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Robert Ranulph Marett, Eugenics, and the Progress of Prehistoric Man September 10, 2011

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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R. R. Marett’s account of the progress of prehistoric man in Progress and History (1916), edited by Francis Sydney Marvin, had the  object of assuring his audience that no matter how savage individuals were in the past they still grew, through gradual biological adaptation and an increasing awareness of divinity, into full grown Englishmen.

Robert Ranulph Marett (1866–1943)

Marett is remembered, if at all, for succeeding E.B. Tylor as Reader in Anthropology in Oxford in 1910,  and for proposing a primal stage of religious worldview,  pre-animism.  This elaborated on Tylor’s evolutionary scheme of psychic development.  Marett, like Lucien Levy-Bruhl, considered the primitive mind to be a uniform entity which ordered reality in a distinct way from that of modern man.

Marrett, as with any sociologists and social theorists surveyed here, was concerned with, among other things, how to measure progress and its costs.  Part of his imaginative exposition into prehistoric man was framed around the question, has progress made mankind better off?

I have discussed elsewhere on this blog how various social theorists have discussed the rise of material comforts and the decline of art, literature, and the faculty of taste.  For Marett, taste and material comfort went hand and hand.  He also agreed with the  folklorist Andrew Lang, that the savage and the Victorian are each happy in their own way.   If Marett believed that we were not necessarily happier, we were “nobler,”  more knowledgeable about our surroundings and less subject to unknown forces.   Modern man was also more sympathetic, more prone to altruistic behavior.

Speaking strictly as an anthropologist, not merely as an ethicist or philosopher, Marett rejected a categorical belief in the certainty of progress, though this light dismissal was rhetorical.  Marett believed it possible  to measure progress through its “external manifestations,” namely in changes in the material culture visible through the archaeological record and progress in the bodily makeup of human beings making them more suited to their environment.  Marett considered progress in these two spheres to be the domains of cultural and physical anthropology, respectively.

Marett dissuaded the reader from thinking that the prehistoric man practiced eugenics. All indications pointed to nature’s role as the selector of the fittest.  This did not mean that eugenics was either impractical or unwise as a purely “scientific” endeavor. Marett noted,

 If Eugenics were to mature on its purely scientific side, there is no reason why the legislator of the future should not try to make a practical application of its principles; and the chances are that, of many experiments, some would prove successful….

We must make resolutely for the types that seem healthy and capable, suppressing the defectives in a no less thorough, if decidedly more considerate, way than nature has been left to do in the past. Here, then, along physical lines is one possible path of human progress, none the less real because hitherto pursued, not by the aid of eyes that can look and choose, but merely in response to painful proddings at the tail-end.

Through the work of nature, the biological form became “less simian” with the forehead “markedly receding.”  In prehistoric times, moreover, progress occurred so slowly as to be almost “imperceptible,” where a “type” “suffices for an age.”  After accessing the archaeological evidences for a variety of types, including that of the Cro-Magnon, Marett concluded that an account of “progress” were indeed difficult to prove due to scanty evidence.  It was clear, however, that progress was indeed achieved because in the savage world of primeval history, the healthier and stronger survived by virtue of their superior qualities while the weaker died out.

Marett then commenced a discussion of the progress in the material culture of prehistoric man, drawing upon the insights of cultural anthropology rather than physical anthropology.  Although the culture of prehistoric peoples was rough and primitive by any stretch of the imagination, by the late Paleolithic period, “the presence of the soul of man is even more manifest.” Progress in the material culture of prehistoric peoples was intertwined with the growth of the “soul,” the growth of religious feelings in mankind.  While these men still hunted and acted much like savages, they nonetheless have “a taste and a talent for the fine arts of drawing and carving” with exceptional artists as common as in later ancient Athens or Florence.

Later remarking upon one of the most advanced prehistoric  groups, Marett concluded that the religious sensibility interacted with reason and imagination in such a way as to ensure scientific and progress from the rudest of states.    Mankind’s spiritual side was the source of his “material activities.”

And while Marett expressed unhappiness with the cursory nature of his “panorama,” he was nonetheless convinced that the “progressive nature of man” had been established.  Among the most important trends was the increase in the “complexity of organization” both in terms of mankind’s physical adaptation to his environment and in terms of his material culture.

Men of the stone age, therefore, “bore their full share in the work of race improvement.”  It was of critical importance, then, that the men of the present engage in the same “race improvement,” employing first and foremost the “faculty of spacious vision,” ensuring spiritual, material, and physical wholeness.

Such a concluding statement on Marett’s part is problematic given its vagueness as well as his earlier approval of eugenics.  His account of prehistoric man illustrates the ease with which social theorists of the time moved into the lexicography of eugenics and, in Marett’s case, perhaps, Social Darwinism.  The duty of “race betterment” was expected by his readers.  It is another of the banalities of nineteenth and early twentieth century social thought.


1. Matthew Wright - September 10, 2011

A fascinating and provoking piece! The seque into eugenics and social Darwinism wasn’t unusual for the time. Victorian-age science pivoted around assumptions of linear and often automatic ‘progress’. That had due input into both evolutionary theory and the way the British ranked the peoples they found around the world – quite at odds with today’s values, but genuinely held and believed in the nineteenth century. Part of the problem was that Darwin had built Ricardian-style economic competition into his theory (‘the survival of the fittest’). This led to notions that species died out or changed because they were ‘primitive’, whereas in reality, evolutionary change and survival pressure were more complex. All interesting stuff, and it begs questions about the way future scientists will see our own views today.

Matthew Wright

2. Christopher Donohue - September 12, 2011

Thank you for the kind comment. The ideas of progress and social Darwinism are some of the ‘banalities’ of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which I am attempting to narrate in a variety of contexts in the history of the social sciences.

This really amounts to an overly ambitious project of trying to grasp the mental universe of the social theorist of the long nineteenth century. This, I think, can be done with a few dozen concise interconnected intellectual biographies for starters.

Your “Guns and Utu: A Short History of the Musket Wars” looks like a fine book, although its not yet available in my university library. I look forward to reading it when it comes in. I would very much like any further commentary you might be able to give on my future posts. It is gratifying to know my work is being read by historians such as yourself.


3. Matthew Wright - September 13, 2011

Thank you. There is much we can learn about ourselves as humans, I think, from understanding the intellectual journey that’s got us here – I’ll look forward to reading your posts.


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