Lewis Henry Morgan (November 21, 1818 – December 17, 1881) was an American ethnologist, anthropologist and writer. A founder of American anthropology, he is best known for his work on cultural evolution and the kinship system. He trained as a lawyer and practiced law for several years. Morgan represented the Seneca Native American tribe, and became deeply interested in their culture and history, supporting them in their struggle against white oppression. After becoming interested in their kinship structures, he expanded his investigations to other tribes in various parts of the United States, publishing his results in a work that established kinship systems as of one the major organizational concepts of cultural anthropology. Based on his observations, Morgan developed his theory of cultural evolution: a theory of unilineal evolution with three basic phases of development that all human societies went through—Hunter-gatherer (the "savage" stage), agriculture and metal-work (the stage of "barbarism"), and the highest stage beginning with writing (the stage of "civilization"). Morgan postulated that there were also stages in the development of family structures—from promiscuity and incestuous relationships through group marriage, and polygamy to the most advanced stage of monogamous marriage.
While Morgan's unilinear model, particularly of the development of family relationships, has been disputed and rejected, many of his underlying ideas continue to inform the field. His connection between technological development and social development was taken up by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their materialistic account of human progress although Morgan's own views saw material development not as the cause of social development but rather as a necessary condition for it, with humankind developing from a common origin guided from savagery to civilization by the hand of God.
Lewis Henry Morgan was born on November 21, 1818 in rural Rochester, New York, just south of the town of Aurora. His parents, Jedediah and Harriet Morgan, were of New England stock. Morgan graduated from Cayuga Academy in Aurora, and then went on to study law at Union College in Schenectady, New York. He received an A.B. degree in 1840 and began practicing in Aurora. In 1844 he opened a law office in Rochester.
Parallel to his work as a lawyer, Morgan studied the Classics of Ancient Greece and Rome. He was enchanted with exotic and ancient cultures and deeply admired Native American Indians. He joined a young men's social club in Rochester and eventually renamed it into “Grand Order of Iroquois,” after the Iroquois tribe. His book Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois (1851) became a bestseller.
On August 13, 1851 Morgan married Mary Elizabeth Steele.
Morgan became an attorney for the Seneca tribe in the late 1840s, and helped them fight in Congress for their land against the Ogden Land Company. The Seneca eventually adopted Morgan into their tribe and gave him the name Tayadaowuhkuh or "One-bridging-the-gap" (a bridge between the Indians and white man).
In the 1950s, Morgan invested in mining and railroad ventures, and managed to accumulate a small fortune. After that he decided to spend more time on anthropology and pursue his interest in it more scientifically. He noticed that North American Indians had a specific kinship system, which he decided to study in more depth. Morgan eventually became the first person to classify the Indian kinship system of relationship, in his The Indian Journals (1859-62).
While meeting with and studying Indian tribes, Morgan made frequent trips to the northern wilderness, where he also became interested in the habits of the beaver. He published his The American Beaver and His Works in 1868.
Morgan published numerous smaller papers on ethnology in the 1860s and 1870s. He however remains famous for his masterpiece, Ancient Society (1877), in which he introduced his cultural evolutionary theory.
Morgan served in the State Legislature as a Member of Assembly in 1861, representing the city of Rochester. He was elected Senator in 1867, serving for only one year. Morgan received his LL. D. in 1873. He was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1879.
Lewis Morgan died at his home in Rochester, New York on December 17, 1881. His estate became a part of the University of Rochester, hosting a college for women.
With the help of his Seneca tribe friend Ely S. Parker of the Tonawanda Creek Reservation, Morgan studied the culture of the Iroquois and produced the book, The League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois (1851). This volume became one of the earliest examples of ethnography, and this initial research led him to consider more general questions of human social organization.
Morgan conducted four expeditions in the period from 1859 and 1862. He traveled to the West, up the Missouri River as far as western Montana, collecting information on kinship terminology and other aspects of Native American culture. He published several books based on his studies, including his seminal Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity (1871) and Houses and House-lives of the American Aborigines (1881). His goal was to explain the wide variety of kinship systems in indigenous societies as different stages in human evolution and social development.
Like Herbert Spencer and Edward Burnett Tylor, Morgan was a proponent of social evolution. He proposed a unilinear scheme of evolution from primitive to modern, through which he believed societies progressed. He saw Western civilization as the pinnacle of human development, and modeled the development of all other societies in the image of the development of the Western world:
A common principle of intelligence meets us in the savage, in the barbarian, and in civilized man, It was in virtue of this that mankind were able to produce in similar conditions the same implements and utensils, the same inventions, and to develop similar institutions from the same original germs of thought. There is something grandly impressive in a principle which has wrought out civilization by assiduous application from small beginnings; from the arrow head, which expresses the thought in the brain of a savage, to the smelting of iron ore, which represents the higher intelligence of the barbarian, and, finally, to the railway train in motion, which may be called the triumph of civilization (Morgan 1877).
According to his evolutionary view, societies were divided into three major stages of social evolution, first proposed in Ancient Society (1877):
The first two stages were further divided into three sub-stages each, for a total of seven stages. Morgan divided stages by technological inventions, like fire, bow, pottery in the "savage" era, domestication of animals, agriculture, metalworking in the "barbarian" era, and the alphabet and writing in the "civilization" era. Thus, Morgan introduced a link between social progress and technological progress. Morgan viewed technological progress as the force behind the social progress, and any social change — in social institutions, organizations or ideologies have their beginning in the change of technology.
As it is undeniable that portions of the human family have existed in a state of savagery, other portions in a state of barbarism, and still others in a state of civilization, it seems equally so that these three distinct conditions are connected with each other in a natural as well as necessary sequence of progress (Morgan 1877, 3).
Morgan believed that human society began as a “horde living in promiscuity,” with no real family structure. Over time, family relationships developed and marriage structures emerged. In the second stage, sexual relationships still existed between brothers and sisters, while in the third stage prohibitions against such practices began to appear. The third stage was the level when group marriage was practiced. In the fourth stage, which corresponds to the barbaric stages, males and females lived in loose relationships. After that came the male-dominant polygamous society where males had several wives, followed by monogamous-family society, which he considered the most developed stage in human relationships.
His theory became an important milestone in the development of Social Darwinism, despite the fact that Morgan himself regarded humankind as developing from a common origin to a common destiny, through the guidance of a "Supreme Intelligence" or God:
It may well serve to remind us that we owe our present condition, with its multiplied means of safety and of happiness, to the struggles, the sufferings, the heroic exertions and the patient toil of our barbarous, and more remotely, of our savage ancestors. Their labors, their trials and their successes were a part of the plan of the Supreme Intelligence to develop a barbarian out of a savage, and a civilized man out of this barbarian (Morgan 1877).
Morgan’s work paved an important path in the development of both the concept of cultural evolution and social Darwinism. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels relied on Morgan’s accounts of the evolution of indigenous peoples to fill in their own account of the development of capitalist society. As a result, many see Morgan’s work in the light of Marxism.
Within the discipline of anthropology, authors such as Leslie White championed Morgan's legacy while Franz Boas attacked it. Today Morgan's evolutionary position is widely discredited and unilinear theories of evolution are not highly regarded.
Nevertheless, many anthropologists recognize that Morgan was one of the first people to systematically study kinship systems, which have come to be recognized as a basic organizing principle in pre-urban societies. There is a prestigious annual lecture memorializing Morgan given each year at the Anthropology Department of the University of Rochester.
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