Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth.
by Derek Freeman.
Harvard. 379 pp. $20.00.
Derek Freeman’s refutation of one of the heroes of American academia has incited responses from many angry social scientists. The ensuing controversy has raised questions not just about the stature of Margaret Mead but about the mission of anthropology and the present-day implications of the debate over “nature versus nurture,” or biology versus culture, that dominated anthropology during the first half of this century.
Freeman, professor of anthropology emeritus at the Australian National University, begins by telling the story of a bright young Margaret Mead who traveled to primitive Samoa in 1925 to discern whether Samoans were significantly similar or dissimilar in disposition to Western, “civilized” peoples. A student of Franz Boas, professor at Columbia University and leader of the school of cultural determinism, Miss Mead was in fact searching for proof of so great a variety in human life as to make untenable the notion of a universal human nature. She was looking, writes Freeman, for a single “negative instance”—for
in anthropology you only have to show once that it is possible for a culture to make, say, a period of life easy, where it is hard everywhere else, to have made your point.
Miss Mead’s specific goal was to expose a negative instance in adolescent life. “If a society could be found in which the growing boys and girls missed out on all this storm and stress, then the anthropologist would know . . . that this storm was not inevitable,” she announced. The twenty-three-year-old researcher found what she sought. She also found what humans have always sought: paradise. In Samoa, she discovered, competition was restrained and jealousy was rare. A boy “must never excel his fellows by more than a little . . . his elders . . . are far readier to encourage and excuse the laggard than to condone precocity.” Where modern, industrialized nations experienced class struggle, ennui, and anomie, a young Samoan’s concern was centered upon his close relations with fellow villagers within a cherished social pattern.
Among adolescents, Margaret Mead found, sexual relations were breezy and casual. A girl’s favors were “distributed among so many youths, all adept in amorous techniques, that she seldom becomes deeply involved.” Where Western teenagers faced stress, anxiety, and acne, young Samoans communed with and enjoyed each other’s bodies. Where Western youngsters had to submit to a nightly curfew, in Samoa the nights belonged to the young for dancing, courting, and love-making.
This was the paradise Margaret Mead revealed to the world in Coming of Age in Samoa (1928). The argument she based on her findings—that cultural and environmental factors can change our “natures” in the most fundamental ways—was adopted by generations of social thinkers and policy-makers who interpreted the Samoan experience as a message to our own society about how best to raise children and to govern.
After depicting Margaret Mead’s Samoa, Freeman, who spent time in Western Samoa as a graduate student in the 1940’s and again years later, proceeds to erase her negative instance from the anthropological ledger. The contrast between Mead’s and Freeman’s findings is startling, and nowhere more so than on the issue of the “truth” about Samoan sexual relations. Reports Freeman: “Female virginity . . . was very much the leitmotif of the sexual mores of the pagan Samoans . . . virtually every family cherished the virginity of its daughters.” Regarding civil disposition:
Far from possessing a social order that “is kind to all and does not make sufficient demands upon any,” as Mead would have it, [Samoa] has a culture in which it is traditional to have recourse to punishment, and frequently very severe punishment, in the interests of obedience and respect for authority.
As for Margaret Mead’s contention that Samoans did not bear grudges, Freeman charges that, to the contrary, the conservative Samoan system is “fraught with intense and long-standing rivalries.”
In two hundred pages Freeman grabs, tears, and shreds Margaret Mead’s research to pieces. To be sure, he is not the first to dispute her findings. Many Samoans, in fact, have called Miss Mead a liar. Freeman brands this “an interpretation that I have no hesitation in dismissing.” Instead, he terms her ill-prepared, her research casual. For example, she apparently had not read previous reports on Samoa, although “the institutions and traditions . . . had . . . been very extensively documented long before Mead first set foot on Ta’u in 1925.” Moreover, she spent only nine months, did not live with a Samoan family, and did not speak the native language. Since she was working with what she termed “primitive groups,” she assumed their ways of life “were simple enough to be grasped quickly.” Her conclusions about Samoan sex were based largely on conversations with a small sample of girls. Freeman, who speaks the language fluently, surmises that the girls may have teased Miss Mead with stories of easy and expert intercourse.
Freeman’s critique of Margaret Mead’s methods is solid, and one is tempted to regard it as closing the case for cultural determinism. But his own techniques are not quite exemplary, either. Rather than focusing solely on the particular group of Samoans (on the island of Ta’u) who provided Mead’s negative instance, Freeman assumes that all Samoan tribes are alike (“In what follows. . . I shall make use of pertinent evidence from any of the Samoan islands—from Ta’u in the east to Savai’i in the West”) and then he compounds the error by ignoring time differences in gathering data (he finds “no reason to suppose that Samoan society and behavior changed in any fundamental way during the fourteen years between 1926, the year of the completion of Mead’s inquiries, and 1940, when I began my own observations of Samoan behavior. . . . I shall draw on the evidence of my own research in the 1940’s, the years 1965 to 1968, and 1981”). As several critics have pointed out, British Western Samoa, where Freeman went as a student, is two hundred miles away from Ta’u, and there are significant historical and political differences between them.
Still, even if one eliminates all of the data adduced from other Samoan islands, Freeman does provide enough testimony to argue convincingly the case against pure cultural determinism: coming of age in Samoa is not that different from coming of age in, say, San Francisco. The idea of a universal human nature is rescued from Margaret Mead’s “negative instance.”
What may seem astonishing is the degree of consternation this has aroused on the American academic scene. But the reason is not obscure. As a reviewer in the Chronicle of Higher Education put it:
Some scholars are concerned that the book’s stress on the need to consider the influence of biology on behavior could be used to feed social conservatism and racial backlash in the United States.
Cultural determinism urges that man is, in the words of Margaret Mead’s friend Ruth Benedict, “unbelievably plastic.” To understand humans, one must dissect their environs, the external forces which shape varied characters. If the environs differ, then the character of humans must differ. As we have seen, when Margaret Mead undertook her mission to Samoa, she was looking for a different environment from that of the West—and a different kind of human. In doing so, however, she was also engaging in battle against the truly racist paradigm, put forth by the eugenics movement seventy-five years before, which proclaimed that Darwin’s law of natural selection applied not only to physical qualities but also to the moral and mental characteristics of humans everywhere.
Francis Galton, leader of the eugenics crusade, thought that all differences between savages and sophisticates could be explained by race. One of his books featured a chapter entitled “The Comparative Worth of Different Races.” Nor was Galton a lone eccentric. Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race glorified the Nordic race which was in America “again showing itself to be that upon which the state must chiefly depend for leadership, for courage, for self-sacrifice and devotion to an ideal.” When Grant wrote his opus in 1916, he had already heard about cultural determinism and its contrary tenets:
There exists today a . . . fatuous belief in the powers of environment, as well as of education and opportunity to alter heredity, which arises from the dogma of the brotherhood of man. . . . Thus the view that the Negro slave was an unfortunate cousin of the white man, deeply tanned by the tropic sun and denied the blessings of Christianity and civilization. . . . It has taken us fifty years to learn that speaking English, wearing good clothes, and going to school and to church do not transform a Negro. . . . Nor was a Syrian or Egyptian freedman transformed into a Roman by wearing a toga and applauding his favorite gladiator. . . . Americans will have similar experience with the Polish Jew, whose . . . peculiar mentality . . . is being engrafted upon the stock of the nation.
Most frightening about Grant were his credentials. He was chairman of the New York Zoological Society, trustee of the American Museum of Natural History, and councilor of the American Geographical Society.
It was against this racist paradigm that the efforts of Franz Boas and his fellow cultural determinists were in the first place, and successfully, directed. Thus Margaret Mead’s work in particular has long been regarded as a persuasive rebuttal of racist theory. Ironically, however, it is not; in fact it could be used to buttress the Galtonian scheme. The racists rested their case on the proposition that all men were not created equal, that races were innately, irreparably disparate. By “proving” that Samoans were fundamentally discrepant in their psychological and ethical makeup, Margaret Mead could be viewed as (of course inadvertently) reinforcing the racist proposition. Only by finding Samoans strikingly similar to Westerners could she have logically foiled the racists.
For this reason, Freeman’s work, if correct in its refutation of Miss Mead, is not at all supportive of a racist doctrine. The fear with which some reviewers have approached Margaret Mead and Samoa is unfounded. Furthermore, the fear among academics to admit the validity of some degree of biological determinism is pernicious. The inevitable trend in anthropology is toward a synthesis of biologic and cultural determinism, and this is as it should be. As Mark Twain said, “There’s a little human nature in all of us.”