Guardian | Anthropology was born of an evolutionary model by which 19th-century men such as Lewis Henry Morgan and Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest", envisioned societies as stages in a linear progression of advancement, leading, as they conceived it, from savagery to barbarism to civilisation.
Each of these phases of human development was correlated, in their calculations, with specific technological innovations. Fire, ceramics and the bow and arrow marked the savage. With the domestication of animals, the rise of agriculture and the invention of metalworking, we entered the level of the barbarian. Literacy implied civilisation. Every society, it was assumed, progressed through the same stages, in the same sequence. The cultures of the world came to be seen as a living museum in which individual societies represented evolutionary moments captured and mired in time, each one a stage in the imagined ascent to civilisation. It followed with the certainty of Victorian rectitude that advanced societies had an obligation to assist the backward, to civilise the savage, a moral duty that played well into the needs of empire.
Oddly, it took a physicist to challenge and in time shatter this orthodoxy. Frans Boas, trained in Germany a generation before Einstein, was interested in the optical properties of water, and throughout his doctoral studies his research was plagued by problems of perception, which came to fascinate him. In the eclectic way of the best of 19th-century scholarship, inquiry in one academic field led to another. What was the nature of knowing? Who decided what was to be known? Boas became interested in how seemingly random beliefs and convictions converged into this thing called "culture", a term that he was the first to promote as an organising principle, a useful point of intellectual departure.
Far ahead of his time, Boas believed that every distinct social community, every cluster of people distinguished by language or adaptive inclination, was a unique facet of the human legacy and its promise. He became the first scholar to explore in a truly open and neutral manner how human social perceptions are formed, and how members of distinct societies become conditioned to see and interpret the world. Boas insisted that his students conduct research in the language of place, and participate fully in the daily lives of the people they studied. Every effort should be made to understand the perspective of the other, to learn the way they perceive the world, the very nature of their thoughts. Such an approach demanded, by definition, a willingness to step back from the constraints of one's own prejudices and preconceptions.
This ethnographic orientation, distilled in the concept of cultural relativism, was a radical departure, as unique in its way as was Einstein's theory of relativity in the field of physics. It became the central revelation of modern anthropology. Cultures do not exist in some absolute sense; each is but a model of reality, the consequence of one particular set of intellectual and spiritual choices made, however successfully, many generations before. The goal of the anthropologist is not just to decipher the exotic other, but also to embrace the wonder of distinct and novel cultural possibilities, that we might enrich our understanding of human nature and just possibly liberate ourselves from cultural myopia, the parochial tyranny that has haunted humanity since the birth of memory.
Boas lived to see his ideas inform much of social anthropology, but it wasn't until more than half a century after his death that modern genetics proved his intuitions to be true. Studies of the human genome leave no doubt that the genetic endowment of humanity is a single continuum. Race is a fiction. We are all cut from the same genetic cloth, all descendants of a relatively small number of individuals who walked out of Africa some 60,000 years ago and then, on a journey that lasted 40,000 years, some 2,500 generations carried the human spirit to every corner of the habitable world.
It follows, as Boas believed, that all cultures share essentially the same mental acuity, the same raw genius. Whether this intellectual capacity and potential is exercised in stunning works of technological innovation, as has been the great historical achievement of the West, or through the untangling of the complex threads of memory inherent in a myth – a primary concern, for example, of the Aborigines of Australia – is simply a matter of choice and orientation, adaptive insights and cultural priorities. There is no hierarchy of progress in the history of culture, no Social Darwinian ladder to success. The Victorian notion of the savage and the civilised, with European industrial society sitting proudly at the apex of a pyramid of advancement that widens at the base to the so-called primitives of the world, has been thoroughly discredited – indeed, scientifically ridiculed for the racial and colonial notion that it was, as relevant to our lives today as the belief of 19th-century clergymen that the Earth was but 6,000 years old.