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College Quarterly
Spring 2011 - Volume 14 Number 2
Nature, Nurture and Story-telling—Part 1: The Freeman-Mead Controversy
By Howard A. Doughty
Books Discussed:

Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa (New York: Harper Perennial, 2001).

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

Derek Freeman, The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: An Analysis of Her Samoan Research (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999).

Paul Shankman, The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009).

Apart from the few of us who are occasionally called upon to teach courses in Cultural Anthropology or who maintain professional or recreational interests in human origins and cultural evolution, a fair question to ask is this: Why should anyone care about a fierce controversy concerning the life and work of Margaret Mead?

True, Dr. Mead (1901-1978) was an iconic figure in American life in the middle half of the 20th century. Her influence on popular attitudes and public policy could also be felt world-wide. Her work as an anthropologist and as a public intellectual had a tremendous effect on education, child-rearing practices and an extraordinary range of related social policy domains. She enthralled some, offended others and made a global reputation for herself, arguably becoming anthropology's first "rock star." Yet, in the age of twittering, tweets and social amnesia, her name is unlikely to be recognized by one in a hundred North Americans. To the extent that her ideas remain influential, they are largely unattributed and mostly trivialized almost beyond recognition.

For those unfamiliar with her story, I shall risk my own reputation such as it is, by providing an admittedly cartoon version of what Margaret Mead was said to have done by her admirers and her critics at the peak of her popularity and posthumously as well.

As a young woman Mead studied anthropology under the pioneering ethnographer Franz Boas. Her field work took her first to the island of Ta'u in the south-west Pacific and eventually spread out to other sites, not least to New Guinea. On Ta'u she studied the psychological development of young females in what we were then pleased to call a "primitive" culture. In 1928, she published Coming of Age in Samoa. As well as a stunning academic success, her account was also a popular triumph. The book quickly sold almost half a million copies. It remains in print today and it is doubtless the most widely read anthropological study in the history of the discipline. She followed it up with Growing Up in New Guinea in 1930 and with Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies in 1935. In all, she published close to fifty books plus innumerable articles for professional journals and the popular press. Her impact on her third husband and my old teacher Gregory Bateson (1904-1980), her daughter Mary Catherine Bateson (b. 1939) plus generations of students, colleagues and friends including the almost equally famous Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), and the entirety of modern culture was formidable.

Coming of Age in Samoa was a version of Margaret Mead's doctoral dissertation. Her thesis concerned the psychological question of adolescent stress and inquired whether Samoans experienced the same anxiety and consequent intergeneration tensions and youthful rebelliousness that were common in "modern" societies. Her fieldwork consisted of interviews through an interpreter with sixty-eight girls and young women between the ages of nine and twenty. Her conclusion was that the easygoing Samoan culture permitted and even encouraged pre-marital sexual activities that removed a good deal of youthful anxiety, yet did not inhibit subsequent "settling down" to stable marriage and family life. Her on-site studies convinced her that her subjects were happier, psychologically healthier and maybe even morally superior to their "advanced" industrial counterparts. Growing up in an idyllic society without excessive sexual inhibitions against same-sex relations and even incest allowed the girls to develop genuinely wholesome social relations and not to be twisted into the neurotic attitudinal and behavioural patterns so characteristic of modernity.

For the published version of the work, Mead included additional chapters commenting directly on the implications of her studies for child-rearing in the modern world. Aligned with "culturalists" on the side of "nurture" in the hoary old "nature/nurture" debate, she was accused of bias in selecting empirical evidence for her progressive, soft-hearted belief that human beings were products of their cultures, and that cultures (and therefore all individuals) could change or be changed for the better, presumably as a result of adaptation or through some process of social engineering. Her findings were variously attacked methodologically for being biased in favour of her own philosophical assumptions and substantively for undermining the morals of her audience. Needless to say, these attacks did not hurt her sales.

Margaret Mead was convinced that the sexually repressive norms of her New England childhood were psychologically and socially harmful. Her inquiries into Samoan life left her equally convinced that she had found sound and supportive scientific evidence for her beliefs. Coming of Age in Samoa and subsequent volumes on similar themes captured the public imagination and pretty much framed the agenda for research on topics such as child development for years to come. Her accounts of the lives of the carefree children of Samoa provided a stark contrast with angst-ridden, sullenly aggressive and alienated youth in urbanized, technologically advanced Western society. Her analysis contributed mightily to organized attempts to remove the emotional and behavioural pathologies of industrial society by stimulating a re-evaluation and reform of family relations and educational practices.

Margaret Mead, of course, did not succeed in transforming families and modern education, much less the whole of the Western world. I can personally confirm that nothing resembling progressive education on sexual or other matters had penetrated my dominantly Calvinist village in what was then rural Ontario, even by the early 1950s. I suspect others can say the same. Nonetheless, while some freedom (or the appearance of freedom) has more recently become commonplace in classrooms, there was and remains opposition to "permissiveness" from "traditionalists."

That opposition once came from those who were aghast at what they believed to be the gross immorality of sexual experimentation, the laxity of values and standards in Mead's curricular agenda and the implications of her broad critique of everything from rote learning to corporal punishment. Nothing less than "the Protestant Ethic" and the "Spirit of Capitalism" were said to be at stake. Currently, that same spirit is now evident in cries to "get back to basics," to hold teachers "accountable" for student academic "success" as measured by standardized tests (mainly in language and mathematics) and for the "moral" development of young people in an age of absentee parenting, pervasive pornography and violent videogames. For every "progressive" educator, there seems to be someone demanding that we quit "coddling" youngsters whether through inflating grades to prevent damaging their fragile egos and sense of entitlement, or by providing school lunch programs to minimize malnutrition and prevent scurvy. The degree to which the "backlash" is trying to whip us into shape suggests that there is less and less room for the languorous pursuit of happiness in the increasingly competitive global economy.

What happens in classrooms from Junior Kindergarten to Postgraduate schools is, of course, of vital interest to all responsible citizens; but, education is not the only field in which the controversy over the research and policy papers prepared by Dr. Mead and her followers is important. To understand why, it is necessary to examine the sources of the most intellectually significant charges against her.

The principal protagonist in the case of Margaret Mead has been the Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman (1916-2001). Anthropologists such as Boas, Benedict and Mead argued that, while basic human needs must be met in all societies, specific behaviours designed to meet these needs were culturally determined. Human beings were highly malleable and displayed a wide variety of cultural practices. Given the evident diversity, it followed that tonic social arrangements could be created through thoughtful design and proper education; so, psychological wellbeing, social cooperation and moral progress were plainly possible. Included in the progressive agenda were fundamental liberal values of freedom, equity and human rights—especially a commitment to reduce or eliminate racism and sexism. What's more, Mead and likeminded others argued that realizing these values required the abandonment of imperial assumptions that modernization along Western lines defined not only progress, but also human destiny. Indeed, they had the nerve to say that some salutary ethical lessons could be learned by "looking backward" to social arrangements that promoted cooperation and caring rather than the celebration competition and greed that dominates our own. It was a lot to absorb.

Two main arguments about Margaret Mead's field studies were, in their different ways, potentially devastating. One boiled down to the allegation that she—wittingly or unwittingly—was a lousy scientist because she used her research to further her previously held ideological beliefs. She had not been "objective"; she had "cooked" her data. The other was that she was a lousy scientist because she didn't do all that much research and she didn't even get that right. She had, it was claimed, misinterpreted the culture she was studying, misread the signs she was given, and even been tricked into seeing what was not there, partly by her subjects who had great fun telling her lies and greater fun knowing that she believed them. On either or both counts, Derek Freeman claimed that her entire research project was bogus and that the policies and programs she derived from it were ethically dangerous in addition to being empirically unsound.

Behind these claims lay the larger theoretical issues of what was and is the fundamental explanation of human behaviour. Derek Freeman was not a "culturalist." He was firmly in the camp of "sociobiology." This tradition is heir to what is often called the "naturist" school. It comes in various shapes and sizes. Its roots can be traced in a zig-zag fashion into time immemorial, or at least to the Abrahamic notion of "original sin." Sometimes it arises as a theological/philosophical assumption that human beings are by nature weak, wicked and flawed by "original sin." Sometimes it takes on a quasi-scientific veneer, or, as Thomas Hobbes put it, humanity in the "state of nature" is doomed to live lives that are "nasty, brutish and short." More recently, biologists and evolutionary psychologists have tied themselves to genetic theories and claimed, at the very least, that large swaths of human culture are biologically determined and, in extremis, that our every thought word and deed is anticipated in our genes. They provide a strident brief against the tabula rasa of John Locke. They believe instead in a determinative human "nature" that cannot be substantially altered by experience or learning. There is, they insist, no "blank slate."

The most recent large tributary into this stream dates from the work of ethologist Konrad Lorenz in books such as King Solomon's Ring (1949). It, in turn, gave rise to widely read volumes such as Robert Ardrey's African Genesis (1961), Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox's collaboration The Imperial Animal (1966), Desmond Morris' The Naked Ape (1966) and The Human Zoo (1969) and Lorenz's own On Aggression (1966). They inspired robust rejoinders, some of which were collected in Ashley Montagu's Man and Aggression (1968). The culmination of this effort came in the form of E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology: A New Synthesis (1975) and replies such as Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose and Leon Kamin's Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology and Human Nature (1984). Over the past quarter-century the entire field has been ploughed deep and well fertilized. Richer crops have been grown since those early days with Steve Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002) being only one of many to carry on the debate and take it far, far beyond Margaret Mead's contested research in American Samoa over eighty years ago.

So, what is to be won or lost by rehearsing any of this? Well, the fact is that the jury is still out, and to be frank, there are some of us who are wondering if the entire question hasn't been poorly framed. As far as nature/nurture is concerned, I would prefer declare a mistrial. I have long argued that the struggle is a textbook case of a false dichotomy. The quarrel between those committed to progressive change and improvement through experience and education and those pledged to denounce such reforms as utopian pipe-dreams that are scientifically worthless and corrosive of our natural dispositions to tough-minded competition and "survival of the fittest" is a classic instance of what logicians call the fallacy of the exhaustive hypothesis. Simply put, it's an inappropriate "either/or," a demand for a choice between "black and white" where there are only intermediate shades of grey. Nonetheless, just because a debate is silly doesn't mean it doesn't have consequences. What people (especially those in charge of educational funding and curricular content) believe, no matter how foolish, can have profound consequences.

An example is a specific instance of the nature/nurture kerfuffle in one of the several forms of "biological reductionism." Those who abide by the doctrine of genetic determinism have worked much mischief in Western society. We need not return to the grisly era of eugenics to find the fault. Much more recently, the debate about innate intelligence with its inevitable class, race and gender subtexts has had enormous consequences for educational policy and funding. Nothing serves the effort to scuttle programs dedicated to overcoming discrimination better than a scientific-sounding argument that certain groups of people are intrinsically inferior and that attempts to support them are a waste of resources. We may no longer urge the sterilization of the poor, the banishment of women from postsecondary schools or functional genocide with the same enthusiasm that we did only a few generations ago; nonetheless, genetic destiny remains just under the surface when we think of rewarding high-performance (i.e., wealthy, white suburban schools), enabling internal colonialism on aboriginal reserves, discouraging women in engineering or, for that matter, contemplating cuts in G-20 programs of "assistance" to underdeveloped countries. On such topics, the question often boils down to which side can cook up the winning story—with victory normally going to the politically dominant and economically advantaged.

In terms of the particulars of the story told by Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman struck at her on several fronts: personal, political and methodological. It may be worth mentioning that his own critics seldom avoid mentioning that, despite a considerable litany of private criticisms in personal correspondence to which Mead frequently replied, Freeman did not begin his public assault in earnest until Mead was already dying, and certainly too ill to respond—especially in a public forum. Still, his arguments must be judged on their merits and not on speculations about their timing.

Derek Freeman claimed that Mead's idyllic account was false on its face. She had reported that, in Samoa, adolescent sexuality was open, casual and psychologically healthy. In reality, he countered, her South Pacific paradise had one of the world's highest rates of violent rape. He said that she was hopelessly naïve and easily duped by some friendly Samoan girls who, in some cases, were "just kidding" her and in others were only telling Mead what they thought she wanted to hear. One of the girls, Fa'amotu, is mentioned frequently in Mead's autobiography, Blackberry Winter (1972). She was also interviewed by Freeman at an advanced age and was one of his principal witnesses in his brief against Mead. In Freeman's opinion, Margaret Mead was the victim of a hoax, a practical joke played by two young girls whom Mead had befriended. Mead, however, never quite "got it," and used the girls' fabrications and fantasies as the data upon which to construct her ethnography. The writings of both Mead and Freeman raise ethical and methodological questions. Was Freeman acting as a scholar or a private investigator trying to get the "dirt" on a suspect? How reliable were Mead's inquiries, especially when the observer had become intimate with the observed?

Freeman makes much of the fact that Mead did not actually live with her subjects in the custom of anthropologists in the field. She may have observed, but she didn't seem to participate. Instead, she stayed with an American family in a nearby US Navy dispensary. Freeman also claims that she did not stay long enough to assess her subjects' society and culture adequately. He adds that she was not fluent in the local language, depended on a translator and therefore could not independently verify the answers to her questions. The impact of such charges has been devastating to Mead's standing. Commenting on the effects of Freeman's condemnation of Margaret Mead, Carl O. Nordling, the fairly famous Finnish-born architect, statistician and provisioner of evidence to Holocaust Deniers (see "How Many Jews Died in the German Concentration Camps?" Journal of Historical Review 11(3), 1991) sneered that the social science "establishment has certainly pilloried itself by cherishing Coming of Age and Sex and Temperament for more than half a century." His contempt, while a little extreme, was widely spread.

Firing back, Mead's supporters turned some of Freeman's opinions back on him: he said that she ignored biological factors; she (or her supporters) said that he ignored culture. Both accused each other of having deep-seated political agendas. My own guess is that both sets of accusations have somemerit.

Setting aside the dueling egos and the risk to reputations, does all of this imply that the products of academic researchers and theorists are valueless (or of equal value, which amounts to the same thing)? It does not. There remain standards of good science and epistemological assumptions about the independent reality of an external world that can be properly and confidently explored using scientific methods. We must be cautious in deriving policy implications from any scientific research, especially a small and singular study. Nonetheless, if made the centre of proper scientific inquiry, Mead's thesis and Freeman's antithesis would have been followed by efforts at replication until the matter was either resolved or found to be irresolvable. In the meantime, they both offer compelling narratives and their respective opinions remain lurking in the mindsets of public policy makers, educational administrators and classroom teachers—whether they know it or not.

Enter Paul Shankman, and let's be clear at the outset: he is strong supporter of Margaret Mead and an equally staunch critic of Derek Freeman. He has written extensively about her and about her supporters' disputes with Freeman. His interest is not casual. The Mead-Freeman controversy has featured largely in his publishing history for almost thirty years. His book, The Trashing of Margaret Mead, vigorously and unapologetically defends Mead. But he is not a fool. Where valid criticisms arise, he acknowledges them. He contends only that, on balance, her life and work were praiseworthy.

Among the several issues he addresses are those relating to the main personality involved. Margaret Mead was not merely a liberal, but would presumably be regarded as seriously avant-garde even today. In the throes of the contemporary culture wars her attitudes toward sex (she was thrice married, involved in a number of bisexual relationships, dedicated to what was then called "free love," an earnest supporter of sex education and birth control and, of course, a dedicated feminist) may no longer seem extreme especially among "Ivy League elitists"; moreover, in the 1920s through the 1950s, when race, whether in the American South or Nazi Germany, was deemed the key determinant of social status, her union with Boas and Benedict in the forefront of the campaign against racism was far more daring and dangerous than it would be today.

As for Freeman, Shankman portrays him as emotionally unstable, self-absorbed and convinced that it was his destiny to take anthropology back from the culturalists and set it up on sound scientific footings. Shankman may not be doing Mead much of a favour when he suggests that Coming of Age in New Guinea was meant to be a commercial project (she wanted to make money) and the basis of a political polemic (she wanted to reform society). Neither ambition was apt to win her much respect in the academy which largely disdained excessive celebrity, financial interest and the politicization of intellectual life. Shankman, however, carried on his argument with such passion that one commentator has called him "messianic" and wrote with such vehemence that another reviewer claimed his characterization of Margaret Mead bordered on defamation.

In the end, by assessing the rather loose scientific standards of the 1920s and representing Mead as a social reformer and a popularizer of the still-young discipline of anthropology, Shankman explains a good deal of the controversy—both the elements of the arguments and the motivations of the protagonists—and argues persuasively for Margaret Mead's redemption both as a woman of integrity and as a scholar.

Shankman also does a service by reassuring us that the Mead-Freeman dust-up is about more than the two personalities or even about the intellectual and political interests that they represent. There were also the Samoans, and it is more than likely that both anthropologists got some things right and that both got quite a few things wrong. Each one may be said to have played fast and loose with the putatively central figures in their studies. Each might properly be said to have been on something of a crusade—Mead to find anthropological justification for her views on modernity, and Freeman to do the same for his, while simultaneously doing as much damage to Mead's reputation and her progressive views about human "nature." In the process, both interpreted and may have exploited where they did not actually appropriate the "voice" of the Samoan people. The clear result is that the narratives they constructed left unstated what their subjects thought and felt about their exercise. The on-again, off-again relationship between anthropology and imperialism is the unavoidable context in which competing anthropological stories are told. If there is any single place for "postcolonialism" in anthropology, this might be it. In the Eurocentric quest for exotica, very few people, with the possible exception of religious missionaries and National Geographic Magazine photographers, have been used to such enormous effect by representatives of an imperial culture seeking to promote their own views about what human society is and ought to be. The profession of anthropology has helped to frame, shape and colour popular views of non-Western peoples—sometimes as "noble savages," sometimes as hideous threats to "civilization," sometimes as quaint cultural atavisms, sometimes as living fossils carrying the benchmarks of all humanity in their customs and in their genes.

In the end, the nature/nurture remains unresolved, which is as it should be for, as I have suggested, it was a false problem in the first place. Moreover, as Liberty Sproat of Purdue University recently wrote, the battle between Mead and Freeman was of dubious academic value in a number of ways, but perhaps prime among them was that "the ‘nature vs. nurture' debate was not at issue in Mead's work; both she and Freeman believed in ‘interactionism' or the interplay between nature and nurture." In effect, Freeman was setting up a "straw woman" for possibly nefarious purposes not yet revealed (some of Freeman's personal papers that may shine further light on his project remain unpublished).

Why, then, persist in paying attention to this squabble? To rephrase my opening statement: "Who should care about this controversy, especially if there is nothing truly at stake in terms of the disinterested exploration of the determinants of human culture?"

The answer is that it stands as one of the more important sources of data on the anthropology of anthropology. It tells us a great deal about how we go about trying to understand our own origins. It is a cautionary tale that should give pause to anyone wanting to use scholarship to carry out public purposes. We need not waste much time and effort sorting out who was "right" or "wrong" in their assessment of human nature.

Now, don't get me wrong. I am not impressed with the alleged scientific aim of objectivity in the analysis of human or any other nature. Contemporary social and natural scientists are, we may hope, well past the intellectual conceit of imagining their studies to be anything other than socially constructed human endeavours permeated with fundamental human interests. I am even less impressed with the old-fashioned distinction once characterized as "the town" and "the gown," the notion that scholarship ought never to be tainted by engagement with public issues and concerns. The "ivory tower," if it ever existed, is now antique and its recollection is at best an exercise in historical fantasy.

Still, the battle involving Mead and Freeman and the positions they represent continues to play out in public discussions even when their names are not invoked by people who may have never heard of them or their dispute. Anthropological inquiries have insinuated themselves into popular culture, and anthropological research has filtered into the fundamental attitudes and beliefs of people charged with making decisions about public policies—whether about education, health care, economic development, aboriginal rights, internal colonialism and native autonomy, criminal justice and strategies for integration or accommodation in every land where hegemonic Western civilization confronts indigenous peoples. The residue of the clash between Mead and Freeman would be an apt subject for research itself. It continues to lurk in college syllabi and in the systemic subtexts of official government documents, the proposals of oil companies and the reactions of aboriginal advocacy groups. As a component of popular thinking and popular prejudice, it cries out for deconstruction.

Howard A. Doughty teaches degree-level courses in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at