James Hutchison

Leslie White: Energy and the Evolution of Culture

        After reading White’s Energy and the Evolution of Culture I must take an opposing position. White’s theory is fundamentally unsound as it attempts to be an all-encompassing explanation of why culture comes to be, yet is exclusive of many cultures and takes anthropological definitions out of context.
        White begins the essay by utilizing the same method with which one would demonstrate the laws of energy and motion to likewise explain how man acquires culture. He then explains that after man learns to manipulate energy other than his own and store energy for later use creating leisure time, man can then devote more time to culture. After actually conscripting mathematical formulae and a long, though unconvincing explanation of why the formulae is valid he then states, “ The sedentary life that goes with agriculture is much more conductive to the development of the arts and crafts, to the accumulation of wealth and surpluses, to urban life.” In this passage his definition of culture is limited to arts and crafts. He does not consider language, religion or many other forms of culture.
        At the beginning of the essay he has limited culture to humans as a result of this thinking. White expounds on tool use and how it allows a limited culture, ignoring the fact that many animals use tools. He holds that only humans use symbolisms, but ignores the communication of non-human organisms. This is a grave error as communication is symbolic in form. White then presses these limits further as he, time and again, associates the rise of culture with technology. This rise of technology is based on tool use which eventually leads to agriculture and sedentary life. He has eliminated nomadic peoples as “savages” foolishly ignoring the higher art forms, linguistics, orations and complex religions among all the other forms of culture that exist in a non-sedentary culture. Obvious examples are the American Indians of the plains in the 19th century and Atilla the Hun’s ranging nomads. White might also have considered how these latter groups affected his theory in the light of energy usage. The average plains group worked far fewer hours to obtain basic food needs than any agriculturist, thus allowing more free time not less. This fact not only defeats White soundly, but is in fact a complete opposite to his theory. I found no factoring for this in his equations.
        White’s essay is on economics, not culture, and it does not do an adequate job of explaining that aspect of culture either. He gives an explanation of what western civilization is based on, a clearly ethnocentric position. His work reflects, as the foot notes in our text point out, a high degree of Marxism, but it also shows a high degree of Turnerism as well.
        In conclusion this is yet another example of drawing hard line dividers through gray areas to justify definitions that should have never escaped the thought process far enough to get on the paper. Culture is simply the result of mans attempt to relate to his world, whether natural or supernatural. Culture is not based on technology. Advanced technology is an aspect of culture in some societies and is by no means the singular definition of progress. Beyond this, the definition of culture must remain in a context relative to the people to which it is applied. Considering White was trained in the Boasian tradition I find it incredible he attempted this nonsense.

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