Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Edward Burnett Tylor


Edward Burnett Tylor was an English anthropologist. He helped to establish anthropology as a recognised scientific discipline and is considered the father of cultural anthropology. He classified cultures as either savage, barbarian or civilised. Unlike some contemporaries, who tried to establish a hierarchy of races (with white Caucasians at the top), Burnett upheld the Quaker belief in the equality of all humankind and considered these to be stages of development that all societies must go through.

Tylor was born in London in 1832, the son of a family of well-to-do Quakers who owned a brass foundry. He was educated at the Quaker School, Grove House, in Tottenham but left at the age of 16 after the death of his parents and never gained a university degree.

For several years, he managed the family business, but after he developed signs of tuberculosis, he was advised by doctors to travel in a warm climate and left England in 1855. His travels took him to Cuba, where a chance encounter in 1856 with fellow Quaker and ethnologist Henry Christy changed the direction of his life.

Christy was interested in studying early human civilisation and wanted to go to Mexico to study the remains of the ancient Toltec civilisation. The two travelled together, and their experiences in Mexico were later described by Tylor in his book Anahuac, published in 1861.

Throughout his travels in Mexico, Tylor tried to travel simply (usually on horseback) and see things as far as possible through the eyes of local and indigenous people. He recorded where those people were exploited, and noted in his book how their ill-treatment could only add to the feeling of hatred that has been growing up for these so many years among the brown Indians against the whites and the half-cast Mexicans.

On his return to England, he married fellow Quaker, Anna Fox. Their main home was in Wellington, in Somerset. Throughout their life together Anna would often attend his lectures. They had no children.

Tylor continued to study customs and beliefs of tribal communities, both contemporary and prehistoric. He published Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization in 1865, and his most influential work, Primitive Culture in 1871. His last book was Anthropology, an Introduction to the Study of Man and Civilization, published in 1881.

Through this period he was developing his theory of social evolution, and his classification of all cultures as either savage, barbarian or civilised. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Tylor considered these to be stages of development that all societies go through. He wrote:

They succeed each other in series substantially uniform over the globe, independent of what seem the comparatively superficial differences of race and language, but shaped by similar human nature acting through successively changed conditions.

He defined culture as a complex whole encompassing knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by societies. Crucially, Tylor believed there to be no inherent difference in terms of intelligence or potential for development between, say, those in a hunter-gatherer society and those in an advanced industrial one. In the late 19th C there was still considerable controversy over whether all humankind belonged a single species (monogenism) or to separate species (polygenism). Tylor, basing his work on empirical evidence, was a powerful advocate for monogenism.

Tylor used the term animism to describe a belief in a soul that inhabits all things. He regarded animism as the first phase of development of all religions. He also coined the idea of ‘survivals’ – earlier beliefs that persist despite being outmoded or scientifically disproved. By the end of his life, he had become an agnostic and a religious sceptic, but the values he had gained as a Quaker, particularly a belief in the equality of all humankind, still permeated his work.

Tylor was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1871, and given an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Oxford in 1875. In 1883, he was appointed Keeper of Oxford’s University Museum, and in 1884 became the first Reader in Anthropology, and the first professor of Anthropology in 1896. He continued to teach until 1909 and was knighted in 1912.

Tylor’s work was strongly influential on the next generation of British anthropologists.

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