Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/December 1884/Biographical Sketch of E. B. Tylor

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AMONG the most prominent of the British scientists, attracted to the recent meeting at Montreal, was the President of the Anthropological Section, Edward Burnett Tylor. He is well known as a distinguished author on the early history of the races of mankind, and his investigations of this comprehensive subject entitle him to an eminent rank among the founders of the recently established science of anthropology.

He was born at Camberwell, about four miles from St. Paul's Cathedral, London, on October 2, 1832. He was of Quaker parentage, and was educated principally at the school of the Society of Friends, Grove House, Tottenham. He was a fair classical scholar, and had mastered the differential calculus, when at sixteen he entered his father's manufactory in London, with the intention of pursuing a business career. But at twenty, soon after the death of his father and mother, symptoms of consumption, or what became dangerous symptoms, appeared. He then traveled in the United States and Mexico for two years to recruit his health. On his return to England he had a severe attack of phthisis, and his case was several times declared hopeless by eminent physicians, but, after spending several winters on the Riviera, he partially recovered. He was then advised that he might marry, and this completed his restoration, his wife taking excellent care of his health. He is now a strong, broad-chested man, six feet high, in the full enjoyment of mental and bodily vigor.

Dr. Tylor was not a university man, and the circumstances which turned his attention to the department of knowledge to which he has devoted himself and the influences by which he was impelled to pursue it are interesting. He entered into scientific life under unusual advantages, having the opportunity of meeting many eminent scientific men at home, as his elder brother[1] was an active geologist. His family resided near that of the late R. Philipps, a well-known chemist, and brother of W. Philipps, the mineralogist; and it was mainly through the influence of the Philippses that the Tylor family received its early scientific bias. When residing on the Riviera, at Cannes, he made the acquaintance of Lord Brougham; Mr. Bellinder Ker, a Whig politician, whose father wrote a work on philology; Mr. Hope, who left a large collection of natural history objects to Oxford; and Dr. Falconer, the eminent paleontologist. Young Tylor traveled in Mexico with an old and experienced collector, Mr. H. Christy, to whom everything that was unusual (by whomsoever found) was an object to be carefully preserved. As Christy had been trained by the late Dr. Hodgkin, one of the founders of the Aborigines Protection Society, to interest himself in everything relating to aboriginal man, so Christy trained Tylor to regard nothing as trivial that had any bearing on the mental states of savage men. No preparation could be more invaluable than this for the work of investigation—the collection, analysis, and interpretation of facts—to which Mr. Tylor has since given his undivided attention.

The stimulus of intercourse with cultivated minds is a factor of great moment in determining the career of able young men, and Mr. Tylor seems to have been especially fortunate in those intimate and early associations which depend upon social circumstances. Like Dr. Young the physicist, and Dr. Dalton the chemist, Mr. Tylor came, as we have said, of Quaker parentage; and Sir J. Lister, his schoolfellow, and also his predecessors, Hodgkin and Christy, were Friends, and the Philippses were also born members of the society. Under such favorable associations Mr. Tylor pursued his systematic studies, acquiring a fluent mastery of most of the European languages, and a considerable acquaintance with a dozen more. Without these acquirements he could not have done his work in comparative ethnology, as old translations, made before ethnological science was developed, were not only often useless, but actually misleading.

Dr. Tylor's first work, "Anahuac; or Mexico and the Mexicans," written at Cannes after his return from Mexico, was published in 1861. It gave not only the important results of especial investigations and excavations in Mexico, but it embodied the germ of a new department of the new science of anthropology. As the author was not then much known, and was dealing with a subject still comparatively undeveloped, and perhaps also from its unfortunate title, it did not meet with a success at all proportionate to its undoubted merits. His "Researches into the Early History of Mankind" appeared in 1865, and was the work which made his reputation. It showed great research, original insight, much constructive power in the formation of systematic views, and a high degree of literary merit. It at once took a position as a standard treatise upon the subject, was translated and republished in different countries, and contributed largely toward the diffusion and acceptance of more rational views on the subject of the earlier and the lower races of mankind than had hitherto prevailed. "Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom," appeared in 1871, in two volumes. This was a much more comprehensive work than the former, pursuing the same questions to a more amplified and exhaustive treatment.

The latest considerable work of this author, an educational handbook of the science of man, entitled "Anthropology, an Introduction to the Study of Man and Civilization," was published in 1881. This is undoubtedly the best book upon the subject in our language. It is not a large work, but it condenses an immense amount of information with great skill, so as to bring the exposition into shape for general readers who have no time to peruse and digest ponderous volumes. Dr. Tylor is a very amiable man, and, without saying that he is fastidious and timid, he is undoubtedly solicitous to give the least possible offense in his statements. To show how careful he is to avoid irritating even persons of very confined ideas, it has been remarked that the word "evolution" only occurs once in the "Manual of Anthropology," although the book is broadly based upon that fundamental idea.

Dr. Tylor is an excellent lecturer, and has frequently delivered discourses before learned societies, like the Royal Institution of London, which have been widely published, and are always marked by originality, terseness, and interest. He has contributed to periodicals and encyclopædias, and is a hard worker. He is well known as the author of the theory of animism, and it is claimed that he first introduced or made current the term "survival," now so commonly applied to those vestiges of early habits and ideas which linger on as anomalies long after they went out of their primitive use.

Our author was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1871, received the honorary degree of LL. D. from the University of St. Andrews in 1873, and a D. C. L. from the University of Oxford in 1875. He is President of the Anthropological Society, and in March, 1883, he was appointed Keeper of the Oxford University Museum, and in the same year the degree of M. A. was conferred upon him by decree of the House of Convocation. He has also been made reader in anthropology, it being the first provision made by the University of Oxford for teaching that subject.

  1. Mr. Alfred Tylor published his first important geological paper in 1852, in "Silliman's Journal." The views it contains, though much opposed at the time, have been quoted by A. R. Wallace in "Island Life," by Professor Huxley in his "Physiography," by Darwin in his book on "Earth-Worms," and by Sir Charles Lyell in his text-books.