On the Evolution of Culture (1906)

Plate III, Evolution of Culture

A lecture delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain on Friday, May 28, 1875, and published in the Proceedings of the Roal. Institution, vol. vii. pp. 496-520, PI. i-iv and later (and edited) in ‘Evolution of Culture’, 1906. This is the version published in 1906.

If we accept the definition of the term science as 'organized common sense', we necessarily reject the idea of it as a 'great medicine' applicable only to particular subjects and inapplicable to others; and we assume that all those things which call forth the exercise of our common sense are capable of being scientifically dealt with, according as the knowledge which we pretend to have about them is based on evidence in the first place, and in the sequel is applied to the determination of what, for want of a better word, we call general laws.

But in using this term 'law', we do not employ it in the sense of a human law, as a regulating or governing principle of anything, but merely as deduction from observed phenomena. We use it in the sense of a result, rather than a cause of what we observe, or at most we employ it to express the operation of proximate causes; and of the ultimate causes for the phenomena of nature we know nothing at all.

Further, in this development of the principle of common sense it has been said that the inductive sciences pass through three phases, which have been termed the empirical, the classificatory, and the theoretical.

Of these, the first or empirical stage may be defined as representing that particular phase of unorganized common sense in which our knowledge is simply a record of the results of ordinary experience, such as might be acquired by any savage or uneducated person in his dealings with external nature.

But as this condition of knowledge might perhaps be denied the claim to be considered scientific, it might be better perhaps to extend the term so as to embrace all that can be included under a practical knowledge of the subjects treated, in which these subjects are studied for their own sakes, or on account of their practical uses to man, and not with a view to generalizing upon them.

In this way it may be said that agriculture represents the empirical or practical stage of botany; mining, that of geology; hunting and the domestication of animals, that of zoology; the trade of the butcher, that of anatomy; navigation by means of the stars, that of astronomy.

Passing now over the boundary line which separates what are generally recognized as the physical sciences from the science of culture, in which the subjects treated are emanations from the human mind, we find that these also have their corresponding phases of development.

Commencing first with the science of language, which has been the earliest and perhaps the most important branch of human culture the study of which has been scientifically treated as yet, we find that Professor Max Müller, in the series of lectures delivered in this Institution in 1861-3, [1] has shown that the science of language has its corresponding empirical or practical stage, in which it is studied only for its own sake, or for its utility as a means of intercommunication; not as a means of generalizing upon language as a whole, but merely for the purpose of understanding the particular languages which we wish to make use of in our intercourse with others.

In like manner passing from language to the particular department of culture which, for the reasons to be explained hereafter, I shall make the subject of this discourse, viz. the material arts, I shall endeavour to show that there exists also in relation to them a practical or empirical stage, which is the stage that we are now in with respect to them, in which we may include the whole of the constructive arts of mankind, from the simple flint knife to the most complex machine of modern times, when viewed from the standpoint of the mechanic or the artificer, not as subjects for generalization, but merely from an utilitarian point of view.

There are many persons no doubt who regard utility, not as a primary stage, but as the final and highest result of science. But the highest achievements of science, even the highest practical achievements, would never have been reached by the mere utilitarian. There is a force within us by which we are moved in the direction of acquiring knowledge for its own sake and for the sake of truth, regardless of any material advantage to be derived from such knowledge. Sooner or later such knowledge is sure to bear practical fruits, even though we may not live to realize them.

It is in this spirit that men of science have advanced to the second or classificatory stage, in which, with a view to higher generalization, the subjects studied are grouped together according to their affinities, and specific points of resemblance are taken as the representatives of each class.

These classes are at first grouped round independent centres but such an arrangement of them, having no existence in reality, is purely subjective and can only be transitional. The margins of the classes so formed represent only the margins of our knowledge or our ignorance, as the case may be.

By degrees, as the classes become extended, sub-classes are formed, and they are seen to arrange themselves in the form of branches radiating from a central stem. By still further observation, the stems of the several classes are seen to tend towards each other, and we are led to trace them to a point of union.

Thus from the classificatory or comparative we pass gradually into the third stage, which I have spoken of as the theoretical, but which may perhaps be more clearly defined as the evolutionary. By the use of this term 'evolutionary' we make it apparent that our third stage is but a development of the second, evolution being merely the necessary and inevitable result of the extension of classification, implying greater unity and broader generalizations.

These three stages then, the empirical or practical, the classificatory or comparative, and the evolutionary, are applicable to the development of all the inductive sciences.

But it has been held by some that a broad line of demarcation must be drawn between the physical sciences properly so called, such as zoology, botany, and geology, which deal with external nature, and those sciences which have been termed historic, which deal with the works of man.

This question has been ably treated by Professor Max Müller in the series of lectures to which I have referred, a course of lectures which must be regarded as a starting-point and basis of instruction for all who follow after him in the same path.

But in claiming for the science of language, and for language only, a place amongst the physical sciences, he has made admissions to opponents which, in my humble judgement, ought not to be made, and which are inconsistent with that more extended view of the subject by which I contend that, if language, then all that comes under the head of culture must be included amongst the physical sciences. Thus, for example, we find him admitting this passage as a sound and reasonable argument on the part of those who deny the claim of language' to be included amongst the physical sciences: 'Physical science,’ he says, 'deals with the work of God, historical science with the works of man.’

Now if in dealing with what are here termed the historical sciences, we were to take the subjects of such sciences, as for example the arts or language, implements or words, and were to regard them as entities to be studied apart from their relation to mind, and were to endeavour to deduce from them the laws by which they are related to each other, it is evident that we should be dealing with a matter which could not be correlated with the physical sciences; but such a course would be absurd. It would be as absurd to speak of a boomerang as being derived by inheritance from a waddy, as to speak of a word in Italian being derived by inheritance from a corresponding word in Latin; these words and these implements are but the outward signs or symbols of particular ideas in the mind; and the sequence, if any, which we observe to connect them together, is but the outward sign of the succession of ideas in the brain. It is the mind that we study by means of these symbols.

But of the particular molecular changes or other processes which accompany the evolution of ideas in the mind, we know no more than we do of the particular molecular changes and other processes which accompany the evolution of life in nature, or the changes in chemistry.

If then we are to understand the expression ‘the work of God’ as implying the direct action of ultimate causes, it is evident that we are not in a position either to affirm or to deny or to make any statement whatever respecting such ultimate causes, which may operate either as directly or as indirectly in the one case as the other. We know nothing about them, and therefore to invoke ultimate causes as a reason for distinguishing between the sciences is to take up a position which cannot be scientifically maintained.

With equal if not greater truth we may combat the assertion that the science of culture is historical, whilst nature, on the other hand, as dealt with by the physical sciences, is incapable of progress. However valid this objection might have appeared during the empirical and comparative stages of the physical sciences, it cannot be maintained, since the researches of Darwin and others have fairly landed them in their evolutionary phase. The principles of variation and natural selection have established a bond of union between the physical and culture sciences which can never be broken. History is but another term for evolution. There are histories and histories, as any one may determine who has read Green's Short History of the English People, and compared it with the kind of matter which passed for history in his school days. But our position with regard to culture has always been one which has forced on our comprehension the reality of progress, whilst with respect to the slow progress of external nature, it has been concealed from us, owing to the brief span of human existence and our imperfect records of the past. The distinction, therefore, between the sciences, as historical and non-historical, is but a subjective delusion, and not an objective reality; and herein, I believe, lies the secret of most of those errors that we have to contend with.

But the point in which I venture more particularly to differ from the conclusions of the learned author of the Science of Language is the line which he has drawn between language and the other branches of culture by including language amongst the physical sciences whilst he excludes the rest. 'If language,' he says, ‘be the work of man in the same sense in which a statue, a temple, a poem, or a law, are properly called works of man, the science of language would have to be classed as an historic science’; and again he says, 'It is the object of these lectures to prove that language is not a work of human art in the same sense as painting, or building, or writing, or printing.’

In dealing with this question it is material, as regards the relative claims of language and the arts to be studied as physical sciences, to distinguish between the general and the particular. If it is said that language as a whole is not a work of human design, the same may with equal truth be said of the arts as a whole. A man who constructs a building, a tool, or a weapon, can no more be said to have devised a scheme of arts, than the introducer of a new word can be said to have invented a language; but each particular word bears the impress of human design as clearly as a weapon or a coin. A word may be said to be a tool for the communication of thought, just as a weapon is an implement of war.

But, says Professor Müller, 'art, science, philosophy, religion, all have a history; language or any other production of nature admits only of growth.’ But unless it can be shown that words are entities having the power of generating and producing other words, which arts, tools, or weapons, do not possess, the word growth can only be applied figuratively to language as it is to the arts, and in that case growth and history are synonymous terms. But this is absurd. Words, as I said before, are the outward signs of ideas in the mind, and this is also the case with tools or weapons. Words are ideas expressed by sounds, whilst tools are ideas expressed by Hands; and unless it can be shown that there are distinct processes in the mind for language and for the arts they must be classed together.

But it is said, 'language has the property of progressing gradually and irresistibly, and the changes in it are completely beyond the control of the free will of man.’ This, however, can only be accepted relatively. We know that in certain phases of savage life the use of particular words may be tabooed in the same manner that the use of particular implements or weapons may be tabooed; but it would be quite as hopeless for any individual to attempt to change the entire course of the constructive arts as to change the form of a language; the action of the individual man is limited in both cases to the production of particular words or particular implements, which take their place like bricks in a building.

Man is not the designer in the sense of an architect, but he is the constructor in the sense of a brickmaker or a bricklayer.

But the difficulty of tracing fleeting words to their sources operates to a great extent in effacing the action of the individual in language. Words become public property before they are incorporated in a language. It would be difficult to establish a system of patents for new words. Here again we see that the line drawn between language and the arts is a subjective delusion, not an objective reality. It is not true that words do not originate with individual men, but merely that we do not perceive it.

Modifications of words, like modifications in the forms of the arts, result from the succession of ideas or other causes affecting particular minds. They obtain acceptance through natural selection by the survival of the fittest.

The chance which a new word or a new implement has of surviving depends on the number of words or implements to be superseded, on their relative importance to the art or the language, and the persistency with which these superseded words or implements are retained. The truth of this is seen in the fact that vocabularies change far more rapidly than grammatical forms; because the same grammatical terminations are employed with a large number of different words, and they are therefore a more constant necessity of speech.

Hence early and barbaric languages may be connected by their grammatical forms long after their vocabularies have entirely changed. The same truth is seen in the fact admitted by philologists, that in small communities new words and modifications of words gain more ready acceptance than in large communities; because the struggle of the new words for existence is less in small than in large communities, and the dialects therefore change more rapidly. And the same causes influence the transformations which take place in the arts. Objects in common use change more slowly than those which are but little employed; the difference is merely one of degree and not of kind.

In dealing with the arts, each separate contrivance occupies a larger share of our attention, to the exclusion of any comprehensive survey of them as a whole. The arts present themselves to our mental vision on a larger scale, and we view them analytically; we are as it were in the brickmaker's yard seeing each brick turned out of hand, whereas in dealing with language we see only the finished building; the details are lost. We view language synthetically. The arts may be said to present themselves to us as a sea beach in detached fragments; language in the form of a compact sandstone. The empiric or the utilitarian may deny that there is any resemblance between them; but the geologist knows that the mode of deposition has been the same in both cases, and he classes the whole as rocks.

Then again there are facilities for collecting and arranging the data for the study of language which do not exist in the case of the arts. Whilst words take seconds to record, hours and days may be spent in the accurate delineation of form. Words cost nothing, may be packed in folios, transmitted by post, and stored on the shelves of every private library. Ten thousand classified words may be carried in the coat pocket without inconvenience, whilst a tenth part of that number of material objects require a museum to contain them, and are accessible only to a few this is the reason why the arts have never been subjected to those classifications which form the groundwork of a science.

But when we say that words and implements are both tools employed for the expression of thought, it is important to bear in view one difference between them, which has a practical bearing on the relative value of the two studies as a means of tracing the evolution of culture in prehistoric times and amongst savages. The word is the tool of the ear, the implement the tool of the eye;and for this reason language is the science of historic times, whilst the arts constitute the subject of science to be studied in relation to prehistoric times.

Every new tool or weapon formed by the hand of man retains the same form as long as it continues to exist; it may be handed from man to man, from tribe to tribe, from father to son, from one generation to another; or, buried in the soil, it may under special conditions continue for untold ages without change of form, until in our time it may be discovered and employed as evidence of the condition of the arts at the time it was fabricated. Very different, however, is the history of words. Each word coined by the exercise of the inventive faculty of man to express an idea is liable to change as it passes from mouth to ear. Its continued identity is dependent solely on memory, and it is subject to phonetic and acoustic changes from which the forms of the arts are exempt.

When by the invention of writing each word receives its equivalent in forms that are appreciable to the sense of sight, it gains stability, which places it on a footing of equality with the arts, and enables us to trace with certainty the changes it has undergone; and therefore in historic times language is the surest test of social contact that we can have. But in prehistoric times, before it had acquired this permanence through the invention of writing, the forms of language were, to use Mr. Sayce's expression, in a constant state of flux.

The truth of this is seen in the immense number of dialects and languages employed by savages at the present time. Thus amongst the one hundred islands occupied by the Melanesian race, the Bishop of Wellington tells us, and his statement is confirmed by the late lamented Bishop Patteson, that there are no less than two hundred languages, differing so much that the tribes can have but very little interchange of thought; and similar accounts are given of rapid changes of language in Cambodia, Siberia, Central Africa, North, Central, and South America.

The greater stability of the material arts as compared with the fluctuations in the language of a people in a state of primaeval savagery, is well shown by a consideration of the weapons of the Australians, and the names by which they are known in the several parts of that continent. These people, from the simplicity of their arts, afford us the only living examples of what we may presume to have been the characteristics of a primitive people. Their weapons are the same throughout the continent; the shield, the throwing-stick, the spear, the boomerang, and their other weapons differ only in being thicker, broader, flatter, or longer, in different localities; but whether seen on the east or the west coast, each of these classes of weapons is easily recognized by its form and uses. On the other hand, amongst the innumerable languages and dialects spoken by these people, it would appear that almost every tribe has a different name for the same weapon. The narrow parrying-shield, which consists of a piece of wood with a place for the hand in the centre, in South Australia goes by the name of heileman, in other parts it is known under the name of 'mulabakka', in Victoria it is 'turnmung', and on the west coast we have 'murukanye' and 'tamarang' for the same implement very slightly modified in size and form. Referring to the comparative table of Australian languages compiled by the Rev. George Taplin, in the first number of the Journal of the Anthropological Institute (i, 1872, pp. 84-8), we find the throwing-stick, which on the Murray River is known by the name of ‘yova’, On the Lower Darling it is ‘yarrum’, in New South Wales it is ‘wommurrur', in Victoria 'karrick', on Lake Alexandrina ‘taralye', amongst the Adelaide tribes of South Australia it is 'midla', in other parts of South Australia it is called ‘ngeweangko’, and in King George's Sound 'miro'.

From these considerations we arrive at the conclusion that in the earliest stages of culture the arts are far more stable than language: whilst the arts are subject only, or chiefly, to those changes which result from growth, language, in addition to those which result from growth, is also affected by changes arising from phonetic decay.

The importance therefore of studying the grammar, so to speak, of the arts becomes apparent, as it is by this means alone that we can trace out the origin and evolution of culture in the earliest times.

The task before us is to follow by means of them the succession of ideas by which the mind of man has developed, from the simple to the complex, and from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous;to work out step by step, by the use of such symbols as the arts afford, that law of contiguity by which the mind has passed from simple cohesion of states of consciousness to the association of ideas, and so on to broader generalizations.

This development has to be considered under the two heads of culture and constitution, that is to say, that we have to consider not only the succession of ideas in the mind resulting from experience, but also the development by inheritance of the internal organism of the mind itself, or, to use the words of Mr. Herbert Spencer, 'In the progress of life at large, as in the progress of the individual, the adjustment of inner tendencies to outer persistencies must begin with the simple and advance to the complex, seeing that, both within and without, complex relations, being made up of simple ones, cannot be established before simple ones have been established' (Princ. of Psych., i3 p. 426).

We find no difficulty in assenting to the general proposition that culture has been a work of progress. Our difficulty lies in realizing the slow stages of its early development, owing to the complexities both of our mental constitution and of the contemporaneous culture from which experience is drawn, or, again to use Mr. Spencer's more expressive words, of our 'inner tendencies', and ‘outer persistencies’; we are apt to regard as intuitive, if not congenital, many simple ideas which in early culture can only have been worked out through the exercise of experience and reason during a long course of ages.

We see this error of our own minds constantly displayed in the education of children. The ideas in a child's mind, like those of mankind at large, are necessarily built up in sequence. The instructor makes use of some word, the meaning of which is clearly understood by him, but which does not fall into the sequence of the child's reasoning; the conception associated with it in the child's mind must, however, necessarily conform to such sequence.Hence a confusion of ideas, which is often attributed to the stupidity of the child, but which is in reality due to the inexperience of the instructor;as, for instance, in the case exemplified by Pip, in Dickens' Great Expectations, who, having imbibed the precept that he was to ‘walk in the same all the days of his life', was led by his sequence of ideas to infer therefrom that he was invariably to walk to school by the same path, and on no account go round by the pastrycook's.

And so in studying savages and early races whose mental development corresponds in some degree to that of children, we have to guard against this automorphism, as Mr. Spencer terms it; that is to say, the tendency to estimate the capacity of others by our own, which appears almost completely to incapacitate some people from dealing with the subject.

The question of the free will of man enters largely into this study. I shall not be expected to say much upon a subject which has so lately occupied the attention of the public, having been discussed by some of our ablest scientists; but I cannot avoid quoting, in reference to this point, a passage from Dr. Carpenter's Mental Physiology, who in this controversy is certainly entitled to be regarded as the champion of free will and therefore by quoting him we run no risk of overstating the case against free will. 'Our mental activity,' he says (p.25), is 'entirely spontaneous or automatic, being determined by our congenital nervous organism. ... It may be stated as a fundamental principle that the will can never originate any form of mental activity ...' But it has the power, he continues, of selecting any one out of several objects that present themselves either simultaneously or successively before the mental vision, and of so limiting and intensifying the impression which that particular object makes upon the consciousness, that all others shall be for the time non-existent to it.

The truth of this, in so far as regards the limitation of the will, cannot fail to force itself upon the student of culture. It is, I venture to think, by classifying and arranging in evolutionary order the actual facts of the manifestations of mind, as seen in the development of the arts, institutions, and languages of mankind, no less than by comparative anatomy, and far more than by metaphysical speculation, that we shall arrive at a solution of the question, to what extent the mental Ego has been, to use Professor Huxley's expression, a conscious spectator of what has passed.

I propose, therefore, with your permission, to give a few examples, by means of diagrams, of material evolution derived from the earliest phases of culture. In language and in all ideas communicated by word of mouth there is a hiatus between the limits of our knowledge and the origin of culture which can never be bridged over, but we may hold in our hand the first tool ever created by the hand of man.

It has been said that the use of speech is the distinctive quality of man. But how can we know that? We are literally surrounded by brute language. We can imitate their calls, and we find that animals will respond to our imitations of them. But who has ever seen any of the lower animals construct a tool and use it.

The conception of man, not as a tool-using but as a tool-making animal, is clear, defined, and unassailable; probably if we could trace language to its sources, we should be able to draw the same line between natural sounds employed as a medium of communication, and the created word. Thus the arts which we can study may perhaps be taken to illustrate the origin of language, which we cannot study in this phase.

The ape employs both sticks and stones as missiles and as hammers to crack the shells of nuts. But we have no evidence that he ever selects special forms for special uses. The arts therefore afford us a clearly defined starting-point for the commencement of culture.

To go in search of a particular form of stick or stone in order to apply it to a particular use would require greater effort of the will in fixing attention continuously on the matter in hand than is found to exist amongst the lower animals except in cases of instinct, which term I understand to mean an inherited congenital nervous organism which adapts the mind to the ready reception of experience of a particular kind. But this instinct does not exist in the case in question; there is no tool-making instinct our tool has to be evolved through reason and experience, without the aid of any special organism for the purpose.

The process we have to assume therefore is that, in using stones as hammers, they would occasionally split. In using certain stratified rocks this would occur frequently, and so force itself on the attention of the creature. The creature going on hammering, it would force itself on his notice that the sharp fractured end was doing better work than before. It would be perceived that there were hard things and soft things, that the hard things split the stone, and the soft things were cut by it and so there would grow up in the mind an association of ideas between striking hard things and splitting, and striking soft things and cutting, and also a sequence by which it would be perceived that the fracture of the stone was a necessary preliminary to the other; and in the course of many generations, during which the internal organism of the mind grew in harmony with this experience, the creature would be led to perform the motions which had been found effectual in splitting the stone before applying it to the purposes for which it was to be used.

Thus we arrive at a state of the arts in which we may suppose man to be able to construct a tool by means of a single blow. By constantly striking in the same direction, flakes would be produced; and by still further repeating the same motions, it would at last be found that by means of many blows a stone could be chipped to an edge or a point so as to form a very efficient tool.

But this continued chipping of the stone in order to produce a tool, implies a considerable mental advance upon the effort of mind necessary to construct a tool with one blow.

It implies continued attention directed by the will to the accomplishment of an object already conceived in the mind, and its subsequent application to another object which must also have been conceived in the mind before the tool was begun.

Now we know from all experience, and from all evolution which we can trace with certainty, that progress moves on in an accelerating ratio, and that the earlier processes take longer than the later ones.

But the implements of the drift, which are the earliest relics of human workmanship as yet recognized, are most of them multi-flaked tools, such as the implements figured on Plate XII, Nos. 1-10, requiring a considerable time to construct, and the use of innumerable blows in order to trim to a point at one end.

It appears therefore evident that in the natural course of events the drift period must have been preceded by an earlier period of considerable extent characterized by the use of single-flaked tools. And we may therefore consider it probable that should any evidences of man be hereafter discovered in miocene beds, they will be associated with such large rude flakes as those now exhibited, which require a feebler effort of attention and of reason to construct.

If we examine the forms of the flint implements of the drift, we find that out of many intermediate shapes we may recognize three in particular, which have been minutely described by Mr. Evans in his valuable work on the stone implements of Britain [2]: (1) a side-tool, consisting of a flint chipped to an edge on one side and having the natural rounded outside of the flint left on the other side, where it appears to have been held in the hand; (2) a tongue-shaped implement chipped to a point at one end, and having the rounded surface for the hand at the big end and (3) an oval or almond-shaped tool, which is often chipped to an edge all round.

We have no evidence to show which of these kind of tools was the earliest; but that they were employed for different uses there can be little reason to doubt. But have we any evidence to throw light on the way in which these several forms originated in the minds of men in the very low condition of mental development which we may suppose to have existed at the time?

About eight years ago, whilst examining the ancient British camps on the South Downs, I chanced to discover in the camp of Cissbury, near Worthing, a large flint factory of the neolithic age. There were some sixty or more pits from which flints had been obtained from the chalk, and these pits were full of the debris of the flint-workers. The factory was of the neolithic age, the most characteristic tool of which is the flint celt, a form which differs but slightly from the oval or almond-shaped palaeolithic form, but the cutting edge of which is more decidedly at the broad end. The debris, some six hundred or more specimens of which were collected, consisted chiefly of these celts in various stages of manufacture.

If any one will attempt to make a flint celt, as I have done sometimes (and Mr. Evans, from whom I learnt that art, has done frequently), he will find that it is difficult to command the fracture of the flint with certainty; every now and then a large piece will come off, or a flaw will be discovered which spoils the symmetry of the tool, and it has to be thrown away. In arranging and classifying the remains of this flint factory, I found that all the palaeolithic forms were represented by one or other of these unfinished celts, so much so as to make it doubtful whether some of them may not actually have been used like them.

A celt finished at the thin end, and abandoned before the cutting edge was completed, represented a tongue-shaped palaeolithic implement; a celt finished only on one side represented a palaeolithic side-tool; and a celt rudely chipped out, and abandoned before receiving its finishing strokes, represented almost exactly an oval palaeolithic tool, only differing from it in being somewhat rougher, and showing evidence of unfinish.

Taking a lesson then from this flint-worker's shop of the later neolithic age, we see how the earlier palaeolithic forms originated. They were not designed outright, as the nineteenth-century man would have designed them for special uses, but arose from a selection of varieties produced accidentally in the process of manufacture. The forms were also suggested by those of the nodules out of which they were made. We see, by examining the outside surfaces that were left on some of them, how a long thin nodule produced a long thin celt, a broad thick nodule a broad thick celt, and so forth. Indeed, so completely does the fabricator appear to have been controlled by the necessities of his art, that in tracing these successive forms one is almost tempted to ask whether the principle of causation lay mostly in the flint or in the flint-worker, so fully do they bear out the statement of Dr. Carpenter and the other physiologists, that nothing originates in the free will of man.

On these two diagrams (Plates I and II) I have shown how, from the same form of palaeolithic implement already described, the more complex forms of the spear and axe-blade of the subsequent periods were developed. The point developed into a spear, and the broad end into an axe-blade. You will see by reference to Plate I that the oval tool of the drift suggested the smaller leaf-shaped spear-head of the early neolithic age. This, by a gradual straightening of the sides, became the lozenge-shaped form, which latter developed into the barbed form, and this last into the triangular form, which consists of barbs without a tang.

On the other hand, this same oval tool of the drift (Plate II), when used as an axe-blade with the broad end, became the celt of the neolithic period, chipped only at first and subsequently polished. This gave rise to the copper celt of the same form having convex surfaces, which grew into the bronze celt with flat sides. Then the bronze celt was furnished with a stop to prevent its being pressed too far into the handle by the blow. Others were furnished with projecting flanges to prevent them from swerving by the blow when hafted on a bent stick. Others had both stops and flanges. By degrees the flanges were bent over the stops and over the handle, and then the central portion above the stops, being no longer required, became thinner, and ultimately disappeared, the flanges closed on each other, and by this means the weapon grew into the socket celt. On this socket celt you will see that there is sometimes a semicircular ornamentation on each side. This semicircular ornament, as I pointed out in a paper on primitive warfare read some time ago, is a vestige of the overlapping flange of the earlier forms out of which it grew, which, like the rings on our brass cannon, are survivals of parts formerly serving for special uses (pp. 182-3 below).

In the vertical columns I have given, in the order of their occurrence, the successive periods of prehistoric time, viz. the early palaeolithic, late palaeolithic, early neolithic, late neolithic, early bronze, late bronze and iron periods, beneath which I have placed lines for two distinct phases of modern savage culture, viz. the Australian and the American Indian. A cross beneath each form denotes the periods in which they occur, and a vertical bar denotes that they are of rare or doubtful occurrence;so that the sequence of development may be seen at a glance, and it is only a glance that I ask you to take at these diagrams on the present occasion. I have checked them with Mr. Evans' work and also with Sir William Wilde's Catalogue, [3] and I do not think that any of the statements made in them will be challenged; but as these forms were not developed for the purpose of filling in the spaces in rectangular diagrams, such diagrams only imperfectly convey an idea of the evolution which has taken place, and must be regarded only as provisional and liable to be improved.

In tracing the evolution of prehistoric implements, we are of course limited to such as were constructed of imperishable materials. No doubt our prehistoric ancestors used also implements of wood, but they have long since disappeared; and if we wish to form an idea of what they were, we must turn to those of his nearest congener, the modern savage.

In speaking of savages, the question of progression versus degeneration is probably familiar to most of those present, through the writings of Sir John Lubbock and Mr. E. B. Tylor. To the several weighty arguments in favour of progression given by those writers I will add this one derived from the sequence of ideas.

If the Australians, for example, were the degenerate descendants of people in a higher phase of culture, then, as all existing ideas are made up of previous ideas, we must inevitably find amongst their arts traces of the forms of earlier and higher arts, as is the case amongst some of the savages of South America who early came in contact with Peruvian civilization; but the reverse of this is the case: all the forms of the Australian weapons are derived from those of nature.

In the same way that we saw that the forms of the palaeolithic flint implements were suggested by accidental fractures in the workshop, so the several forms of the Australian wooden implements were suggested by the various forms of the stems and branches out of which they were made. These savages, having only flint tools to work with, cannot saw out their weapons to any form they please; they can only trim the sticks into a serviceable shape. All their weapons are therefore constructed on the grain of the wood, and their forms and uses have arisen from a selection of the natural curves of the sticks.

I have arranged, on Plate III, drawings of nearly all the weapons used by the Australians, placing them together according to their affinities in such a manner as to show hypothetically their derivation from a single form. As all the forms given on this diagram are drawings of weapons in use at the present time, and there are many intermediate forms not given here, I have not arranged them in horizontal lines, as in the previous diagrams, to show their place in time, but have arranged them as radiating from a central point. We know nothing of the antiquities of savage countries as yet, and therefore cannot trace their evolution in time. The development has therefore been shown by means of survivals of early forms existing at the present time.

In the centre I have placed the simple cylindrical stick, as being the simplest form. By a gradual development of one end I have traced upwards the formation of a sharp ridge and its transition into a kind of mushroom form. To the right upwards I have traced the same development of the mushroom head, the projecting ridge of which is constantly liable to fractures by blows; and as savages always systematize accidental fractures so as to produce symmetry, scollops have been cut out of the ridge in different places for this purpose, which had the effect of concentrating the force of the blow on the projections. These were further developed; one of the pilei of the mushroom head was made larger than the others, and this suggested the form of a bird's head, so that it was only necessary to add a line for the mouth and a couple of eyes to complete the resemblance. To the right we see that the plain stick held in the centre gave the first idea of a defensive weapon, and was used to parry off the darts of the assailant; an aperture was then made in the stick for the hand, and the face of it became broader, developing into a shield, the narrow ends, however, being still retained for parrying. Below I have shown that the long stick simply pointed at one end became a lance; a row of sharp flints were gummed on to one side to produce a cutting edge, and these were then imitated in wood, and by pointing them obliquely they were converted into barbs. To the right another kind of barb was produced by binding on a piece of sharp-pointed wood. Between this and the shields we see that the first idea of the throwing-stick, employed to project these lances, was simply constructed like the barbed point of the lance itself. The gradual expansion of the stick arose from its being employed like a battledore, to fence off the enemy's lances. To the left below I have shown the gradual development of a peculiar curved weapon, called the 'malga'', formed from a stem and the branch projecting from it at different angles. The part where the continuation of the stem was cut off was trimmed to a kind of ridge; this ridge developed, and suggested the crest of a bird's head; ultimately the eyes were added, in the same manner as in the club on the opposite side of the diagram. To the left we see the plain round stick first flattened, then curved. Savages are in the habit of throwing all their weapons at their adversaries and at animals. In throwing a flat curved stick it rotates of its own accord, and as the axis of rotation continues parallel to itself, the thin edge is presented to the resistance of the air in front; this increases the range, and its peculiar flight must have forced itself on the attention of the savage as the result of experience: but he has never had the slightest knowledge of the laws of its flight. The different curves of the boomerang are the natural curves of the sticks, and like all the Australian weapons, they are made on the grain of the wood. Some are thicker than others; some will fly in the curves peculiar to that weapon, and others will not: scarcely two are alike.

To the left above, we see the mushroom-headed waddy its projecting ridge flattened, then curved; one side becomes more developed than the other, and this being thrown develops into the waddy boomerang, the ridge of the earlier forms being still represented by a mark on the flat head of the weapon; an intermediate link connects it with the true boomerang.

Many other examples might be given to illustrate the continuity which exists in the development of all savage weapons; but I only ask you to glance at the sequence shown in this diagram and the preceding ones in order to convince you of the truth of the statement which I made at the commencement of this discourse, that although, owing to the complexity of modern contrivances and the larger steps by which we mount the ladder of progress in the material arts, their continuity may be lost sight of, when we come to classify the arts of savages and prehistoric men, the term 'growth’ is fully as applicable to them as to the development of the forms of speech, and that there are no grounds, upon the score of continuity, history, or the action of free will, to separate these studies generically as distinct classes of science.

But in dealing with evolution we have to speak not only of growth, but, as in all other natural sciences, of the principle of decay. By decay I do not mean the decay of the materials of the arts, but the decomposition of the mental ideas which produced them.

As complex ideas are built up of simple ones, so there is also a further process by which they become disintegrated, and the parts go to form parts of other ideas.

This decay in the arts corresponds to what is called phonetic decay in language; and in both cases it arises either from incapacity, the desire to save trouble, or the necessity of abbreviating when ideas originally evolved for one purpose come to form parts of other ideas to which they are merely accessory and subordinate, as in the well-known dialectic changes of speech. Every sound in language had originally a distinct meaning of its own; gradually these sounds or roots came to form parts of words in which the original meanings of the sounds were lost.

I will now endeavour to draw a parallel to this in the arts, by means of what may be termed realistic degeneration.

I will not say much as to the place of realism in culture. The archaeological world has lately been somewhat startled by the discovery of well-executed designs of elephants and other animals in the French caves in association with the rude stone implements of the palaeolithic age, and by the more recent discovery of Mariette Bey, that the earliest Egyptian sculptures of the third dynasty are the most truthful representations of the human form that are to be found in that country. I see nothing surprising in this, when we consider the power that is developed in many children of eight or nine years old of making drawings of animals and other objects, which, when allowance is made for the feeble hand of childhood, are often as truthful as those of the cave-period men, at a time when their minds have acquired but little power of reasoning or generalizing, or even of taking care of themselves; all which goes to prove that this power of imitation, which is a very different thing from ideal art, is one of the most early developed faculties of the mind of man.

When the power of imitation had once been developed, it would naturally be made use of as a means of intercommunication; thus the drawing of a stag would be made to convey information to people at a distance that there was a herd of deer in the neighbourhood to be hunted; and as the object of the drawing was no longer to depict truthfully the peculiarities of the beast, but merely to convey information, the amount of labour expended upon it would be the least that could be employed for the required purpose. All written characters have originated in this way; and no one now requires to be told how pictographic representations developed into hieroglyphic and subsequently into phonetic characters.

But realistic degeneration would equally take place in all cases in which pictorial representations came to be employed for other purposes than those for which they were originally designed, as in the case of ornamental designs.

Plate XXI Evolution of Culture, coins So also a coin receives upon its surface the image of a king or a god as a stamp of authority. When from any cause the object of the original design is lost, the object of the stamp being no longer to convey a likeness, but being merely used as a test of genuineness, or perhaps amongst an unlettered people to denote its value, the tendency to realistic degeneration would be proportioned to the difficulties of execution; no further labour would be expended on it than was necessary for the object to be attained. Here I must again remind you of the interesting discourse delivered in this Institution on May 14, 1875, by Mr. Evans, on the evolution of British coins. [4] His examples are figured in his Coins of the Ancient Britons, pp.24-32. With his permission I have introduced some of his diagrams (Plate XXI). You will remember how the coin of Philip of Macedon having been introduced into Britain, the head on the obverse gradually disappeared, leaving only the wreath as a band across the coin, which was ultimately converted into a cross; and how on the reverse, the chariot and two horses dwindled into a single horse, the chariot disappeared, leaving only the wheels, the driver became elevated, not elevated after the manner unfortunately but too common amongst London drivers, but elevated after the manner of the Spiritualists, except that you see he had the precaution to take on a pair of wings, differing also both from the London driver and the Spiritualists, inasmuch as instead of having lost his head he has lost his body, and nothing but the head remains; the body of the horse then gradually disappears, leaving only four lines to denote the legs.

Plate IV, 'The Evolution of Culture'. I will now show you an exact parallel to these transformations in a collection of designs, supposed to be tribal marks, which are drawn upon the paddle blades of the New Irelanders, a race of Papuan savages inhabiting an island on the north-east coast of New Guinea.

Having noticed one or two allied varieties of design in specimens that came into my possession, I determined to collect all that I could find as they came to this country. In the course of several years I succeeded in obtaining the series represented upon Plate IV.

The first figure you will see clearly represents the head of a Papuan: the hair or wig is stuffed out, and the ears elongated by means of an ear ornament, after the manner of these people; the eyes are represented by two black dots, and the red line of the nose spreads over the forehead. This is the most realistic figure of the series. In the second figure the face is somewhat conventionalized: the line of the nose passes in a coil round the eyes; there is a lozenge pattern on the forehead, representing probably a tattoo mark; the body is represented sitting in full. In the third figure the man is represented sitting sideways, simply by lopping off an arm and a leg on one side. In the fourth figure the legs have disappeared. In the fifth figure the whole body has disappeared. In the sixth figure the nose has expanded at the base, and the sides of the face are made to conform to the line of the nose; the elongated ears are there, but the ear ornament is gone: the nose in this figure is becoming the principal feature. In the seventh figure nothing but the nose is left: the sides of the face and mouth are gone; the ears are drawn along the side of the nose; the head is gone, but the lozenge pattern on the forehead still remains; the coil round the eyes has also disappeared, and is replaced by a kind of leaf form, suggested by the upper lobe of the ear in the previous figures; the eyes are brought down into the nose. In the eighth figure the ears are drawn at right angles to the nose. In the ninth figure the nose has expanded at the base; all the rest is the same as in the last figure. In the tenth figure the lozenge pattern and the ears have disappeared, and a vestige of them only remains, in the form of five points; the base of the nose is still further expanded into a half moon. In the last figure, nothing but a half moon remains. No one who compared this figure with the first of the series, without the explanation afforded by the intermediate links, would believe that it represented the nose of a human face. Unfortunately we do not know as yet the exact meaning of these designs, but when further information is obtained about them it will throw considerable light on similar transformations in prehistoric times.

My next and last illustration is taken from the relics of Troy, recently brought to light by Dr. Schliemann.[5] In the valuable work lately published by him he gives illustrations of a number of earthenware vases and other objects, called by him idols, having on them the representation of what he conceives to be the face of an owl, and which he believes to represent Athena, the tutelary goddess of Troy, called by Homer 'Glaukopis Athene', which signifies, according to him, 'with the face of an owl.' Professor Max Müller has given his opinion that the word 'glaukopis' cannot possibly be taken to mean owl-faced, but can only mean large- or bright-eyed. On this point I will venture no opinion, but accepting Professor Müller's high authority for the usually received interpretation of it being correct, I shall in no way weaken the evidence in favour of Dr. Schliemann's discovery of the true site of Troy if I succeed in proving that, according to the true principle of realistic degeneration, this figure does not represent an owl but a human face.

The figures on Plate V are all taken from Dr. Schliemann's representations, and as the depth of each is given it will be seen that the different varieties of face occur in all the different strata excavated by him except the highest, and therefore no argument as to antiquity can be based upon the depth at which they were found. The two first figures, it will be seen, are clearly intended to represent a human face, all the features being preserved. In the two next figures (3, 4) the mouth has disappeared, but the fact of the principal feature being still a nose and not a beak, is shown by the breadth of the base and also by the representation of the breasts. In the two succeeding figures (5, 6) the nose is narrowed at the base, which gives it the appearance of a beak, but the fact of its being still a human form is still shown by the breasts. Had the idea of an owl been developed through realistic degeneration in these last figures, it would have retained this form, but in the two succeeding figures (7, 8) it will be seen that the nose goes on diminishing.

In the remaining figures, some of which are (12-16) of solid stone, not earthenware, and are believed by Dr. Schliemann to be gods, it is clearly shown by the rude scratches representing the eyebrows, and their want of symmetry, that this degeneration of form is the result of haste.

What then are these solid stone objects? I cannot for a moment doubt, from their resemblance to the vases, from the marks denoting the junction of the cover with the vase, and from the representations of handles, that they are votive urns of some kind, similar to those Egyptian stone models of urns represented in the two figures above. Urns of this kind were used by the Egyptians to contain the viscera of the mummies; but with the cheaper form of burial, in which the viscera were retained in the body, stone models of urns, of which these figures are drawings from originals in the British Museum, were deposited in the graves as vestiges of the earlier and more expensive process; these objects therefore cannot be idols, but votive urns. The fact of human remains having been found in some of the human headed urns, and the hasty scratches on the stone models, show that they are merely models appertaining to the conventionalized survival of some earlier or more elaborate system of urn burial.

We see from these facts that both growth and decay, the two component elements of evolution, are represented in the study of the material arts.

My object in this discourse has been not, as I fear it may have appeared to you from the brief time at my disposal and my imperfect treatment of the subject, to extol the material arts as being intrinsically of more interest or importance than other branches of culture, but to affirm the principle that it is by studying the psychology of the material arts alone that we can trace human culture to its germs.

The theory of degradation is supported only by the study of those branches of culture of which the early history is lost.

The tree is the type of all evolution: all trees are seedlings, but they differ in their mode of growth. Some, like the beech and oak, throw their branches upwards, and these are typical of the development of the material arts; others, like the straight-stemmed pine, throw off their branches downwards, and these are typical of the development of some other branches of culture. It is quite true, as stated by mythologists, that the history of myths is one of continued degeneration in so far as they can be traced, and that the element of decay enters far more into their composition than that of growth. But the whole accessible history of these myths represents drooping branches from the upward-growing stem of free thought out of which they sprang. What is the space of time which separates us from the Vedas, as compared with the whole upward growth of humanity before and since!

There are huge gaps in our knowledge of the history of the human race, and it has been the pleasure of mankind in all ages to people these gaps with jugglers and bogies; but surely, if slowly, science will open up these desert places, and prove to us that, so far as the finite mind of man can reach, there is nothing but unbroken continuity to be seen in the present and in the past.


[1] Lectures on the Science of Language (London, 1861), i, Lecture 1.

[2] John Evans, The Ancient Stone Implements, Weapons, and Ornaments of Great Britain (London, 1872 ), 1897.

[3] Sir W. Wilde, Catalogue of the Antiquities of the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy (Dublin, 1863).

[4] John Evans, 'On the Coinage of the Ancient Britons and Natural Selection,' Journal of the Royal Institution, vii. p. 476 ff.;with a Plate, which is reproduced, by permission, in Plate XXI.

[5] 1 For illustrations, see Troy and its Remains, by Dr. Henry Schliemann (Murray, 1875). The figures may be taken in the following order: No. 185, No. 74, No. 132, No. 13, No. 173, No. 207, No. 12, No. 11, No. 133, No. 141, No. 165. [Plate V has been compiled from the references here given.]

Note that all of the above notes apart from the last were added by Balfour or Myres to the 1906 edition.

Transcribed by AP September 2011

prm logo