The idea that societies or cultures can evolve and, therefore, can be compared and graded has been central to modern history, in general, and to big history, in particular, which seeks to unite natural and human history; biology and culture. However, while extremely useful, this notion is not without significant moral and ethical challenges, which has been noted by scholars. This article is a short intellectual history of the idea of cultural evolution and its critics, the cultural relativists, from the Age of the Enlightenment, what David Deutsch called the “beginning of infinity,” to the neo-Hegelianism of Francis Fukuyama. The emphasis here is on Europe and the Americas and the argument is that the universal evolutionism of the Enlightenment ultimately prevailed over historical partic-ularism, as global disparities in social development, which were once profound, narrowed or even disappeared altogether.
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