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2 Boas and the Distinction between Culture and Heredity

Of the potency of the sway that Franz Boas exercised over American cultural anthropology during its formative years, his leading students have provided eloquent testimony. To Alfred Kroeber, Boas was a Promethean genius of massive and acute intelligence who became the „facile princeps of his profession, irrespective of generation,“ and who, in both theory and method, was of „transcendent importance.“ In Robert Lowie's estimation Boas was the founder of the American anthropological school and perfected the methodology of every division of the vast subject of anthropology. For Lowie he became the great exemplar of the anthropological science of his time, who, „driven by a sacred thirst to ever new Pierian springs,“ gained ever deeper insights into the nature of man. And in Alexander Goldenweiser's opinion Boas had come from nineteenth-cen-

tury Germany, like some theomorphic culture-hero, to bestow clarification and scientific fiber upon American anthropology. 1

This clarification was most clearly envinced in The Mind of Primitive Man, the most influential of all Boas' books, which, as the title of its German edition, Kultur und Rasse, indicates was concerned above all else with the relationship between culture and biology. It was on the nature of this relationship that Boas whole anthropological career turned. In December 1900, in his presidential address to the American Folk-Lore Society he emphasized the need to clearly distinguish between the influences of culture and race. A decade later in The Mind of Primitive Man he laid the foundation of the then emerging paradigm of American cultural anthropology by affirming—in direct contradiction to Galtonian doctrine—„the independence of cultural achievement from race.“ Boas had come to this conclusion from an intellectual background very different from that of Francis Galton.2

Following the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, natural selection, as we have seen, was directly applied by Galton and others to the entire range of human character and history. In September 1882, a few months after Darwin's death, Ernst Haeckel, pointing to „the irrefragable fact of the unexampled success of Darwin's reform of science,“ declared that never before in the history of human thought had any new theory penetrated so deeply to the foundation of the whole domain of knowledge, or so deeply affected the most cherished personal convictions of individual students. In Haeckel's opinion, Darwin's work (together with that of Lamarck) had made possible a „monistic explanation of the whole“ in which „every phenomenon appears as but efflux of one and the same all comprehensive law of nature.“ Moreover, Haeckel, like other evolutionists, unhesitatingly applied this law of nature to the whole of human history, arguing that the theory of evolution, together with the monistic philosophy based on it, formed the „best criterion for the degree of man's mental development.“ In a similar vein, Pitt-Rivers maintained in 1875 that, the principles of variation and natural selection having established an unbreakable bond


between „the physical and cultural sciences,“ history was but „another name for evolution.“3

This naturalistic theory prompted, in Boas' words, „the idea of a general, uniform evolution of culture in which all parts of mankind participated.“ The most prominent of those who embraced this notion was E. B. Tylor. In his Primitive Culture, published in 1871, Tylor adopted the view that the history of mankind was part and parcel of the history of nature and that „our thoughts, will and actions“ accorded with „laws as definite as those which govern the motion of waves, the combination of acids and bases, and the growth of plants and animals.“ The phenomena of culture, so Tylor believed, were subordinate to the laws of evolution, and it was the operation of these natural laws, beyond the reach of human agency, that determined the course of culture and produced a „movement along a measured line from grade to grade of actual savagery, barbarism and civilization.“ Evolutionism and monistic theory thus dealt with the age-old question of the relationship between culture and nature by pronouncing that culture was an entirely natural process, like the growth of plants and animals, and not to be differentiated from other natural phenomena. It was against this facile application of the principles of biological evolution to the highly complex phenomena of cultural history by Galton, Tylor, and others that Boas was opposed from the outset of his anthropological career.4

While Francis Galton was a right-minded member of the secure and wealthy upper middle class of Victorian England, and interested in the cultivation, by selective breeding, of „natural nobility/' Franz Boas grew up in a home in which, as he put it, „the ideals of the revolution of 1848 were a living force.“ One of Boas' uncles, Abraham Jacobi, a physician, was imprisoned for his participation in the 1848 revolution, before escaping to the United States. To Abraham Jacobi and many others, the uprisings of 1848 symbolized (in Wittke's words) „a triumph of the rationalism of the Enlightenment and a realization of the dreams of poets and intellectuals who championed a cosmopolitan humanitarianism, based on natural law and the inalienable rights of man which transcended all national and racial boundaries.“5

These revolutionary ideals the young Boas took to heart. Convinced that „all that man can do for humanity is to further the truth,“ he yearned to „live and die“ for „equal rights for all, for equal possibilities to learn and work for poor and rich alike.“ These values had also been shaped by his study of the thought of such leaders of the German Enlightenment as J. G. Herder, who believed that we live in a world that we ourselves create, and Schiller, who wrote of how strong custom rends us from each other. Another major formative influence was Kant, in whose ideas Boas became keenly interested at the University of Kiel when he attended the lectures of Benno Erdmann, a leading student of Kantian philosophy. During Boas' Arctic explorations in 1883, when the temperature outside his igloo was below —40 ° C. and he was suffering acutely from hunger, his solace during the long evenings was a copy of Kant.6

Nature, as conceived of by Kant, is „the existence of things in so far as that existence is determined by universal laws.“ Man, as a creature of nature, is entirely subject to these laws. But given the historical fact of civilizations with ethical systems, man, Kant postulated, is also a being with the capacity to make choices, in whose life reason and values have a determin-ing influence. Because of this, human beings are able to a significant extent to construct their own characters and those of their societies—and this prepotency differentiates humans from the rest of animate (and inanimate) nature. So it was that Kant advanced as the watchword of the Enlightenment the inspiring exhortation Sapere aude!—“Dare to be wise!„7

When Boas began the study of philosophy under Erdmann in the early 1880s, the neo-Kantian movement was in a flourishing state. The most notable of its illuminati was Wilhelm Dilthey. Dilthey had declared himself Kant's disciple, and much of his life was devoted to an attempt to liberate the human or moral sciences from the domination of the natural sciences by demonstrating that human studies „cannot be a continuation of the hierarchy of the natural sciences, because they rest upon a different foundation.“ Again, Dilthey was responsible for the philosophical analysis and subsequent popularity of the concept of Weltanschauung, and made a prime distinction between naturalism, which takes a mechanistic view of the world, and what he termed the idealism of freedom, which was based on Kant's postulate of man as „a being in whose life reason can have a determining influence.“8

Although Boas' university course was predominantly in the natural sciences, and especially in physics (his doctoral dissertation was an analysis, using photometric methods, of the color of sea water), his philosophical studies and his involvement with neo-Kantian thought were crucially significant. By April 1882, as he reported in a letter to his uncle Abraham Jacobi, he had decided that the „materialistic Weltanschauung99 that he had held as a physicist was no longer tenable. The shift that the twenty-three-year-old Boas made was toward a world view that had much in common with Dilthey's idealism of freedom. His previous interests, Boas later recounted, had, through his reading of the writings of philosophers, become „overshadowed by a desire to understand the relation between the objective and the subjective world.“ In 1882 this desire prompted Boas to propose, as his life's task, investigation of the question: „How far may we consider the phenomena of organic life, and especially those of the psychic life, from a mechanistic point of view, and what conclusion can be drawn from such a consideration?“9

From about this same time, Boas became greatly interested in the relation between traditional and individual action. As a youth he had been shocked when one of his fellow students had „declared his belief in the authority of tradition and his conviction that one had not the right to doubt what the past had transmitted to us.“ Such implicit belief in the authority of tradition was foreign to Boas' mind. In 1888, in discussing the aims of ethnology, he emphasized how important it is „to observe the fight of individuals against tribal customs“ and to see „how far the strong individual is able to free himself from the fetters of convention.“ Like William Blake, Boas was keenly aware of man's „mind forg'd manacles.“ In his anthropological credo (published when he was eighty) he recorded that he had been stimulated to action in his own life by cultural conditions that ran counter to his ideals, and confessed that his whole outlook upon social life had been „determined by the question: How can we recognize the shackles that tradition has laid upon us?“ He added that once these shackles had been recognized, we were able to break them.10

When, after the radical reorientation of his scientific interests in 1882, the opportunity to pursue psychological investigations did not present itself in Germany, Boas decided to make a journey to the Arctic for the purpose of adding to knowledge of unknown regions, and of developing his understanding of the reaction of the human mind to the natural environment. From August 1883 to August 1884, in addition to surveying hundreds of miles of unexplored coastline in the Cumberland Sound region of Baffin Island, he lived among the Eskimo „as one of them.“ Having learned their language, he was able (as he reported in 1884) to understand the old songs and tales that had been handed down from their ancestors, and he quickly realized the prime importance for his study of the Eskimo of their „habits and traditions.“ In his field notebook for December 1883, for example, he dwelt with great sympathy on both the „beautiful“ customs and the „superstitions“ of the Eskimo with whom he was living, and after noting that among these Eskimo, as among the rest of mankind, the fear of traditions and old customs was deeply implanted, he added the revealing comment that it was „a difficult struggle for every individual and every people to give up tradition and follow the path of truth.“11

In his discussion of tradition, as in his account of implements, houses, clothing, laws, religious ideas, and the like in his monograph The Central Eskimo, Boas is clearly dealing with „that complex whole … acquired by man as a member of society,“ to which Tylor had given the name culture. Tylor and other evolutionists, as we have seen, looked on culture as re-(suiting from the operation of immutable laws beyond the reach of human agency. In contrast, Boas, whose mind was informed by the German Enlightenment, and who himself had recently undergone a major reorientation in his thinking, perceived from the beginning of his anthropological studies that tradition was something that an individual or a people could „give up.“ In other words, cultures, in contradistinction to those natural phenomena which have evolved entirely independently of human agency, are, in fact, man-made, or exogenetic, and so susceptible to modification by human action.12

Prior to his departure for the Arctic, Boas had made contact with Rudolf Virchow, the undisputed leader of German anthropology, and with Adolf Bastian, Virchow's close collaborator. On his return to Germany in 1885, Boas became an assistant to Bastian in the Royal Ethnographical Museum in Berlin, and renewed his association with Virchow. Virchow had gained his formidable scientific reputation in the field of cellular pathology, in particular from having established, in the mid 1850s, the fundamentally important biological generalization that all cells necessarily derive from preexisting cells. At first Virchow had been inclined to accept Darwin's theory of natural selection, but, with the extension of evolutionary principles to the human species, particularly by his former student Ernst Haeckel, who became the outspoken leader of the evolutionary movement in Germany, his attitude changed. At Munich in 1877 (the year in which Boas began his university studies) Virchow launched a caustic attack on Haeckel in particular and on evolutionary theory in general.

Virchow began his denunciation of the theory of evolution by issuing a grave warning that if carried through to its extremely dangerous consequences by the socialists it might bring to Germany all those horrors which „similar theories had brought to France“—a reference to the murderous excesses of the Paris Commune of 1871. He expressed his strong disagreement with Haeckel's evolutionary monism, asserted that fossils of „lower human development“ were „entirely wanting,“ and contested vigorously, on the basis of his own inquiries in the domain of prehistoric anthropology, the evolutionists' conclusion that man was phylogenetically allied to the rest of the animal world. Virchow's opinions carried great weight. He was widely extolled as a public-spirited hero who had turned the dangerous tide of Darwinism, and Bastian jubilantly recorded in the Zeitschrift für Ethnologie that Virchow had freed science from a nightmare by banishing „the incubus called Descent.“ From the late 1870s onward, then, a principal sector of German anthropology was inveterately opposed to Darwinian theory, and in Berlin in particular there was, as Haeckel noted, a sovereign disdain“ for evolutionary thinking

For Boas, Virchow was one of the great leaders of science for whom he had a profound admiration. In Kroeber's judgment Virchow probably influenced Boas more than any other scientist Boas called Virchow a cautious master, with a „cold enthusiasm for truth,“ who had been right in rejectmg the far-reaching conclusions of Haeckel and other evolutionists. It is evident that much of the disdain that Virchow had for evolutionary thought was communicated to Boas, for, as Boas' student Paul Radin has noted, Boas „always took a prevailingly antagonistic position“ to the theory of evolution. This antagonism was undoubtedly Boas' great shortcoming as an anthropologist, for while it spurred him to oppose the unwarranted application of biological principles to cultural phenomena, it also caused him to underestimate the importance of biology in human life, and to impede the emergence of a scientifically adequate anthropological paradigm based on recognition of the pervasive interaction of biological and cultural processes.14

Another major influence on Boas was the thought of Theo-dor Waitz, author of the many-volumed Anthropologie der Na-turvolker and a celebrated professor at the University of Marburg from 1848 until his death at the age of forty-three in 1864. The first volume of Waitz's opus, entitled liber die Einheit des Menschengeschlechtes und den Naturzustand des Menschen [Concerning the Unity of Mankind and Man's Natural State], appeared in the same year as Darwin's Origin of Species, and the nature-nurture controversy of the early twentieth century largely stemmed from these two books. Whereas Galton and those who championed nature based their extreme views on their extension to man of Darwinian natural selection, it was to Waitz that Boas, the equally extreme vindicator of nurture, traced his view of culture. In 1934, for example, after the publication of Mead's findings from Samoa, Boas proclaimed genetic elements to be „altogether irrelevant“ as compared with „the powerful influence of the cultural environment,“ and he noted that this conclusion had been expressed by Waitz as early as 1859 and was „the basis of all serious studies of culture.“ In Boas' estimation Waitz was one of the „great minds“ who had „laid the foundation of modem anthropology.“13

The anthropological theories of Waitz sprang from his studies of human development and pedagogy, in which he was much influenced by the Kantian thinker J. F. Herbart, a philosopher and educationist who in 1809 was appointed to Kant's former chair at Konigsberg. Defining anthropology as the science of the nature of man, Waitz argued in 1859 that while cultures had become differentiated in the course of history, the whole of mankind nonetheless possessed a fundamental „psychic unity.“ All humans, he believed, had followed the same general course of psychic development, the particular state of any given group being determined by „the degree of cultivation“ it had reached in the course of its history. When Waitz was formulating these doctrines, Darwin's discovery of the process of natural selection was as yet unpublished, and in company with Herbert Spencer and other thinkers of the 1850s Waitz was an out-and-out La-marckian. Early in the first volume of Anthropologic der Na-turvolker (which, under the title Introduction to Anthropology, appeared in an English translation in 1863), there is an unqualified avowal of the inheritance of acquired characters, both psychical and physical, in man (as in animals), and numerous examples, such as the inheritance of battle scars, which now seem most droll, are solemnly given.16

Improved „mental culture,“ Waitz believed, promoted this kind of inheritance in man, with the result that human progeny inherited „better predispositions than those possessed by their progenitors.“ These better predispositions then produced (especially if aided by good pedagogy) a further improvement in mental culture, in an unending process in which, through the inheritance of acquired characters, there was a steady development of mankind with a gradually improving civilization as its universal destination. Waitz also believed in what he called „the metamorphosis of the physical type by altered conditions of civilization,“ and claimed that „the shape of the skull is everywhere essentially dependent on mental culture and changes with it.“ Finally, Waitz took a decided stance on the nature-nurture issue, declaring that it had been proved that „the van-ous degrees of culture in various peoples“ depended to a much greater extent on „mode of life“ than on „original mental endowment.“ Above all else Waitz wanted, as Ernest Becker has observed, „no physical determinism that would limit human freedom in creating a better world.“17

All of these doctrines of Waitz are reflected in the anthropology of Boas. As others have shown, while Boas remained throughout his career quite skeptical of natural selection and suspicious of Mendelian heredity, he went on believing as long as he lived that „Lamarck was still to be reckoned with,“ and not a few of his theories were Lamarckian. He supposed, for example, that man was a domesticated form and believed that in the process of domestication the „changes brought about by external conditions“ were „undoubtedly hereditary.“ Following Waitz he placed great emphasis on „the plasticity of human types.“ He thought that „no event in the life of a people passes without having its effect on later generations“ and was utterly convinced that environment has an important effect upon the anatomical structure and physiological functions of man. In interpreting apparent changes in the bodily form (including the cephalic index) of immigrants to the United States he was „inclined to believe“ that these changes had been „directly affected by financial panics.“18

Conjointly with these beliefs, Boas, who accepted Waitz's conclusion that „the mental characteristics of man are the same all over the world,“ was especially impressed by Waitz's perspective on cultural development. In 1894 when he made his first major contribution to discussion of the relation between race and culture, he based his argument on this perspective, claiming that „the true point of view“ had been expressed most happily by Waitz: „The faculty of man does not designate anything but how much and what he is able to achieve in the immediate future and depends upon the stages of culture through which he has passed and the one which he has reached.“19 in tneir original context in the first vnl

der Naturvolker, these words were part of Waitz's unequivocally Lamarckian theory of human development. When Boas quoted them in 1894 their Lamarckian connotations went unremarked and they became the basis for a theory of explicitly cultural, as opposed to biological, determinism. For Boas they epitomized Waitz's viewpoint, which he deemed to be basic to all serious studies of culture, and he cited them on two subsequent occasions in his long campaign against the hereditarians: in 1911 in The Mind of Primitive Man, and in 1924 in an article in the American Mercury, written at the very height of the nature-nurture debate, just prior to his planning of Margaret Mead's Samoan researches.20

As we have seen, Boas first became aware of the nature of culture in 1883 during his intimate participation in the lives of the highly traditional Eskimo of Baffin Island. He retained this awareness when he returned to North America in 1886 to survey the coastal tribes of British Columbia. In his preliminary report (of March 1887) on these inquiries he noted that the common culture of these tribes was deserving of thorough study. Again, in a lecture in 1888, he advocated the study of „the gradual development of the manifestations of culture“ for „the whole of mankind, from its earliest traces … up to modern times.“ This study, as he emphasized on numerous subsequent occasions, had to be pursued „by strict historical methods.“ By this time Boas' appreciation of the phenomenon of culture had become both deeper and more acute. In 1889 he published in the newly founded American Anthropologist a short article, „On Alternating Sounds,“ in which, as Stocking has observed, he saw „cultural phenomena in terms of the imposition of conventional meaning on the flux of experience“ and so „as historically conditioned and transmitted by the learning process.“ In Stocking's judgment „it is impossible to exaggerate the significance of this article for the history of anthropological thought.“ Here, for the first time in the history of post-Darwinian anthropology, there is full recognition of the exogenetic nature of culture.21

At about this time Boas began his penetrating critique of evolutionist anthropology. In 1896 he called on anthropologists to „renounce the vain endeavour to construct a uniform systematic history of the evolution of culture,“ arguing that the changes that occurred in human cultures did not take place in a single line, but in a multiplicity of converging and diverging trends. In 1899 he was appointed professor of anthropology at Columbia, and the following year, in a major address entitled „The Mind of Primitive Man,“ he developed further his vision of cultural anthropology. Culture, he argued, „is an expression of the achievements of the mind, and shows the cumulative effects of the activities of many minds.“ It is created by human agency; the whole domain of art and of ethics rests on the mind's „power of choosing between perceptions and actions according to their value.“ Here, as in „On Alternating Sounds,“ Boas conceived of culture as referring to phenomena to which the laws of biology do not apply.22

In this same address, in dealing with the question „Do differences exist in the organization of the human mind?“ Boas stipulated that „we must clearly distinguish between the influences of civilization and race.“ A similar distinction, as we have seen, was being argued for at this same time by the evolutionary biologist E. R. Lankester. This dichotomy between nature and culture is of great antiquity, dating from at least the fifth century B.C., when Protagoras established in Greek thought the categories of physis, or nature, and nomos, or usages based on tradition. Usages based on tradition, resulting as they do from the human capacity to conceive of and enact alternatives, are man-made and, as such, according to Protagoras, must be distinguished clearly from natural phenomena that are entirely unconnected with human agency. Since then many other anthropological thinkers have stressed the significance of this dichotomy. Rousseau, in the judgment of Levi-Strauss, founded modern anthropology when in his Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men he posed the question of the relationship between nature and culture.23

In the heyday of evolutionism, and especially during the decades when the Lamarckian suppositions of Herbert Spencer held sway, this distinction between nature and culture was largely ignored, for it was widely believed that human history in

all its aspects had resulted from the operation of biological laws. In the 1890s, however, with the collapse of Lamarckism, it became apparent to some thinkers that cultural phenomena, in their extraordinary diversity, could not possibly be explained by the simple evocation of natural selection. Another set of factors was plainly involved, as Huxley, Lankester, Boas, and others realized, and so, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the nature of the relationship between culture and biology, or to use Galton's terms, between nurture and nature, had become a scientific and intellectual issue of fundamental significance.

Boas' principal concern from this time onward was to foster the study of culture. During the first quarter of the twentieth century this project unfortunately involved a mounting confrontation with hereditarians, who were intent on applying their assumptions to cultural phenomena. As late as 1907 (the year in which Galton was envisaging a Holy War against customs and prejudices that impaired „the physical and moral qualities“ that were dependent on „race“) Boas was still hoping that the claims of eugenics might be subjected to calm scientific discussion. The claims of the more extreme eugenicists soon became so overweening, however, as to make this impossible, and by about 1910, as Boas noted, the issue of what among humans was genetically inherited was attracting wider attention than any other topic.

It was in direct response to this situation that Boas wrote The Mind of Primitive Man, just as Waitz, in the late 1850s, had written his Anthropologic der Naturvolker in opposition to the racist doctrines of the Count de Gobineau's Essai sur Vinegalite des races humaines. The Mind of Primitive Man, as Lowie has noted, closely parallels the argument of the first volume of Anthropologic der Naturvolker, and like that work has as its objective the establishment of „the independence of cultural achievement from race.“ Having noted in his introduction that it was still „very generally assumed … that racial descent determines cultural life,“ Boas quickly moved to a definition of culture as exogenetic, and to the claim that „the psychological basis of cultural traits is identical in all races.“ Culture, he argued, reiterating his finding of 1894, is „not an expression of innate mental qualities“ but „a result of varied external conditions acting upon general human characteristics.“ This view, 1 Boas emphasized, was that of Herder and of Waitz, to whose central conclusion regarding the cultural conditioning of human behavior he again referred.24

Boas went on to examine the assumption that „racial descent determines cultural life“ and to conclude that not the slightest successful attempt had been made „to establish causes for the behavior of a people other than historical and social conditions.“ An unbiased review of the facts, he asserted, showed that „belief in hereditary racial characteristics and the jealous care for purity of race is based on the assumption of non-existing conditions.“ To the eugenicists of the day, who with the rise of genetics felt certain of the factualness of their beliefs, these were defiant and challenging words. And so they were intended, for from 1894 onward, and especially in The Mind of Primitive Man, the whole thrust of Boas' thought, as Stocking has observed, was „to distinguish the concepts of race and culture, to separate biological and cultural heredity, to focus attention on cultural process, to free the concept of culture from its heritage of evolutionary and racial assumption, so that it could subsequently become … completely independent of biological determinism.“25

When The Mind of Primitive Man first appeared, the hered-itarian cause was strongly ascendant. In 1911 Charles Davenport, the leading spokesman of the eugenics movement in the United States, published his Heredity in Relation to Eugenics and other papers, propounding with certainty and fervor „the fundamental fact that all men are created bound by their protoplasmic makeup and unequal in their powers and responsibilities“ and proclaiming that „heredity stands as the one great hope of the human race; its savior from imbecility, poverty, disease, immorality.“26

Here, then, in 1911, were two antithetical intellectual and scientific schools—that of Boas and that of Davenport—with neither disposed to explore, in a constructive way, the coexistence and interaction of genetic and exogenetic processes. Instead, the two schools, in Davenport's words, stood opposed, „each viewing the other unkindly.“ The stage was set for an unrelenting struggle between two doctrines, each insufficient in scientific terms, which had originated amid the theoretical confusions of the late nineteenth century, the one overestimating biology and the other overvaluing culture.27

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