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How the Science Wars Ruined the Mother of Anthropology

Part I: Margaret Mead’s Original Sin

When I was about 23, I embarked on a lone trip around the Vanuatu Islands. I eventually wound up on the isolated Maskelyne Island, quite a few days away from civilization in the Western sense of the word. A man had just died and many suspected that witchcraft was involved in cursing his food. For a week I attended the extensive funeral ceremonies, dove on the reef in my spare time, and drank kava with the locals at night. It all sounds very romantic, but the truth is that there was something quite off-putting about being surrounded by hundreds of people from a different culture; an unusual state of loneliness begins to creep in, accompanied by a deep desire to connect with something – anything – from Western culture. Climbing aboard the cargo vessel Big Sista to hitch a ride to Espiritu Santo, I remember hearing a Taylor Swift song on the radio. I’ve never appreciated Taylor Swift so much.

Margaret Mead in 1977. Pic: Lynn Gilbert

However, my journey did leave me with a newfound and abiding respect for the anthropologist Margaret Mead. At the same young age of 23, Mead travelled to the Samoan Islands to the east of the Vanuatu in the South Pacific Ocean to study the islands’ Polynesian people. On a cloudy Samoan day in August of 1925, she stepped off the S.S. Sonoma in Pago Pago Bay, Tuttuila, and began her research. By the end of her career, she was celebrated as the mother of anthropology, both revered and despised for the image of humanity she presented to the world, and for her conclusions about the Samoan people, in particular.

At first, her conversations with the Samoans did not go especially well:

Mead: When a chief’s son is tattooed they build a special house, don’t they?
Asuegi: No, no special house.
Mead: Are you sure they never build a house?
Asuegi: Yes. Well, sometimes they build a small house of sticks and leaves.
Mead: Was that house sacred?
Asuegi: No, not sacred.
Mead: Could you take food into it?
Asuegi: Oh no. That was forbidden.
Mead: Smoke in there?
Asuegi: Oh no, very sacred.
Mead: Could anybody go into the house who wished?
Asuegi: Yes, anybody.
Mead: No one was forbidden to go in?
Asuegi: No.
Mead: Could the boy’s sister go in?
Asuegi: Oh no. That was forbidden.

Mead later recalled that she could have “screamed with impatience.” To make matters worse, the native Samoans would often take her belongings and redistribute them according to ceremonial obligations. But, eventually, she began to make progress. Mead developed close friendships with a small and dedicated group of young girls who became her chief informants. She was made a taupou, a ceremonial virgin, despite having a husband back in the United States. Before long, Mead was considered a respected honorary member of the society, and her research project blossomed. A few months and a tropical hurricane later, Mead returned to the United States, and in 1928, she published the results of her research, Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization.

It was her instructor, the ‘father’ of American anthropology Franz Boas, who had sent her on a mission to Samoa. In The Mind of Primitive Man, Boas had set out to draw a sharp distinction between race and culture in order to defend his thesis that differences between the world’s peoples are overwhelmingly the result of upbringing rather than evolved traits. One of Mead’s mentors, Ruth Benedict, popularized Boas’s argument in her famous 1934 work Patterns of Culture: “Most people are shaped to the form of their culture because of the enormous malleability of their original endowment. They are plastic to the molding force of the society into which they were born.” Mead was intellectually enthralled by Boas, and deeply attached to Benedict, with whom she would later enter into an intimate relationship. Boas and Benedict had sent the young 23-year-old Mead to the South Pacific on an assignment: investigate the degree to which adolescent behavior is different from Western society, and thus the malleable outcome of cultural differences.

Given her mentors’ emphasis on cultural explanations for human behavior, Mead’s preferred conclusion ought to be obvious. Sex before marriage was common in Samoa according to Mead, where young girls were free to experiment with their sexuality without being interfered with by adults. The cover of her book depicted two young lovers, hand in hand, under a moonlit coconut tree, and the passages of Coming of Age in Samoa that captured the audience’s attention were those that focused on the exotic and the romantic:

These affairs are usually of short duration and both boy and girl may be carrying on several at once…These clandestine lovers make their rendezvous on the outskirts of the village. ‘Under the palm trees’ is the conventionalized designation of this type of intrigue. Very often three or four couples will have a common rendezvous, when either the boys or the girls are relatives who are friends. Should the girl grow faint or dizzy, it is the boy’s part to climb the nearest palm and fetch down a fresh coconut to pour on her face in lieu of eau-de-Cologne.

Contrary to a very different picture Mead would later paint of New Guinea in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, in Samoa she emphasized the leitmotif of the noble savage, a people among whom violence and rape were exceedingly rare. How she knew this is dubious. More dubious still was her definition of rape. Mead acknowledged, as she put it, that some men “stealthily appropriate the favors which are meant for another,” but she insisted that this was quite different to rape as understood in the West. A meototolo is a man who would wait until he knows that a woman is lying in the dark, waiting for her lover to enter the hut. The man would then sneak in and pretend to be the lover under the cover of darkness, engaging in sexual activity until his real identity were exposed. At points, Coming of Age in Samoa seems to adopt a romantic or poetic sensibility at the expense of the clinical observation expected of a scientist:

Do not think it is he who whispers softly in her ear or says to her, “Sweet-heart, wait for me tonight. After the moon has set, I will come to you,” or who teases her by saying she has many lovers. Look instead at the boy who sits afar off, who sits with bent head and takes no part in the joking. And you will see that his eyes are always turned softly on the girl. Always he watches her and never does he miss a movement of her lips.

Derek Freeman (1916-2001)

The world fell in love with Mead’s romantic description of a paradise of free love gemmed away in the tropical South Pacific – a society with little jealousy, violence, or rape. The liberal journalist Freda Kichwey wrote in The Nation that, “Somewhere in each of us, hidden among our more obscure desires and our impulses of escape, is a palm fringed South Sea Island.” Samuel Schmalhausen spoke of the “naturalness and simplicity and sexual joy” of Samoa.1 Within the emerging field of anthropology, Mead became a revered figure. Hundreds of anthropology books relayed her research, promoting the overarching lesson that sexuality and violence are entirely malleable and changeable in cultures. The conclusions Mead drew about the uniqueness of Samoan adolescent life validated the early American anthropological project to explain human behavior in terms of cultural specificity. When Boas and Benedict passed away, Mead became the unchallenged icon of the discipline, the mother of anthropology, and as Time called her, “mother of the world.”

But in the 1960s, Mead began hearing of a then-obscure New Zealand anthropologist named Derek Freeman, who had begun working in Samoa 1940 when he was also 23, and now taught at the Australian National University in Canberra. She had heard rumors that Freeman contested several of her claims in Coming of Age in Samoa and so, during a trip to Australia in 1964, she visited Freeman in his office to ask about the nature of his objections. During that encounter, Freeman informed her that he was preparing a public refutation of her work. When Mead asked to see Freeman’s thesis on Samoan social structure, he was left momentarily speechless. “I’ve never stuttered in my life,” he later recalled in embarrassment. “You’re trembling like jelly,” Mead told him. But what he presented that day shook her, and by the time the two-hour meeting was over, it was Mead who was left “agitated” and “shaken.”2

In 1977, 13 years after their first meeting, Freeman sent Mead a chapter of his forthcoming book refuting her work. At the time, Mead’s secretary replied that she was too sick to read it, and she died of cancer shortly after. In 1983, having postponed publication of his thesis as a mark of respect, Freeman finally published Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, in which he contested almost every one of Mead’s romantic depictions of Samoan society. One of Freeman’s core claims was that sex before marriage is actually forbidden in Samoan culture, and he described a puritan ceremony that painted the Samoans as obsessed with virginity:

The young woman was then taken by the hand by her elder brother or some other relative, and led toward her bridegroom, dressed in a fine mat edged with red feathers, her body gleaming with scented oil. On arriving immediately in front of him she threw off this mat and stood naked while he ruptured her hymen with “two fingers of his right hand.” If a hemorrhage ensued the bridegroom drew his fingers over the bride’s upper lip, before holding up his hand for all present to witness the proof of her virginity. At this the female supporters of the bride rushed forward to obtain a portion to smear upon themselves before dancing naked and hitting their heads with stones until their blood ran down in streams, in sympathy with, and in honor of, the virgin bride.

If, on this occasion, there was no blood then it was assumed that the girl was not a virgin. Severe punishment would then ensue, with the girl beaten as everyone present shouted a word that roughly translates as “prostitute.” Freeman even recounted a story in which a girl was forced on her wedding day to swim out to sea and never return after her premarital sexual experience was revealed. In 1963, a girl was accused by another of having sex before marriage, and travelled 40 miles to have a gynecological examination that would disprove the accusation. The very fact that Mead had been made a taupou, a ceremonial virgin, showed how institutionalized virginity was.

Freeman then went on to criticize Mead’s claims about rape. After all, how plausible is Mead’s claim that, “The idea of forcible rape or of any sexual act to which both participants do not give themselves freely is completely foreign to the Samoan mind.” Freeman’s breakdown of colonial data on reported acts of rape found it to be 20 times higher than in England at the time, with Freeman concluding that “the Samoan rape rate is certainly one of the highest to be found anywhere in the world.”

And what about Mead’s assertion that Samoa was a relatively peaceful society? Freeman went on to table the evidence of Samoa’s long history of intertribal warfare. During intergroup raids, children were reportedly hung in trees and had spears thrown at them, heads were hacked off and paraded, and those captured were sometimes eaten in acts of cannibalism.

Countless readers had formed a romantic image of the Samoan people from Coming Of Age in Samoa, but now Freeman had broken the spell. The people most blindsided by Freeman’s book were those anthropologists who had stood in front of lecture audiences and fed students Mead’s image of Samoa. Some of them immediately attacked the book. Anthropologist Laura Nader, sister of independent US politician Ralph Nader, called Freeman’s book a “Right-wing political backlash” for questioning the influence of culture on human behavior, and a vote by American Anthropological Association condemned the book as unscientific.

Over the next few decades, Mead’s reputation hung precariously in the balance as anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists battled it out in the nature-nurture controversy. However, the cruelest blow to Mead would come from anthropologists themselves.

Part II: The Real Margaret Mead

Unlike the American anthropologists who preached Mead’s findings, Samoans themselves tended to look upon Mead’s work negatively. Some of the Samoan elders burned copies of Coming of Age in Samoa when they realized what Mead had written, and for some time libraries in Samoa didn’t stock the book. Samoan anthropologist Unasa L. F. Va’a called it “one of the worst books of the twentieth century.”3 One of the questions that preoccupied Freeman was how Mead arrived at the erroneous conclusions she drew in her book. He decided that Mead’s own research came mostly from interviews with women, particularly young women, who are hardly the best informants when it comes to matters of historical warfare and violence. On the subject of promiscuity, Freeman conjectured that Mead was the victim of a hoax by her young female informants: “All the indications are that the young Margaret Mead was, as a kind of joke, deliberately misled by her adolescent informants.” In 1987, a few years after Margaret Mead and Samoa was published, it was discovered that one of Mead’s close informers in 1926, Fa’apua’a Fa’amu, was still alive, and wished to swear on the Bible to clear the record on what she had told Mead all those years ago about sexual relations among the Samoans:

We said that we were out all night with the boys; she failed to realize that we were just joking and must have been taken in by our pretenses…She must have taken it seriously but I was only joking. As you know, Samoan girls are terrific liars when it comes to joking. But Margaret accepted our trumped up stories as though they were true.…Yes, we just lied and lied to her.

Frank Heiman’s 1988 documentary Margaret Mead and Samoa largely painted Mead as being undone by Freeman. Freeman, meanwhile, was portrayed as in touch with Samoans, and an irreverent lone warrior, fighting to rescue anthropology from the shackles of groupthink:

The embarrassment caused by Freeman’s critique goes to the heart of the nature-nurture controversy – the longstanding dispute about how far human behavior is shaped by our culture or by universal attributes of human nature rooted in our evolutionary biological history. Most animals behave as they do due to their evolutionary history, and Freeman, like evolutionary psychologists, assumes a model of complex interaction between our own evolutionary history and cultures. Many anthropologists, on the other hand, favor explanations from culture alone. Samoa was a case study to these anthropologists, and a demonstration of culture’s potency in molding behaviors like rape, violence, and sexual restraint.

After Fa’apua’a Fa’amu’s confession, Freeman published a second book in 1999 intended as a declaration of victory. In The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead, he says, “All that now remains to be sought is a full and accurate explanation of the passionate and irrational reaction to my refutation of 1983…” Outside of academia, Freeman experienced minor celebrity. He was invited onto the Phil Donahue Show in 1983, and in 1996 the Sydney Opera House staged a play about him entitled Heretic. Meanwhile, inside of academia, many university students will find, as I have, that the entire controversy has been swept under the carpet. No mention is made of Freeman in anthropology courses. Instead, business continues as usual, and it is possible to complete an entire degree in anthropology without hearing any criticism of Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa. This is a travesty – one among many in the humanities.

That being said, researchers in fields that challenge anthropology’s theoretical outlook on the malleability of human behavior take a similarly rigid stance on the issue in the opposite direction. Those of us who incorporate evolutionary views into our picture of human nature grow tired of anthropologists and their stubborn insistence that all human behavior must be explained by culture alone. But this can lead evolutionists to discard a more careful analysis of complex issues. Off-hand dismissals of Mead’s conclusions litter the literature of evolutionary psychology. There, Mead is treated with scorn and derision. For example, evolutionary psychology pioneers Margo Wilson and Martin Daly write in Homicide of Mead’s “fantastical misrepresentation” of Samoan culture, which has been “made perfectly clear by Derek Freeman’s surgical expose.” Matt Ridley, another otherwise brilliant science writer, takes a stab at Mead in Nature Via Nurture when he says, “To find a society in which young girls were sexually uninhibited, she had to visit a land of the imagination.”

Although Mead’s analysis is obviously highly questionable, the degree to which her work misrepresented Samoan society remains an open question. In 2009, the anthropologist Paul Shankman published his book The Trashing of Margaret Mead in which he reconsiders the evidence. Shankman describes Freeman as an unruly character marked by mental instability, a vindictive desire to ruin the careers of other anthropologists, and plain rudeness (Shankman recalled a nightmare experience when he gave a lecture at ANU and Freeman sat behind him opening and reading his mail so loudly that Shankman had to ask him to stop). This ad hominem attack on Freeman might seem like a desperate effort to evade his refutation of Mead, or to seek revenge on Freeman, but Shankman does succeed in raising some important questions. For example, although virginity is prized in Samoa, it is much more prized among the taupou, the ceremonial virgins of higher status who go on to marry the chiefs. Among the lower status girls, sexual mores were more relaxed and some of these girls did sleep with men before marriage as even Freeman’s data found. Other aspects of Shankman’s belated defense of Mead are more contentious. For example he dismisses Fa’apua’a Fa’amu’s testimony about lying to Mead as irrelevant due to her advanced age and sometimes contradictory statements. He also speculates that Fa’apua’a Fa’amu’s testimony was probably not influential on Mead’s wider conclusions because she was only one of 25 informants. These are important qualifications to what is often presented as Freeman’s decisive refutation of Mead’s work.

Anybody with any experience of living among another society will understand the difficulty of interpreting a culture, whether physically, emotionally, or intellectually. Mead was a 23-year-old pioneer who had travelled to the South Seas to record the life of an island people better than most of us could. It is important to remember that the emphasis placed on culture rather than biology by Boas, Benedict, and Mead also served a noble purpose in thwarting the theories of the early twentieth century’s racial eugenicists. We probably owe more to these three anthropologists than to anyone else for our modern scientific understanding of race. And, although Mead is today seen as an icon of cultural determinism and as hostile to more evolutionary perspectives on human nature, this is not a wholly accurate representation of her views. Writing in Male and Female in 1949, Mead notes that in every society she has studied, there is a particular coalescence of behaviors that can be described as male or female and un-malleable by culture: “Different as are the ways in which different cultures pattern the development of human beings, there are basic regularities that no known culture has yet been able to evade.”

Margaret Mead in Samoa.

In 1976, Bill Irons and Napoleon Chagnon organized a symposium at the American Anthropological Association on biologist Edward O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology and similar research focused on evolutionary aspects of human behavior. At one meeting of the Association held before the symposium, anthropologists against sociobiology tried to have the conference banned until Mead stood up and told the room that a ban on a sociobiology symposia would be tantamount to a book burning.4 During that symposium, Wilson was famously doused in iced water by a group of Marxists (Wilson later summarised Marxism, “wonderful theory, wrong species”). Yet, in his autobiography, Wilson recalls his exchange with Mead during the conference, “I was nervous then, expecting America’s mother figure to scold me about the nature of genetic determination. I had nothing to fear. She wanted to stress that she, too, had published ideas on the biological basis of social behavior.”5 In fact, an early writing by Mead indicates that she too was worried about being associated with eugenics if she spoke too openly about innate human capacities. During the Second World War, she wrote that “further study of inborn traits will have to wait until less troubled times.”6 Perhaps Freeman’s greatest mistake was his attempt to cast Mead as a cultural determinist, and this error has been lapped up by evolutionary psychologists ever since. Nor are they Mead’s only enemies.

What Paul Shankman fails to mention in The Trashing of Margaret Mead is that the dispute over her work extends to anthropologists engaged in the so-called ‘science war’ between objective anthropologists and their New Age counterparts. Just as you won’t hear Derek Freeman’s name in anthropology classes, it is becoming rare to hear Mead’s name either. Perhaps this is partly because Mead is felt to be an embarrassment to anthropology in the entire nature-nurture controversy. But, unfortunately, the problem runs deeper than that. Anthropology as a field has become increasingly skeptical of all anthropologists who died before the 1980s, primarily for ideological reasons. Mead championed the idea of anthropology as a science of mankind, a perspective that has, alas, been lost under the rubble left by postmodern activism in the field. Today’s anthropologists criticize Mead as belonging to the earlier generation of “Rustling-of-the-wind-in-the-palm-trees-school-of-ethnography,”7 which allegedly exoticized other cultures and repackaged them for Western entertainment. Curiosity about other cultures is treated with skepticism and even suspicion by the new postmodernist regime in anthropology.

Against the militant relativism that now plagues ethnic studies, Mead held that there is such a thing as progress; some societies can improve by adopting aspects of Western culture, and we can learn from other cultures ourselves. Contrary to the fears of those who suppose that overly cultural explanations of human behavior will always lead one to conclude in favor of radical social engineering, in Coming of Age in Samoa Mead warns us that changing our society can only be done piecemeal, just as language can only be changed in haphazard fashion. It was her mentor Ruth Benedict who warned in Patterns of Culture that the West cannot simply choose to emulate other cultures: “The romantic Utopianism that reaches out toward the simpler primitive, attractive as it sometimes may be, is as often, in ethnological study, a hindrance as a help.” These are hardly the statements of the activists we find lurking in the fusty corridors of the humanities today.

Hard pressed between the ire of evolutionary psychologists on the one hand, and the science war that has engulfed anthropology on the other, it is hard to find a friend of Mead nowadays. Lola Romanucci-Ross once told Mead in a most exemplary fashion, “What you have in anthropology and for the world is not Samoa dependent, it really doesn’t matter whether you were right or wrong about Samoa.” There are those of us who admire Mead’s early courage and appreciate what she accomplished in popularizing anthropology, flaws and all. Particularly those of us with a scientific view of anthropology who are being driven out of the discipline in a witch-hunt by the repressive forces of activist ideology. I often wonder what Mead would think about the state of anthropology today.


Matthew Blackwell is a writer currently completing a BA in Economics and Anthropology at The University of Queensland. You can follow him on Twitter @MBlackwell27 and Facebook here.


1 Freeman, Derek. (1983) Margaret Mead and Samoa. Harvard University Press.
2 Shankman, Paul (2009). The Trashing of Margaret Mead, University of Wisconsin Press.
3 Shankman, Paul (2009). The Trashing of Margaret Mead, University of Wisconsin Press.
4 Chagnon, Napoleon. (2013). Noble Savages. Simon & Schuster.
5 Wilson, Edward. (2006). Naturalist. Island Press.
6 Foerstal , Lenora & Gilliam, Angela (1992). Confronting Margaret Mead: Scholarship, Empire, and the South Pacific. Temple University Press.
7 Lutkehaus, Nancy 1995. “Margaret Mead and the ‘Rustling-of-the-wind-in-the-Palm-Trees- school’ of Ethnographic writing.” In Women Writing Culture. Berkley, University of California Press.



  1. Robert Darby says

    This is a very interesting and fair-minded account. There is no doubt that Mead was a much nicer person than Freeman, who had the knack of finding enemies wherever he went. Shankman in the book referred to diagnoses him with a narcissistic personality complex, and that was hardly the half of it. I recall some of the vicious letters he got published in the Canberra Times back in the 1980s, usually denouncing the crimes of his ANU colleagues. That said, however, I think he was correct to conclude that Mead was more than a little starry-eyed about the degree of sexual freedom in Samoa – even allowing for the fact that there are two main islands there, and that the customs of each may differ. My own suspicions were aroused when I noticed that Mead (in her focus on girls) had somehow overlooked the fact that young adolescent males were subjected to circumcision (or some related form of penis mutilation) as an initiation rite before they could achieve adult status – hardly evidence of a culture that valued sexual freedom.

    • Gord says

      Good grief! If Anthropology wants to be taken seriously as a discipline (and it’s not outside of its cloistered academic bubble), the “science” must be evaluated on its own terms regardless of the personalities of the researchers. Who cares if Meade was “nicer” and more politically correct than Freeman.

      • Anthropology has, sadly, gotten itself entangled in politics. David Reich’s book on ancient DNA will start to solve some problems but Stephen Jay Gould took it on a wild ride that still is causing problems. Genetics will unravel some threads.

  2. Felix K says

    A very fine article, balanced and based on evidence. This is really the kind of stuff I admire Quillette for. This article is well researched, clearly relevant to current developments within the field (and academia in general) and at the same time based on a long-term historical perspective. It makes the case for a more open-minded and skeptical anthropology without contantly having to invoke current “scandals”. More of this please.

  3. Truevo says

    Very good and interesting article that balances the mistakes and merits of each one. This is the right spirit of inquiry. Admirable.

  4. Pingback: Margaret Mead | Rikon Reads

  5. Interesting. Anthropology seems utterly fraught with the danger of subjective contamination. It’s virtually impossible to hold conversations about emotionally charged subjects, even with the closest of same-sexual-orientation peers, never mind folk of different ages and sexes in different cultures. Even an anthropologist writing about anthropology reverts to euphemism when talking about the act of sex … “sexual mores were more relaxed and some of these girls did sleep with men before marriage”. Sleep? And were these women “sleeping” with “men” really “girls” (and if they were then were the men really “men”)?

    This story should be taught in anthropology to highlight the extreme care that should be taken when claiming a generalisation about a culture. I suspect, though, that, like many humanities subjects, anthropology is populated by those who are more interested in asserting their pet idealisations and dissing “The West” than objective discovery. One nice irony of the new shibboleth of being against cultural appropriation is that we see less of the in-your-face dream-catching exoticism worship by the newly-aware youth. (Although there’s also a loss of the humour value of seeing them make the short sighted long term consequence mistakes of extreme face piercing and skin staining).

    • dirk says

      I think you are right JA, and the article makes it more than clear. The cover of the first Coming of Age could have been the advertisement for the movie Blue Lagoon, with Brooke Shields as the romantic nymph, I wonder whether this cover was used for long. But donot forget that the mere fact that Westerners were looking now with other eyes at, what was seen until then, primitive cultures has been of utmost importance for Western culture, policy and philosophy. Read what Darwin wrote in the Beagle Trip over the three Fuegians, brought back to Tierra del Fuego, with a bible, vegetable seeds, plates and glasses, proper cloths etc. Darwin was already very critical on all this, Boas and others worked this criticism out further, Levi-Strauss based his structuralism on his field studies in the Brasilian bush, and the mirror in which we see ourselves, where reading about other cultures, now provides with quite a different picture. Maybe time for a slight reversal, we will see. In the humanities, values are more at stake than pure facts and objectivity (if possible at all). I fear, also Jordan Peterson is not free of subjectivity in his philosophy.

      • dirk says

        Even in natural and biological sciences (where often one cause/one outcome is studied, quite different thus as in the humanities), sample techniques and modelling have to be followed in order to avoid the bias of the researcher, as recently shown in rat trials with genetically modified maize, done in England. If there is a feeling that g.m. is bad, you will always find a result somewhere that, indeed, it is bad (causing cancer for example). Even where the trial was laid out properly. Happily, you can repeat the trial, and with many repeats, the truth will come out finally.

        • dirk says

          Sorry….mistake…. the rat trial was done in France by professor Seralini, not in England!

    • “like many humanities subjects” – you do realize anthropology is a social science, not a branch of the humanities, don’t you?

      Lazy generalizations about “the humanities” seem de rigeur these days; as someone who works in a relentlessly empirical discipline of the humanities (history) I scarcely recognize the demonized version that gets bandied about in right-leaning publications.

        • I would not rely on Wikipedia to make such a claim with any authority. Anthropology is a complex discipline which, in the U.S., includes biological anthropology at a fairly hard science pole, and approaches such as ‘autoethnography’ at a more humanities pole. Social anthropology is very much a social science in the tradition of sociology. Programs in anthropological science at, for example, Ohio State and many other universities, would be disturbed to learn that they are a “humanities” discipline.

      • dirk says

        Thanks David, I am not a native speaker, so social science is the better term? In the NL, we speak of humaniora, but I wonder whether sociology and anthropology can be seen as such. Anyhow, literature , history and art belong maybe more properly to that category, but theology? I mayself am from the natural, biological sciences, and we look, indeed, with some superiority at sociology and other “soft” sciences. Many of my friends are sociologists, and they see us as bobos or robots, busy with some special subject, without any holistic perspective. Another distinction made is alfa (soft) and beta (hard) sciences, with economy as the gamma ones, somewhere in between. Beta’s donot work with values, not the slightest idea, something that the alfa’s cannot afford. Quillette does not attract many bèta’s, I fear. Either you belong to one camp, or to the other, the twain seldom meets.

        • dirk says

          From my student time, I remember from encounters with colleagues from other universities the different types of anthropology, the physical anthropology (bloodtypes, eye-colours, hair type, skull measures (dolichocephal, brachycephal), medical features and the like, therefore biological science), but the real anthropolgy was the -cultural anthropology-, with the humanity and social side of the indigenous tribes as study field. In older history books, it was also often spoken of ethnography and ethnology, I never hear about these -logies any more, do they still exist? In those ethnological studybooks , black and white pictures of, often, naked men and women were shown, as if people were different breeds of cattle. What a difference with Margaret Mead’s study Quite an improvement, I think, although not in objectivity, if possible at all of course.

  6. Micah Hale says

    I was skeptical of this article and a little indignant at first due to the title. But I must admit this was a good read and certainly touched on the politics of anthropological paradigms. In our struggle to be right, us anthropologists become great at deconstructing but we are often poor at defining our own intellectual filters.

    Micah Hale

  7. Anonymous says

    Great article, again!

    The quality of journalism in Quilette is amazingly good. There are other outlets that use academics for writing for the general public (for example, The Conversation), but this is soooo much better. Hopefully Quilette will continue.

  8. This controvery is very interesting and I really enjoyed the article. I was introduced to the controversy in a class taught by Dr. Shankman in the mid 70’s. My opinion then, as it is now, is that this a clear case of the nuances of a subject some anthropologists were concerned with back then –cultural change. Clearly Samoans had undergone intense missionization during and after the time Mead did her study. While you can see pictures of Mead posing with young topless women I seriously doubt that when Freeman arrived on the scene young women were still exposing their breasts in a casual and public manner. Good Christian girls don’t run around half naked, for God’s sake. I am illustrating just one quality of many that changed in Samoan culture due to the intrusive and hegemonic forces of western cultural dominance. If the work of past anthropologists have really become irrelevant, in the anti-science paradigm of the post-modernist age– then one might explore the old scientific study of “cultural change”. It is very instructive as to the interpretation of cultural phenomena on many levels.

  9. markbul says

    ” It is important to remember that the emphasis placed on culture rather than biology by Boas, Benedict, and Mead also served a noble purpose …”

    No no no. ‘Serving a noble purpose’ does not excuse either bias or incompetence. Mead was clearly both biased and incompetent. She was a naive student under the spell of a charismatic adviser. In the field, she was totally over her head she didn’t even know the language, and had no background in the culture. She went to find what her adviser wanted, and she found it. Her entire career was built on ideology, not science. Other than that, she was great.

    And no, this is not a great article. The evidence is overwhelming that Freeman was right and that Mead was wrong. Mead’s peaceful islanders regularly used clubs to crush skulls. To make some kind of ‘balance’ story out of the Mead/Freeman debacle is to obscure the truth. If you want to say that Mead’s work served the interests of racial justice, have at it. Just don’t call her a competent anthropologist.

    • dirk says

      If you think that you can study tribes and cultures the same way you can do it with biology,, physics and chemistry, Markbul, you are totally wrong. Maybe you are misled because of the term -logy, indeed, maybe rather misleading. Boas and Mead were more kind of missionaries, ideologists, than strict scientists. She even admitted this, saying: knowledge of other cultures, makes you appreciate you own culture better, less self evident, more scrutinized, what she means was: makes you less arrogant and superior (something that at the time was a big problem, now, the opposite seems to be the case)

  10. I have read the books by Mead and by Freeman, and I find the article fairly accurate. However, I would say that it paints a picture of Mead that is too positive, and a picture of Freeman that is too negative. It is important to notice that Mead proved a liar in several respects. First, she lied to the Samoans about being a virgin. Second, she presented Samoa as a harmonic place with no catastrophes, although a very devastating hurricane went over the island when she was there. Third, she lied about when and how long she stayed on Samoa. She lied about how many young women she had interviewed. She lied about what language she had spoken when she interviewed them. This willingness to tell lies, even if they are relatively harmless white lies, reduces the credibility of her book on Samoa.
    What is more, Mead investigated three tribes on New Guinea during the years 1931-32, together with her husband no. 2. She wanted to find tribes with different gender patterns – and, how lucky she was, she just happened to find exactly that. She lived with the Arapesh, where both men and women were peaceful and friendly. Then she lived with the Mundugumor, where both men and women were relatively masculine and aggressive, and finally she lived with the Chambri, where the women were domineering, impersonal, and enterprising, whereas the men felt less responsibility, where more emotionally dependent, and relatively interested in aesthetics. In 1935, after separation from her husband no.2, she published a book about these tribes, claiming that there are societies where the differences between the male and female gender are very different from what we know, or even turned upside-down. However, once again later independent investigations of these tribes have disproven her claims. The description of the Arapesh are not very wrong, although the men are actually less peaceful and more aggressive than she describes. Her description of the Munudgumor is more-or-less correct, but she has got it completely wrong with the Chambri – the ones where she claims that gender roles have been turned upside down.
    Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz (1987): Cultural alternatives and a feminist anthropology.
    Deborah Gewertz (1981): A historical reconsideration of female dominance among the Chambri of Papua New Guinea. American Ethnologist 8(1): 94-106.)
    In 1939, Margaret Mead was pregnant, with her third husband as the father. She had intensive consultation with a children´s doctor in New York, Benjamin Spock. With her ideas that personality may be influenced by the way of upbringing, she may have inspired Spock, when he in 1946 published “The common sense book of baby and child care”. This may have been the most influential book ever published on the right ways for upbringing of children. It has been translated into 39 languages and is claimed to be the most sold books of all, save for The Bible. Spock argues for the free and relaxed upbringing, which came to dominate in the years from the 1960s and years ahead. Exactly that type of relaxed upbringing, with no fixed principles, was precisely the type of upbringing that was ideal to Mead.
    More could be said, but in short, Margaret Mead´s influence has been enormous, and precisely therefore it is very problematic that much of what she wrote, was not correct. Science must produce reproducible results, but Mead´s results have turned out not to be reproducible.

    • For some reason devaluing someone’s ideas by pointing out somekind of moral transgression seems to be in vogue. Mead is a liar, case closed. Mead has already been criticized for being a practioner of anthropology before the post-modernist enlightenment instructed us on how to act and think correctly; so to speak. When I read old ethnographies I look for data I can use and sort out the crap that no longer makes any sense. I am sure there is a lot of good data in Mead’s work if you get over the fact that her works have long since lost there “biblical authority”. I don’t think anyone believes her interpretations are anything more than her interpretations. Obviously in your thinking she is still a demagogue in need of debunking.

      • I mainly wrote that some of her data are suspect, and some are known to be wrong.
        “I am sure there is a lot of good data in Mead’s work if you get over the fact that her works have long since lost there “biblical authority”. ”
        How can you be sure about that? You know now that some of her data are wrong. She is wrong about the occurrence of suicides or rape on Samoa. She is wrong about the importance of being a virgin on Samoa, not for all, but for many. She is wrong about the gender roles of men and women in the Chambri tribe. So – how can you rely on other data from her? – we know that not only did she misinterpret some information, she also lied about certain things. She became famous by telling Americans that their romantic dreams – free sex under the moonlit palms on a Pacific island – were a reality, when actually there is no more free sex among young Samoan youth than among American youth. She was willing to give a distorted picture in order to have her book sell. Well, that is rather normal to do so, but it also means that you cannot trust her data. Only to the extent that her information is confirmed by critics – and some information is confirmed by Derek Freemand or Deborah Gewertz – only to that extent can you use her data.

        • Frank Occhipinti says

          Since I am kind of bored and pretty much don’t have a life I figured I would respond to your response. First of all I don’t think anyone uses anthropological data anymore so I apologize for entering that phrase in the conversation. Any written account of events in the past– and hence unverifiable–be it historical or anthropological has to be carefully interpreted for the notion of “does that make sense” in some larger context. I would argue that in the larger context of the Polynesian cultural tradition–in a general sense– the story fits the over-all narrative.
          Polynesian culture, in total, is the world’s best cultural representative of seemingly free and uninhibited sexual expression. In short it was so free and open it shocked and startled Europeans. I believe that it was reported that women swam out to the early trading ships and fucked the men on deck, I think it was Tahiti and Captain Cook–not sure. Given that historical reality- one might say that Mead knew what she was looking for and I don’t doubt for one minute she found what she was looking for. In other words, I have a hard time conceptualizing traditional Samoans as prudish. That sort of statement does not jive with what might best be called the cultural template in the region, as stated previously. Honestly, I would be more shocked if Mead reported the types of Eurocentric sexuality that Freeman obviously observed. Why did Freeman see this Eurocentric sexuality in Samoa? Perhaps because of heavy ideological missionization, mass conversion and the acceptance of Eurocentric sexuality and by consequence the need to reject and deny traditional sexuality.
          Want to know why sexuality seemed so “free” in polynesia in general? I suspect it has to do with the continual availability of resources-food, little need for shelter and no need to save up for winter. Also a lack of predation by other humans stealing women mostly due to relative isolation. All this translates into less need of women for men to provide and protect them. In anycase anyone interested in the variability of human sexual expression, norms and values should investigate the ethnographic record pertaining to traditional polynesian culture. Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa” is certianly one of the earliest, most thoughtful and best “”women centered” ethnographies ever written.

          • Sione says

            I saw Margaret Mead speak at the Suva Town Hall in the early 1970s. When questions were called for a Samoan man shaking with emotion stood and asked her why she had so misrepresented his culture. Dr Mead was conciliatory but did not really address his complaint.I thought no more of this until I saw Derek Freeman’s book and then read it, eager to see what he said. His refutation of Mead was comprehensive and compelling. He left no room for doubt. Polynesian culture is not uniform. Samoa is not Tahiti of the Bounty days. Margaret mead would have done better to admit that they she was young and naive when she wrote Coming of Age in Samoa.

  11. dirk says

    I agree Frank, everybody , ordinary person, professional or scientist, deserves it to be judged with empathy. And, of course, what lures here in the hinterland, is the Chagnon/Tierny case, as fierce and fiercer than the so called o so aggressive Yanomami people themselves.

    • I disagree.
      Margaret Mead spoke to people´s feelings, starting with the romantic vision of free sex in the moonlight. She was also supported heavily by Franz Boas, who was more or less the most admired authority by that time. And she more or less supported the ideas of cultural malleability and insignificance of inherited traits, which were the right ideas to have at a time when the nazis were causing havoc. So Mead was a darling.
      Then, in came Derek Freeman, and his book was called poorly written, unscientific, irresponsible and misleading. Two hundred American anthropologists were assembled at a meeting where Freeman was not invited, and here there was a kind of lynch attitude towards him. No wonder that Freeman became hostile to other people. Actually, the criticism of Freeman was practically unfounded. He was slated mostly because he disturbed the image of everybody´s darling.
      So, Freeman was judged by the directly opposite of empathy, and unrightfully so. On the other hand, people had obviously invested too many positive emotions in Mead, and thus treated her better than she deserved.
      Somebody tries to paint a picture of Mead as the good guy and Freeman as the bad guy. That is very unfair. Freeman was not a bad guy, but he was turned into a bad guy by those who hated what he had to tell.

      • dirk says

        Of course, also Freeman deserves empathy, and now, much later, that is sooooo much easier than in a heated dispute among colleagues and adversaries. What is not clear to me: was Mead cherrypicking or exagerating certain attitudes and answers, or was she deliberately falsifying and cooking up fictions?? Both this occurs, even among natural scientists.

        • Dirk: Mead was sent to Samoa by Franz Boas, who wanted her to study teenage moods and teenage sexuality. She, herself, was actually more interested in reporting about other things , and she actually did not have much time on Samoa. She stayed there for only 8 months, and the first 2 months were used to get accustomed to the society and study the local language. So in reality she had 6 months for her studies, and during most of these 6 months, she did not speak the local language well enough to interview the teenage girls about very personal matters. Her information about the allegedly free sex life was based on information from just two girls, and what these girls told her, were jokes. So did not really have good data when she returned home.
          However, she had to make a good impression on Franz Boas, so her report contained more or less what Boas wanted to hear. At the same time, Boas was strangely uncritical. The scientific standards that he held high in other situations, were lowered vis-a-vis Margaret Mead. I guess that he was somehow fascinated by this young and erotically very active woman, and that he evolved some kind of protective instinct towards her. If Boas had been as critical towards her manuscript as he normally would have been, the misreporting would have been much less grave. At the same time, Mead was not as conscientious as she should have been. She knew or should have known that some of what she wrote was not true.
          Concerning the Chambri tribe, she was partially unlucky in visiting the tribe in an unusual situation, where they had just relocated, and where the men were therefore occupied with building and decorating new houses, and so they left over other tasks to the women during that period. So she was partially excused. But it also seems that she was much too uncritical and much too preoccupied with finding examples of unusual or reversed gender roles. So she was certainly biased in her observations, she deliberately left out inconvenient information, and she must have known that what she reported was not strictly true. But she did probably not cheat deliberately.

          • dirk says

            Thanks Kare, so, hasty,inaccurate, unscrupulous fieldwork (at least partially), as done more often, and only unveiled after so much time because of the fame and the interest of the public and scientific society. See above for an example with g.m. maize as found to cause cancer in rats. But the relevance and impact remains, I think. Hypothesis: mediocre or bad research can be more important than the best, accurate and precise type.

    • Frank Occhipinti says

      I don’t think anyone has to worry about hurting Mead’s feelings since she is dead. ha ha

  12. Pingback: How the Science Wars Ruined Margaret Mead | Unhinged Group

  13. Frank: Sexuality was not free in Samoa. There were a special type of princesses who absolutely had to be virgins until marriage. But also ordinary girls had to be virgins until marriage, at least in former times. If they were not virgins, they were punished very hard, and in some cases they were killed for it. By the time Mead was there, things had become less strict, except for the princesses.
    Her main task, given her by Bias, was to find out if teenagers on Samoa had the same problems as teenagers in Western culture. We now know that this was the case. Cases of jealousy and unrequited love occurred also on Samoa, rape occurred, suicides were rare, but did occur. Mead did not report conscienteously about these things.
    Contrary to Mead, Freeman stayed much longer in Samoa (3½ years), he got a much closer knowledge of the society and the language. What Freeman reports, is more in accordance with what the Samoans themselves say. Samoans are angry at Mead for her gross misrepresentation of their society.
    The controverse is barely over yet. There was an article about Mead´s (lack of) reliability in “Current anthropology” as late as 2013.

  14. ” I believe that it was reported that women swam out to the early trading ships and fucked the men on deck, I think it was Tahiti and Captain Cook–not sure.”
    It is not unusual that in small, isolated populations, women readily have sex with foreigners. This seems to be some sort of instinct with the function that it prevents dangerous inbreeding. It is also known from remote outposts along the “Silk Road” in Central Asia. It is also known from the Faroe Islands in the Atlantic. At rare occasions, when Spanish seamen visited the islands, all married women left their husbands and had sex with the foreigners. This happened in spite of that such adultery was a grave sin under normal conditions.

    • dirk says

      I wonder, Kare, whether there could be a relation with the old practices of temple prostitution in Greek and Roman times, and similar rituals. Sex in history was not always about procreation, love, intimacy and strict personal relations.

  15. Blackwell rues the marginalization of a scientific anthropology, but it might be amusing to suggest that in the Mead/Freeman debate, Mead might have been the better scientist, if not fieldworker.

    At the time of Mead’s Samoa research, Boas was essentially testing the hypothesis that human behavior was driven primarily by biology. Using adolescence as an example, the argument went something like this: if the sturm und drang of adolescence was found in all human communities, then it is likely to be the product of human biology, which Boas assumed to be universal; however, if we can find a case in which adolescence has a different quality, then in good Popperian/Falsificationist fashion we can reject the biology hypothesis and recognize and explore the extent to which cultural and socialization play a role in shaping adolescence. Mead thought she had found such a counter-example in Samoa, and consequently felt that the strong form of the biological determinism argument was false. The best that one could say of Freeman’s research is that it rejected the Samoan case as a counter-example, but nonetheless he did not directly address the fact that numerous other counter examples had been described in the decades since Mead’s original research. In effect, Mead thought she found a black swan that falsified the hypothesis that all swans are white; Freeman argued that her swan was white after all; he really never took up the evidence for other black swans, though ironically, he accused Mead of being a poor scientist.

    Blackwell starts with a note about his own youthful experience of cross-cultural encounter, and it should be emphasized that even when I was a PhD student in anthropology in the early/mid 1970s Mead’s Samoa research was recognized as flawed and youthfully naive – but her insights were still valuable. For example, she focused on the control (or lack of control) of sexuality as a core feature of adolescence in most cultures, and that insight continues to inform our understanding of adolescence in humans; when I met her in 1972 she spoke of a continuum of cultures and control from rigid to loose, and she had some interesting speculations on social differences along that spectrum. She never rejected the role of biology in human behavior, as Blackwell noted; she also argued that, if anthropology was to be a discipline separate from biology, it should focus on the role of culture and society in shaping human behavior. Those of us who remember her defense of research into ‘sociobiology’ in the mid-1970s also recall that her discomfort with it was its tendency to lapse into just-so stories that could never be tested: again, ironically, Mead was challenging sociobiologists to be good scientists.

    • Andrew_W says

      “The best that one could say of Freeman’s research is that it rejected the Samoan case as a counter-example, but nonetheless he did not directly address the fact that numerous other counter examples had been described in the decades since Mead’s original research. In effect, Mead thought she found a black swan that falsified the hypothesis that all swans are white; Freeman argued that her swan was white after all; he really never took up the evidence for other black swans, though ironically, he accused Mead of being a poor scientist.”

      Freeman specialized in Samoan culture, it wasn’t his position to claim expert knowledge of all the cultures of the world, if he had done so, claimed such global expertise, then he would have justifiably been labeled a poor scientist.

      • First, it was Freeman himself who raised — regularly — the claim that Mead was a poor scientist, while he was the superior scientist. When Freeman drew universal conclusions from his single Samoa case, he was engaged in very poor science himself, since a single case does not verify a hypothesis. Second, Freeman certainly did not claim expert knowledge of all cultures, but he didn’t have to — the issues that Mead and Freeman studied were also studied by numerous other anthropologists whose published work supported Mead’s conclusion about the important role culture and socialization play in adolescence. Anyone weighing in on these issues has a professional obligation to acquaint themselves with the published data from around the world. We do that regularly, and Freeman was not exempt from that expectation.

  16. Caligula says

    Yes, science is hard, and one must constantly guard against confirmation bias. And, yes, not all scientists are nice people. And although all should be free to criticize a scientist’s work, some civility can be maintained by limiting the criticism to the work and not to the person.

    So, what’s new? Freeman wasn’t very nice, yet his basic criticism (that what Mead found in Samoa was more about what she wanted to find than about what was actually there) seems valid.

    And, yes, the wish to believe has always been a motivation to believe in theories that tilt heavily toward nurture and against nature. For if environmental insults cause injury at least these can often be corrected or mitigated later in life. Whereas one mostly must just live with whatever cards one has drawn from the genetic lottery.

    Of course, it was not just anthropology that adopted an overly environmental perspective, for surely Freudianism is similar in insisting in pointing to early childhood trauma as the source of later psychic distress and disfunction. Who wouldn’t want to believe that the etiology of psychiatric disorders lies in the enviromnet, and not in how one’s brain is (hard-)wired?

    Correction is necessary to keep science honest. The correction should be offered gently where possible; nonetheless, scientific integrity demands that correctness be prioritized over hurt feelings. And, yes, even over damaged careers.

    Science is hard. And it always will be, because (as Mencken noted), “For every complex problem, there Is an answer that Is clear, Simple, and wrong.”

  17. dirk says

    It is nice to read here even from soft scientists that science is hard after all! Bravo!! Science for ever!!

  18. Martti O. Suomivuori says

    It still is the habit of the “humanists” or “social scientists” to call anyone they disagree with Extreme right”. The same name that Freeman got for challenging Margaret Mead’s depictions of Samoan culture. I wish they would stop already, they have been at it for more than half a century already.
    What does the sexual life of Samoans have to do with American party politics?

    • “What does the sexual life of Samoans have to do with American party politics?”

      I’ll take this as a serious question, and offer a quick answer. American conservatives have long believed that biology is destiny, and by the same token, the manifest destiny of a ruling elite — especially when it is white and male — is driven and justified by its biology. Progressives have long believed that culture, socialization, and social systems play a critical role in such destiny. Freeman believed the former — like many Australian conservatives, white Europeans who regard themselves as superior to native Australians — while Mead believed the latter. Mead hoped to show that differences in adolescence, especially its relation to the expression/repression of sexuality, were culturally shaped, not biological.

      • Andrew_W says

        Well it’s a good thing Freeman wasn’t Australian isn’t it? You’re obviously a “progressive” and like many progressives you demonstrate serious misconceptions about those on the right.

        Evolutionary psychologists have demonstrated just how patronizing towards other cultures that many of the old school anthropologists were.

        • Well, Freeman was born in New Zealand and spend his professional life in Australia, but my comments on the heredity/environment issue and U.S. politics are accurate, so your link to Haidt’s point is irrelevant, and instead suggests that you may be an outlier yourself. (There’s an extensive literature on racial discrimination against Maoris in New Zealand, so you can extrapolate if you wish…)

          Your note about evolutionary psychology is rather puzzling — new school anthropologists have been aware of the patronizing attitudes of old school anthropologists for much longer than evolutionary psychology has been around. (A classic example is Louis Dumont’s preface to the French translation of EEE-P’s The Nuer 50 years ago…) And, since evolutionary psychology isn’t really in the business of evaluating attitudes, I’m not sure why you think that any such ‘demonstration’ by evolutionary psychologists is relevant. It’s kind of like reporting that evolutionary psychologists have demonstrated that water is wet.

          • Andrew_W says

            It’s clear that you believe it’s reasonable to conclude that Freeman was a racist because he was white and supposedly a conservative, perhaps you can provide arguments to support your belief that it’s reasonable to label people as racist based on their race and their not being “progressives”.

          • Andrew: Your fevered comments have a strangely non sequitur quality. Martti asked what the sex life of Samoans has to do with American political issues, and I offered a perspective: at the time Freeman published his Fateful Hoaxing book this precise issue — heredity versus environment, and how it played out in sexual behavior — was identified as the core debate, and this has long been a dividing line in conservative versus liberal politics in the U.S., often focusing on IQ/intelligence. I said nothing about Freeman being a racist — he clearly favored a form of genetic determinism in the debate with Mead, and that’s what I referred to. I mentioned Australians to make the point that, having spent his professional life in Oz, Freeman was well aware of the racist potential in his position on the genetic determinism debate. That’s more subtle than labeling Freeman racist, but perhaps I should avoid subtle points.

          • Andrew_W says

            So you subtly called him a racist because he was white and spent part of his adult life in Australia, your position really isn’t getting any better.

            You said: “Freeman believed the former — like many Australian conservatives, white Europeans who regard themselves as superior to native Australians”, clearly you were implying Freeman a racist.

            ” . . . at the time Freeman published his Fateful Hoaxing book this precise issue — heredity versus environment, and how it played out in sexual behavior — was identified as the core debate, and this has long been a dividing line in conservative versus liberal politics in the U.S., often focusing on IQ/intelligence.”

            Yes, it’s probably occurred to a lot of people that perhaps the reason Mead was duped so easily by her Samoan informants was her liberal condescending attitude towards Samoan’s, whereas Freeman, who live with them for 3 years and spoke their language fluently, could appreciate them as equals.

          • Well, Andrew, I said that Freeman believed that biology is destiny, like many Australians… If you think Freeman did not believe that, you have misread his work. If you insist on extrapolating from that to charges of racism, fine. Rant all you want.

            As for how/why Mead was “duped,” that is not the issue. Every anthropologist since the 1940s has known that Mead’s Samoa work was faulty. Everyone acknowledged that Freeman’s fieldwork was superior. That has never been an issue. Freeman brought two different problems on himself. First, any time two anthropologists work in the same community or with the same culture, disagreements arise. But we have civil, cordial ways of discussing and debating such differences. Freeman simply attacked Mead with a level of hostility that many people found utterly unjustified. It was unseemly and uncalled for, especially after she was dead, and could not respond. The Australian psychiatrist R.J. Barrett revealed that Freeman had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and a lot of us suspected that his mental illness was behind his insistence on seeing Mead as some kind of enemy or threat. The second problem that Freeman brought on himself was that he used this single ethnographic case to argue that Mead was a poor scientist, while he was the great scientist — I have suggested in an earlier comment that the reverse was probably the case: Mead was testing a hypothesis, and understood that, if Samoa contradicted that hypothesis, that hypothesis would be false. Freeman thought that by simply showing that Mead was wrong about Samoa, that the hypothesis was true, ignoring the many other falsifying cases in the anthropological literature since then. Mead might have been a poor fieldworker as a young anthropologist — Blackwell alludes to having the same problem as a 23, 24 year old abroad — but getting observations wrong did not make her a poor scientist, even if (as we have always known) she wasn’t the best fieldworker. By trying to generalize from his single ethnographic example while ignoring a wide variety of other data, Freeman was the lesser scientist.

          • Andrew_W says

            While you do make good points in your above comments there are a couple of things I have to question; you say that “Freeman believed that biology is destiny”, that’s a phrase that can be interpreted however you want to, I could say that I believe that biology is destiny, that human behavior is deeply based in our instincts which are a product of biology and that it’s our destiny to always have that feature built into us, it can’t be changed outside of Sci Fi scenarios involving cyborgs.
            I assume that’s not what you mean about your claim that Freeman believed “biology is destiny” but rather that you are suggesting that Freeman held the belief that nature is more important than nurture in terms of any differences in observed the abilities of different races, If so could you please provide evidence supporting that theory.

            The other point is your claim that “Freeman was the lesser scientist”, there’s a large subjective element to such a judgment, personally I think great scientists are the ones that reveal new truths that lead us to having a better understanding of the universe, whether they were nice people or popular or well known doesn’t come into it. Neither Mead nor Freeman qualify as “great” by that measure. If you want to argue that Freeman had serious flaws as a person, um yeah.

  19. dirk says

    It’s all simply the Hegelian/Marxist thesis-antithesis-synthesis road of human development and views on development. And Mead made by far the widest impact here, because, who (besides maybe some anthropologists) has even heard of a scientist Freeman??

  20. Fran says

    My problem with anthropology as a discipline is threefold.
    1. Their tendency to publish in books, edited volumes and compendia, all of which are much less accesable than the online journals I am accustomed to.
    2. Anthropologists I have met have no cross-cultural experience prior to puberty. If they had, they would be much less likely to regard humans from other cultures as fundamentally different.
    3. They boast of how close they are to their “specimens” by saying things like “I am called white uncle”. They do not recognise that cultures where there is a need to become some sort of “classificatory kin” to establish communication are tribal in the sense that full humanity stops at the kin boundary. Inter-tribal conflicts are horrible because of this conception, and it is the foundation of racial prejudice in our societies.

  21. I knew one of Mead’s informants while a VISTA lawyer in American Samoa in ’69-70, who confided that he and his buddies “told Mead what they thought she wanted to hear”, and, in the grand Samoan tradition, “played” her. The correct spellings are : “moetotolo” and “Tutuila”.

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