Edward Burnett Tylor

Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (2 October 1832 – 2 January 1917), was an English anthropologist, and the founder of cultural anthropology.

Tylor is representative of cultural evolutionism. In his works primitive Culture and Anthropology, he defined the context of the scientific study of anthropology, based on the evolutionary theories of Charles Lyell. He believed that there was a functional basis for the development of society and religion, which he determined was universal. Tylor is considered by many to be a founding figure of the science of social anthropology, and his scholarly works helped to build the discipline of anthropology in the nineteenth century. He believed that “research into the history and prehistory of man… could be used as a basis for the reform of British society.”

Tylor reintroduced the term animism (faith in the individual soul or anima of all things, and natural manifestations) into common use. He considered animism to be the first phase of development of religions.

Early life and education

E. B. Tylor was born in 1832, in Camberwell, London. He was the son of Joseph Tylor and Harriet Skipper, part of a family of wealthy Quakers who owned a London brass factory. His elder brother Alfred Tylor became a geologist.

He was educated at Grove House School, Tottenham, but due to the deaths of Tylor’s parents during his early adulthood he never gained a university degree. After his parents’ deaths, he prepared to help manage the family business, but had to set this plan aside when he developed symptoms consistent with the onset of tuberculosis. Following advice to spend time in warmer climes, Tylor left England in 1855, travelling to Mexico and Central America. The experience proved to be an important and formative one, sparking his lifelong interest in studying unfamiliar cultures.

During his travels, Tylor met Henry Christy, a fellow Quaker, ethnologist and archaeologist. Tylor’s association with Christy greatly stimulated his awakening interest in anthropology, and helped broaden his inquiries to include prehistoric studies.

Professional career

Tylor’s first publication was a result of his 1856 trip to Mexico with Christy. His notes on the beliefs and practices of the people he encountered were the basis of his work Anahuac: Or Mexico and the Mexicans, Ancient and Modern (1861), published after his return to England. Tylor continued to study the customs and beliefs of tribal communities, both existing and prehistoric (based on archaeological finds). He published his second work, Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization, in 1865. Following this came his most influential work, Primitive Culture (1871). This was important not only for its thorough study of human civilisation and contributions to the emergent field of anthropology, but for its undeniable influence on a handful of young scholars, such as J. G. Frazer, who were to become Tylor’s disciples and contribute greatly to the scientific study of anthropology in later years.

Tylor was appointed Keeper of the University Museum at Oxford in 1883, and, as well as serving as a lecturer, held the title of the first “Reader in Anthropology” from 1884–1895. In 1896 he was appointed the first Professor of Anthropology at Oxford University. He was involved in the early history of the Pitt Rivers Museum, although to a debatable extent.

Awards and achievements:

  • 1871 Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
  • 1875 Honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Laws from the University of Oxford.
  • 1912 Knighted for his contributions.

Tylor’s thought:

The word evolution is forever associated in the popular mind with Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, which professes, among other things, that man as a species developed diachronically from some ancestor among the Primates who was also ancestor to the Great Apes, as they are popularly termed, and yet this term was not a neologism of Darwin’s. He took it from the cultural milieu, where it meant etymologically “unfolding” of something heterogeneous and complex from something simpler and more homogeneous. Herbert Spencer, a contemporary of Darwin, applied the term to the universe, including philosophy and what Tylor would later call culture. This view of the universe was generally termed evolutionism, while its exponents were evolutionists.

In 1871 Tylor published Primitive Culture, becoming the originator of cultural anthropology. His methods were comparative and historical ethnography. He believed that a “uniformity” was manifest in culture, which was the result of “uniform action of uniform causes.” He regarded his instances of parallel ethnographic concepts and practices as indicative of “laws of human thought and action.” He was an evolutionist. The task of cultural anthropology therefore is to discover “stages of development or evolution.”

Evolutionism was distinguished from another creed, diffusionism, postulating the spread of items of culture from regions of innovation. A given apparent parallelism thus had at least two explanations: the instances descend from an evolutionary ancestor, or they are alike because one diffused into the culture from elsewhere. These two views are exactly parallel to the tree model and wave model of historical linguistics, which are instances of evolutionism and diffusionism, language features being instances of culture.

Tylor’s notion is best described in his most famous work, the two-volume Primitive Culture. The first volume, The Origins of Culture, deals with ethnography including social evolution, linguistics, and myth. The second volume, Religion in Primitive Culture, deals mainly with his interpretation of animism.

On the first page of Primitive Culture, Tylor provides a definition which is one of his most widely recognised contributions to anthropology and the study of religion:

“Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”


Unlike many of his predecessors and contemporaries, Tylor asserts that the human mind and its capabilities are the same globally, despite a particular society’s stage in social evolution.17 This means that a hunter-gatherer society would possess the same amount of intelligence as an advanced industrial society. The difference, Tylor asserts, is education, which he considers the cumulative knowledge and methodology that takes thousands of years to acquire. Tylor often likens primitive cultures to “children”, and sees culture and the mind of humans as progressive. His work was a refutation of the theory of social degeneration, which was popular at the time.5 At the end of Primitive Culture, Tylor writes, “The science of culture is essentially a reformers’ science.”

Tylor’s evolutionism

In 1881 Tylor published a work he called Anthropology, one of the first under that name. In the first chapter he uttered what would become a sort of constitutional statement for the new field, which he could not know and did not intend at the time:

“History, so far as it reaches back, shows arts, sciences, and political institutions beginning in ruder states, and becoming in the course of ages, more intelligent, more systematic, more perfectly arranged or organized, to answer their purposes.”

The view was a restatement of ideas first innovated in the early 1860’s. The theorist perhaps most influential on Tylor was John Lubbock, 1st Baron Avebury, innovator of the terminology, “Paleolithic” and “Neolithic.” A prominent banker and British liberal Parliamentarian, he was imbued with a passion for archaeology. The initial concepts of prehistory were his. Lubbock’s works featured prominently in Tylor’s lectures and in the Pitt Rivers Museum subsequently.


A term ascribed to Tylor was his theory of “survivals”. His definition of survivals is processes, customs, and opinions, and so forth, which have been carried on by force of habit into a new state of society different from that in which they had their original home, and they thus remain as proofs and examples of an older condition of culture out of which a newer has been evolved.

“Survivals” can include outdated practices, such as the European practice of bloodletting, which lasted long after the medical theories on which it was based had faded from use and been replaced by more modern techniques. Critics argued that he identified the term but provided an insufficient reason as to why survivals continue. Tylor’s meme-like concept of survivals explains the characteristics of a culture that are linked to earlier stages of human culture.

Studying survivals assists ethnographers in reconstructing earlier cultural characteristics and possibly reconstructing the evolution of culture.

Evolution of Religion

Tylor argued that people had used religion to explain things that occurred in the world. He saw that it was important for religions to have the ability to explain why and for what reason things occurred in the world. For example, God (or the divine) gave us sun to keep us warm and give us light. Tylor argued that animism is the true natural religion that is the essence of religion; it answers the questions of which religion came first and which religion is essentially the most basic and foundation of all religions. For him, animism was the best answer to these questions, so it must be the true foundation of all religions. Animism is described as the belief in spirits inhabiting and animating beings, or souls existing in things. To Tylor, the fact that modern religious practitioners continued to believe in spirits showed that these people were no more advanced than primitive societies. For him, this implied that modern religious practitioners do not understand the ways of the universe and how life truly works because they have excluded science from their understanding of the world.

By excluding scientific explanation in their understanding of why and how things occur, he asserts modern religious practitioners are rudimentary. Tylor perceived the modern religious belief in God as a “survival” of primitive ignorance. He claimed the contemporary belief in God to be a survival, because science could explain the phenomena previously justified by religion.

Edward Burnett Tylor

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