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Otis T. Mason on Technology and the Progress of Civilization May 14, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Otis Mason (April 10, 1838 – November 5, 1908) was at the turn of the century one of the premier theorists  of primitive evolution.  He was a curator at the Smithsonian Institution for much of his career. Anthropologists remember him chiefly for his use of the “culture area concept” and for his contribution to “diffusionist studies.”   A “culture area” is a “region of relative environmental and cultural uniformity, characterized by societies with significant similarities in mode of adaptation and social structure.”

Diffusionism, as argued by the American anthropologist Clark Wissler, contended that cultural traits (gift-giving, technology, language, etc) moved from a given center, which implied that the “center of the trait distribution is also its earliest occurrence.” Wissler contended that cultural areas and geographic traits were “broadly congruent, implying a mild environmental determinism” (Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, ed. Alan J. Barnard, Jonathan Spencer, 61-62.)*

Mason’s work (like that of Wissler, Boas, Ratzel, and many others) has been reduced to “concept origin,” where they become responsible for a piece of mental furniture which anthropologists and other social scientists sometimes find useful to define their project.  He however is more interesting than as the originator of the “culture area” concept.

His  philosophical anthropology was tied, like many (including John William Draper, author of the History of the Intellectual Development of Europe (1862), who is now typically remembered for the “conflict thesis” between science and religion) to an account of the mental evolution of human beings in civilization.  This was at root an account of the distinctiveness of human evolution and how human beings broke away from the laws of nature.

The American geologist and evolutionary theorist Joseph LeConte, writing around the same time as Mason, argued “in organic evolution  the bodily form and structure must continually change in order to keep in harmony with the ever-changing environment. “Human evolution in contrast “is not by modification of form…but by modification of spirit- new planes of activity, higher character.”  The spirit was “modified and character elevated, not by pressure of an external physical environment, but by the attractive force of an internal spiritual ideal.”  Unlike other organic forms in creation, mankind more and more subdued nature according to his ever increasing wants and desires, making an physical modification of human beings unnecessary.  Mason more or less would agree to this account of the distinctiveness of human evolution as the evolution of intellect and of character, without assenting to the religious overtones of LeConte’s account

Mason believed that civilization had developed “from naturalism to artificialism” (The Origins of Invention, 8) He was chiefly concerned with the origins of modern industrial civilization in the most rudimentary modifications of organic nature and the evolution of technology as the evolution of human thought.  Like LeConte and Buckle, Mason considered the evolution of human beings to be mental rather than physical.  He noted, “…the history of industry is the story of the greater diversity of materials used, of the more complicated thought in the mind of the inventors….” (17) He continued, “the whole amount of human progress is undoubtedly to be credited to human intelligence and volition” (19-20.)  For Mason, there was never “lost technology” and every race or nation could advance to a sufficiently advanced stage.

Although he could not definitively say that biological evolution had ceased in man (a position held by Alfred Russell Wallace), he considered this a moot question.  If the size of the brain had not changed significantly, what had become an essential factor in the evolution of human kind was the mental effort expended to refine inventions and transform nature.   In the history of art, as in the history of invention there was “a constant increase in the intractability of the material.  The increase would also be coupled with a parallel movement in the means of overcoming the resistance” (24-5.)

Moreover, inventions would multiply as civilization advanced and became more heterogeneous and complex.  Much like Alexander Carr-Saunders, Emile Durkheim, and Herbert Spencer argued, the division of labor would increase as civilization advanced, where individuals would become continually more refined in their skills and habits.  Mason concluded, “The great procession of humanity drags along, too much encumbered with many cares to acquire excellence in one occupation” (26.)

Much like Alfred Espinas, Mason concurrently argued that technology, the making of tools through the transformation of brute nature was an intimate reflection of the philosophical anthropology of a people.  Technology encompassed not only their knowledge of the universe, but they games and activities they most enjoyed.  Technology for Mason and many others was not just a reflection of the flowering of the intellect and the progress of civilization, but also the embodiment of culture itself.  Thus: “inventions are not only things, but languages, institutions…philosophies, creeds, and cults.” In very Spencerian fashion, Mason continued that the change in technology was “from simple to complex and compound…”

Then instead of merely the father of a concept, Mason was engaged in a conversation about the very nature of human progress and of technology and culture.  Boas’ Mind of Primitive Man was very much in the same spirit in discussing the progress of human beings as mental and material, rather than physical. (Discussions of race in turn of the century anthropology can then be reduced to disagreements over the nature and scope of biological development in human beings as opposed to mental development.  These debates were frequently rooted in detailed discussions over the temporality of racial development,  or whether pre-agricultural races progressed due to biological changes as opposed to advanced races where the evolution was chiefly cultural or mental.)  Boas’ own success comes not through the inventiveness of his own ideas, as almost all had their roots and precedents in the latter portion of the nineteenth century, but in stating them more clearly than his contemporaries.

*1) I think Wissler’s work is far more complex than this but here I want to focus on Mason. As readers of this  blog know, there is no such thing as “geographic” or “environmental” determinism.  Jack Goody in his The Expansive Moment: The Rise of Social Anthropology in Britain and Africa (a book seldom read by historians, it appears) makes some good points about the dangers of “lumping together anthropologists and ideas in single categories makes it difficult to understand their work.”  I “lump,” but heuristically.  There were no card-carrying “structural-functionalists” and “evolutionism” is such a broad category as to be meaningless.  Lumping is like anachronism, it is defensible  if one knows its dangers, its benefits, and its limitations.  Here the influence on me of Nick Jardine’s work shows.

2) The “culture area concept” should also be subjected to a serious study of its origins and development in social theory.  There seems to be some confusion as to whether it was originally a product of the geography of Friedrich Ratzel, the ethnology of Adolf Bastian, or of the investigations of Mason himself.

3) Much of the preceding comes from conversations with Simon Cook.


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