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Durham University

Department of Anthropology

Academic Staff

Publication details for Dr Jamie Tehrani

Tehrani, J. J. (2010). The past and future of the evolutionary taxonomy of cultures. Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 8(2): 169-182.

Author(s) from Durham


Anthropology was originally conceived as a bridge between the natural and social sciences. Its remit was to fill in the gaps in knowledge about human history between the emergence of our species and the appearance of the first civilizations in written history. However, this project soon became embroiled in a destructive debate between “evolutionists” and “diffusionists”. The evolutionists believed that cross-cultural similarities in social organisation, subsistence technology, etc. were independently discovered by societies as they progressed toward higher stages of civilization. The diffusionists, on the other hand, argued that most cultural innovations were invented only once and spread from their point of origin through migration or contact between societies. While the diffusionists ultimately won that debate, their critique of classical social evolutionism did not extend to Darwinian approaches to culture and were in fact highly compatible with the latter. The failure of Darwinian theory to take root in social anthropology can be explained by a critique of diffusionism launched by Boas and his followers, which has only recently been challenged. Modern phylogenetic analysis of culture provides a new approach for resolving the evolutionist-diffusionist debate, and promises to deliver the still unfulfilled goals of the Victorian founders of anthropology.