In 1925, Margaret Mead, aged 23, travelled to Samoa to study the behaviour of adolescent girls. Her findings published in the popular book Coming of Age in Samoa, 1928, surprised the world and established her reputation. Now her findings are being challenged in a way that keeps open the debate on some of the fundamental philosophical questions of the century. The debate came before the New Zealand public with a public lecture by Derek Freeman at Victoria University and the performance of the play Heretic at Wellington's Circa Theatre during March 1998. Derek Freeman is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the Research school of Pacific and Asian Studies of the Institute of advanced studies of the Australian National University in Canberra.
To understand the debate let us look at the problem that faces a modern tourist: the objective interpretation of what is seen in a foreign country. A young English tourist in Shrinagar, Kashmir, remarked on the obvious signs of extreme poverty. When asked to explain this observation he was able to attribute it to only one indicator, unpainted wooden houses. To suburban New Zealand eyes this could be a sign of wealth as expensive new houses in New Zealand are often clad with imported American cedar (people pay a premium for this wood as it does not require painting) while extremely expensive homes in central London, crowded together with small gardens, may look like slums. Respected anthropologists, we might expect, would be more objective in their assessments. Unfortunately, this does not always seem to be so. The Ika of Uganda were unfortunate enough to have received a very damming report by one anthropologist. Now, twenty-five years later, we are hearing that this report was often inaccurate and somewhat coloured by the author's own personal bias and prejudices (see box).
It is right to challenge all such reports but often when a dramatic new anthropological report appears a worldview is fixed and all subsequent reports are judged against the first that is now used as the standard. In many cases the cost, time, and difficulty , often involving the learning of a new language , of doing anthropological fieldwork means that the world's academia may rely on the account provided by just one person. The anthropologist faces a fundamental paradox : while what we know may be determined by what we see, what we see is also determined by what we know. Mike Lieber wrote in 1995:
Anthropologists, according to Margaret Mead, have always been hard on one another, not to be nasty but to make sure they got it right. To the extent that anthropology can claim for itself a scientific enterprise, it is because we have all been trained to assume that we could be wrong, that we could miss data or misinterpret what people said and juxtapose things that to the people we observe just don't go together at all.
Ika: Good or evil?
In 1972, the respected American anthropologist Colin Turnbull published his book The Mountain People thathad taken him just three weeks to write. In it, he described the Ika of Uganda as a sick society on the path towards extinction : a grim warning for humanity. He called them the "loveless people , as unfriendly, uncharitable, inhospitable, and generally mean as any people can be." In just a few days, he had demonised this tribe as the epitome of all that was degraded and evil. The book won many plaudits including the 1974 Annual award of the National and American Academies of Arts and Letters "for bringing together both art and science". It was adapted for stage by Peter Brook and played in Paris, London, Vienna, and Venice and in 1976 travelled to the US as a gift from the government of France to America for its bicentennial celebrations. The Mountain People is still recommended today by anthropology lecturers to students as a study of how society disintegrates under stress.
Reviewing the book in 1973, the anthropologist Thomas Beidelman warned "this is an autobiographical portrait of the author utilising the Ika as counters for expressing his personal feelings and experiences in the field". Curtis Abraham, who is currently writing a book about the Ika, attempts to restore objectivity to the worldview of the Ika. In an article titled "Land of the Loveless" in New Scientist February 28, 1998, he tells how, despite Turnbull's predictions, the Ika are still very much alive and thriving but "bitterly angry at the way they have been stigmatised by the Ugandan government and readers of Turnbull's book."
Abraham asks, why was Turnbull so disenchanted with the Ika people? False expectations it seems was the key. He had hoped to encounter a society like that of the Ituri pygmies that he had studied in the 1950's. The Ituri's carefree forest-dwelling hunter-gatherer life style had appealed to him. When he visited the Ika in the 1960's they were in the grip of a severe famine and under considerable stress. Abraham reports that Turnbull, during his three months stay, spent most of his time in a hut on the edge of Ika territory, failed to travel into the territory, and relied on accounts of the Ika translated from another non-Ika language. Since 1972, various anthropologists have reported errors and misinterpretations in his work. Behaviour he attributes solely to the Ika is common to the other tribes in the region. Abraham writes; "Shortly before his death in 1994, he (Turnbull) admitted that The Mountain People was largely inspired by the realisation that Ituri society might one day go the way of the Ika. Indeed, The Mountain PeopleandThe Forest People, Turnbull's book about the Ituri pygmies, he saw as twin volumes describing humanity's capacity for good and evil.
Life is still difficult for the Ika, food shortages are common with drought, overgrazing and deforestation all decreasing the productivity of their land and illegal hunting reduces the supply of food. The Ugandan government remains unsympathetic and city dwellers regard them as primitive and care little for their survival. Abraham concludes, "Turnbull's legacy lives on".
Is it possible then that Margaret Mead ? regarded as one of the greatest and best known anthropologists , was herself, perhaps unwittingly, responsible for creating what Derek Freeman has described as "the greatest anthropological myth of the century"? The story starts back in 1922 when 20 year old Margaret Mead from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, started a course in anthropology given by Franz Boas, Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. On the 12 May 1925, Boas was appointed the official supervisor of her researches and on 31 August that year Mead, aged 23, arrived at Pago Pago in American Samoa to spend two months studying the Samoan language. On November 9 she relocated to the island of Ta'u in Manu'a where she established her research headquarters at the US Naval Dispensary. In December 1925, she became friendly with a local 24-year-old woman, Fa'apua'a Fa'amu. On 23 of December, she accepted an appointment as Assistant Curator of Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York to commence in mid 1926.
In January 1926, the island of Ta'u was devastated by a severe hurricane. Mead shifted to the island of Ofu to continue her research. On March 14 she wrote to Boas telling him that in Samoa there is no curb on the sexual behaviour of adolescents. She departed from Manu'a on 16 April 1926, after just over seven months in Samoa and never returned to Samoa.
Just over two years later, in August 1928, her book, Coming of Age in Samoa was published in New York 1 and received with acclaim. With this one book she established her fame and reputation. Mead, it seems, in researching the behaviour of adolescent girls had discovered a land where adolescence was free of the normal stresses of competition, envy and sexual jealousies , a paradise on earth where love was free and without inhibitions. Soon her book became a best seller , "the anthropological best seller of all time". It became required reading in university anthropology courses and popular reading among other students and interested people , not just in the USA but also in much of the world. Many students raised in the shadow of restrictive Victorian morality saw it as a breath of fresh air , an indication that there was a greater and better world. It was to retain its popularity and remained without serious challenge for another 55 years.
The book had a profound influence on anthropological thought. She had established that it was culture and not biology that was the major determinant in behaviour. The book continued to influence western thought and indeed change the society that now read it so avidly and to influence many books that followed. Some, like Derek Freeman, see it as the major influence that led to the relaxation of the sexual code in Western society , to the progressive reduction in sexual abstinence before marriage (it now stands at less than 5% in the US) and ultimately to the swinging sixties.
In 1969, Time magazine described Margaret Mead as the "Mother of the World". Her biographer Jane Howard said she was "indisputably the most publicly celebrated scientist in America". The American Anthropologist spoke of her as "truly the most famous and influential anthropologist in the world". A huge impact crater on Venus , measuring some 175 miles across , has been named after her. In Freeman's words she had:
become the great mother goddess of American anthropology and was viewed as an omniscient, wonder-working matriarch. An American joke of the time was that when Dr Mead called on the Oracle at Delphi she addressed the age-old sibyl with the words, "Hello there, is there anything that you would like to know? 5
Her reputation was now so great that it seemed she could not be challenged. Coming of Age in Samoa was now an anthropological classic and no one could take seriously any mistrust of its conclusions.
Enter Derek Freeman, fourteen years younger than Mead. He was born in Wellington New Zealand and studied at Victoria University of Wellington. There, Ernest Beaglehole, a close friend of Mead, taught him about Samoa from Mead's account. Full of expectation, Freeman, aged 24, arrived in Samoa on 15 April 1940 , 14 years after Mead , and stayed until November 1943. He reports:
As a result (of Beaglehole's friendship with Mead), I was fed all this Mead stuff and when I went to Samoa in 1940, I believed every word of it. In my early enquires I dismissed or ignored all evidence that ran counter to Mead's findings. 8
He reports that after a year in Samoa , on this the first of seven lengthy visits , he began to doubt Mead's findings and her theory:
It was not until I had become fluent in Samoan, had been adopted into a Samoan family, and having been given a manaia title and begun attending chiefly courts, that I became fully aware of the discordance between Mead's account and the realities that I was witnessing. When I left Samoa in 1943, after a stay of three years and eight months, it had become apparent to me, through prolonged enquiry that Mead's account of the sexual behaviour of the Samoans was in egregious error. But I had no idea how it had happened. 5
Returning briefly to New Zealand before joining the navy, he reported his findings to Beaglehole.
But he just didn't believe me. He said Mead was a great woman and that she couldn't possibly have got it wrong. The notion that she had been hoaxed, no one had dreamt of that, not even me at that time. 8
Freeman continued to express his doubts about Mead's findings. On 10 November 1964, Margaret Mead visited him at the Research School of Pacific Studies of the Australian National University where he has worked since 1955. She began by saying "So you are the man who thinks he knows better than the rest of us." The discussion was lengthy and did not end with agreement. Freeman recalls that at one stage she took his annotated copy of her book and refused to return it. On 29 December 1965, Freeman returned to Samoa to spend just over two years, departing again on 5 January 1968, "researching in further detail every aspect of her account of Samoan behaviour".
When Mead endorsed her original findings for a new edition of her book in the 1970's Freeman felt compelled to write his own book systematically refuting her original findings. He now saw Samoa as the exact opposite of Mead's description. He saw it as a place where virginity was very much valued and where all the normal stresses of adolescence were very much alive. He wrote to Mead in 1978 offering to send her a draft of his work but unfortunately, she died on the 15 November that year without having seen it. Harvard University Press finally published the completed book, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth in February 1983. Freeman reports that:
the consternation, especially in America, was enormous. Without warning, the Meadian reverie about Samoa had been shattered. For American anthropologists, as one of them remarked, this was "a seismic event", and as they surveyed the fallen masonry, the embarrassment of those whose beliefs had been so rudely shaken quickly turned to fury against the antipodean antichrist who had so desecrated their sanctum sanctorum. In no time at all, as one observer has recorded, there were many who seemed willing to tear me "limb from limb".
Things reached their apogee in November 1983, when, during the 82nd meeting of the Anthropological Association, a special session devoted to the evaluation of my refutation was held. It was attended by more than a thousand. The session began conventionally enough, but when the general discussion started, it degenerated into a delirium of vilification. One eyewitness has described it as a "sort of grotesque feeding frenzy"; another wrote to me saying "I felt I was in a room with people ready to lynch you". This is the kind of fanatical behaviour that is released in the zealots of a closed system of thought when one of their principal certainties has been effectively challenged.
What's more, later that same day, a motion denouncing my refutation as "unscientific" was moved, put to the vote, and passed. Yet, as a moment's thought discloses, the notion that scientific status of a proposition can be settled by a show of hands at a tribal get-together is unscientific in the extreme. 5
Derek Freeman was now the Heretic, a word derived from the Greek word for choice meaning one who chooses to think for oneself. The play Heretic by David Williamson, one of Australia's best-known playwrights, opened at the Sydney Opera House on 28 March 1996 and Wellington's Circa theatre on 28 February 1998. This play gives an insight into Derek Freeman's personal life and helps us to understand some of the background to the controversy. The suggestion is given that the young and ambitious Margaret Mead, having started an enduring lesbian affair with her tutor Ruth Benedict and recently married, travelled to Samoa where she soon had an affair with a local male. The Samoa she created in her book was the one she perceived through her eyes. A land created in her own image. In contrast, Freeman, having been given an image of Samoa as seen through Mead's eyes set off for Samoa expecting that his sexual fantasies would soon become reality. A year later, a disillusioned Freeman began to see Samoa through different eyes. Could their different views of Samoa just be a product of their differing degree of sexual success. Does this explain how they could give different accounts of Samoa from the spectrum of behaviour that no doubt exists in Samoan society, as it does in other societies?
Listening to Derek Freeman being interviewed on New Zealand National Radio, after the release of his book in 1983, I found reason to question his findings. Mike Lieber was to state one of my doubts this way in March 1995 (Internet):
Our individual differences as ethnographers is almost always focussed on the fact that we tend to pay attention to different things and focus on different contexts of interaction. The Mead-Freeman "debate" is a good example. Look at who Mead talked to and who Freeman talked to. Mead was clear about the fact that her description of Samoan adolescence was gathered from adolescent girls and represented their point of view. Freeman claimed to represent "The Samoans", but if you read carefully, you see that the only people he talked to were high status, older men: chiefs, ministers, educators, and high level politicians. The ethnographies that have followed have tended to integrate both descriptions by filling in the social blanks. By successive approximations, errors are corrected, generalizations become more sophisticated, and foci expanded to make ever-richer ethnographic detail.
These men had stated their intention of correcting the 'erroneous impression' of Samoa created by Margaret Mead. From Freeman's own description of them, it appeared to me that they were puritanical older males who did not want to see Samoa portrayed as a place where adolescent females indulged in regular sexual encounters. Freeman it seemed had relied on their account and had not researched the young women directly as Mead had claimed to do. Is it possible that the behaviour of the adolescent females described by Mead was more covert than overt but still something that did occur?
Another criticism was Freeman's emphasis on what appeared to be his rather narrow and not very objective ethical code. It seemed that to Freeman the sexual freedom Mead depicted in Samoa was just plain wrong or immoral. Perhaps the play Heretic sheds some light on this: could it be that his restrictive code was a response to the perceived threats to the stability of his own marriage?
In January 1987, Lowell Don Holmes was to publish his work Quest for the Real Samoa: The Mead/Freeman Controversy and Beyond. 3 In 1957, Holmes completed a restudy follow up to Mead that sought to evaluate, among other things, Mead's research. He claims no special respect or debt to Mead and argues for his own even-handed interpretation of Samoan culture. The key chapter in this book, "assessing Margaret Mead:" begins, (p 103) "Although I differ with Mead on several issues, I would like to make it clear that, despite the greater possibilities for error in a pioneering scientific study, her tender-age (twenty-three), and her inexperience, I find that the validity of her Samoan research is remarkably high". The American Anthropologist reported: "Holmes concludes that Mead's work will endure, not because it was flawless or because it is a model for contemporary research, but precisely because it was pioneering and controversial. He sees the tragedy of the controversy in Freeman's almost exclusive focus on Mead, which could obscure Freeman's potential contribution to Samoan ethnography. This is where Freeman and Holmes differ fundamentally. For Freeman, the ultimate issue is the refutation of Mead's ideas on Samoan adolescence. For Holmes, it is a deeper appreciation of the possibilities of Samoan ethnography. To get beyond the Mead/Freeman controversy, it is this latter path that should be explored." The New York Times Book Review states: "Holmes has a special claim to be heard, for in 1954 he did a restudy of Tau, the same village Mead had worked in 29 years before. While Mr. Holmes disagrees with her on various points, he does not find the 'truth' to be midway between Mead and Mr. Freeman. His work showed the quality of Mead's Samoan research to be 'remarkably high,' while Mr. Freeman's refutation was, in Mr. Holmes's opinion, both methodologically shoddy and uncorroborated by the evidence."
But the controversy was not to rest here. In November 1987 Freeman returned again to Samoa with Frank Heimans, a filmmaker. Freeman reports:
I now come to what was for me the most unexpected of denouements. 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 whom I had never previously met. During my previous visits to Manu'a she had been living in Hawaii where she had gone with her family in 1962. She was Fa'apua'a Fa'amu, who, in 1926, had been Margaret Mead's closest Samoan friend. In 1987, at 86 years of age, she was still in full command of her mental faculties. 5
Fa'apua'a recounted in front of the camera and in sworn testimony to Galea'i Poumele that when Mead had questioned her and her friend Fofoa incessantly about Samoan and their own sexual behaviour, they were embarrassed, and as a prank had told her the exact reverse of the truth. Freeman refers to this as a common enough practice in Samoa known as recreational lying. In the film, Fa'apua'a says, "We lied and lied and lied". We could perhaps also equate it with the practice common among many Polynesian people, and indeed in many parts of Asia, of trying to please the enquirer by telling them what they want to hear. To many people relative truth assumes greater importance than the absolute truth of Western culture. We also know that in surveys of behaviour some adolescents do lie or grossly exaggerate their behaviour if they think it is other than that expected by their elders.
We may also wonder at the reliability of Fa'apua'a's testimony. Should you believe a person when they confess to a past lie' Freeman has implied that her testimony is reliable for she is deeply religious and swore it on the bible! Yet knowing a little of Samoan culture we might suspect that she would now have difficulty in openly admitting to information that had been given in confidence so many years before. Many people tend to become more restrictive in their own attitudes to sexuality as they grow older and Samoan culture as we now know it in New Zealand prevents open discussion of sexual issues. Her current denial may be just what the men of status, the ministers, chiefs, educators, and senior politicians, expect of her. Her "confession" may have been necessary for her to retain her position in society.
Freeman now travelled to America and researched Mead's Samoan papers in the library of Congress and the private correspondence of Franz Boas and Margaret Mead held by the America Philosophical society. Freeman reports that "From these and other primary source materials it has been possible to determine just what befell the 24 year old Margaret Mead in Samoa in 1926".
Freeman tells this story. When Margaret Mead was Boas's research student, her desire was to do ethnological research in some untouched part of Polynesia. Boas on the other hand wanted her to find evidence that it was culture that determined adolescent behaviour. The ambitious Mead secretly entered into an agreement with the Bishop Museum of Honolulu to do the research her heart was set on and concealed this from Boas. In Samoa, on New Year's Day, 1926, a devastating hurricane struck that "razed 75% of the houses of Tau'u to the ground" and "generally disorganised native society". Largely because of this Mead postponed any systematic investigation of the adolescent girls and concentrated on her ethnological research for the Bishop Museum. By March 1926, as she continued this research on the island of Ofu, her work on adolescents reached a point of acute crisis. Hoping to make up for lost time she began to question her travelling companions Fa'apua'a and Fofoa, both 24, about the sexual behaviour of Samoan girls. Freeman reports:
From Mead's diary and from Fa'apua'a's testimony we can date this questioning to March 13, 1926. What the embarrassed Fa'apua'a and Fofoa told Mead was the exact opposite of the truth, and we have the clearest possible evidence of this in a letter that Mead wrote to Boas the very next day. In it she tells Boas that in Samoa there is no "curb" on sexual behaviour during adolescence, this being precisely the false information, which, as a prank, had been communicated to her the previous day by Fa'apua'a and Fofoa.
A few days later, Mead wrote to Boas again saying she was ready to leave Samoa. Her planned investigation of the sexual behaviour of the adolescent girls she was supposed to be studying was never undertaken. Instead, she relied on the totally false information with which she had been hoaxed.
And so, a whole view of the human species was constructed out of the innocent lies of two young women. That one of the ruling ideologies of our age should have originated in this way is both comic ' and frightening! All in all, or at least as it seems to me, it is one of the more spectacular stories of the twentieth century. 5
Boas replied to her letter addressing her as "My dear Flower of Heaven", she had been given the title of taupou, 'flower of heaven' or ceremonial virgin on the islands of Manu'a. Freeman plans to tell the full story in his latest book: Franz Boas and the Flower of Heaven: coming of Age in Samoa and the Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Meadto be released later in 1998.
But has the debate ended? In 1994 James A C's book Adolescent Storm and Stress: An evaluation of the Mead-Freeman Controversy University of Western Ontario, A volume in the Research Monographs in Adolescence Series, was published. 4 It tells that before Mead, G. Stanley Hall in his Adolescence had argued that adolescence was a period of storm and stress. Mead was to conclude that it was "not necessarily a time of stress and storm, but cultural conditions (can) make it so" and thus could not be considered a biological inevitability. Freeman claimed that her account of Samoan culture and character is fundamentally in error. The book looks at methodologies to evaluate Mead's thesis and critiques each of the studies. As well as looking at the work of other researchers it also mentions the missionary effect, historical evidence, and Western influence on contemporary Samoa. It argues that there is reason to believe that Mead may have made some errors, but the Freeman work does not negate the thrust of her findings. It shows however that Mead's Samoa has been lost to the point where they currently have one of the highest suicide rates in the world.
Hilary Lapsley, a senior lecturer at the University of Waikato, who has researched the friendship between Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, has also raised doubts. She says that her own recent examination of Mead's papers at the Library of Congress and examinations by other scholars indicate that Mead did speak to many Samoans about sexuality and that there are no notes of a conversation with the two tricksters. 9 She says that while Mead was young she was not naive and never easily duped. Appendix 5 to Mead's book lists the result of a survey on sexuality completed by 30 adolescent females. Lapsley agrees that Mead's conclusions are over-simplified and flawed but suggests that Freeman's view that Samoan society was "crime-ridden and marked by competition, aggression, jealousy and strict controls on sexual expression" is just as far off the mark. Freeman responds 10 by saying that the evidence of the hoaxing is contained in the letter Mead wrote to Franz Boas on March 14, 1926 and held in the archives of the American Philosophical Society. No doubt the debate will continue. In the play Heretic, Williamson infers that Freeman was motivated by Ma'at, Egyptian goddess of truth. A determination to find the truth that has earned him the Australian Skeptic of the Year award.
But what of the contemporary evidence? Fa'asalele Tanuvasa of Porirua East, Wellington, New Zealand, who is at present finishing a doctorate on the place of contraception and abortion in the lives of Samoan women in New Zealand tells 6 of the difficulty young Samoan women have in discussing sexual issues with their families. It seems that there is a high expectation that young women should not bring shame on their families by becoming pregnant yet many do. The result, an abortion rate that is double that of the Maori population and three times that of the European population. Concealed pregnancies and births with the subsequent abandonment of the unwanted babies, rare among the European population, is a problem with young Samoan women and is an indication that they, like other young women, do indulge in sexual behaviour. Some surveys indicate that, contrary to common belief, more adolescent females than males may be sexually active.
Margaret Mead commented that she believed that young Samoan women were able to avoid pregnancy in the free and open environment she encountered. She suggested that this may have been due to an ability by these young women, in this environment, to sense, perhaps at an unconscious level, when they were ovulating and thus avoid intercourse on those nights! They would make love only when it felt right to do so. Has this ability been lost or was the level of sexual activity lower than Mead thought it was?
Freeman also says that "Mead in her findings had said that there was nothing resembling rape behaviour, yet in the court sittings we were hearing rape after rape case" 8. In fact she says in chapter 7 of her book that:
"Ever since the first contact with white civilization, rape in the form of violent assault, has occurred occasionally in Samoa. It is far less congenial, however, to the Samoan attitude than moetotolo (sleep crawler), in which a man stealthily appropriates the favours of another". 1
The moetotolo is a man who crawls in the night into the bed of a woman who is expecting another to make love to her and does so in his place and without her realising. Mead implies that this is quite a well-known phenomenon in Samoa. It was brought to the attention of the New Zealand public in the late nineteen-seventies by the activities of the so called "Remuera Rapist" in Auckland, New Zealand, who followed this practice and was subsequently found to be a Samoan.
But what of the philosophical debate? Freeman argues that the twentieth century, despite major scientific advances, has been a century of old ideologies. He was born in 1916, one year before the Russian Revolution and has now outlived it. Freeman says:
According to Marxist doctrine it is "social existence" that determines "human consciousness", and by the Bolsheviks of Soviet Russia it was fervently believed that under communism, human nature would radically and permanently change. By the early 1930s, American observers who had visited Russia were claiming that this had already begun to happen. "Mental hygiene," it was said, was "inherent in the social organization."
We have now witnessed the collapse of communism and have heard Gorbachev admit to the world at large that the experience of history has allowed the Russian people to say "in a decisive fashion" that the Communist "model" had "failed", as it had to fail, I would suppose, because of, among other things, the false assumption on which it was based.
Another leading ideology of the twentieth century, in some ways not dissimilar to Marxism, is the doctrine that "all human behaviour is the result of social and cultural conditioning". This doctrine can be traced to pronouncements in the 1890s, by Emile Durkheim, a Frenchman, and Franz Boas, a German, both of whom were born in 1858.
Franz Boas, whose Ph.D was in Physics, became in 1899, after studies of the Eskimo of Baffin Land and the Indian of Vancouver Island, the first professor of anthropology at Columbia University in New York. A Neo-Kantian idealist, who had acquired from Rudolf Virchow a keen antipathy to evolution, Franz Boas, "the father of American anthropology", was an extreme environmentalist.
In 1917, two of Boas's students, Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie, without presenting any kind of empirical evidence, proclaimed that between cultural anthropology and biology there was an "abyss", and "eternal chasm" that could not be bridged. It was in an attempt to obtain evidence for this ideological stance that in 1925, Boas imposed on another of his students, the 23-year-old Margaret Mead, the task of studying heredity and environment in relation to adolescence among the Polynesians of Samoa.
In 1928, in her book Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead claimed that adolescent behaviour in humans 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 accordance with the views of Franz Boas, she wrote of the "phenomenon of social pressure and its absolute determination in shaping the individuals within its bounds". This was cultural determinism with a vengeance.
In 1930, Mead's extreme environmentalist conclusion was incorporated in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, and, for those who went through college in the USA in the 1930s, Coming of Age in Samoawas "not only required reading but a classic of universal truths". This was also the case in the University of New Zealand, and when I myself went to Samoa in 1940, it was with the objective of confirming Mead?s conclusion in the western islands of the Samoan archipelago. Indeed, so complete was my acceptance of Mead's claims that in my early inquiries, I dismissed or ignored all evidence that ran counter to her findings.
The aim of both Boas and Mead was to exclude biology and particularly evolutionary biology from the study of human behaviour. Although, as is now known, Mead's environmentalist conclusion in Coming of Age in Samoa was counterfeit and wholly misleading, it was enthusiastically accepted by Franz Boas. In 1934, when still Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, Boas proclaimed in the Encyclopaedia 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". It is this anti-evolutionary ideology that has dominated thinking in the social sciences for most of the twentieth century.
We now know that Mead and Boas were massively mistaken. Boas died in 1942. By that time Oswald Avery and his colleagues were already actively exploring the characteristics of DNA, which had been discovered as long ago as 1869. Since the determination of the chemical structure of DNA by Crick and Watson in 1953, an event ranked by John Maynard Smith as "the most important discovery in biology since Darwin", genetics and molecular biology have flourished in the most prodigious way. Never before have there been such fundamental advances in our understanding of the mechanisms of life. In a paper on The Human Genome published in 1995 by Mandel, it is estimated that there are "about 3,000 genetic diseases" known in humans, with many of them "affecting brain function" or behaviour in some way. This makes nonsense of Boas's conclusion of 1934.5
Freeman concludes that behaviour is never solely determined by either the nature or nurture but is always a mixture of both "interactionism". Nor could one attribute percentages to the mixture as the amount of each could vary with the individual, with time, and with the behaviour being considered.
Hilary Lapsley comments:
There is another misleading inaccuracy in the play. Mead was not wholly on the nurture side of the nature/nurture debate. She and her colleagues, Botts and Benedict, saw their work as combating simplistic evolutionary theories of racial differences. These pernicious ideas fostered racial disharmony in the United States and, taken to an extreme, were used as a justification by the Nazis for the Holocaust.
But Mead was vividly aware of people as embodied, a part of nature as well as culture. She was particularly fascinated by individual differences in temperament, which she thought were genetically based. 9
Freeman reports that it is now established that there is only 1.6% difference between human nuclear DNA and that of chimpanzees and that we diverged from these relatives only 3.6 to 4 million years ago. We have now reached a point of human understanding when, as Daniel Dennett points out "the fundamental core of contemporary Darwinism, the theory of DNA-based reproduction and evolution is beyond dispute among scientists."
Rapid advances are now being made in the understanding of the structure of the brain and the influence of genetics on behaviour. Freeman has compiled a list of over 150 books published since 1990 that he suggests people read in order to understand the present scientific understanding of the relationship between evolution, biology and behaviour rather than rely on outdated ideologies taught in Universities earlier this century.
Freeman points out that the human brain consists of three overlaid parts. The first is the limbic system, the basic reptilian brain that is still responsible for most of our emotional behaviour and differs little from that of reptiles, birds, and other mammals. The limbic system gives us the basic emotions that we share with other animals and that have a profound influence on our reason. Over this is the mammalian brain, shared with other mammals and finally the latest development, the frontal areas that give us our distinctive human qualities, the ability to choose between alternatives, and the ability to reason. It is unreasonable in his view to say that we do not share the instinctive behaviour of other animals and that we respond only to learnt behaviour. We all share the same basic instincts with other animals and human behaviour is basically the same, no matter which society we happen to be raised in.
What sets us apart from other animals, Freeman says, is the ability to choose, to distinguish and judge right from wrong, to make ethical decisions; an ability he believes, excludes the extreme environmental determinism Mead promulgated. This ability, once realised, can be learnt or developed and gives us a freedom that other animals do not enjoy. Nor does he support the other extreme of genetic determinism. He concludes:
We are, it is now utterly clear, the products of evolution. Or, to put it more dramatically, we are not fallen angels but risen apes. This key realization changes all of our long established assumptions about ourselves. In its light, human history, for the first time, becomes intelligible, and human behaviour understandable as never before. This radical transformation in human understanding, which has come to a peak in the mid 1990's I shall call "the new evolutionary enlightenment". I confidently predict that, because it is based on fully tested scientific knowledge, it will far outshine the enlightenment of the 18th century. 5
The final chapter of Freeman's book is titled "Towards a More Scientific Anthropological Paradigm" and ends with the following words:
The time is now conspicuously due, both in anthropology and biology, for a synthesis in which there will be, in the study of human behaviour, recognition of the radical importance of both the genetic and the exogenetic and their interaction, both in the past history of the human species and in our problematic future.2
Here I support Freeman. In my own attempt to achieve an understanding of the human brain and develop a model for artificial intelligence in the late 1960's and early 1970s, I combined my own observations of animal and human behaviour with an attempted synthesis of relevant human knowledge. I concluded that we share our basic instincts and emotions with other animals, that instincts and emotions are inextricably linked to our learning and reason and that the ability to reason and choose is a necessary function of the brain. For an artificial brain to function at the human level it would be necessary to build in, or programme in, a degree of choice or freedom, "free-will", within the deterministic framework, a freedom to act beyond its creator and immediate influences. It is wrong to assume that free will and determinism are necessarily mutually exclusive or that free will is just an illusion. 11
As part of my reading of anthropology I read Mead's books and accepted them as evidence of the variable or learnt component of human behaviour, not as evidence that learning is the sole or overriding determinant.
Speaking at Victoria University of Wellington in 1998, Freeman was questioned on the basis for his ethics and his implied suggestion that evolution could not give rise to or allow the society and free life style that Mead had depicted for Samoa. To some his view of life appeared rather narrow and intolerant and it seemed that he considered Mead's Samoa morally wrong. He was asked how he differentiated between right and wrong. He replied by saying that "the person who mugs an old lady, steals her purse and leaves her lying on the ground is evil and the person who helps her up and provides her with any necessary aid is good". This did not help in understanding the question of sexual freedom. To further probing he replied that he supported the "noble eightfold path" of Buddhism (see box). Unfortunately, this rather begs the question for while the eightfold path tells us to differentiate between right and wrong it does not tell us what is right and what is wrong.
Prince Siddh㱴ha Gautama, known as the Buddha, led a sheltered life until he discovered the amount of suffering in the world. After a great deal of thought, he realised that much of human suffering could be alleviated with the right state of mind.
The result of his meditations are enshrined in the "four noble truths" which are:
(1) that existence is unhappiness;
(2) that unhappiness is caused by selfish desire or craving;
(3) that desire can be destroyed;
(4) that it can be destroyed by following the "noble eightfold path" whose steps are:
(1) right views; (2) right desires; (3) right speech, plain and truthful; (4) right conduct, including abstinence not only from immorality but also from taking life, whether human or animal; (5) right livelihood, harming no one; (6) right effort, always pressing on; (7) right awareness of the past the present and the future; and lastly, (8) right contemplation or meditation.
Humanists might question the "four noble truths" for not all "existence is unhappiness" and "selfish desire and craving" is not the only cause of unhappiness but remain sympathetic to the noble eightfold path.
Perhaps science will continue to unravel some of the answers. We are beginning to appreciate how the survival of "selfish genes" can sometimes give rise to cooperative behaviour and to such emotions as envy. Some scientists now do not hesitate to propose centres of willpower on their diagrams of the brain. The question we may need to face is: Is evolutionary determined morality sufficient or should we continue to develop our ethics beyond evolution to further the advantage to sentient life? r
Iain Middleton is Editor of New Zealand Humanist.
References and further reading: