Leslie White

From New World Encyclopedia

Leslie Alvin White (January 19, 1900 – March 31, 1975) was an American anthropologist known for his advocacy of theories of cultural evolution, Neoevolutionism, and for the scientific study of culture that he named "culturology." White's approach challenged the dominant Boasian approach of cultural relativism, reviving notions of cultural evolution, placing technological advances in harnessing energy as the key factors driving progress. His approach was thus rather materialistic, and his favoring of socialism and interest in the Soviet Union echoed this tendency. Nevertheless, White inspired a new generation of anthropologists at the University of Michigan, which became a leading force in innovative anthropological thought as a result of his work.


Early life

Leslie Alvin White was born to a peripatetic civil engineer in Salida, Colorado on January 19, 1900. His grandfather had been a prominent New England pastor, and his father had inherited many personality traits from that work-ethic background, but none of the religious aspects. His mother had an affair, and when the parents divorced, custody of the children was given to the father because of the circumstances.

From five years old, Leslie only had his brothers and sister as friends, since they moved to Lane, Kansas in 1907 and lived far out in the countryside. He would often say how much he learned from farm life, but he was also very lonely. White was always a good scholar, but when he used his analytic abilities to find flaws in his father's logic, he would often get a beating.

His sister became pregnant when she was 17 years old, shocking the whole family. This was so shameful for their father that he moved the family around to various places during the pregnancy, and finally settling just north of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She stayed with their mother for the birth of her child. From then on, the brothers began visiting and resumed their relationship with their mother and step-father.

When World War I began, White felt a patriotic calling to enlist. He enlisted in the Navy, just in time for the armistice. Nevertheless, he often recalled this period as "the most romantic period of [his] life" and it influenced his anti-war stance from that point forward. Afterwards, he studied at Louisiana State University from 1919.

Academic career

In 1921, Leslie White transferred to Columbia University where he studied psychology, taking a BA in 1923 and an MA in 1924. Although, at the same university as Franz Boas, White missed the founding father of American anthropology altogether. However, his interests even at this stage of his career were diverse, and he took classes in several other disciplines and institutions, including philosophy at UCLA, and clinical psychiatry, before finally discovered anthropology via Alexander Goldenweiser's courses at the New School for Social Research.

In 1925, White began studies for a Ph.D. in sociology/anthropology at the University of Chicago and had the opportunity of spending a few weeks with the Menominee and Winnebago in Wisconsin. After his initial thesis proposal, a library thesis which foreshadowed his later theoretical work, he conducted fieldwork at Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico. This was a turning point in his career, and his fieldwork was both highly controversial and of excellent quality. No one had been able to talk with the Pueblo Indians. No-one, not even Franz Boas had penetrated their taboo on talking with outsiders. White developed a "secretive method" originally in opposition to his patron and mentor, Elsie Parsons, and later together with her. He collected information secretively and published without permission, yet he felt and reported that many of his contacts also believed that it was necessary to have a written record of the Pueblo life before it disappeared. Without this work, he probably never could have published his controversial evolutionary anthropological ideas later.

His Ph.D. in hand, White began teaching at the SUNY Buffalo in 1927, where he began to rethink the anti-evolutionary views that his Boasian education had instilled in him. He was also curator of anthropology at the Buffalo Museum of Science from 1927 to 1930.

White became attracted to one of his students, Mary Pattison, and married her one year later, in 1929. They remained married for 38 years. In 1930, he moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan where he would remain teaching at the University of Michigan for the rest of his active career.

The three-year period at Buffalo marked a turning point in White's life. It was during this time that he developed a worldview—anthropological, political, and ethical—that he would hold to and actively advocate until his death. The student response to the then-controversial Boasian anti-evolutionary and anti-racist doctrines that White espoused helped him formulate his own views regarding sociocultural evolution. In 1929, he visited the Soviet Union and on his return joined the Socialist Labor Party, writing articles under the pseudonym John Steel for their newspaper.

White went to Michigan when he was hired to replace Julian Steward who departed Ann Arbor in 1930. Although the university was home to a museum with a long history of involvement in matters anthropological, White was the only professor in the anthropology department itself. In 1932, he headed a field school in the southwest which was attended by Fred Eggan and Mischa Titiev, among others.

It was Titiev that White brought to Michigan as the second anthropology professor in 1936. As a student of White, and a Russian immigrant, Titiev suited White perfectly. However, during the Second World War, Titiev took part in the war effort by studying Japan. By the end of the war, White had developed fundamental disagreements with Titiev and the two were hardly even on speaking terms. More faculty were not hired until after the war, when the two-man department was expanded. This, compounded by Titiev's foundation of the East Asian Studies Program and the import of scholars like Richard Beardsley into the department, created a serious split.

White was a socialist, a member of the Socialist Labor Party. His views on socialism are contradictory, and hard to pinpoint as he was very much aware of their controversial nature, and purged his papers before he died so little remains with any reference to this political viewpoint. He did, however, speak about progress within the Soviet Union after his initial visit in 1929 and how they had surpassed the United States in many respects. He was privately very clear on many occasions, however, that he did not consider the Soviet Union as an attractive place to live, but rather observed it as an ethnologist.

As controversial as his political views were, it was his views on religion that came the closest to getting him fired. White really had little use for God, and made the case that future societies would "outgrow" the necessity for God.

Later life

White's wife of thirty eight years contracted cancer, finally passing away on June 5, 1959 after a long, painful illness. Mary had been a rather traditional wife who took care of all aspects of his life so that he could be free to concentrate on his work. Aware of her husband's many affairs, she chose to ignore them. As she became ill, he took care of every aspect of her care with great devotion, and had great remorse over how he had treated her, finally realizing how important she had been to him.

After she passed away he began a downward spiral. He became an alcoholic and his work and life suffered. He did no research for a decade, failed to complete a biography he had worked on, and did not finish the sequel to Evolution of Culture. At this time it became apparent that Mary had also been an important editor for him, and had helped finish his work with many insightful comments. Some of his work at this time did not have the grace of his previous work, and was unnecessarily caustic in tone.

He married Helen Heatlie, a woman 20 years younger than him, on September 21, 1964. Helen was a very different person from Mary, and their relationship was turbulent, ending in divorce the next year. The divorce proceedings were scandalous to the academic community at the time, and he was most distressed about being separated from his study, books, and papers. At that time, he faced not only the end of his marriage, but the death of both a brother and a sister to cancer.

He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and went to AA meetings twice a week for the rest of his life. As an ethnographer, he found the organization unique and praised it highly in spite of his reluctance to embrace the guidance of any "higher being" as the organization proscribes.

On a trip to Death Valley, he checked into a motel in Lone Pine, California and on March 31, 1975 he died there from a heart attack.


White's views were formulated specifically against the Boasians, with whom he was institutionally and intellectually at odds. This antagonism often took an extremely personal form: White referred to Franz Boas's prose style as "corny" in no less a place than the American Journal of Sociology, while Boasian Robert Lowie referred to White's work as "a farrago of immature metaphysical notions" shaped by "the obsessive power of fanaticism [which] unconsciously warps one's vision."

One of the strongest deviations from Boasian orthodoxy was White's view of the nature of anthropology and its relation to other sciences present. White understood the world to be divided into cultural, biological, and physical levels of phenomena. Such a division is a reflection of the composition of the universe and was not a heuristic device. Thus, contrary to Alfred L. Kroeber, Clyde Kluckhohn, or Edward Sapir, White saw the delineation of the object of study not as a cognitive accomplishment of the anthropologist but a recognition of the actually existing and delineated phenomena which comprise the world. The distinction between "natural" and "social" sciences was thus not based on method, but rather on the nature of the object of study—physicists study physical phenomena, biologists biological phenomena, and "culturologists" (White's term) cultural phenomena.

While he argued that the object of study was not delineated by the researcher's viewpoint or interest, the method by which he approached them could be. White believed that phenomena could be explored from three different points of view, the historical, the formal-functional, and the evolutionist (or formal-temporal). The historical view was essentially Boasian, dedicated to examining the particular diachronic cultural processes, "lovingly trying to penetrate into its secrets until every feature is plain and clear." The formal-functional is essentially the synchronic approach advocated by Alfred Radcliffe-Brown and Bronisław Malinowski, attempting to discern the formal structure of a society and the functional interrelations of its components. The evolutionist approach is, like the formal approach, generalizing. But it is also diachronic, seeing particular events as general instances of larger trends.

While Boas claimed his science promised loving penetration, White thought that it would "emasculate" anthropology if it became the dominant position. White viewed his own approach as a synthesis of historical and functional approaches because it combined the diachronic scope of one with the generalizing eye for formal interrelations provided by the other. As such it could point out "the course of cultural development in the past and its probable course in the future" a task that was anthropology's "most valuable function."

For White, culture was a super-organic entity that was sui generis and could only be explained in terms of itself. White spoke of culture as a general human phenomenon, and claimed not to speak of "cultures" in the plural. For White, culture was composed of three levels; the technological, the social organizational, and the ideological. Each level rested on the previous one, and although they all interacted, ultimately the technological level was the determining one, which White calls "The hero of our piece" and "the leading character of our play." The technological component can be described as material, mechanical, physical, and chemical instruments, as well as the way people use these techniques. White's argument on the importance of technology can be summarized as follows:

  1. Technology is an attempt to solve the problems of survival.
  2. This attempt ultimately means capturing enough energy and diverting it for human needs.
  3. Societies that capture more energy and use it more efficiently have an advantage over other societies.
  4. Therefore, these different societies are more advanced in an evolutionary sense.

White believed that culture—meaning the sum total of all human cultural activity on the planet—was evolving. His views of evolution are firmly rooted in the writings of Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, and Lewis H. Morgan. Advances in population biology and evolutionary theory passed White by and, unlike Steward, his conception of evolution and progress remained firmly rooted in the nineteenth century.

For White the primary function of culture and the one that determines its level of advancement is its ability to harness and control energy. White's law states that the measure by which to judge the relative degree of evolution of a culture was the amount of energy it could capture (energy consumption).

Composite image of the Earth at night, created by NASA and NOAA. The brightest areas of the Earth are the most urbanized, but not necessarily the most populated. Even more than 100 years after the invention of the electric light, some regions remain thinly populated and unlit.

White differentiated five stages of human development based on the nature of energy used. In the first stage, people use energy of their own muscles. In the second, they use energy of domesticated animals. In the third, they use the energy of plants (here White considers the agricultural revolution significant). In the fourth, they learn to use the energy of natural resources: coal, oil, gas. In the fifth, they harness the energy of the atom as nuclear energy. White introduced a formula

C= ET,

where E is a measure of energy consumed per capita per year, T is the measure of efficiency of technical factors utilizing the energy and C represents the degree of cultural development.

White stated the basic law of cultural evolution was that culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the instrumental means of putting the energy to work is increased. Therefore progress and development are affected by the improvement of the mechanical means with which energy is harnessed and put to work as well as by increasing the amounts of energy employed. Although White stops short of promising that technology is the panacea for all the problems that affect humankind, his theory treats the technological factor as the most important factor in the evolution of society and is similar to the later works of Gerhard Lenski, the theory of Kardashev scale of Russian astronomer, Nikolai Kardashev, and to some notions of technological singularity.


As a professor at the University of Michigan, White trained a generation of influential students. As the founder and department chairman, although not an adept administrator, White created a place that became an innovator in anthropological thought and research. Scholars such as Beth Dillingham, Gertrude Dole, and Robert Carniero carried on his ideas of anthropology directly, while scholars such as Eric Wolf, Elman Service and Marshall Sahlins used his training to launch new and influential ideas within anthropology.

White's ideas on evolutionary anthropology were already somewhat dated when he proposed them, as Social Darwinism was having a last burst of energy during World War II. However, his voice was a stimulating counter-proposal to the Boasian school of thought that had dominated American anthropology for several decades. White's methodologies and process have remained a foundation in anthropological study that has continued to inform and inspire later research.

Selected publications

  • White, Leslie. 1932. The Pueblo of San Felipe. American Anthropological Association Memoir No. 38. ISBN 0527005371 ISBN 9780527005375
  • White, Leslie. 1932. The Acoma Indians. Bureau of American Ethnology, 47th annual report. pp. 1-192. Smithsonian Institution.
  • White, Leslie. 1934. The Pueblo of Santo Domingo. American Anthropological Association Memoir 60.
  • White, Leslie. 1942. The Pueblo of Santa Ana, New Mexico. American Anthropological Association Memoir 60.
  • White, Leslie. 1949. The Science of Culture: A study of man and civilization. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0975273825 ISBN 9780975273821
  • White, Leslie. 1959. The Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilization to the Fall of Rome. Left Coast Press. ISBN 1598741446
  • White, Leslie. 1987. Ethnological Essays: Selected Essays of Leslie A. White. University of New Mexico Press.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Beardsley, Richard. 1976. "An appraisal of Leslie A. White's scholarly influence" in American Anthropologist. 78:617-620.
  • Elman Service. 1976. "Leslie Alvin White, 1900-1975" in American Anthropologist. 78:612-617.
  • Moore, Jerry D. 1997. "Leslie White: Evolution Emergent" in Visions of Culture. 169-180. AltaMira.
  • Peace, WIlliam. 2004. Leslie A. White: Evolution and Revolution in Anthropology. University of Nebraska Press. The definitive biography of White. ISBN 0803236816 ISBN 9780803236813


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