The Case of Margaret Mead: Icon of the Blank Slate

Margaret Mead

I wonder how many of the people who have been furious detractors or avid supporters of Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa have actually read the book. Very few, if the comments I’ve seen about it are any guide. The book is supposed to be one of the holy Gospels of the Blank Slate, or the theory that there is, for all practical purposes, no such thing as innate human nature, a palpably false notion that somehow managed to mesmerize the practitioners of the sciences of human behavior through much of the 20th century. How such a seemingly innocuous little book could have risen to such prominence and been accorded such ideological significance is a subject that may well busy future generations of psychologists.

On the face of it, the book seems to be a collection of observations concerning the natives of Samoa written by a talented and intelligent young anthropologist who had visited the islands for a period of something under a year. A student of the noted psychologist Frank Boas, she was particularly interested in finding if the apparent stress and strain of adolescence for girls growing up in western societies was really unavoidable, or merely the reflection of a dysfunctional culture. I find no intent to deceive in the book, no excessive confirmation bias, and no evidence that Mead was a person easily duped by the individuals she was studying into believing something that she wanted to believe, but that was actually false.

Boas did Mead no favor by writing in a foreword to the book:

The results of the painstaking investigation confirm the suspicion long held by anthropologists, that much of what we ascribe to human nature is no more than a reaction to the restraints put upon us by our civilization.

The statement is both crudely unscientific (a brief study like Mead’s could “confirm” no such sweeping conclusion one way or the other), and self-contradictory (why would human beings “react to restraints” if it is not their nature to do so?). Such inflammatory nonsense amounted to putting a target on Mead’s back. I am not familiar enough with her work to know if she ever made such a sweeping claim herself in some other work, but nothing like it appears in Coming of Age. In Dilthey’s Dream, a collection of essays by Mead’s great foe, Derek Freeman, he makes the claim,

In the thirteenth chapter of Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead went even further, claiming on the basis of her enquiries into adolescence in Samoa, that explanations other than in terms of environmental factors could not be made.

I have carefully parsed the chapter in question, and can only conclude that Freeman had a lively imagination. Mead did constantly stress the importance of culture in the book, but I find nothing, in the thirteenth chapter or elsewhere, that positively excludes other than cultural influences on human behavior. What she actually did say was consistent with a comment that appeared in a preface she wrote for the 1973 edition of the book:

But the renascence of racism among some scientists and the pleas for a harsh, manipulative behavioralism among some psychologists make me wonder whether the modern world understands much more about the significance of culture – the interplay between individual endowment and cultural style, the limits set by biology and the way in which human imagination can transcend those limits – than was known in 1928.

Here Mead is wearing her well-known political activism on her sleeve, but she clearly distances herself from the extreme versions of the Blank Slate that were prevalent in 1973 and explicitly acknowledges that there are “limits set by biology.” This statement, written near the end of her career, seems to position her closer to modern theories of human nature than to the extreme “nurture vs. nature” orthodoxy of the mid-20th century.

Freeman isn’t the only one who has transformed Coming of Age to an ideological icon in his imagination, attributing extreme claims to it that one searches for in vain in the actual book. In rounding up the usual suspects, we find that Steven Pinker, that master chef of philosopher soup, has done the same thing. In his book The Blank Slate, he cites Coming of Age as a prime example of the “noble savage” fallacy, claiming in particular that Mead portrays Samoan society as egalitarian. She does no such thing. Her book is full of descriptions of the hierarchical traditions of the culture, and the consciousness and importance of rank and status. As far as the “noble savage” is concerned, Mead explicitly rejected some aspects of Samoan culture as inimical to those values of Western civilization that she believed should be preserved.

As for Freeman, he was a strange bird. Like Sam Harris, he had the notion that his understanding of human nature was so acute that he could use it to cobble together a new morality. For example, again from Dilthey’s Dream:

One of my main conclusions then is that there is a need for a critical anthropology of human values. Human cultures being value systems are “experiments in living,” and a critical anthropology would be concerned with assessing the consequences of these “experiments in living” in the hope that we might gradually learn to select our values with greater wisdom.

He seems to have elevated Mead to the role of quintessential representative of the Blank Slate in his imagination, and was obsessed with the bizarre notion that, if he could only prove that her claims about sexuality in Samoan adolescents were wrong, he would not only debunk Mead, but single-handedly demolish the Blank Slate itself. In fact, whether adolescent Samoan girls in the 1920s were as chaste as the most straight-laced Victorians, or just as Mead described them, it would “prove” nothing at all about human nature. Factual or not, Mead’s version of Samoan sexuality was well within the parameters already observed in other societies by observers both modern and ancient.

The question remains of whether Mead’s findings about the relative sexual freedom of women and girls in Samoan society were true or, as Freeman claimed, a figment of her imagination based on the claims of Samoan girls who told her what she seemed to want to hear as something of a practical joke. It happens that there is much of relevance to this question in a book entitled An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands by an Englishman who had lived among them for many years published in 1817. Thanks to Google books, this account, a wonderful anthropological study in its own right, can be read online. In includes a section on sexual behavior, noting that married women tended to be true to their husbands, but that marriage bonds were weak, and many of them were married multiple times. Unmarried women, on the other hand, enjoyed virtually untrammeled sexual freedom. Quoting from the book (page 173):

If a man divorces his wife, which is attended with no other ceremony than just telling her that she may go, she becomes perfect mistress of her own conduct, and may marry again, which is often done a few days afterwards, without the least disparagement to her character: or if she chooses, she may remain single and admit a lover occasionally, or may cohabit with her lover for a time, and remain at his house without being considered his wife, having no particular charge of his domestic concerns, and may leave him when she pleases, and this she may also do without the least reproach or secrecy.

…once divorced, they can remain single if they please, and enjoy all the liberty that the most libertine heart can desire.

…As to those women who are not actually married, they may bestow their favours upon whomsoever they please, without any opprobrium.

Remarkably, the author claimed that, in spite of this, the women were relatively chaste, if not compared to Europe, than at least compared to other island groups in the region, including Samoa, to which the natives occasionally traveled in their ocean-going canoes. In a review of the book that appeared in the April 1817 edition of the British Quarterly Review we learn, for example:

The women are much less immodest than in the other islands, and maternal affection exists as strongly among them as among the nations where the instincts of nature are fostered and strengthened by the sense of duty.

In a word, score one for Mead. It would seem that Freeman was the one who had his leg pulled.

If there’s a lesson here, perhaps it is that, before becoming firmly convinced about what an author said, it is useful to actually read her book beforehand.  Paul Shankman has written an account of the Mead – Freeman controversy entitled The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy. An interesting review of the book may be found here.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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