Fooled in paradise

December 27, 1996

Margaret Mead's anthropological work was the cornerstone upon which much of the edifice of social conditioning was built. The problem is, argues Derek Freeman, it was built on a lie and it is time the discipline accepted some genetic truths.

The 20th century has been a century of ideologies. One - not dissimilar to Marxism - is the doctrine that "all human behaviour is the result of social conditioning," which 20th century anthropologists were taught to hallow. It is an ideology that can be traced to Franz Boas and Emile Durkheim.

In 1899 after studies of the Innuit of Baffin Land and the Indians of Vancouver Island, Boas became the first professor of anthropology at Columbia University. Keenly hostile to Darwinian evolution, Boas, "the father of American anthropology," was a doctrinaire environmentalist. In the words of Leslie Spier, who became Boas's student, "his compelling idea" was "the complete moulding of every human expression - inner thought and external behaviour - by social conditioning."

In 1916, in an article in The Scientific Monthly, Boas wrote: "In the great mass of a healthy population the social stimulus is infinitely more potent than the biological mechanism." It was in an attempt to obtain evidence for this ideological stance that Boas in 1925 imposed on his doctoral student, the 23-year-old Margaret Mead, the task of studying heredity and environment in relation to adolescence among the Polynesians of Samoa. Mead arrived in Samoa on August 31. After two months studying the Samoan language in the port of Pago Pago, she spent just over five months in the islands of Manu'a before travelling back to New York to become an assistant curator of ethnology in the American Museum of Natural History.

In 1928, in her anthropological bestseller Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead claimed that adolescent behaviour could be explained only in terms of the social environment. "Human nature," she declared, was "the rawest, most undifferentiated of raw material." Then, in full accord with the views of her supervisor, she wrote of "the phenomenon of social pressure and its absolute determination in shaping the individuals within its bounds."

In the 1930s Mead's extreme environmentalist conclusion was incorporated into the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, and Coming of Age in Samoa became required reading for American students. Likewise in New Zealand, and when I myself went to Samoa it was with the objective of confirming Mead's conclusions.

It was not until I had become fluent in Samoan and been adopted into a Samoan family that I became aware of the discordance between Mead's account and the realities I was witnessing. When I left Samoa after more than three years it was apparent to me that Mead's account of the sexual behaviour of the Samoans was wrong. But I had no idea how this had happened.

Coming of Age in Samoa had become an anthropological classic; no one would take my scepticism seriously. So, in 1965, after a meeting with Mead at the Australian National University, I returned to Samoa for two years to further research her account of Samoan behaviour. By this time she was a major celebrity, the most celebrated scientist in America. In 1976, like Boas before her in 1932, she became president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 1978 I wrote to Mead offering to send a draft of the refutation on which I was working. Unfortunately, she died without ever having seen it. When it was finally published in 1983, the consternation was immense.

Things reached their apogee in Chicago in November 1983 at the 82nd meeting of the American Anthropological Association. A special session devoted to the evaluation of my refutation was attended by more than a thousand. When the general discussion began, it degenerated into a delirium of vilification. One eye-witness wrote to me saying: "I felt I was in a room with people ready to lynch you.'' At the annual meeting of the AAA later that same day a motion denouncing my refutation as "unscientific'', was passed, in the feckless faith that scientific issues can be settled by a show of hands.

When I arrived back in American Samoa in 1987 I was introduced by Galea'i Poumele, the Samoan secretary of Samoan affairs, to a dignified Samoan lady - Fa'apua'a Fa'amu, who in 1926 had been Mead's closest Samoan friend. Fa'apua'a's sworn testimony to Galea'i Poumele was that when Mead had insistently questioned herself and her friend Fofoa about Samoan sexual behaviour, they were embarrassed, and - as a prank - had told her the reverse of the truth.

In 1990 I obtained from the archives of the American Philosophical Society copies of the private correspondence of Boas and Mead for 1925 and 1926. Then, in 1992, in Washington DC, I was able to research all of Mead's Samoan papers in the Library of Congress. From these and other materials it has been possible to determine what befell the 24-year-old Margaret Mead in Samoa in 1926. The "study in heredity and environment based on an investigation of the phenomena of adolescence'' for which Mead was awarded a National Research Fellowship in 1925, was, it is important to realise, imposed on her by Boas. Mead's desire was to do ethnological research in the Tuamotu archipelago or some other part of Polynesia. Determined to have her way, Mead, even before she left Pennsylvania in 1925, had entered into an understanding with Herbert Gregory, its director, that while in Samoa, she would do ethnological research for the Bishop Museum. It was an arrangement she kept secret from Boas.

In a letter written on November 1 1925, a week or so before she went to Manu'a, Mead formally agreed to do ethnology "in Manu'a'' for the Bernice P. Bishop Museum. And she did this knowing full well that the time that she had available to her for her commitments to both the National Research Council and the Bernice P. Bishop Museum amounted to no more than six months.

On February 15, after her researches were seriously dislocated by the hurricane that devastated the island of Ta'u on January 1, 1926, Mead wrote to Boas saying that because it required "the greatest facility in the language, and the greatest intimacy,'' she had decided to defer work on the "sexual life'' of adolescent girls until after she had collected other basic information on them. In the event she spent virtually all of her time engaged in ethnological research for the Bishop Museum.

By March 13 1926, because of the inordinate amount of time she had given to ethnology, Mead's investigation of adolescent behaviour was in crisis, and, in a desperate attempt to make up for lost time, she began, when they were alone together, to question Fa'apua'a and Fofoa about the sexual behaviour of adolescent girls. It was then, as Fa'apua'a has testified, that she and Fofoa, engaged in taufa'ase'e, or "recreational lying,'' to tell Mead the opposite of the truth. They did not know she was an anthropologist and were amusing themselves at her expense.

It is this false information that Mead communicated to Boas the very next day in an elated letter, in which she remarked: "As far as I understand it I this is the sort of thing you wanted,'' and which ended with the words "I hope you'll be pleased.'' In his reply, in which he addressed Mead as "My dear Flower of Heaven,'' Boas wrote in his own hand "I am glad you were able to do so well with your difficult problem that you feel able to state your results so succinctly.''

Not knowing she had been hoaxed, Mead cut short her time in Manu'a by over a month. Systematic research on the sexual behaviour of the adolescent girls she was supposed to be studying was never undertaken. Instead, having rounded off her ethnological research for the Bishop Museum, she left the island of Ta'u on April 16 1926. Her book is based on the false information with which she had been hoaxed on March 13 1926.

When Mead presented Boas with her apparent proof of the absolute autonomy of culture he accepted it without question. Not only did Boas vouch for Coming of Age in Samoa as a "painstaking investigation,'' but also, in discussing Mead's Samoan researches in his Anthropology and Modern Life of 1928, he repeated, as though it were a fully substantiated anthropological fact, Mead's quite erroneous claim that in Samoa, where there was "freedom of sexual life'' the "adolescent crisis disappears.'' And so in 1928, Coming of Age in Samoa became the mainstay of Boasian culturalism, and one of the most influential books of the 20th century.

It was, furthermore, primarily on Mead's erroneous findings that Boas based his extreme conclusion of 1934 in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences that "the genetic elements which may determine personality'' are "altogether irrelevant as compared with the powerful influence of the cultural environment.'' He was massively mistaken. Since the determination of the structure of DNA by Crick and Watson in 1953, genetics and molecular biology have effloresced. There have been fundamental advances in evolutionary biology. It is thus now evident that when, in the early 20th century, the allied disciplines of cultural and social anthropology rejected evolution and formally excluded biological variables from consideration, they entered an ideological cul-de-sac.

For example, towards the end of the American cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz's latest book After the Fact, there occurs the despairingly relativistic cri de coeur: "There are, indeed, no master plots.'' Like Boas and Mead before him, Geertz is mistaken. As Donald Symons observes in The Adapted Mind, quoting Richard Dawkins: "Since Darwin's theory of adaptation through natural selection is 'the only workable theory we have to explain the organised complexity of life,' there is no known scientific alternative to the theory that human nature is the product of natural selection."

It is entirely understandable then that Boasian culturalism, with its anti-evolutionary assumptions, has run aground in the 1990s. What is waiting in the wings is an anthropology that accepts the findings of evolutionary biology, and studies the cultural adaptations of the human species. In his notable book of 1995, Evolution and Literary Theory, Joseph Carroll predicts that: "Within 20 years the Darwinian paradigm will have established its dominance in the social sciences.'' This may be a bit sanguine, but it is likely that during the 21st century a truly interactionist anthropology will move centre stage.

Derek Freeman is emeritus professor of anthropology, fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and author of Franz Boas and the Flower of Heaven: Coming of Age in Samoa and the Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead, Penguin.

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