On Negation of the Negations

The Attack on Mead and the Dialectics of Anthropology

by Gordon Welty
Wright State University
Dayton, OH 45435 USA

The well-publicized attack by Derek Freeman (1983) on the Margaret Mead study of Samoa (1928) has raised a number of questions about anthropological research and communication, ranging from professional ethics to the dialectical understanding of science. These questions involve substantive matters as well as methodological canons. Now we have the long-awaited assessment of the Mead-Freeman controversy by Lowell Holmes (1987), a valuable intervention that provides answers to a number of these questions, especially those relating to professional and substantive issues. Their two books are briefly reviewed in panels on the facing page. Here we focus on some areas of philosophical interest in the development of U.S. anthropology: the history and role of the doctrine of 'falsifiability' in anthropology and in the sciences in general, the relationship between Boasian anthropology and biologism, and the relation between both these doctrines and historical materialism.

To anticipate somewhat, we will first show how the `falsifiability' canon has a longer and perhaps more interesting history than the popular accolades to Karl Popper would acknowledge, and that it entails a dialectical conception of science and its development. Next, in light of these dialectical considerations, we will show that Boasian anthropology is indeed the negation—the simple negation—of biologism. While giving our attention to such biologistic contemporaries of Franz Boas as Herbert Spencer and Karl Pearson, we remark that today's chic variant of the same biologism is called "sociobiology." Finally, the dialectical negation of both these doctrines (biologism and Boasian anthropology) is shown to be social evolutionism and its philosophical recapitulation, historical and dialectical materialism.

'Falsifiability' and Dialectics

Freeman dedicated his book to none other than Karl R. Popper, and indicated in his preface that he takes very seriously Popper's methodological strictures (1983: xii). Long before Popper had popularized the neo-positivistic notion that science advances through the promotion [14/15] of 'falsifiable' propositions, however, practicing scientists employed this methodological strategy in their research. A good example in 1920's social science was Bronislaw Malinowski's Sex and Repression in Primitive Society (1953), where he reported that the `Oedipal Complex' among Trobriand Islanders focussed on the mother's brother, i.e. the uncle, rather than the child's father. The Freudianism of Totem and Taboo had maintained that specific tensions between child and father were present in each and every culture (cf. Jones, 1951). Malinowski's findings thus served to `falsify' the universalistic pretensions of psychoanalytic doctrine (cf. also Grunbaum, 1984: Ch. 1).

Another example of such research was Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), where she held that adolescence was not an especially difficult period of a Samoan girl's life. Holmes, with extensive field experience in American Samoa, has stated "I confirm Mead's conclusion that it was undoubtedly easier to come of age in Samoa than in the United States in 1925" (1987:103, cf. also 173). Since biologistic doctrine had maintained that the storm and stress of adolescence was physiologically (hormonally) determined, the universalistic pretensions of biologism were thus `falsified' by Mead's findings. And Mead thereby initiated a long series of studies questioning the universalism of such a conception of adolescence (cf. Offer, 1969:181).

Indeed, the use of 'falsifiable' propositions by practicing scientists and, even more relevant for our purposes, their methodologically self-conscious attempts to 'disconfirm' scientific theories far antedate even Malinowski and Mead. Consider a work by famous French physiologist Claude Bernard, Introduction a' l'etude de la medecine experimentale (1865). This is an early and far-reaching statement of the doctrine of 'falsifiability.' It states the essence of the methodological position which was popularized by Popper in the next century. Bernard rejected the notion of symmetry between induction and deduction in scientific explanation; he held against the inductivists that there is but "a single form of reasoning: deduction by the syllogism" (1865:83). Furthermore, he rejected the notion of symmetry between verification and disconfirmation (cf. however Bitsachis, 1987:432). Bernard maintained that "when a datum disconfirms a preconceived idea [i.e. an hypothesis], the researcher must reject or modify his idea. But even if a datum fully confirms the preconceived idea, the researcher must still question it, for reason itself still demands a counter-proof [i.e. falsifiability]" (1865:87). Bernard summed this up as follows: "when one wishes to find the truth, one is able decisively to establish one's own ideas only by seeking to refute one's own conclusions" (1865:92). (The reader not familiar with Bernard's profound and comprehensive methodological discussion on the need to promote `falsifiable' propositions and theories is invited to examine in detail the First Part of his Introduction.)

It is of some interest to inquire why Bernard is renowned for [15/16] his contributions to the science of physiology, while his methodological contributions have apparently been forgotten—at least in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition. Some brief remarks may suffice for now. First, consider the particularities of the case. Bernard was obliged by severe illness to set aside his researches during the 1860's; during this time he wrote the Introduction. Upon recovering his health, he plunged back into his scientific practice. Thereafter he had neither time nor inclination to elaborate or to popularize these methodological insights. More generally, intellectual conditions in the 1860's and '70's were unfavorable for Bernard's sophisticated insights. The popular philosophers of science were positivists Auguste Comte and Augustine Cournot in France, Herbert Spencer in Britain, and empiricists Wm. Hamilton and John Stuart Mill. A thinker of Bernard's stature was clearly too advanced for the times. A century later, such insights would have warranted a knighthood.

It is also of interest to consider why Popper's renown comes from popularizing a methodological contribution that in all honesty should be credited to Bernard. This has potential as the nuanced topic of a doctoral dissertation. And such a study might consider what Paul Lazarsfeld, the leader of Popper's Viennese Boy Scout troop, once told me: it may reflect Popper's sense of social inferiority. "Poor Karly," said Lazarsfeld, "he was always chasing some girl who loved someone else." More generally, it may reflect the ideological need in the West for a philosophy of science champion with unimpeachable anti-Communist credentials and proclivities.

This need emerged with the general crisis of capitalism and the success of socialist revolution in Russia (a need only heightened by the advent of the First Cold War). Philosophers of science with stature, such as Otto Neurath and Bertrand Russell, had ambiguous ideological credentials and orientation. Popper, by contrast, is a remarkable conjunction of undignified grasping and self-aggrandizement with uncompromising anti-Communism. Not a practicing scientist, he had few other demands on his time; he could popularize these methodological insights as his own and, along the way, champion `free enterprise,' the `marketplace of ideas,' etc. Hence, celebration of Logik der Forschung (1935) had to await publication of "Poverty of Historicism" [in Economica] (1944/5) and The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945).

Much the same can be said of the conditions when Freeman's book was published. This awaited the reactionary Reagan-Thatcher-Kohl era of the Second Cold War, when so many Western intellectuals and publicists eagerly sought any scrap of evidence for 'nature' against 'nurture.' Their ranks counted not only the neo-conservatives seeking support for their racism but also the `liberals' flinching before the deepening crisis and the demands it presents for resolute and united action of all peoples in anti-monopoly struggle. Better, those latter feel, that the possibilities of political action should be [16/17] disproved, or at least disparaged.

In light of the preceding, it is ironic to find Freeman invoking a Popperian methodological stance in his critique of Mead's Samoan researches. Within a more sophisticated world-view—one to which even Sir Karl aspired in his more mature writings—this would suggest Freeman's project amounted to the negation of negation. The canon of 'falsifiability' would be incorporated within an appropriately dialectical logic. Thereby Mead's negation of biologistic thinking is itself negated—by a dialectical negation—through the scientific critique of Mead. All this sublates the original thinking, raising the scientific discourse to a higher level which incorporated the original thought while correcting its errors. Dialectics is thus sufficient for comprehending science and its advance (cf. esp., Marx and Engels, 1975, Vol. XXV:123-32; 606 ff).

This process of scientific advance through dialectical negation is not simply one of confronting 'theories' by `facts' and negating the former in terms of the latter. At several points, Freeman seems to hold this simplistic position—for instance with regards delinquency rates and their bearing on the theory of adolescence turmoil (1983:255 ff). As Bernard has cautioned, the exigencies of the disconfirmation process are far more subtle. On the one hand, "all theories are false, literally speaking; they are only partial and provisional truths." This might incline us towards negating the theoretical proposition in terms of the 'facts.' On the other hand, he continues, "numerous causes of errors are able to slip into our observations" and "frequently the means of establishing a fact fail us or are very imperfect" (1865:69). For instance, Freeman's use of delinquency rates overlooks the crucial distinction between town and country (cf. Holmes, 1987:152; also Marx and Engels, 1975, Vol. V:64 f). And this might incline us towards preserving 'theories' in the face of the 'facts.' Bernard concludes that one is able to believe in one's observations, in one's theories only conditionally, depending upon science (1865:71). Thus the validity of the scientific endeavor comes to depend upon the scientific process itself—a notion which is inherently dialectical. Scientific advance can only be understood dialectically, in terms of dialectical negation. Not only is dialectics sufficient, as we have just seen; it is thus necessary as well.

Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case in Freeman's book, even though he invokes—in its very final paragraph—the notion that biologism was the 'thesis,' Boasian anthropology was the 'antithesis,' and "the time is now conspicuously due for a synthesis" (1983:302). Perhaps this means we still can look forward to more from Freeman. In the meanwhile, we find Freeman operating throughout—as the very subtitle of his book proclaims—at the level of "Making and Unmaking," i.e. at the level of simple negation, what Engels has very accurately labeled "barren negation" (Marx and Engels, 1975, Vol. XXV:607). Already in his "Preface" Freeman acknowledges that he is not [17/18] "constructing an alternative ethnography of Samoa." Of course he cannot—his field studies were in Western Samoa, not the site of Mead's study in American Samoa which differed significantly in terms of economy, social organization, and colonial history (cf. also Holmes, 1987:149, 173).

The evidence and argument which Freeman presents has instead the specific purpose of "scientifically refuting" Mead's claim that her findings on Samoa falsify (i.e. constitute a "negative instance" to) biologism. Freeman intends to do this by demonstrating that "the depictions on which Mead based this assertion are, in varying degree, mistaken" (1983:xii-xiii).

Under these circumstances, not fully familiar with Mead's site, depending as he does upon the case studies of others (such as those of Lowell Holmes), Freeman's intervention must have an abstract quality to it. On the one hand he is amassing bits and pieces of evidence against Mead, almost like juxtaposing counters in a board game. On the other hand, the ethnographic tradition does not prepare an anthropologist for concrete scientific thinking outside the limitations of the case study. Hence the tendency to abstract thought, to 'making and unmaking'.

It may indeed be more accurate to conceive the relationship between biologism and Boasian anthropology as one of simple negation. Biologistic doctrine maintained that biology was destiny. The Boasians retorted that culture set the terms in which human action could be expressed, i.e. culture was destiny. On the one hand, the truth of biologism would simply negate Boasian doctrine. On the other hand, the truth of Boasian anthropology would negate biologism. While both claims cannot jointly be true, neither claim is thereby necessarily true. Freeman's intervention should be assessed in the same light.

If anthropology and biologism are simple negations of one another, this leaves open the question of what constitutes the dialectical negation of both. Here, biologism is simply another instance of vulgar materialism despite its acceptance of certain scientific trappings such as theories of biological evolution (for an example, cf. Pearson, 1937:276 ff). Boasian anthropology in turn was based on a conjuncture of neo-Kantian idealism on the one hand, and empiricism on the other. Hence both biologism and Boasian anthropology are manifestations of what Frederick Engels called the "Metaphysical Worldview" (cf. Marx and Engels, 1975, Vol. XXV:338-342).

What will constitute the 'synthesis,' to use Freeman's own term, which raises this scientific discourse to a higher level? As a heuristic, it may be useful to consider that a positive and its negation are both forms of Being. If we then consider what is Becoming, we may recognize the form which dialectical negation will take in this case. The form of Becoming for both biologism and Boasian anthropology was social evolutionism, as well as what came to be its philosophical recapitulation, historical and dialectical materialism. (The paradigmatic exemplar of social evolutionism is, of course, Engels' [1972] Origin of [18/19] the Family, Private Property, and the State.) An awareness of this Becoming is evident in both the Boasian anthropological and the biologistic writings, where we find each expressing greater hostility towards social evolutionism than to one another. The reason for this hostility is also evident—it is social evolutionism's search for nomothetic (law-like) explanations of societal transformation, a search which places the future of the capitalist order in serious doubt.

Boasian Anthropology versus Social Evolutionism

Franz Boas expressed his opposition to the evolutionary theory of society in his earlier as well as his later writing. In his 1896 article on the "Limitations of the Comparative Method of Anthropology," he observed that anthropology, as understood by his contemporaries, implied that "laws exist which govern the development of society, [and] they are applicable to our society as well as to those of past times and of distant lands." Further, Boas complained that his contemporaries increasingly believed that their "studies must be confined to researches on the laws that govern the growth of [modern] society" (1940:270). This has corrupted anthropological research, in Boas' opinion, to the point that "the object of investigation is to find the processes by which certain stages of culture have developed. The customs and beliefs themselves are not the ultimate objects of research" (1940:276). Boas was very dubious about the merits of the entire project as well as its methods.

Boas recommended to his reader that "we have another method, which in many respects is much safer." This amounts to "a detailed study of customs in their relation to the total culture of the tribe practicing them" (1940:276). He refers to this "safer method" as the 'historical method,' the 'inductive process,' and indicates that "its application is based, first of all, on a well-defined, small geographical territory, and its comparisons are not extended beyond the limits of the cultural area that forms the basis of the study" (1940:277). Needless to say, this self-imposed limitation on science precluded an evolutionary theory of society. Moreover, it elevated the genre of autobiography to the level of the universal, in the peculiar form of the ethnographic case study.

Boas returned to this theme in his later writings. We find him arguing in (1930) in "Some Problems of Methodology in the Social Sciences" that "the early attempts of [Lewis Henry] Morgan to associate social organization and economic conditions have proved to be fallacious." He continues "more recent attempts to interpret forms of culture as due to purely economic conditions have been equally unsuccessful" (1940:266-267; but cf. Blumberg and Winch, 1972). At this point, the reader might be tempted to concur with Boas; after all, it is not 'economic conditions,' whether 'purely' such or otherwise, which are a causal factor, but economic relations and activities. However, Boas has seriously misrepresented Morgan on this point. We must remember that Morgan was concerned with "modes of [19/20] subsistence" or "modes of life"—which in turn defined "ethnic periods," "ethnic stages," "ethnic conditions," etc. (1877:8). But Boas, in rejecting nomothetic social science, would also dismiss the relevance for anthropology of both 'economic conditions' and 'economic relations and activities.' With reference to his own era, Boas concludes "similar observations may be made in regard to social organization and industrial activities. There is no significant law that would cover all the phases of their relations" (1940:267; but cf. Gordon et al., 1982).

In the face of Boas' continuing and categorical rejection of the evolutionary theory of society, his comments on biologism must be seen in their proper perspective. Freeman is clearly unwilling or unable to assume that perspective; he has simply misrepresented Boas here. Rather than dismissing the significance of biology and heredity for anthropology, Boas in fact made substantial contributions to this topic (cf. also Gerson, 1976:125; Holmes, 1987:1-2, 16; and Leacock, 1987:177). As a devoted neo-Kantian, Boas held that biological explanations had their proper sphere, as did social and cultural explanations; only the two spheres did not overlap. As early as his 1887 article on "The Study of Geography," Boas held that "there exists another object[ive] for science besides the deduction of laws from phenomena." [It is not our point here to address what such an empiricist and inductivist conception of science might mean.] For Boas, such 'deduction' was physicalistic: "it is our opinion that there is another object[ive]—the thorough understanding of phenomena" (1940:641). Such 'understanding' is the hallmark of neo-Kantian dualism (cf. also Parenti, 1986:21).

Boas found direct relevance of these dualistic doctrines for anthropology. Before the turn of the century, he had distinguished several spheres of anthropology—that of physical anthropology and that of social anthropology [ethnology] and linguistics. It was an ontological difference: "That part of human history which manifests itself in the phenomena that are the subject of physical anthropology is by no means identical with that part of history which manifests itself in the phenomena of ethnology and of language." The first set of phenomena are natural, biological if not physical; those of ethnology and linguistics are preeminently cultural. Characteristically, Boas concluded by noting a methodological consequence: the "branches of anthropology must proceed each according to its own method" (1940:171).

Boas continued to accept the neo-Kantian bifurcation of anthropology throughout his career. In 1936 he observed that "during the last decades physical anthropology and social anthropology [ethnology] have drifted more and more apart" (1940:172), again recognizing the drift as both substantive and methodic. "This seems unavoidable on account of the difference in subject matter and the necessity of a thorough biological training for the one branch, while the other requires a knowledge of ethnological methods" (1940:172). Boas' debate with the biologistic writers was thus one of the demarcation of the [20/21] sphere of culturalistic explanations (Geisteswissenschaften) from that of physicalistic explanation (Naturwissenschaften), and the independence of each (cf. also 1940:268). It was far from the utter rejection which summed up Boas' assessment of the evolutionary theory of society.

One of Boas' first graduate students, Alfred Kroeber, carried this discussion further (cf. also Freeman, 1983:Ch. 3). "A genuine problem exists," he maintained, in the "blending of nature and nurture." He went on "this problem cannot be solved by the historical sciences alone because they do not concern themselves with heredity. Nor can it be solved by biology [which cannot] operate with the non-biological principle of tradition [i.e. culture]. Here then is a specific task and place in the sun for anthropology: the interpretation of those phenomena into which both organic and social causes enter" (1923:3).

Kroeber's assessment of the biologistic approach is a measured one. "The biological aspects of man must be interpreted in terms of biological causation, his cultural aspects in terms first of all of cultural causation. After they have been thus resolved, the cultural causes may reduce to ultimate factors of heredity and natural environment" (1923:87). Biologistic thinking (e.g. Pearson, 1937:304) would scarcely contest that! In summing up his position, however, Kroeber was somewhat more resolute; he confided that in the explanation of cultural phenomena, "environment and heredity are in the main superfluous. They need not be brought in" (1923:192). Contrast that to Kroeber's harsh assessment of social evolutionism. These conceptions are "threadbare, descended to material for newspaper science or idle speculation, and evidence of a tendency toward the easy smugness of feeling oneself superior to all the past" (1923:9).

Let us consider one aspect of evolutionism. Social evolutionism—in its most coherent form—holds that a cultural artifact is an element of the superstructure (i.e. a symbolic reflex) of a particular mode of production in given geographical, climatic, and other environmental conditions. Similar modes in similar environments can generate similar artifacts, the latter being independent of one another (so-called parallelism). Kroeber, however, was a diffusionist, holding that similar artifacts can indicate cultural 'borrowing' from societies at different stages of socioeconomic development (1923:195). The difference between the two views—a difference which has long exercised anthropologists (cf. Boas, 1974:273-278) as "Galton's Problem" (cf. Naroll, 1970)—can be understood in that parallelism looks to the sphere of production, while diffusionism looks to the sphere of circulation, for the explanation of cultural change.

At this point, Kroeber moves to the level of particulars. He gives the example of the Double-Headed Eagle of Hittite origin, incorporated into the heraldry of the Romanov dynasty in Tsarist Russia. It was also found among the decorative motifs of the Huichol tribe of Mexico. Kroeber thereupon concluded that diffusionism prevailed: Cortez must [21/22] have carried the symbolism to Mexico (1923:203). But Kroeber was forced to recant on this diffusionist point almost immediately, having discovered in a museum a prehistoric Nazca Peruvian bowl displaying the double-headed eagle, a motif clearly antedated the conquistadores; it was indigenous to the New World. "Here then we have a clear case of an early independent origin or parallel" (Kroeber, 1933:16). And what does this entail for diffusionism? Such evidence notwithstanding, Kroeber did not revise his assessment of social evolutionism. Clearly 'falsifiability' has its limits.

Biologism versus Social Evolutionism

Let us next turn to the supporters of biologism. Not all biologistic thinkers were Social Darwinists, of course—Auguste Comte comes readily to mind. But Social Darwinists such as Herbert Spencer, Francis Galton, and Karl Pearson were much more relevant to the Boasian anthropologists than was the manic Comte. We will focus our attention on Spencer, with occasional reference to Pearson.

Social Darwinism had some affinities with the theory of natural selection, and Social Darwinists sought to create the impression that there were many more. There were, however, basic differences between the two doctrines. It will be useful to draw some contrasts. Most profoundly, Social Darwinism held that the struggle for existence tended to preserve and perfect the biological ideal-type. As Herbert Spencer put it, "human beings are subjected by pressure of population to a competition for the means of subsistence ... on the average the tendency is for the select of their generation to survive, so, little by little, producing a better-adapted type" (Spencer, 1904:451). He did not simply intend a tautology—the 'survival' of the `select,' those `selected' to `survive.' Rather, two factors were operating here: decreasing fertility and "use-inheritance" (Lamarckism). Those individuals with lesser fertility have "greater mental activity," more productivity, etc. and through the 'sublimation' of these efforts thereby become the "select of their generation." Furthermore, whatever is 'used' by this generation's survivors becomes an acquired characteristic and is 'inherited' by the next (cf. Spencer, 1898, Vol. I:610 ff).

The theory of natural selection, by contrast, held that the struggle for existence tended to generate new biological forms (morphogenesis) rather than to preserve and perfect types (morphostasis). Variation occurs stochastically, and the most fertile variant in a given environment tends to survive (cf. Marx and Engels, 1975, Vol. XXV:63-64). Thus the variant which is selected does not necessarily possess progressive characteristics any more than did the other variants (cf. also Gould, 1977:13). As a contemporary observer of these ideational developments, Leonard Hobhouse, commented, Spencer's conception of pan-evolutionism was a "descriptive formula" while the theory of natural selection in biology was "causational." It is the latter [22/23] alone which would "enable us to predict the future or infer the character of the unrecorded past" (Hobhouse, 1911:106-107; cf. also Marx and Engels, 1975, Vol. XXV:518). Indeed, the Social Darwinist doctrines are not only non-scientific, but must be seen in the light of their Malthusian and conservative overtones. To the extent natural selection does operate in human society, Social Darwinist doctrines are in effect ruling class apologetics, justifying policies against those whose participation in productive labor is being selected for, those with higher fertility rates, those of the working class and non-European heritage.

Both doctrines had implications for the understanding of the societal realm. On the one hand, the basic presuppositions of the biologistic doctrines—vulgar materialism ramified by mechanistic analogies—were extended straightforwardly to the social sciences. Spencer, for instance, maintained that "social evolution forms a part of evolution at large" (1898, Vol. I:596; cf. Pearson, 1937:301; also Freeman, 1983:296, who argues from the potentiality for evolution to the products of evolution). Spencer sought to prove this claim by a careful selection of `facts' which would not disturb his "descriptive formula." Hence his is what Adolf Grunbaum has called "enumerative inductivism" (1976). The unidirectional change in general from homogeneity to heterogeneity which he postulated as a cosmic process was understood to be instantiated in the societal change from the militant (i.e. the `military' or `despotic' type) to the industrial type of society. It is suggestive of his sense of evidence that Spencer refers here to Norway (1898, Vol. I:579). Finally, he indicates that struggling against this societal change and the increasing social division of labor is misguided and fruitless (cf. Hobhouse, 1911:20-23).

Pearson, deeply influenced by Bismarck's "Prussian Socialism," argued that the human struggle for existence manifests itself at the level of the individual (the Spencerian sense of struggle) and at the level of the nation (which Pearson called the "Socialistic" sense), as well as in humanity's struggle against the environment (Pearson, 1937:306 f). According to Pearson, there is no such struggle as that between antagonistic classes; he would simply define it out of existence. "Socialism" then becomes the perversion of National Socialist ideology, wherein "class struggle" becomes the antagonistic relation between "plutocratic nation" and "proletarian nation."

But Pearson goes even further. Humanity's struggle against nature he calls "Humanism," with evident Positivist echoes. But Pearson's "Humanism" is "satisfied" when "a capable and stalwart race of white men should replace a dark-skinned tribe which can neither utilize its land for the full benefit of mankind, nor contribute its quota to the common stock of human knowledge." In the end, there is no such struggle as that for national liberation; for Pearson it becomes "the struggle of civilized man against uncivilized man and against [23/24] nature" (1937:310). Predictably, his reference to "uncivilized man" is to the Black South African (i.e. the "Kaffir"; cf. 1937:309, note).

Freeman, for all his espousal of a "More Scientific Paradigm" in anthropology (1983:294 ff), seems to follow Pearson's lead here. He seeks a systems theory incorporating both genetic and exogenetic elements (1983:299). The genetic elements of this system are straightforward enough, but what is one to make of the "exogenetic"? Definition in terms of the genetic and its simple negation, characteristic of biologistic thought (cf. also Holmes, 1987:13), reduce the categories of the social and the cultural to residual status.

From the standpoint of dialectical materialism, it is likewise unacceptable scientifically that Freeman can find no place for social structure in his "More Scientific Paradigm." His entire discussion of the "exogenetic" in Chapter 20 is limited to cultural reflections rather than their structural bases (1983:294-302). This, despite the well-documented reciprocal relationship between cultural elements such as language, and social structure—culture affects social inequality, as Freeman's favorite illustration of the language of etiquette shows, but inequality affects linguistic culture as Dell Hymes (1974) and Wm. Labov (1972) have amply demonstrated. And this, despite the fact that the various ethnographies of Samoa, upon which Freeman depends, highlight the significance of social structure, political power, and the control of economic resources (e.g. 1983:123). What Pearson would attain by a definitional sleigh of the hand, so Freeman would accomplish with another sleigh of the hand. More Scientific, indeed!

Not all Social Darwinists were so brazen as to dismiss the issue of social antagonism out of hand. With specific reference to the topic of class struggle and in light of the Paris Commune of 1871, Spencer pontificated that "the relation of master and workman has to be tolerated, because, for the time being, no other will answer as well." And what was the answer, in his conception? Laissez faire! Spencer continued: "this organization of industry we now see around us must be considered as one in which the cost of regulation, though not so great as it once was, is still excessive . . . under better systems to be expected hereafter, there will doubtless be a decrease in the cost of regulation" (1876:229). Apparently Spencer was unaware of the economic concept of externalities, which makes clear that the cost to the enterprise, incurred by regulation, amounts to a benefit for the community, and the benefit to the enterprise, resulting from non-regulation (or deregulation), amounts to a cost for the community through pollution, wasting of resources, industrial accidents, shoddy merchandise, etc. Of course, Spencer lived in an era before Bhophal and Judge Douglas Ginsberg.

By contrast, the theory of natural selection in biology has been understood to be independent of processes of social evolution. Julian Huxley has made two points which bear on this claim. First, he stressed that "all or almost all of the increase in man's control over [24/25] nature have been non-genetic, owing to his exploitation of his biologically unique capacity for tradition" (1964:573). Thus biological evolution is not necessary for the societal evolution of humanity. Second, he suggested that exterminating humanity would end forever the possibility of culture and thereby for social development, even though biological evolution were to continue (1964:571). Thus the "Planet of the Apes," a popular movie depicting the cultural dominance of apes over humanity following a nuclear war, can never be more than science fiction. Biological evolution is no longer sufficient for societal evolution. Jointly, these points establish that biological evolution is logically independent of social evolution, rendering the latter distinct from "evolution at large." Of course, the societal process can be understood to be constrained by biological capacities and conditions, as it is by geological, climatic, and other conditions, but that is another point (cf. Marx and Engels, 1976, Vol. V:42 note).

This independence was acknowledged both by the [pre-Boasian] anthropologists and by the theorists of natural selection. Edward Tylor, perhaps the most eminent British anthropologist of that era, in his Primitive Culture (1873), "strenuously" advanced a "theory of development or evolution," yet it "scarcely" had any need to mention the work of Charles Darwin (1958:xvi). In that book, Tylor presented a theory of selective advantage in human society based on group affiliation which depended more upon such traditions as the early historical materialism of Montesquieu's De L'esprit des lois, on his conception of the advantage of a "society of societies" (Livre IX, 1), than upon the vulgar materialism which traced selective advantage to the "mixing of stocks." On the other side, Thomas Huxley pointed out as early as the 1860's that human culture emerged with the evolution of the human capacity for "intelligible and rational speech" (1898:155). This was a cumulative and intergenerationally transmittable product which had movements distinct from those of biological processes. Thus anthropology and the theory of natural selection in biology have both acknowledged that social evolutionism must be formulated in its own terms, not as a weak shadow of biologistic doctrine. We can recognize that the two different spheres, societal and biological, find their unity only in the framework of dialectical materialism.

All of this requires a social science which is categorially rich enough to address not only the dialectic of general and particular, i.e. modes of production in varying natural environments, but also the specificity of social relations, consciousness, and culture (including language). To the extent that human genetic endowment is relevant to such a social science, it is an aspect of the natural environment. The particularities of the latter have some bearing on the specificity of society, but they are largely mediated through the mode of production. Such a dialectical anthropology carries us far beyond the youthful endeavors of Margaret Mead in the 1920's, and beyond the strivings of Derek Freeman in the present decade, for that matter. [25/26]


Thus, as class struggle intensified during the later decades of the 19th Century, we see that Socialism, Marxism, historical materialism, Morgan's social evolutionism, etc.—virtually any aspect of science revealing the significance of dialectics—all became increasingly disreputable in 'higher circles.' And their reputations in those circles only worsened with the onset of the general crisis of capitalism and the Bolshevik Revolution. As evidence of the latter, we find the persons and the periods hopelessly confounded. For instance, we find Engels described as "the most explicit Bolshevik spokesman" (Leslie and Kerman, 1985:116), though he died in 1895, some years before the 1903 split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. The primary task of 'reputable' academics in the West—and even aspiring academics—came to be the promotion of doctrines and Metaphysical Worldviews which did not threaten the bourgeois order. Thus the popularity for both the two competing approaches of Boasian anthropology and biologism.

All this bears on our understanding and practice today, as the 20th Century wanes and along with it, Imperialism as well. As we have seen throughout this essay, it is essential to recognize the dialectical considerations and implications of science and its development. We must first assess the ideological significance of a discipline such as anthropology—as well as its artifacts (e.g. monographs, essays, etc.)—in class terms, and only then weigh the merits of the controversies between the several forms of apologetics and obfuscations. And that caveat seems to bear on our understanding of the anthropology of the 1980's no less than that of the 1880's.


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Blumberg, R.L and R.F. Winch (1972) "Societal Complexity and Familial Complexity," American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 77:898-920.

Boas, Franz (1940) Race, Language and Culture, NY: Macmillan

Boas, Franz (1974) "Anthropology" in G. Stocking (ed.) The Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883-1911, NY: Basic Books

Engels, Frederick (1972) Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,NY: International.

Freeman, Derek (1983) Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Gerson, Simon (1976) Pete, NY: International Publishers

Gordon, David M. et al. (1972) Segmented Work, Divided Workers, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Gould, Stephen Jay (1977) "Eternal Metaphors of Paleontology" in A. Hallam (ed.) Patterns of Evolution as Illustrated by the Fossil Record, NY: Elsevier.


Grunbaum, Adolf (1976) "Is Falsifiability the Touchstone of Scientific Rationality?" in R.S. Cohen et al. (eds.), Essays in Memory of Imre Lakatos, Dordrecht: D. Reidel

Grunbaum, Adolf (1984) Foundations of Psychoanalysis, Berkeley: University of California Press

Hobhouse, Leonard (1911) Social Evolution and Political Thought, NY: Columbia University Press

Holmes, Lowell (1987) Quest for the Real Samoa, South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey

Huxley, Julian (1964) Evolution: the Modern Synthesis, NY: Wiley

Huxley, Thomas (1898) Man's Place in Nature, NY: D. Appleton and Co.

Hymes, Dell (1974) Foundations of Sociolinguistics, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Jones, Ernest (1951) "Motherright and the Sexual Ignorance of Savages" Essays in Applied Psychoanalysis, London: Hogarth Press

Kroeber, Alfred (1923) Anthropology, NY: Harcourt, Brace and Co.

Kroeber, Alfred (1933) Supplement, 1923-1933, NY: Harcourt, Brace and Co.; this was supplementary to his Anthropology (1923).

Labov, Wm. (1972) Sociolinguistic Patterns, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Leacock, Eleanor Burke (1987) "The Problem of Youth in Contemporary Samoa," published as the Postscript in Holmes (1987:177-188)

Leslie, G.R., and S.K.Kerman (1985) The Family in Social Context, (6th ed.) NY: Oxford University Press.

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Mead, Margaret (1928) Coming of Age in Samoa, NY: Wm. Morrow

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Pearson, Karl (1937) The Grammar of Science, London: J.M. Dent and Sons

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Tylor, Edward (1958) Primitive Culture, NY: Harper and Row.

©1990 Gordon A. Welty

SOURCE: Welty, Gordon. "The Attack on Mead and the Dialectics of Anthropology," Science and Nature, Nos. 9/10 (1989), pp. 14-27.

Note: "The two books in brief" (pp. 28-29) follow's Welty's article and is unsigned. The page footer lists the same title as Welty's article. It could be an addendum by Welty (not on his web site) or by the journal editor. (See below.)

The two books in brief

Lowell D. Holmes, Quest for the Real Samoa: The Mead‑Freeman Controversy and Beyond. South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey 1987. x + 209 pages, bibliography, index, $29.95.

IN 1954 HOLMES undertook a deliberate restudy of the village Ta'u in American Samoa, studied in the mid‑1920s by the late Margaret Mead. Here he reports conclusions from this unique restudy and subsequent Samoan studies. The work assumes great importance in the light of Derek Freeman's attack on Mead and her Samoan studies.

Holmes' book begins by reviewing the background of Mead's research for her Coming of Age in Samoa [1928]. Next, he considers the use and misuse of "methodological restudies." Then he gives findings from his own restudy of American Samoa in four chapters on culture, social organization, religion, and the life cycle. Another chapter considers how historical change may have affected comparisons one could draw between his and Mead's findings. Assessing Mead, he finds "the validity of her Samoan research is remarkably high" [p. 103].

Since much of the controversy about Mead's Samoan studies turns on the issue of the Samoan personality, Holmes devotes a chapter to a review of the various psychometric tests of Samoan subjects. Then he closes by addressing the topic we have all been waiting for, his assessment of Mead's sharpest critic, Derek Freeman. Holmes concludes that anthropological work "should not be something that attempts to close the door on all further investigation and purges alternative interpretations. This is the effect of [Freeman's book,] Margaret Mead and Samoa [p. 175].

Overall, Holmes' book is strongly recommended for its substantive contribution to Micronesian ethnography, and even more so for contributing to the scientific and professional development of anthropology.

Derek Freeman, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Pr. 1983, xvii + 379 pages, index. $25.

When Margaret Mead, in Coming of Age in Samoa [1928], concluded that adolescence in Samoa was not particularly stressful, she thereby cast serious doubt upon biologistic thinking in the social sciences. Derek Freeman says he knew by 1943 that someday he would have to "face the responsibility of writing a refutation of Mead's Samoan findings" [p. xiv]. His book has four parts. The first juxtaposes Francis Galton's biological determinism to Franz Boas' “cultural determinism.” The next suggests that Mead, as Boas' graduate student, got the task of proving cultural determinism by finding a "negative instance" to falsify biological determinism. The third, "A Refutation of Mead's Conclusions," has 11 chapters on such topics as the historical setting of Samoa, aggression, religion, childrearing, adolescence, and the Samoan ethos. Of the two concluding chapters, one casts Freeman's final slanders against Mead's Samoan studies and another, "Towards a More Scientific Anthropological Paradigm," praises the contribution sociobiology has made to our understanding of other cultures.

This book is hardly science; it is tendentious, its reasoning specious, its evidence selective. Perhaps because of these characteristics, its publication date was well timed. On internal evidence, it appears that Freeman had completed the draft by the mid‑1970s while Mead was still alive, a consideration which may have delayed publication. By the early 1980s, however, the cultural climate was ripe for a sociobiological attack of this sort. Resurgent racism was just then calling for 'scientific' legitimation. Of course, the moment would have been lost had publication been delayed. Progressive trends were again to the fore by mid‑1980s. Consider by contrast Lt. Col. Oliver North's media circus of the summer of 1987—so soon forgotten! Perhaps Ollie should have had Harvard University Press package him and promote his line, as Freeman had a few years earlier!

Page 28      Science and Nature      Nos. 9/10                             The Attack on Margaret Mead      Page 29

Science and Nature, Table of Contents, issues #1-10 (1978-1989)

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