Sir Edward Burnett Tylor

The English anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) was concerned with theories of cultural evolution and diffusion, and he advanced influential theories regarding the origins of magic and religion.

Edward B. Tylor was born in London into a prosperous Quaker family. He was privately educated and because of ill health was excused from entering the family business. In 1855 he traveled to Latin America and there met a fellow English Quaker and amateur antiquarian, Henry Christy; they toured Mexico in search of ancient artifacts. On his return to England, Tylor married Anna Fox in 1858 and settled into a comfortable private existence supported by his independent means.

In 1861 Tylor published Anahuac, in which he speculated on Mexico's ancient past. He joined the Royal Anthropological Society and independently studied primitive societies, publishing Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization (1865) and his most famous study, Primitive Culture (1871). The latter had an instant impact on social theorists, and Tylor was elected a fellow of the Royal Society the same year. A condensed account of his theories appeared in Anthropology (1881).

In 1883 Tylor became keeper of the University Museum at Oxford, where he later lectured on anthropological subjects, and in 1896 the first chair of anthropology in the English-speaking world was created for him at Oxford, a post he held until his retirement in 1909. The latter half of his career saw few publications and little modification of his initial positions. Perhaps his most notable achievement for us today is his brief essay "On a Method of Investigating the Development of Institutions, " which appeared in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1888), the first serious attempt to use statistical information to substantiate and generate social anthropological theories.

Tylor was an armchair anthropologist, uninterested in carrying out actual fieldwork with primitive peoples but keen on following the investigations of others. For him progress was linked with rationalism, and anthropology was to teach and correct contemporary aberrations of mankind by exposing the irrational survivals from the past adhering to modern social behavior. Tylor is generally credited with being the most influential expositor of the concept of animism (the idea that primitive men endow all things with vital supernatural powers) and the concept of survivals (that irrational, superannuated practices and beliefs continue past their period of usefulness). He was committed to historical reconstruction of the past by examining primitive societies which were thought to resemble prehistoric ones, but this was mainly to enable him to understand the nature of progress and to expunge nonrational, primitive elements from modern life; it was not to demonstrate the rich variety of human cultures.

Tylor's early career showed an emphasis on progressive evolution, but this was later modified to give attention to the diffusion of cultural traits from society to society. He saw the development of magic and religion as due to faulty logic based on psychological errors, not as an outcome of the nature of society itself. But his interpretations did credit primitive men with a logic, however faulty, and in this he represents an analytical advance over many of his contemporaries. He brilliantly demonstrated, for example, how persons of intelligence and reason may well accept magic and find no contradictions between such beliefs and other spheres of experience.


Further Reading on Sir Edward Burnett Tylor

The chief source for details of Tylor's life is Robert R. Marett, Tylor (1936), and the best critical accounts of his work and influence are in Edward E. Evans-Pritchard, Theories of Primitive Religion (1965), and John W. Burrow, Evolution and Society: A Study in Victorian Social Theory (1966).