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Jona Mae Z.

Seminar on Anthropological Theory/Thought
Professors: Maricel Hilario-Patino; Augusto Gatmaytan Ph.D

Thoughts on Leslie White’s Energy and the Evolution of Culture

Leslie White proposed that everything can be described in terms of energy, because living
organisms are living machines being operated through the power of the sun. We need energy to walk,
communicate, run, eat, breathe, and to be able to utilize our being human. In return, civilizations or
culture is an organization of energy, dependent upon the use of symbols. As the only animal who can
utilize symbol-behavior relationship, we are the only ones who can possess culture which requires
particular behaviour wherein energy is needed for the behaviour to mobilize. Harnessing energy is a way
of cultural development, and it can be expressed by how people utilized it in different stages of cultural
evolution. White, like Tylor and Morgan, looked at societal evolution in a unilinear way, and therefore
he explained the stages of cultural development in this manner. Starting from the Hunting and
Gathering society, a person’s energy at disposal is his own body; therefore the cultural development is
limited because a human’s bodily energy is also limited like creation of stone tools, bow and arrow,
improving old techniques. Going through the Agricultural society, the energy at disposal is from plants
(milk, wool, nuts, sap, fruits, seeds, etc.) and from animals (their energy generated for work). Then
during the Industrial Revolution, the creation of fuel became the main source of energy. But it is said
that cultural development in the arts stopped during the agricultural period, Why? It is because of the
creation of the social system. As agricultural societies become sedentary, food supply increased and the
population followed. As human labor become productive, the need for specialized workers also
broadened, that is why a complex social hierarchy also arose, which gave rise to the elite society. In the
present society, we are still continuing to harness the past forms of energy and still continuing to
discover new forms to satisfy human’s need for change and adaptation.

Overall, White explains that cultural development started when people extended their control
over the environment, and in his text the control concentrated on harnessing energy. With energy,
technology advanced, and in return, it brought social evolution (foundation of aristocracy, and concept
of land ownership).