Leslie Alvin White (19 January 1900, Salida, Colorado – 31 March 1975, Lone Pine, California) was an American anthropologist known for his advocacy of theories of cultural evolution, social evolutionism and especially neoevolutionism, and his role in creating the department of anthropology at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. White was president of the American Anthropological Association (1964).
In 1921 he 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, Leslie White's understanding of anthropology was decidedly anti-Boasian. 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 discovering 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. Ph.D. in hand, White began teaching at the University at Buffalo in 1927, where he began to rethink the anti-evolutionary views that his Boasian education had instilled in him. In 1930, he moved to Ann Arbor, where he would remain for the rest of his active career.
The three-year period at Buffalo marked a turning point in White's biography. 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 the evolution of human social life. In 1929 he visited Soviet Union and on his return joined the Socialist Labor Party, writing articles under the pseudonym ‘John Steel' for their newspaper.
White came 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 fieldschool in the southwest which was attended by Fred Eggan and Mischa Titiev, among others.
It was Titiev that White brought to Michigan as a second professor in 1936. As a student of White — and who knows, perhaps his status as a Russian immigrant was salient as well — Titiev suited White perfectly. However, during the Second World War, Titiev took part in the war effort by studying Japan. Perhaps this upset the socialist White — in any case by war's end White had broken 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 the foundation by Titiev of the East Asian Studies Program and the import of scholars like Richard Beardsley into the department, created a split on which most professors fell one way or another.
As a professor in Ann Arbor White trained a generation of influential students. While authors such as Robert Carneiro, Beth Dillingham, and Gertrude Dole were to carry on White's program in its orthodox form, other scholars such as Eric Wolf, Arthur Jelinek, Elman Service, and Marshall Sahlins drew on their time with White to elaborate their own forms of anthropology.
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 phenomenon. Such a division is a reflection of the composition of the universe and was not a heuristic device. Thus, contrary to Alfred L. Kroeber and 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 of 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 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 complex and interdependent visions of culture, White thought that it would delegitimize anthropology if it became the dominant position, removing it from broader discourses on science. White viewed his own approach as a synthesis of historical and functional approach 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."
As a result White frequently championed nineteenth century evolutionists in a search for intellectual predecessors unclaimed or — preferably – denounced by Boasians. This can be clearly seen in his views of evolution, which are firmly rooted in the writings of Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, and Lewis H. Morgan. While it can be argued that White's exposition of Morgan and Spencer's was tendentious, it can be safely said that White's concepts of science and evolution were firmly rooted in their work. 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, culture was a superorganic entity that was sui generis and could only be explained in terms of itself. It 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, what White calls "The hero of our piece" and "the leading character of our play". The most important factor in his theory is technology: "Social systems are determined by technological systems", wrote White in his book, echoing the earlier theory of Lewis Henry Morgan.
White spoke of culture as a general human phenomenon, and claimed not to speak of ‘cultures' in the plural. His theory, published in 1959 in The Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilization to the Fall of Rome, rekindled the interest in social evolutionism and is counted prominently among the neoevolutionists. He believed that culture – meaning the sum total of all human cultural activity on the planet – was evolving. White differentiated between three components of culture: technological, sociological and ideological, and argued that it was the technological component which plays a primary role or is the primary determining factor responsible for the cultural evolution. White's materialist approach is evident in the following quote: "man as an animal species, and consequently culture as a whole, is dependent upon the material, mechanical means of adjustment to the natural environment" This 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 goes as follows :
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 evolvedness of culture was the amount of energy it could capture (energy consumption).
White differentiates between five stages of human development. In first, people use energy of their own muscles. In second, they use energy of domesticated animals. In third, they use the energy of plants (so White refers to agricultural revolution here). In fourth, they learn to use the energy of natural resources: coal, oil, gas. In fifth, they harness the nuclear energy. White introduced a formula
where E is a measure of energy consumed per capita per year, T is the measure of efficiency of technical factors utilising the energy and C represents the degree of cultural development. In his own words: "the basic law of cultural evolution" was "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 "we find that progress and development are effected 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 mankind, like technological utopians do, 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.