that all the elements of culture—as the arts of life, art, science, language, religion, philosophy—have been wrought out by slow and painful efforts, in the conflict between the soul and the mind of man on the one hand, and external nature on the other.”

The second from Kaines’ Antkropciogia:

“These communities reflect the spiritual conduct of our ancestors thousands of times removed… Our wondrous civilization Is the result of the silent efforts of millions of unknown men, as the chalk cliffs of England are formed of the contributions of myriads of foraminifera.”

The point here, and of Morgan’s anthropology, is a certain optimistic vision of humanity, of what makes us human: that bit by bit, generation after generation, together, humans can, and do, inevitably (if only eventually and through purposive  human action), make the world better for themselves.  He is, in other words, a Progressive.

Now, there are of course many things wrong with Morgan’s approach (which any graduate student in anthropology, or attentive undergraduate, will be able to tell you): the surety and singularity of his vision of what is “good” turns out to be both ethnocentric myopia and racist exclusion; his faith in the inevitability of unilateral progress over the long term seems questionable at best (although I’m beginning to wonder how much of that was rhetorical fireworks, marking out his position vis-a-vis the opposite).  But what I appreciate is his fervent insistence on its possibility.

And that’s why when I said earlier that I never fully “appreciated” what Morgan was writing against, I chose that word carefully.  “Known” would too strong a word here–I would have been able to recite most of those theoretical and political nuances before– but now I appreciate it.  And that suggests to me also, a potential place to quarry for answers to  to our current Progressive perplexities: what now?

Some further readings:

Hersey, M. (1993). Lewis Henry Morgan and the anthropological critique of civilization Dialectical Anthropology, 18 (1), 53-70 DOI: 10.1007/BF01301671

White, L. (1960). : Lewis Henry Morgan: American Scholar . Carl Resek. American Anthropologist, 62 (6), 1073-1074 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1960.62.6.02a00220

Michael A. Elliott, . (2008). Other Times: Herman Melville, Lewis Henry Morgan, and Ethnographic Writing in the Antebellum United States Criticism, 49 (4), 481-503 DOI: 10.1353/crt.0.0041

Service, E. (1988). : Lewis Henry Morgan and the Invention of Kinship . Thomas R. Trautmann. American Anthropologist, 90 (2), 443-444 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1988.90.2.02a00410


5 thoughts on “The Progressive Roots of American Anthropology (versus the Tea Party last time)”

  1. I’m combining my own knowledge of hist. of evolutionary theory here with some medicre web-reading, so bear with me. I do think you’re probably right about him being progressive. Something I read which caught my attention (maybe I should have known this already and just didn’t?) is that there were debates going on in the 1850s-60s questioning if all humans were part of the same species, or if each race was a separate species. One of the big proponents of the multi-species side was Louis Agazziz, who was also loudly against Darwin’s theory of evolution (he was a catastrophist). Agazziz was at Harvard, along with Asa Gray (a pro-natural selection botanist). These two had very public disagreement and debate about the Theory of Evolution, whereas a large portion of the populus generally accepted Darwin’s theory without much rancor. I wonder if the debates influence Morgan to write as well – to add support to the monogenesis and natural selection side of things? I don’t think that there were really that many folks around supporting the idea of the fall-since Adam.

    That being said, because of the civil war, and Morgan’s active interests in governmental Indian Affairs, I think he was pushing for an idea that all people should be given equal opportunity and treated fairly.

  2. I am reading now Morgan’s Ancient Society (The World Publishing Company, Meridian Books; First Meridian printing September 1963, Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 63-19730) and I have one first epigram from Horace (Sat., I, iii, 99). I do not know if your version has it. And I have been looking for the original text of Dr. J. Kaines (in the edition I am reading is referenced as “Anthropologia”, Vol. I, No. 2, p. 233), but I have not been able to find it. Would it be possible that you know the full name of Dr. J. Kaines or where was published this “Anthropolgia” quotted or Anthropologia in italics (Henry Holt and Company, 1877, facsimilar PDF on It would be very helpful if you have some information about it.
    I am not native English speaker. If you find any mistakes on my writting I ask for your comprenhention.

    1. Herlinda,

      I’m sorry I can’t be much help here. You’ve already gone much deeper in your reading of Morgan than I ever have! Maybe there’s something in the work of George Stocking that could help?

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