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Boas Poses an Intractable Problem

By about 1920 the Boasian paradigm had taken definite shape, and a defiantly independent new school of American anthropologists, dominated, as Sapir observed, „by the sympathetic yet acidly critical spirit of Prof. F. Boas,“ had come into being. By this time Boas' students held positions in most of the major American universities, and (in Regna Darnell's words) „in spite of internal disagreements and personal enmities, these individuals considered themselves a group and cooperated to promote their version of anthropology—which in its broad outlines was shared by all.“1

This version of anthropology had been specified in the notion of culture as sui generis and in the formula omnis cultura ex cultura; in his Primitive Society, which appeared in 1920, Lowie completed the break with the evolutionist tradition, which for the Boasians had become „a pseudo-science like medieval alchemy.“ In one of his three reviews of Primitive Society, Sapir, a close friend of Lowie's and himself a prominent Boasian, reported exuberantly that „the new school of American anthropologists“ was convinced that a culture was „an historical datum, a thing of time, of place, of contiguity, of that divine accident that results from the intertwining of thousands of antecedent factors that are themselves of time, of place, of contiguity,“ and further that „the psychological necessities of man“ were „capable of infinitely multiform solution.“ By the early 1920s, then, the Boasians had won their independence and were firmly in possession of a specific set of beliefs, yet the central element of their paradigm, the postulate that „the social stimulus is infinitely more potent than the biological mechanism,“ had been put to no empirical test, and the long-standing controversy between the Boasians and their hereditarian opponents was still wholly unresolved.2

The eugenics movement had continued to flourish. In 1919 H. L. Laughlin of the Eugenics Record Office announced that the newly organized science of eugenics had so advanced during the previous decade as to make its future secure. Preparations were being made for the 1921 International Congress of Eugenics in New York and the Galton centenary of 1922. In the United States in the early 1920s, eugenics was thus, as Lowie noted, very much in the air. The International Congress of 1921, which had been delayed since 1915 because of the war, would furnish, it was announced, an opportunity for the geneticists and eugenicists of the world to meet together at the American Museum of Natural History for „discussions of the results of their researches and their application to race improvement.“ Among the principal organizers of this congress were Davenport, Grant, and Osborn, who in 1918 had founded the Galton Society, and all of whom remained out-and-out hereditarians.

Further, with the appearance of Madison Grant's The Passing of the Great Race (1916), and later of Lothrop Stoddard's The Rising Tide of Color (1920), there had taken place, particularly in the United States, a recrudescence of the theory that mental traits are determined by race, which Boas traced back to the Count de Gobineau. When Grant's book first appeared Boas thought it be so dangerous that he took it upon himself to expose the „fallacies“ on which it was based in two separate reviews. Grant was in no way deterred. He continued to proclaim the marked superiority of the Nordic race and to ridicule those who bent the knee „in servile adulation to the great god, Demos.“ In this and similar statements Grant was jibing at, among others, the Boasians; he made unmistakable reference to Boas in his sardonic mention of the „anthropological expert“ who in giving evidence to the Congressional Immigration Commission had „gravely declared“ that he had observed alterations in the anatomy of immigrants to the United States „under the influence of a changed environment.“ For Grant any such belief in the influence of environment was „fatuous.“

H. F. Osborn took the same stance in his presidential address of September 1921 to the Second International Congress of Eugenics, declaring that he and his fellow eugenicists in the United States had woken to the consciousness that „education and environment do not fundamentally alter racial values.“ Davenport, in his address, persisted in his claims that mental states had a „hereditary basis.“4

Following the victory of the Allies in 1918 there was intense enthusiasm for the belief that „the constructive spirit of Francis Galton“ could „restore disordered and shattered society.“ George Adami, the vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, having told the 1921 Congress that „students of heredity are inevitably eugenists,“ went on to claim that the idea of aristocracy was both sound and natural, and to advocate the compilation of „an annual record of the A1 youths and maidens of the year—A, standing for the first class in physical fitness; 1, for the first class in intelligence.“ Such a record, said Adami, „would become the human stud book“ and result in „the establishment of a veritable aristocracy … personal and hereditary.“5

The Boasians, in their newfound independence, responded to these developments with redoubled vigor. Boas himself in 1920 dismissed as „vicious propaganda“ the views of both Grant and Stoddard, who, he said, were trying to „bolster up their unscientific theories by an amateurish appeal to misunderstood discoveries relating to heredity.“ That same year, dismayed at the prospect of the forthcoming International Congress of Eugenics, and arguing that the time had come to take a definite stand, Lowie declared that nothing in past, and especially recent, experience warranted the belief that „a council of learned men could be safely entrusted with the power of regulating once and for all the future of mankind“; rather, said Lowie, everything pointed to the need for those with liberal views to combat „not merely the half-knowledge of disinterested or at least subconscious bias but the deliberate malevolence of the reactionary cloaking his self-interest with high-flown scientific verbiage.“ Further dissension occurred with the appearance in 1921 of the fourth revised edition of The Passing of the Great Race, in which Grant once more extolled the superiority of the Nordic race and wrote derisively of „the dogma of the brotherhood of man“ that had been derived from „the loose thinkers of the French Revolution and their American mimics.“ In a tirade of disapprobation Lowie castigated those who had become „monomaniacs“ in their idolatry of the Nordic, and likened Grant to an enfant terrible, thrusting out his tongue at humanitarian idealism and slinging mud at the standard of liberalism.6

The Boasians and the hereditarians were now more sharply at odds than ever before. In The Rising Tide of Color, for which Grant had written the introduction, Stoddard had repeated the hereditarian doctrine that civilization was the result of „the creative urge of a superior germ plasm.“ This belief, like those of Galton, Davenport, and others in earlier years, remained totally antithetical to the views of the Boasian school of anthropology. Lowie made this clear in July 1920, in discussing Galton's ignoring of „the influence of the social environment,“ when he reiterated Boas' observation that „cultural differences supply no measure of racial differences“ and emphatically declared that „momentous cultural differences may arise without any fundamental change of organic constitution/'4

In 1911 Boas had been virtually alone in his opposition to the biological determinism of Galton and Davenport, but a decade later the situation had significantly changed. By 1921 a school of cultural anthropologists recognizing Boas as their intellectual leader had been formed, and within the allied discipline of psychology a major new movement called behaviorism had joined in the combating of hereditarian ideas. Behaviorism had emerged in the United States at about the same time as the Boasian paradigm. Its founding manifesto was the article „Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It“ of 1913, by J. B. Watson Watson's book Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology, published in 1914, which elaborated this manifesto was (in the words of one reviewer) „virtually a declaration of independence,“ and it soon prompted the emergence of a new school of psychologists. The basic doctrine of behaviorism was the limiting of the purview of psychology to overt behavior. This led to rejection of theories of genetic determinism and gave rise, in about 1920, to the „anti-instinct movement,“ in which a number of behaviorally oriented social psychologists became actively involved.8

From about 1920 onward, following the publication in 1919 of Watson's Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist, behaviorism rapidly gained in popularity. Astutely fostered by Watson himself, this high popularity continued throughout the 1920s. Watson wrote numerous popular articles, from 1922 onward, extolling behaviorism, and in 1924 he gave lectures in which, in Robert Wood worth's words, he „came out almost savagely against the notion of human instincts.“ This was the culmination of the movement against instinct theory which had begun in about 1920. In that year, while grudgingly admitting the existence of some human instincts, J. R. Kantor had emphasized their „extreme modifiability.“ A few years later, however, after Z. Y. Kuo had reduced human behavior to „reaction systems,“ Kantor entirely abandoned the concept of instinct, roundly asserting in his Principles of Psychology of 1924 that „in no sense may we say that human behavior reactions are inherited.“ It was this same extreme position that Watson adopted in his lectures of 1924.9

In these stances, in which heredity was totally excluded, Watson and Kantor were reacting against what Kuo in 1924 called „the tyrannic domination of biology in psychology.“ An-

Boas Poses an Intractable Problem

other outright rejection of this domination was made by L L Bernard, again in 1924, in his Instinct: A Study in Social Psychology. „A child who has reached a rational age,“ Bernard de clared (directly contradicting Karl Pearson), „is reacting in nine-tenths or ninety-nine hundredths of his character directly to environment, and only in the slight residual fraction of his nature directly to instinct.“ Again, the environmentalists had in 1922, been given the influential support of the philosopher John Dewey, who in his Human Nature and Conduct characterized human nature as a „formless void of impulses“ and argued that „any impulse may become organized into almost any disposition according to the way in which it interacts with surroundings.“10

With this rejection by behaviorists, social psychologists, sociologists, and philosophers, as well as by cultural anthropologists, of the Galtonian doctrine of the vastly preponderating effects of nature over nurture, the nature-nurture controversy became more intense than ever before. By 1924 there was in the United States no more controversial subject of intellectual inquiry than the relative importance of biological and cultural factors in human behavior. The pressing problem, as the zoologist H. M. Parshley posed it in 1924, was „How much does what a man is, depend on his inborn qualities, and how much upon the habits born of his education and environment.“ Over this crucial issue, which went back to Galton's paper of 1865, the hereditarians and environmentalists, after years of bitter disputation, were still, as Parshley noted, in irreconcilable conflict.11

In 1924 then, (Boas, as the intellectual leader of American cultural anthropology, found himself faced yet again by an issue that had plagued him throughout his career: the „fundamental importance“ (as he had put it in 1916) of knowing „what is hereditary and what is not.“ „The fundamental difficulty that besets us,“ he declared in October 1924, „is that of differentiating between what is inherent in bodily structure, and what is acquired by the cultural medium in which each individual is set, or, to express it in biological terms, what is determined by heredity and what by environmental causes, or what is endogene and what is exogene.“ There was, he continued, „a fundamental


need for a scientific and detailed investigation of hereditary and environmental conditions.“ Within a few months he had planned just such an investigation, and had found in the twenty-three-year-old Margaret Mead the very person to carry it out.12

Margaret Mead, at this time, was one of Boas' graduate students, having formally commenced her Ph.D. course in anthropology at Columbia University a short time previously. She had first become interested in anthropology as an undergraduate at Barnard College, when, having entered her senior year committed to psychology, she elected to take Boas' introductory course in general anthropology. Boas at this time was, at the age of sixty-four, an internationally acclaimed scholar and the unchallenged patriarch of American anthropology. He enjoyed his teaching at Barnard, where, according to Kroeber, his young female students, sensing „the genius which underlay his unpalatable presentations,“ afforded him special rapport. To the twenty-one-year-old Margaret Mead, Boas was the greatest mind she had encountered, with an authority greater than she had ever met in a teacher. She soon decided to attend everything Boas taught. Combined with Boas' extraordinary influence was that of his talented teaching assistant, Ruth Benedict, who not long before had completed her own graduate studies with Boas. As Mead has recorded, it was the intensity of Benedict's interest combined with „the magnificent clarity of Boas' teaching“ that, in the autumn of 1922, caused her to experience anthropology as „something of a revelation.“13

Ruth Benedict had begun her study of anthropology at the New School for Social Research in New York in 1919, at a time when the doctrine omnis cultura ex cultura, which Kroeber and Lowie had advanced two years earlier, was being very actively promoted. Alexander Goldenweiser, one of her teachers at the New School, had taken his Ph.D. under Boas in 1910, and, despite some minor differences of opinion, was in „unequivocal agreement“ with Kroeber's critique of biological determinism and with his conclusion that culture was „a closed system.“ Benedict had also taken a course with Lowie. Her Ph.D. dissertation, written under Boas' supervision, placed great emphasis on „social patterning“; so much so that Sapir, on reading it, inquired of her whether she had adopted the „extreme view“ in which culture was „merely environment for the individual psyche.“14

The strength of Benedict's commitment to cultural determinism at the outset of her career can be gauged from her writings of the early 1920s. Kroeber's Anthropology of 1923 she welcomed as the first book to make available the point of view of modern American anthropology. „The fundamental question,“ she wrote, „as Mr. Kroeber conceives it, to which the labors of anthropology are directed, is how far the forces at work in civilization are cultural, and how far organic or due to heredity; what is due to nurture, in the rhyming phrase, and what to nature.“ For Benedict, whose ideas had been shaped by the newly formed Boasian paradigm, the answer to Kroeber's „fundamental question“ was plain. Man, she believed, was, above all else, a being whose responses had been „conditioned from birth by the character of the culture into which he was born.“ From this it followed that for the anthropologist it was „first of all necessary to be able to recognize those elements that are received from tradition, those which are ours because we have been brought up in a particular group.“ Human behavior, she was convinced, was to be understood through the study of „cultural patterns.“ It was the explication of these „causes of another order,“ she believed with Kroeber and the other Boasians, that would give anthropology its „place in the sun.“10

During her first semester in anthropology, Mead reports, she became increasingly fascinated by Benedict. She was invited to attend a graduate seminar at which Benedict discussed John Dewey's newly published Human Nature and Conduct, and she was presented with the offprint of a paper containing the basic conceptions of Benedict's approach to anthropology, about which they had numerous impassioned discussions. It was this clear-cut approach, an extreme form of cultural determinism, into which Mead was inducted and that she soon came enthusiastically to share. Within a few months the eager young student and the shy teaching assistant with the consuming interest in cultural Datterns had entered into an intimate friendship and a

zealous intellectual collaboration that was to have momentous consequences for the development of cultural anthropology.16 It also happened that the approach to anthropology that Mead learned from Benedict and Boas was virtually identical with those imparted to her by another of her teachers at Barnard, William Fielding Ogburn, from whom in her senior year she took a course on psychological aspects of culture. Ogburn's book Social Change with Respect to Culture and Original Nature, which had appeared in 1922, was a major contribution to the nature-nurture debate. Ogburn had been profoundly influenced by the doctrines advanced by Kroeber and Lowie in 1 1917, and his Social Change was very largely a further development of these ideas. According to Ogburn, the social heritage and the hereditary nature of man were two distinct and separate things, the one organic and the other superorganic. From this conviction Ogburn derived a principle basic to his teaching: „good methodology,“ he stipulated, required the „consideration of the cultural factor“ before any recourse was had to „biological causes.“ And so, from the inception of her anthropological studies, Mead, as she herself has noted, became convinced by Ogburn's procedural rule, as was her mentor Benedict, that „we should never look for psychological explanations of social phenomena until attempts at explanation in cultural terms had been exhausted.“ The procedure she was to follow in her as yet unplanned Samoan researches had already been set.17 /

Early in March 1923, Ruth Benedict began to talk with Margaret Mead about the possibility of Mead's becoming an anthropologist rather than a psychologist, as she at that time intended. Lonely and uncertain about her own future, Benedict (as she noted in her diary on 13 March 1923) felt the need for a „companion in harness,“ and had begun to hope that the gifted young student whose company she found so congenial would be moved to take up anthropology. Mead, by this time, needed little persuasion: listening to Boas' lectures she had been enthralled by the prospect of the comparative study of human culture leading to „a better knowledge of what man is“; all that was required was Benedict's assurance that in anthropology work that really mattered was waiting to be done.

On 20 March Mead told Boas of her wish to enroll for a Ph.D. in anthropol ogy. At first he „poured cold water“ on the idea. She held firm to her choice, however, and after taking a B.A. degree at Bar nard, acceptmg an assistantship to Ogburn, and marrying Luther Cressman, a theology student to whom she had been engaged since she was seventeen, she turned in the autumn of 1923 to graduate work in anthropology. Boas at this time was still concentrating, m the training of his graduate students on the comparative study of cultural traits. The topic allotted to Mead was the investigation, in the ethnographic literature of canoe-building, house-building, and tattooing in the Polynesian culture area. By August 1924 her reading was sufficiently advanced for her to present a paper on „Rank in Polynesia“ to the anthropology section of the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Toronto. Her study of rank among the Samoans, the Hawaiians, and the Maori of New Zealand, she reported, had revealed „in each of these cultures … a'different cultural emphasis.“ But the most instructive of her experiences at this international meeting of anthropologists was the discovery that everyone who was anybody had a „people“ of his own to whom he referred his discussions. She returned to Columbia resolved to achieve this for herself as soon as possible after the completion of her dissertation. Before long she had formed the plan of following her library researches on cultural stability in Polynesia at large by a field study of cultural change in the remote and romantic Tuamotu Islands of Eastern Polynesia.18

At this juncture, after having emphasized in the American Mercury of October 1924 the fundamental need for „a scientific and detailed investigation of hereditary and environmental conditions,“ Boas, with Margaret Mead in mind, devised quite another research project. As Mead has noted, Boas was „always tailoring a particular piece of research to the exigencies of theoretical priorities.“ Over the years, as we have seen, Boas had taken the lead in combating, with whatever evidence he could muster, the hereditarian theory of the vastly preponderating effects of nature over nurture, and toward the end of 1924 he conceived the idea of challenging this theory through a study of adolescence in a culture markedly different from those of Western Europe and the United States.

Boas was well conversant with G. Stanley Hall's massive study of adolescence of 1904. In the early 1920s there was widespread concern with „reckless and rebellious youths,“ linked with what H. L. Mencken called „wholesale discussion of the sex question.“ The project, as Mead has described it, was to be a special inquiry into „the relative strength of biological puberty and cultural pattern.“ In 1924, ten years before the publication of Karl Popper's Logik der Forschung, the notion of subjecting one's own theories to rigorous testing was unknown. Rather, one sought to prove them to the very hilt, and Boas was intent upon obtaining evidence in support of his own deeply held convictions. He had long believed the social stimulus to be infinitely more potent than the biological mechanism. If this could be convincingly demonstrated it would bear on issues that were, Boas felt, of the utmost significance. In Margaret Mead there was at hand a spirited young cultural determinist ideally suited to the project he had in mind.19

Boas' initial plan was for the study he had devised to be undertaken in an American Indian tribe. This, however, Mead adamantly resisted. Her heart was set on field research in some „remote and 'untouched' place in the South Seas.“ She would be prepared, she intimated, to abandon culture change and study instead the relative strength of biological puberty and cultural pattern, as long as this was in the Tuamotu Islands, or some comparably remote part of Polynesia. But to this scheme Boas, in turn, was opposed. Fieldwork in the Tuamotu archipelago would, he considered, be too risky. Indeed, according to Mead, Boas disapproved of her working anywhere in the „un-healthful tropics“ of Polynesia. Yet Boas, being „very definite about what he wanted done,“ was in a mood to compromise. The study, he agreed, could be in Polynesia if it were on an island „to which a ship came regularly—at least every three weeks.“ In this way, as Mead has recounted, Boas consented to her choice of Polynesia while she, in return, accepted Boas' special project for a comparative study of female adolescence. She would work, it was finally decided, in American Samoa, not because of any theoretical or personal preference, but because at that time Matson liners called at the deep water port of Pago Pago at about three-week intervals. To Mead herself, in later years, it seemed „crazy“ that she should, in this way, have „got a culture“ that, as she depicted it, so completely confirmed Boasian doctrine.20

At the end of April 1925, soon after Mead had completed the draft of her doctoral thesis on cultural stability in Polynesia, word came of the award of a fellowship from the National Research Council. The way was now clear. She would be going to Samoa, after two years of graduate study in anthropology, to do research among Samoan girls on Boas' special problem. She spent the next couple of months „frantically assembling… field equipment—spare glasses, cotton dresses, a camera, pencils and notebooks“; then in mid 1925 Mead set off for the South Seas.21

On the morning of 31 August 1925, „remembering Stevenson's rhapsodies,“ Mead was up early for her Matson liner's arrival in the romantically remote islands of Samoa. The „whole picture,“ alack, was badly skewed by the presence of numerous battleships of the American Pacific fleet, with airplanes screaming overhead, and a naval band playing ragtime. She was given a room in a ramshackle hotel by the edge of Pago Pago harbor, which Somerset Maugham had described a few years previously in his wry tale of the downfall of a prudish missionary. Margaret Mead's Samoan researches, which were to have such a profound influence on twentieth-century anthropology, were about to begin.22

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