Errors in paradise

January 10, 1997

Derek Freeman is interesting and convincing in reiterating his well-known demolition of Margaret Mead's "evidence" for sexual permissiveness in Samoa (THES, December ).

But he is surely as unscientific as she is when he makes a triumphalist QED leap from the account to an assertion of the victory of sociobiology over cultural determinism. Mead based her book on the deceitful evidence of one Samoan woman, Fa'apua'a Fa'amu, who made up her evidence as a prank. Freeman, ironically, repeats this error when he too bases all his ideas on the evidence of one woman - Mead herself.

In simplifying a difficult issue, Freeman reveals the same evangelical traits as the man whose reputation he seeks to demolish: Mead's mentor Franz Boas. Freeman disapproves of Boas's extreme claim that "genetic elements are altogether irrelevant" in anthropology, but then goes on to quote, approvingly, Donald Symons's equally extreme assertion that "there is no known scientific alternative to the theory that human nature is the product of natural selection".

There are many complex arguments concerning the balance of the cultural and evolutionary determination of human behaviour and few leading sociologists or biologists are foolish enough to proclaim the totality of either. The evidence of Mead's gullibility, though curious, is logically no more fatal a blow to cultural determinism than the Piltdown fraud was to evolutionary theory.

Guy Cook

Institute of Education University of London

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