John Ferguson McLennan  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

John Ferguson McLennan (14 October 1827 – 16 June 1881), was a Scottish ethnologist and lawyer.

In 1865, McLennan published Primitive Marriage. In it he argued from symbolic and ceremonial forms of bride kidnapping. His ideas had been partially anticipated by Johann Jakob Bachofen, writing in 1861 on matriarchy, but were independent. McLennan developed from ethnographic data a social evolutionist theory of marriage, and also of systems of kinship according to natural laws. He rejected patriarchal society as an early stage, arguing in favour of agnation as a more basic evolutionary point; he proposed an early model of social groups, a war band mainly male, practicing female infanticide and acquiring female sexual partners, with promiscuity and matrilineality salient features.

In 1866, McLennan wrote in the Fortnightly Review (April and May) an essay on Kinship in Ancient Greece, in which he proposed tests for the history of kinship claimed in Primitive Marriage. Three years later, in the Fortnightly Review for 1869–70, he developed his ideas on totemism from indications in the earlier essay.

A reprint of Primitive Marriage, with Kinship in Ancient Greece and some other essays not previously published, appeared in 1876, under the title of Studies in Ancient History; the new essays included The Divisions of the Irish Family, and On the Classificatory System of Relationship. A Paper on The Levirate and Polyandry, following up the line of his previous investigations (Fortnightly Review, 1877), was the last work he was able to publish.


McLennan's work had implications for the field of history of religion. In the study The Worship of Animals and Plants (two parts, 1869–70) McLennan suggested a connection between social structures and primitive religions; and he coined the word "totemism" for the social function of primitive religion. This concise term proved to be useful to later historians of religion, and sociologists like William Robertson Smith and Émile Durkheim (among others). The following quote by McLennan (1865) contains the basic premise for the comparative method (as used by Robertson Smith):

In the sciences of law and society, old means not old in chronology, but in the structure: that is most archaic which lies nearest to the beginning of human progress considered as a development, and that is most modern which is farthest removed from the beginning.

For Robertson Smith, McLennan's comparative method proved to be important. One of Robertson Smith's more influential essays, Animal Worship and Animal Tribes among the Arabs and in the Old Testament, directly follows MacLennan's ideas on totemism. It connected contemporary Arab nomads and ancient biblical peoples with the social function of totemism in primitive religions.

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