Margaret Mead was an academic celebrity; basically the Madonna of anthropology. She’s best known for utopian tales of life in the South Seas, depicting pacifism, matriarchal societies, and free love. Her cultural impact in the Western world is easy to underestimate (particularly as one of the voices leading to the Sexual Revolution), though there’s more to her story than that.
She got her master’s degree and Ph.D. at Columbia, home of many other interesting students and faculty over the years. She was married and divorced three times. Today, that’s still in the “you’re doing it wrong” range, but back then, even one divorce was a bit scandalous; likewise her bisexuality. However, she contributed significantly toward remaking society in her own image with the help of the right circumstances and connections. Specifically, she was studying under Professor Franz Boas, a man with an agenda.
Mead’s literary debut in 1928 was Coming of Age in Samoa. The year before she got her doctorate degree, she described village life on Ta’u Island, focusing on adolescence. As she told it, basically it was a carefree tropical paradise, lacking our uptightness thanks to free love. Here’s a telling excerpt from chapter 3:
And so the boy is faced by a far more difficult dilemma than the girl… [I]f he would win a sweetheart, he must have prestige among his fellows. And conversely, his social prestige is increased by his amorous exploits.
So while the girl rests upon her “pass” proficiency, the boy is spurred to greater efforts. A boy is shy of a girl who does not have these proofs of efficiency and is known to be stupid and unskilled; he is afraid he may come to want to marry her. Marrying a girl without proficiency would be a most imprudent step and involve an endless amount of wrangling with his family. So the girl who is notoriously inept must take her lovers from among the casual, the jaded, and the married who are no longer afraid that their senses will betray them into an imprudent marriage.
But the seventeen-year-old girl does not wish to marry—not yet. It is better to live as a girl with no responsibility, and a rich variety of emotional experience. This is the best period of her life… She has very little baby-tending to do. Her eyes do not ache from weaving nor does her back break from bending all day over the tapa board. The long expeditions after fish and food and weaving materials give ample opportunities for rendezvous. Proficiency would mean more work, more confining work, and earlier marriage, and marriage is the inevitable to be deferred as long as possible.
So for a Samoan guy to get taken seriously, he had to have real accomplishments (and social proof) under his belt. However, for a girl, lacking adult skills is no barrier to carousel-riding; continued “as long as possible”. This utopian social model seems rather one-sided to me! Now how does this seem so familiar?
At the time, it was rather groundbreaking for an anthropologist to hang out with the locals for several months to learn about their society. Unfortunately, she got most of it wrong. On the whole, her observations may well suffer from anecdotal generalizations; further, they seem colored by her own wishful thinking; but the worst part of it started out as a joke.
Actually, the Samoans were puritanical, and she got several other details wrong too. As for the girls she got the information about their free love customs from, they responded to her probing questions by telling her what she wanted to hear, finding it deliciously funny to mess with this cub scientist from afar.
Derek Freeman, an anthropologist from New Zealand, moved to Samoa in 1940 to become a teacher. He stayed for three and a half years, learning the language, and becoming part of their local community. He’d read Mead’s book, but found society there much different. An irascible sort, he criticized Mead and clashed with her at a conference. She asked why he hadn’t brought his thesis over to her house the day before; he replied:
Because I was afraid you might ask me to stay the night.
Ooh, burn! That quip brought down the house. Still, the worst was yet to come.
In 1965, he returned to Samoa for two years. He did some fact-checking, visiting the island where Mead had stayed. Word got around about her book, and the people there didn’t care for her descriptions. Worse, she had hooked up with one of the locals, giving herself a very bad reputation. So she offended their morals, cheated on her husband, engaged in pretty questionable professional ethics, and then misrepresented their society to the world. Freeman was floored by this.
When Freeman returned to academia, he spilled the beans on Mead’s “research”. That led to a three decade long tempest within the anthropological community. So controversial was his takedown of their great celebrity that at times he had difficulty finding a publisher. Mead’s many defenders accused him of being the one making up stuff. However, since Freeman was a lot more familiar with Samoan society (she stayed perhaps eight months), the evidence speaks for itself. If that’s not enough, take it from one of the locals:
We girls would pinch each other and tell her we were out with the boys. We were only joking but she took it seriously. As you know, Samoan girls are terrific liars and love making fun of people but Margaret thought it was all true.
So it was all for the lulz. Mead herself noted how hard it was to get a straight answer out of anyone there; more caution and less wishful thinking might have done wonders. As a scathing article concludes:
How could Mead get it so wrong? Simply put, it appears her desire to eliminate restrictions upon her own sexuality determined her conclusions about that of the Samoans. For Mead, science was a form of autobiography, as is clear from her own life. She was married and divorced three times, apparently with the ease which she falsely claimed was characteristic of the Samoans; she engaged in numerous affairs with the same casualness of the fictional youth slipping off to the palm trees at dusk; and she was also bisexual as were the Samoans in her fantasy work Coming of Age.
How ironic that Margaret Mead’s anthropological myth, masquerading as science, could help to bring about a real sexual revolution, leading the west not only to casual sex and casual divorce, but the scourge of abortion. Such are the ways of the culture of death.
That wasn’t all. After the Samoan adventure, Mead wrote several more books in the tribal gender studies genre. One was Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, which had a pacifist angle. She said she discovered a female-dominated tribe in Papua New Guinea. That one became a big feminist hit for obvious reasons, though once again another anthropologist visited later and found things much different. Still, many took these idyllic yarns as the truth, concluding that this is how we should model our own societies.
Her greatest legacy was the Samoan fairy tales of free love. This book had a good bit of influence on young Baby Boomers, especially since it was all the rage on campuses. The same was true for Eros and Civilization by Herbert Marcuse, who later came to Columbia along with his Frankfurt School buddies. These two books, the latest hits in American academia back then (and still considered classics) contributed to the 1960s counterculture getting as wild as it did. That, in turn, led to today’s deregulation of the sexual marketplace, unleashing a host of other social ills.
Mead’s books generally push the social environment-cultural determinism line in opposition to hereditarian-biological determinism ideas. This puts full emphasis on upbringing in the “nature versus nurture” debate, denying that biology has anything to do with national character. (An off-the-wall example might be that ants act like ants because they grow up in an anthill.) This follows Rousseau’s “blank slate” idea, stating that people are whatever their society makes them. Thus, genetic influences count for little to nothing.
“Society is a social construct”
Nature versus nurture might seem like a dry, scholarly debate, but it has far-reaching implications. Cultural determinism is a cornerstone of liberalism, more so for Communism. It implies that social engineering is good, and human nature presents no barrier to that. It also is a pat explanation to brush aside facts inconveniently contradicting their ideology.
Further, extreme cultural determinism means an individual’s woes are all society’s fault; personal choices are irrelevant. Therefore, dysfunctional societies cause crime, not criminal behavior. That illogical notion contradicts free will; a rather robotic conception of the human mind. It can’t explain why there are honest poor people or rich crooks. Much money has been spent sprucing up bad neighborhoods, with little effect. Handout programs don’t work either. The only thing that helped was getting tough on crime beginning in the 1990s. Holding people accountable for their behavior works.
Also, extreme cultural determinism reinforces the idea that immigrants from anywhere in the world will easily adapt to their host societies. (If a cat has kittens in a stable, are the kittens horses?) Some foreign communities do fit in, if they’re compatible with the people already living there, but others turn into an imported underclass. Whenever that happens, society is blamed for being intolerant. When the facts don’t fit the theory, they double down with the theory and break out the guilt stick. Thus, haphazard mass immigration proceeds at full speed, all according to plan.
Franz Boas, Mead’s consigliere at Columbia, also pushed the “societal influence is everything” line, as did some of his other front-men. (Further, he was one of the pioneers of the “race is only a social construct” meme.) Like Mead, it was later discovered he faked his research. Another proponent of extreme cultural determinism was Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko, who put the USSR’s biology research far behind. Later, it was discovered he faked his research. Are we seeing a pattern yet?
Analogy and conclusion
Suppose an American visits the remote jungle and meets a local tribesman, and they discuss their lives. The tribesman talks about stalking game for hours, and an unsuccessful hunt means they go hungry. Then the American describes working forty hours a week in a cubicle, enduring a traffic jam both ways. He must kiss up to the petty tyrant of a boss, lest he lose his job, which might happen anyway if the bean counters “offshore” his division. All this is so the rent, car loan, credit cards, and other bills get paid on time.
The American is grateful the constant risk of starvation doesn’t haunt him; he can just go to the grocery store! The tribesman wonders how in the hell anyone would want to live like Americans. In any event, introducing ISO-9001 standards for spearing gazelles won’t be helpful for the tribesman. Likewise, bringing a spear to work and praying to the voodoo gods won’t help the American fill out TPS reports, though it might liven things up at the office.
It’s good to study other cultures and learn from them. However, it doesn’t follow that features of one society’s way of life (even real ones) will always work just as well if you transplant them elsewhere. There indeed have been cultures with free love in various times and places, even if Mead’s Samoa wasn’t one of them. Because Western civilization is highly K-selected, libertinism is unnatural to us. Problems arise if you haphazardly throw out all of society’s moral rules.
A culture includes a constellation of folkways and traditions that work together and basically make sense to the people accustomed to them. Even aspects that people might dislike are at least familiar and a known quantity, unlike the unforeseen consequences of implementing exotic concepts haphazardly. Changes have to be carefully considered, and Plato would have agreed.
Finally, Mead once said:
Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
She was right about that one. Now it’s our turn.