Mothering Matters: Chapters 9, 10 and Notes

Chapter 9. The fateful hoaxing of Margaret Mead

The “world images” that have been created by “ideas” have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interest.
Max Weber 

(In other words: Small things can change the course of history.)

On being shown by a colleague “with chapter and verse, that a conclusion of hers was untenable, Mead’s defense would always be, ‘If it isn’t, it ought to be,’ to which she would add, ‘Well, what’s so bad about that?’”
Luther Cressman, Margaret Mead’s first husband, cited by Freeman (1999: 146)

It is in deep waters that the qualities of a canoe are tested.
Derek Freeman (1999), citing his favourite Samoan proverb.

Part One in this book described how five different lines of evidence converge to support the conclusion that there is a natural ‘best-fit’ pattern of mothering that is the norm for humans, and that it is based in our genome. In Part Two, Chapter 6 described how a mismatch between our environment and our biological ‘givens’ can lead to ill-health, and it referred particularly to the risks for mothers and infants. Chapter 7 outlined some changes in the lifestyles of humans over the past 12,000 years. Chapter 8 summarised how a malign view of the baby’s basic nature has sometimes led to child-rearing ideas that involved real risks for the child’s mental health. Chapter 9 now describes how a seductive, but untrue, idea about human nature gave rise to powerful derivative ideologies. Chapters 10 and 11 will outline how these ideologies have affected mothers, their infants, and society. 

Margaret Mead and her influence

Margaret Mead, who was born in Philadelphia in 1901, became an anthropologist and for much of the 20th century was acclaimed as the world’s most eminent social scientist. In her 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa: a Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization, she wrote that Samoans enjoyed a happy, non-violent and neurosis-free society, which she said was because their culture allowed them great sexual freedom during adolescence. Her book became an all-time bestseller, and Mead’s account was used to propagate an ideology that had far-reaching consequences in Western societies. These included adverse effects on the lives of many infants and their mothers, in ways that Mead herself would probably not have approved. 

Mead’s account and conclusions were accepted and cherished by many influential anthropologists for decades, but in 1983 Derek Freeman, a professor at the Australian National University, shocked the anthropological establishment by publishing his detailed evidence that Mead’s story was seriously in error. A few colleagues applauded and were grateful to Freeman, but the anthropological establishment rejected his evidence as an attack on Margaret Mead, who had risen to the status of their celebrated “goddess.” 

Instead of carefully studying and appraising Freeman’s detailed evidence, they rejected it, and some resorted to ad hominem, ‘shoot-the-messenger’ attacks on Freeman himself. These continued even after his death in 2001 with allegations that Freeman’s persistent refutation arose out of quite unworthy motives, personality defects, and so on. Consequently, despite the solid factual evidence, many people think the matter is still unsettled and that perhaps Mead was right. Yet George Appell, Senior Visiting Research Associate, Department of Anthropology, Brandeis University, says: “I showed in 1984 that Margaret Mead was a pathological liar.” 

Since Mead’s book had far-reaching consequences, this important story is summarised here in some detail, drawing on five additional sources of information that are usually not cited. Further details are in Note 7. 

Freeman showed how Mead’s misinformation and her ideas about the underlying ‘pattern’ of Samoan society had been used to propagate the ideology that human nature is almost wholly determined by the cultural environment — cultural determinism. Heredity and biology were held to play little part in the non-physical differences between men and women. Cultural determinism then led to two further persistent ideologies. Cultural relativism taught that all cultures are equally valid for their own people, emphasising that no culture should be judged as being any better or worse than another. Postmodernism took a flexible and often obfuscating approach to language and the truth. These two ideologies are still very widely influential today. 

Cultural Determinism — an antidote to Social Darwinism?

The publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species had begun to transform the study of life on earth, but some people misused Darwin’s theory to justify racism. They said that white races were at the pinnacle of evolution, while others, such as those with darker skins, were less highly evolved and therefore inferior — Social Darwinism

In 1999 Derek Freeman, in his book The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Account of her Samoan Research, described how Franz Boas, who became Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University in New York in 1899, had worked tirelessly to oppose Social Darwinism. In 1888 Boas had written: “the data of ethnology prove that not only our knowledge but also our emotions are the result of the form of our social life and the history of the people to whom we belong”. His pupils adopted his views and Freeman says that in 1917, Alfred Kroeber, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, “instigated a massive intellectual schism, proclaiming that there was an abyss between cultural anthropology and evolutionary biology, ‘an eternal chasm’ that could not be bridged.” Freeman says: “The Boasians had established their independence from biology by social fiat. The breach with evolutionary biology was complete, and Boasian culturalism was poised to become one of the leading ideologies of the twentieth century” (Freeman, 1999: 23–27, 263; Kroeber, 1917). 

In 1922 Margaret Mead was one of Boas’ most promising students, and what she later called “the phenomenon of social pressure and its absolute determination in shaping the individuals within its bounds” was in accord with the “compelling idea” of Boas’ life’s work — “the complete molding of every human expression — inner thought and external behavior — by social conditioning”. Unfortunately, there remained a serious problem: they had no evidence to support this ideology. To remedy this, Boas arranged for Mead to have a research grant for six months in 1925 for “the study of heredity and environment in relation to adolescence” in Samoa (Freeman, 1996). His hope was that she would be able to document a society where adolescents had great sexual freedom, and where the problems associated with adolescence in Western societies were absent. They (unscientifically) thought that if she could describe just one such society, this would show that human nature is determined by culture, not by biological or inherited factors. Freeman wrote that this “doctrine of the cultural patterning of human thought and action… was to develop into a major anthropological movement”. 

As a highly-talented young woman, Mead seemed well-suited to this important project. However, without telling Boas, and against his explicit instructions, she arranged with the Bishop Museum in Honolulu to also carry out a quite different project in which she was much more interested. In the 1988 documentary film/DVD Margaret Mead and Samoa, by Frank Heimans, Mead is shown in 1971, saying: “I didn’t want to study the adolescent girl, I wanted to study change. My professor wanted me to study adolescence — I wanted to come to Polynesia somewhere; he wanted me to stay in the United States. So we made an exchange: he said I could come to Polynesia if I would study the adolescent girl” (Heimans: 9 mins). 

The hoax, and Coming of Age in Samoa

What followed was eventually documented beyond reasonable doubt in 1999 by Derek Freeman. As a 23-year-old New Zealander, he had gone to Western Samoa in April 1940 as a teacher. Having read Coming of Age in Samoa, he looked forward to being in this South Seas paradise and confirming Mead’s findings. He lived in a Samoan village and became fluent in the language; a chiefly title was conferred on him, allowing him to attend meetings of the chiefs, and in particular to see how they dealt with offences that involved aggressive and antisocial behaviours. The more he studied life in Samoa, the more he was forced to conclude that Mead’s celebrated report was seriously in error (Freeman, 1999; Freeman, Orans, and Cote, 2000). 

It was war-time, and after three and a half years Freeman left Samoa in November 1943 to join the Navy, but he knew by then that he would one day face the responsibility of writing a refutation of Mead’s Samoan findings. After the war he studied anthropology in London and wrote his postgraduate thesis, “The social structure of a Samoan village community”. For his subsequent research in Borneo he gained a PhD from Cambridge University in 1953, and after a year in New Zealand, he moved to the Research School of Pacific Studies at the Australian National University where he became known as a Southeast Asian specialist. 

In December 1965, Freeman went back to Samoa with his wife and two daughters to continue his Samoan studies. He sought to understand the gross discrepancies between what Mead had reported in 1926 in American Samoa and what he had witnessed only 15 years later in Western Samoa, an essentially identical culture.  But when he left in January 1968, and even after a further visit in 1981, he still did not know how Mead could have reported this as an idyllic society, free of the many social problems and aggressive behaviours that he had seen at firsthand. 

In 1964, Mead had a long meeting with Freeman in Canberra, and Heimans’ film shows him saying: “I laid before her all the evidence I had, and indicated that her conclusions were not empirically justified.” We later see Mead’s close companion Lola Romanucci-Ross saying “She told me that she had met with Derek Freeman and that he had told her about his research in Samoa, and what he thought of her work and that he was going to publish this. And I gave her a ‘So what?’ look and she said: ‘You don’t understand, he has proven me wrong’. And she looked very sad and puzzled and I thought it was very odd that I was here feeling sorry for Margaret Mead, and even stranger that I was going to have to tell her that this was not important. But I did, I said: ‘What you have done in anthropology and for the world is not Samoa-dependant; it really doesn’t matter whether you were right or wrong about Samoa’. And she said: ‘Oh, what do you think I ought to do about it?’ I just said: ‘Nothing’” (Heimans, 1988: 48 mins). 

Freeman realised that attempting to undo what had become established doctrine in universities throughout America was a very formidable task indeed, and he had to go about it most thoroughly. It was not until March 1978 that he was able to send Mead a draft of his first book. Unfortunately she never replied, as she was ill and died of cancer in November 1978. Freeman then felt “there must be a decent pause between her death and the publication of the refutation”, so it was not until 1983 that it was published as Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth (Heimans, 1988: 28 mins).

Some colleagues expressed profound appreciation that his evidence had at last set the record straight, but a majority of influential American anthropologists received his evidence with anger and denial. To this he responded cogently and vigorously, but for his persistence he received much personal denigration (Appell, 1984; Heimans, 1988: 24 mins).  

Freeman (1983) noted that “the explanation most consistently advanced by Samoans themselves for the magnitude of the error in Mead’s depiction of their sexual morality was that, as Eleanor Gerber had reported in 1975, ‘Mead’s informants must have been telling lies in order to tease her.’ ” But it was not until four years later, in 1987, that Freeman had a totally unexpected introduction to one of Mead’s original companions. It was after this event that he decided that he must discover and document exactly what had happened during Mead’s eight months stay in Samoa. Her extensive records and letters were all available for research. 

When she reached Samoa on August 31, 1925, Mead stayed in Pago Pago, where American naval personnel provided her with a nurse to help her learn the difficult language. Hoping to escape Western influences, she decided to locate her study on the small and remote island of Ta’u one of three islands in the Manu’a group, seventy miles to the east. However, by 1925, the Manu’ans had been governed by the United States for 21 years, and “had been converts to protestant Christianity for some eighty years” (Freeman, 1983). Virginity was highly valued and sometimes formally checked before marriage. Mead arrived there on November 9, and rather than live in a Samoan village, she decided to live with the American family who ran the US naval dispensary.

She selected girls from three villages on Ta’u for her study, but this work was completely halted when a major hurricane caused extensive destruction on January 1, 1926. So on January 5 she wrote to Boas and asked: “If I simply write conclusions and use my cases as illustrative material will it be acceptable?” 

She then took two opportunities to join expeditions to further her project for the Bishop Museum, although she still had not made any proper study of the sexual behaviour of her sample of adolescent girls. Yet this was the sole purpose for which she had been given the fellowship. 

Freeman says that by March 13, “60 percent of the time that Mead had allowed for the collection of the mass of information listed in her letter to Boas of February 15 had passed without her making any progress at all…. There was an immense amount still to be done and very little time left in which to do it. Thus by March 13, 1926, ‘the investigation of the adolescent girl’ as ‘a study in heredity and environment’… was in a state of crisis. It was a crisis that had been created because, in Mead’s own words, she had ‘abandoned’ her interest in ‘socially unimportant adolescents’ for almost a month in order to do quite unrelated research for her projected monograph on the ethnology of Manu’a” (Freeman, 1999). 

It was vital for Mead that her study for Boas should succeed. After studying her many detailed records and letters, Freeman eventually concluded that on March 13, 1926, Mead must have taken a shortcut. She had two regular companions, Fa’apua’a Fa’amo of Ta’o and Fofoa, and on a outing with these two “girls” on a visit to the neighbouring island of Ofu, she had evidently seized an opportunity to ask for the information she urgently wanted to hear. Feeling she had their confidence, she had resorted to direct and suggestive questioning about their sexual activities, and those of other Samoan girls (Freeman, 1999: 138). Without realising it, she was now breaking Samoan cultural taboos, and she also did not know about their custom of playful joking by lying. Freeman wrote: “…the stage was set for an extraordinary happening: a prank that was to completely hoax the twenty-four-year-old Margaret Mead and that was, through her, to mislead virtually the entire anthropological profession, as well as countless others in the educated Western world” (ibid. 131). 

Mead suggested to her companions that it was really the Samoan custom for adolescents and young lovers to enjoy carefree nights in what she described as “trysts beneath the palm trees,” and with free love sometimes occurring even after marriage (Mead, 1928: Ch.2). These two “girls” were actually young women a little older than Mead herself, and one of them was a ceremonial virgin. Being embarrassed by her culturally inappropriate questioning, and after pinching each other to signal they would respond by joking, they agreed with, and even embellished, everything Mead suggested. She did not know that such recreational lying was a Samoan custom, and they never imagined she would tell it to the world as a true account. 

Mead was evidently delighted to think that, through being a young woman, she had discovered what had eluded other scientists — that the underlying “pattern” of the culture was just as she and Boas had hoped it would be. On March 14 she wrote to tell Boas the results of her study, and on March 18th she got a cable from him, agreeing to the proposal she had put to him in her letter on January 5 (i.e., “If I simply write conclusions and use my cases as illustrative material will it be acceptable?”). 

So now, on March 19 — the very next day — she wrote to tell Boas that she had decided to finish her research a month earlier than she had planned. Freeman says: “Cutting short the fieldwork on her Boas assignment in this abrupt way, and her involvement in even further ethnological inquiry, meant that no systematic, firsthand investigation of the sexual behaviour of her sample of adolescent girls was ever to be undertaken. Instead, Margaret Mead’s account of adolescent sexual behaviour in Coming of Age in Samoa… was based on what she had been told by Fa’apua’a Fa’amo and Fofoa, supplemented by other such inquiries that she had previously made.” Having heard what she so much wanted to hear, and ignoring the contrary information that she had received from her American hosts, she decided to leave Samoa. After ceremonial farewells, and “with ‘so little left to do’, she even found time to write to her grandmother on April 7, 1926, making up a short story about the faraway valley in rural Pennsylvania where she herself had come of age. She called it ‘The Conscientious Myth-Maker’”. This gives another glimpse into how her mind could play with the truth, as she presumably was not conscious of how well this described what she herself was now doing (Freeman, 1999 [paperback 2nd edition]: 146-8; 264-5. Freeman’s italicisation).

She returned to Pago Pago on April 16, and on the first available ship she sailed away to holiday in Europe and write up her report. When she submitted it to Boas, he and others evidently did not check her field records as they should have done, so the deficiencies and inconsistencies were not then detected. Instead, it was acclaimed as quality research and they actively used it to propagate Boas’ ideology of cultural determinism. 

In 1928 Mead published Coming of Age in Samoa: a Study of Adolescence and Sex in Primitive Societies and it became a classic. Freeman described it as a captivating but untrue account of free love in “far-off Samoa”, adding “there could not have been a more mentally seductive concoction.” It was a continuing bestseller and on the reading lists in most universities. Freeman described how “the mythic process” took off, as the book was soon accepted as a “careful scientific work”. Mead had it endorsed by some eminent people, including Havelock Ellis — the most famous authority on sexual matters at that time. He declared (quite erroneously) that “a whole field of neurotic possibility had been legislated out of existence”, since Samoa had “no neurosis, no frigidity, no impotence”. On the basis of Mead’s “enlightening study” he advocated the adoption of sexual promiscuity by Americans (Freeman, 1999: 146-8, 195).

Thus Mead, read by millions of avid young intellectuals, redefined the tone and scope of the human sciences, and established in the Western imagination an idyllic image of harmonious primitive societies. She later described it as her “classical research”, and it launched her career as one of the most acclaimed and influential women of her time, great pathfinder of personal sexual liberty and, according to Time magazine, “Mother to the World”. In 1976 she became the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and her fame reached the heavens when a large impact crater on Venus was named after her. 

Having achieved her scoop, Mead made no further inquiries into Samoan society, although in anthropological parlance she regarded it as “her country”. She wrote many books and re-visited other societies that she had studied; but she returned to Samoa only once — on a “sentimental” five-day visit in 1971 (as shown in Heimans, 1988: 47 mins). 

Freeman emphatically denied that Mead was guilty of scientific fraud, but rather that, on hearing what she very much wanted to hear, she eagerly believed it (Freeman, 1999: 146). He cited Luther Cressman, a newly-ordained clergyman whom Mead had married in 1923. The marriage did not go well, and after leaving Samoa she told him she wanted a divorce. Cressman, who later became a professor of sociology, recorded how as a graduate student of anthropology at Columbia University, even when she was shown “with chapter and verse, that a conclusion of hers was untenable, Mead’s defense would always be, ‘If it isn’t, it ought to be,’ to which she would add, ‘Well, what’s so bad about that?’” 

Mead tells of her lies, in a book called All True! 

In November 1987, Freeman’s conclusion that she must have been misled by her Samoan companions was confirmed quite unexpectedly. He had accepted an invitation to accompany the award-winning Australian filmmaker Frank Heimans on his visit to film on the island of Ta’u to make the Samoan scenes of his film, Margaret Mead and Samoa. When they arrived to film on Ta’u Island, they did not know that High Chief Galea’I Poumele, the Secretary of Samoan Affairs, had a surprise for them. He introduced them to a lady aged 86. She had agreed to take part in the film, and Freeman was astonished to find that she was Fa’apua’a Fa’amo, who had been one of Mead’s two close companions in 1926. After living in Hawaii for many years, she had returned to Samoa to live in one of the villages where Mead had worked 60 years earlier. She was still mentally alert and active. Wishing to set the record straight, she had asked for the occasion to be recorded on film, and so, before a distinguished gathering, she took a solemn oath on the Bible that she would speak only the truth. She then gave detailed testimony that included her memories about the events that had taken place when she was aged 24, during the trip with Margaret Mead to the island of Ofu in March 1926. 

Freeman published all this in early 1999, in the hardback edition of The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead, but unfortunately it was not until after this, when clearing his records to be archived, that he belatedly unearthed a reference to a story that Mead herself had written in 1931. She had contributed to a collection of stories in a book called All True! The Record of Actual Adventures that Have Happened to Ten Women of Today. When Freeman got a copy of this rare book, he was astonished to read Mead’s own story. In Life as a Samoan Girl she wrote: “In all things I had behaved as a Samoan, for only so, only by losing my identity, as far as possible, had I been able to become acquainted with the Samoan girls, receive their whispered confidences, and learn at the same time the answer to the scientists’ questions” (Mead, 1931). 

Was Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa ‘just plain rubbish’?

Fifteen years before Freeman discovered the circumstances of Mead’s hoaxing, a scholarly 13,000-word analysis of his 1983 book, Margaret Mead and Samoa, was published in 1984 inThe Eastern Anthropologist by George Appell, who was then Senior Research Associate at Brandeis University, Massachusetts. He emphasised that Freeman’s refutation of Mead’s account was based on six years of study in Samoa, over a period of 40 years between 1941 and 1981, as well as on detailed research in archives and libraries (Appell, 1984). 

Appell analysed and acknowledged the profound significance of Freeman’s work for anthropology and the social sciences, saying: “Freeman’s history of these disputes and how they provided the background for Mead’s Samoan researches is one of the most fascinating and enlightening accounts of our intellectual history that I have ever read.” His paper then brought together and classified the many reasons for concluding that Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoawas really an imaginative account of what she had wanted to see there. 

Appell also emphasised that Freeman’s refutation was not about Mead’s interpretation of Samoan culture, but was entirely concerned with showing that she had got the actual facts wrong. He concluded: “Anyone who can read with a discerning mind would have seen that Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa was just plain rubbish.” As a concrete example he wrote:

The Smoking Gun

In detective fiction the critical piece of evidence is referred to as the ‘smoking gun.’ Is there a smoking gun in Mead’s publications? Did she ‘cook up’ her data like Cyril Burt? I think not; she left a trail of too many ambiguities.

But much of the evidence Freeman uses to make his point was also available to Mead (see bibliography in Mead, 1930). How did she reconcile these contradictions with her own data? Was she simply a poor scholar? Perhaps, but I also think it is clear that personal and ideological bias has crept in to distort her account. This has of course been disputed. Social facts are frequently ambiguous in their meaning and interpretation. But certainly not physical facts. What did Mead say about the environment? ‘Neither poverty nor great disasters threaten the people to make them hold their lives dearly and tremble for continued existence’ (1973: 110, orig. 1928).

Freeman points out that this statement is “scarcely true, for the Samoan islands are regularly stricken by severe hurricanes. In the hurricane of 10 January 1915 [ten years prior to Mead’s arrival]… the churches, schoolhouses, stores, and most of the houses of Manu’a were blown down and the greater part of the crops destroyed. Indeed so severe were the food shortages following this hurricane that over half the population of Manu’a had to be transported to Tutuila and maintained there for several months. Again on 1 January 1926, during the course of Mead’s stay in Manu’a, there was a severe hurricane which, so she states … ‘destroyed every house in the village and ruined the crops’ ” (Freeman 1983: 320).  

Freeman also quotes Mead (1983: 70-71) to the effect that, for several weeks, informants were ‘not to be had for love or money’ because of the damage that everyone was busy repairing; and ‘adult energies were devoted almost exclusively to house-building’ so that she had ‘very little opportunity to witness social ceremonies of any kind.’

In his conclusion about Mead’s cultural influence up to that date, Appell added that “Mead’s monumental error was largely the result of her attempt to prove the doctrine of cultural determinism”. He argued that the ideology of cultural determinism has “so addled the anthropological mind, has so consumed it, that no one has come to realize that Mead’s research design and her findings could be used to argue the exact opposite of what she claimed”. Appell said he “specifically used the term ‘ideology of cultural determinism’ to indicate an intellectual posture which does not permit the consideration of any contrary evidence that might modify or disprove the position”. 

On being a heretic — follow the facts

As a heretic, Galileo knew that whether he recanted or not, the moons of Jupiter would still be there for others to see, and thereby show that the earth goes round the sun, and not the other way round. 

Freeman’s situation was different. He knew that if he did not do it, then no one else would ever be better able to unearth the facts about what really happened when Mead was in Samoa in 1925, nor demonstrate the erroneous basis of the ideology that she and others had promulgated on the basis of her story. That he was carefully presenting evidence about the independently verifiable historical facts is shown by the subtitle of his 1999 book: The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Account of her Samoan Research. 

The conclusion of Heimans’ film shows Freeman in 1988 saying: 

My passion in life is that we will develop a genuine science of the human species. Nothing is more important for humans than that we succeed in this. Now I have said that the question that Boas gave Margaret Mead to answer was a profoundly important anthropological question, and I think that now, in the late 1980s, we have resolved that problem. It is apparent to all knowledgeable behavioural scientists that we must operate within a framework in which we simultaneously take into account our evolutionary history and our cultures. And it is only when these two things are combined within an interactionist paradigm that you have the imperative precondition for a genuine science of our species. I think being a heretic is a most beautiful thing… a heretic is someone who thinks for himself and doesn’t run with the mob and I have always found great joy in it. But what you’ve got to be in science is a heretic who gets it right. It’s no good being a heretic who gets it wrong… but if you are a heretic who gets it right, you can’t do better”. 

Freeman’s “sweeping clear the faulty foundations of his discipline”

In March 2000, Professor James J. Fox, director of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at The Australian National University, supported the nomination of Freeman for an Australian honours award. Urging special recognition for Freeman’s distinguished contribution as a scholar, he wrote: 

Derek Freeman, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the Australian National University… has contributed significantly to the formulation of a new paradigm for anthropology by his uncompromising opposition to, and eventual refutation of, the views of Margaret Mead, one of the 20th century’s most celebrated social scientists… By sweeping clear the faulty foundations of his discipline, Professor Freeman… has prepared the basis for a more biologically attuned human science for the 21st century. His efforts in advancing his arguments against notable opposition have been recognised and acclaimed throughout the world (Fox, 2000).

Freeman died on July 6, 2001 at the age of 84, believing that his work was done. The honour was not awarded, and ad hominem attacks continued after his death.

Freeman had shown that, however worthy the intentions, the ideology of cultural determinism was founded on untruths and hence, so were the derivative ideologies of cultural relativism and postmodernism. Yet these ideologies have had far-reaching influences on many aspects of Western culture, with continuing harmful effects for infants, women and society, as shown in the next three chapters.


Chapter 10. Social sciences detach from biology

“Sociology is a mess.”
Theile, 2005

Is sociology “a mess”? 

In his book Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge, E.O. Wilson described some effects of the ideology of cultural determinism on the social sciences. He says social scientists as a whole have paid little attention to the foundations of human nature, and they have shown almost no interest in its deep origins. Ignorance of the natural sciences was a strategy fashioned by the founders — in particular Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Franz Boas, Sigmund Freud, and their immediate followers. He continues:

The theorists were inhibited from probing by another problem endemic to social sciences: political ideology. Its effects have been especially clear in American anthropology. Franz Boas, aided by his famous students Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, led a crusade against what they perceived (correctly) to be the eugenics and racism implicit in social Darwinism. With caution swept aside by moral zeal, they turned opposition into the new ideology of cultural relativism.… Believing it a virtue to declare that all cultures are equal but in different ways, Boas and other influential anthropologists nailed their flag of cultural relativism to the mast. During the 1960s and 1970s this scientific belief lent strength in the United States and other Western societies to political multiculturalism…. Many anthropologists, their instincts fortified by humanitarian purpose, grew stronger in their belief in cultural relativism, while stiffening their opposition to biology in any guise. 

So, no biology. The reasoning then came full circle with a twist that must have brought a smile to the little gods of irony. Where cultural relativism had been initiated to negate belief in hereditary behavioral differences among ethnic groups — undeniably an unproven and ideologically dangerous conception — it was then turned against the idea of a unified human nature grounded in heredity. A great conundrum of the human condition was created: If neither culture nor a hereditary human nature, what unites humanity? The question cannot be just left hanging, for if ethical standards are molded by culture, and cultures are endlessly diverse and equivalent, what disqualifies theocracy, for example, or colonialism? Or child labor, torture, and slavery? (Wilson 1998: 204–3).

Describing the ensuing schism in anthropology, Wilson says that some adopted “the extreme postmodernist view that science is just another way of thinking, one respectable intellectual subculture in the company of many.” Despite some exceptions, “academic sociologists have remained clustered near the nonbiological end of the cultural studies spectrum. Many are… biophobic — fearful of biology and determined to avoid it.” Thus the reasoning of the American Standard Social Science Model is “based on the slighting or outright denial of biologically-based human nature” (Wilson, 1998).

David Theile, an Australian sociologist and academic, wrote that, although sociology has been well represented in universities across the Western world for about one hundred years, “sociologists have produced little disciplinary knowledge; they agree on almost nothing, not even on the nature and extent of their disagreements. Sociology is a mess. Yet few sociologists, at least in their more public pronouncements, acknowledge this, preferring instead to present their work as an organised discipline producing knowledge that contributes to the wellbeing of humanity” (Theile, 2005).

How the ‘blank slate’ theory of the child, and behaviourism, influenced childrearing 

From the theory of cultural determinism, it followed that the newborn baby was simply raw material, ready to be moulded to any pattern — like a blank slate or tabula rasa. This resurrected an idea that John Locke had presented in his 1689 essay Concerning Human Understanding

So another misconceived notion joined the stream of influences on Western childrearing advice. Mead’s theory was used to support the behaviourist school of childrearing, as advocated by American psychologist J.B. Watson. His influential Psychological Care of the Infant and Childalso appeared in 1928. He advocated relentless conditioning of the infant from birth, and likened the parents’ task to that of a blacksmith shaping hot metal with hammers. He warned that “the blacksmith has all the advantage” because after a mistake he can begin again. But with a child “every stroke, be it true or false, has its effect. The best we can do is to conceal, as skillfully as we can, the defects of our shaping.” He taught that children should be treated as young adults: “Let your behavior always be objective, and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinary good job of a difficult task” (Watson, 1928). 

Marxist utopians were likewise supported in their belief that, with no basic human nature to stand in their way, the new communist man and woman would be produced by social conditioning. After all, the early seeds of behaviourism were laid in Russia, where Pavlov carried out his influential experiments to control the behaviour of his dogs by conditioning. 

These views also supported the idea that women were in no way more able than men to raise their children, thus inviting the devaluing of mothering.


From NOTE 7, in Mothering Matters 

Note 7.  Margaret Mead, Samoa, and why Derek Freeman was right after all

A. The documentary film by Frank Heimans, Margaret Mead and Samoa 

In some of the lamentable attempts to defend Margaret Mead by ad hominem attacks on Freeman, there has been a remarkable and inexcusable neglect of the extensive documentation of first-hand accounts by many eminent people who knew Mead, as shown in the multi-award-winning documentary film Margaret Mead and Samoa, made by Frank Heimans in 1987-8. This film shows early photographs, biographical details, and archival footage of Mead and some key people in her life. There is also much filming in Samoa, and many interviews with academics in anthropology. The DVD of this film is readily available to anyone, and yet, along with the powerful critique by G.N. Appell in 1984, it is not even referenced by some critics, who ignore them as if they did not exist. Some of the reviews and awards that this film has received are reproduced on a pdf of the script that may be seen at

The wide range of participants in this film, including Mead’s daughter, Catherine Bateson, may be seen in the acknowledgements at the end of the film. As of 2010, many are still active in senior academic positions. Below are some quotes from the film. 

Who could possibly have fallen for that stuff?

Phyllis Grosskurth, Mead’s close companion and biographer, says: 

I think the fascination of the book was its focus on sex, idealized sex and America was at a stage where it was becoming sex-obsessed, and she catered really to that. Listen to this passage: ‘Familiarity with sex and the recognition of a need of a technique to deal with sex as an art, have produced a scheme of personal relations in which there are no neurotic pictures, no frigidity, no impotence, except as a temporary result of severe illness, and the capacity for intercourse only once in a night is counted as senility’. I mean, who could possibly have fallen for that stuff?” (Heimans, 1988: 12 mins).

He attacked the Goddess of Anthropology

Robin Fox, Professor of Anthropology, Rutgers University, NJ, says: 

What Derek did, you see, was a double whammy. He didn’t just attack it in the theoretical way, he attacked it in the person of the Goddess, of the super-celebrity, who had made anthropology, who was anthropology, who was the symbol of anthropology to the world and who was the prime promulgator of this doctrine to the world on behalf of anthropology. So he did a thing that was doubly bad. He didn’t just say ‘You know, this religion is theologically problematical’, he said ‘God is wrong’, or rather in this case ‘the Goddess is wrong’. She couldn’t be, you see, she couldn’t be, because if she was wrong, then the doctrine was wrong, then the whole liberal humanitarian scheme was wrong, and I think this is a wrong connection. I think the liberal wing here made a wrong connection. You don’t need that position in order to defend the goodness of man, but they do, and they did (Heimans, 1988: 23mins).  

I haven’t read the book, but I know he’s wrong

The film also shows Professor Marc Swartz, of the University of California, San Diego, saying: 

One of the leading anthropologists came out immediately after the first word of Derek’s book was out and said, ‘I haven’t read the book, but I know he’s wrong’. That’s a bit depressing in a field that thinks it’s a science (Heimans, 1988: 24 mins). 

American anthropologists didn’t realize what they were taking on.

Robin Fox, Professor of Anthropology, Rutgers University, NJ, says: 

American anthropologists knew very little about Derek Freeman as a person and didn’t realize what they were taking on. I think they felt a few dismissive reviews and he would curl up and die and go away and retire back to Pogo Pogo, or Bongo Bongo, or wherever it was he’d come from. They didn’t realize that they were taking on a very tough character. I mean, anyone who knows Derek knows that when he has got his teeth into something, he does not let go — he’s going to get it right though heavens fall. So American anthropology suddenly found itself with this one-man tornado, taking it on, and for every twenty indignant letters or articles in the ‘American Anthropologist’, or speeches, Derek came back with twenty more, equally powerful, and I think this has rather shaken them. I think they weren’t prepared for something of this magnitude, they just thought he’d go away. Well, Derek doesn’t just go away (Heimans, 1988: 27 mins). 

Samoan aggression 

Narrator, Margaret Throsby, says: “In 1973, Richard Goodman, a student of Samoa for many years, writes his own independent refutation of Mead’s book. He arrives at many of the same conclusions that Freeman reaches”. Richard Goodman: 

Well, what I uncovered was that Samoans have a huge amount of aggression in them, due to the way they’re brought up as children and treated as children, punished as children; that they repress this aggression and anger, that they displace it. It comes out in very interesting and peculiar ways. They simply aren’t that happy, they have a mask of happiness (Heimans, 1988: 29 mins).

Not aggressive? “Kill the ref.” And they did — twice.

Tim O’Meara, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of North Carolina, says: 

In the area of Samoa that I lived, there was one occasion of extraordinary violence, which happened at the National Cricket Tournament in Apia, in the capital city. Our team went to the cricket tournament and were not doing very well in the cricket tournament and they thought they would, should be doing better, and [during] one game they became enraged by the referee’s calls. They thought they were biased and the crowd began yelling ‘Kill the ref’, and they did. They beat him to death with their cricket bats. One occurrence that I have read about, and I believe it was in 1928, a very similar occurrence happened in Apia in the National Cricket Tournament when a referee was beaten to death by the players with their cricket bats for bad calls. Exactly the same thing that happened in 1982” (Heimans, 1988: 29 mins).

B. Margaret Mead tells of her lies, in a book called All True!  

After publishing in early 1999 the hardback edition of The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman was tidying his papers for the archives when he belatedly found an old reference that had escaped everyone’s attention. In 1931, in a rare and now little-known book All True! The Record of Actual Adventures that Have Happened to Ten Women of Today, Mead’s own account was published in her story Life as a Samoan Girl (Mead, 1931, 116-118). 

In the second (revised) edition of his book, published as a paperback in late 1999, Freeman quotes Mead from this story, as she says: “In all things I had behaved as a Samoan, for only so, only by losing my identity as far as possible had I been able to become acquainted with the Samoan girls, receive their whispered confidences and learn at the same time the answer to the scientists’ questions.” 

In her 1931 story Mead was writing about an evening on the island of Ofu at the end of the day when she had apparently received these “whispered confidences”. She gave a vivid description of a reception that was held in honour of herself and her companions, and she describes how Misa, the high chief of the village came in full regalia to join the celebration. 

By now Mead had been given a Samoan name, and she was dressing and living as a Samoan. At this reception, she was enjoying the “dancing, music and the light-hearted repartee” when unexpectedly the village chief, whose his wife had died, arose and said to her “…Misa is rich. He will marry your highness and accompany you on your further travel around the world…” Suddenly, Mead had to quickly think up an answer which would neither insult him nor ruin the rapport and persona that she had so carefully established. Though she says no one believed his offer was serious, it did need a formal and culturally-correct reply. She looked round at the circle of dark expectant faces, and wrote that she feared “all the flimsy structure was going to collapse about my head”. 

Finally, she said that when she left her home in America she had declared that she was going all round the world by herself. She added: “All the people laughed and said that a mere girl could not go around the world by herself. Were I to accept his lordship Misa’s most honorable invitation and were he to accompany me, all the people would laugh and say that they had been right. And I would be ashamed because I who was young had boasted of something which I could not perform.” Mead wrote that the crisis was past and the tension relaxed, as she had given the courteous answer (Mead, 1931, 116-118).

So having largely concealed the fact that she already had a husband, and having three times accepted the status of ceremonial virgin, she seemingly boasts about having given a reply that was completely fabricated, and she sees nothing incongruous about recording this in a book called All True!

One of these “girls” was Fa’apua’a Fa’amo, and an extract of her 1987 account confirming this story is in Chapter 9 (Heimans, 1988: 43mins). The interview may be seen in Heimans’ DVD, and the post-production film script may be seen on

C.Mead’s ‘hunches’ that went on to influence feminism 

Freeman says Mead was much given to having “hunches”, and recorded one that involved her conclusions in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935). She wrote that the most “bizarre” of these societies was the Tchambuli, whose “formulation of sex-attitudes contradicts our usual premises.” On March 21, 1933, she wrote from Tchambuli to her colleague Ruth Benedict, “I’ve had a tremendous spurt of energy and I’ve gotten the key to this culture from my angle — got it yesterday during hours of sitting on the floor in a house in mourning. Now it is straight sailing ahead, just a matter of working out all the ramifications of my hunch.” These “ramifications” in turn flowed into her influential 1949 book, Male and Female. Freeman wrote that many such anecdotes shed light on how her fertile mind worked. He emphatically denied that she was guilty of scientific fraud, but rather that, on hearing what she very much wanted to hear, she eagerly believed it (Freeman, 1999: 146).

D. Derek Freeman’s health

Since his death in July 2001, attempts to defend Margaret Mead by attacking Derek Freeman have continued, as if the historical facts that he unearthed can be countered by disparaging his motives, persistence, personality, or mental stability. One academic wrote that he was “a difficult man with a mysterious psychological illness”, and various ill-informed and derogatory personality diagnoses were touted — as if such ad hominem attacks invalidate historical evidence that can be independently verified. 

In the hope of bringing such hurtful and untrue psychological abuse to a close, Freeman’s wife, Monica Freeman, has authorised me to set down some facts. In addition to having diabetes, Derek Freeman suffered from bipolar disorder — a condition that afflicts many people. In earlier years, his mood might be depressed for some weeks, after which it would be normal for perhaps quite a long period. Then it might become elevated, and he would become very active and lose sleep. Following this his mood would again return to normal. He was more likely to become overactive if he encountered a situation that, professionally, he had good reason to believe was wrong. His bipolar disorder gradually lessened and abated through the 1980s. As a psychiatrist who came to know Derek Freeman quite well from 1998 until the time of his death, I was impressed with his integrity, fairness and careful concern for accuracy. During that time I saw no signs of psychiatric or personality abnormality. 

E. Cultural relativism and women’s rights

Lest it be thought that the ideologies derived from cultural determinism are no longer relevant, note that ten years into the 21st century, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the courageous Somali author of Infidel: My Life, blames Western feminism’s adoption of cultural relativism for the way in which it seldom criticises, and mostly turns a blind eye to, the abuse and oppression that women suffer in some Muslim societies. A Google search using both “Ayaan Hirsi Ali” and “cultural relativism” together finds thousands of references. 

Selected references

For a more complete list see Mothering Matters. 

Appell, George N. (1984). Freeman’s refutation of Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa: The implications for anthropological inquiry. The Eastern Anthropologist 37: 183-214.

Cook P.S. (1999c). Margaret Mead, Samoa and the sexual revolution — A summary-review of The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead (Freeman, 1999). News Weekly, 2564, 12–14 (part 1) and News Weekly 2565, 17–18 (part 2). Melbourne. 

Freeman, D. (1983). Margaret Mead and Samoa. Harvard University Press. Reissued in 1996 as Margaret Mead and the Heretic: The making and unmaking of an anthropological myth.with a new foreword by Derek Freeman. Melbourne: Penguin. (Published for the launch of The Heretic, a play by David Williamson). 

Freeman, D. (1999). The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A historical analysis of her Samoan research. Boulder, Colo. Westview. It is important to note that, whereas the hardback edition of this book was published earlier in 1999, it was the paperback, published later that same year — and effectively a second edition — that Freeman regarded as the definitive version of this book. Within pages 141–146, the paperback contains two important new paragraphs that total nearly one page of material. These describe Mead’s own 1931 account that corroborated Freeman’s conclusions. This final clinching evidence was not in the 1999 hardback first edition, where p. 148 is blank. The publisher used this blank space to accommodate the new material. Apart from this, all the other page numbers remain the same, and nowhere is attention drawn to these highly significant changes. Most libraries are likely to have only the hardback first edition, which lacks this final confirmation from Mead herself. Freeman presented his updated evidence in detail, and defended his argument against critics, in the Forum in Current Anthropology, 2000. A careful reading of this second edition paperback shows clearly the quality of Freeman’s work, and should itself be enough to dispel ad hominem critiques. 

Freeman, D., Orans, M., and Cote, J.E. (2000). Was Coming of Age in Samoa based on “A fateful hoaxing?” Forum on theory in anthropology. Current Anthropology, 41, 609–623.

Heimans, F. (1988). Margaret Mead and Samoa. Film (51 minutes), Produced by Cinetel Productions Ltd, Sydney, in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and The Discovery Channel. A DVD of this film made by Frank Heimans may be purchased from Cinetel Productions, 15 Fifth Avenue, Cremorne, New South Wales, 2090, Australia, 61 2 9953 8071. Price: For personal use only: A$50, plus p&p; for educational and commercial use: A$150, plus p&p. See Frank Heimans has also kindly permitted the complete post-production script to be made available at this same website.

Kroeber, A. L. (1917). “The Superorganic”. American Anthropologist, 19: 208, 213. See also reference to Kroeber’s “abyss,” C. Stringer and R. McKie, African Exodus London, 1996. (as referenced in Freeman, 1999: 239).

Mead, M. (1928). Coming of Age in Samoa: A psychological study of primitive youth for Western civilisation. New York: Morrow. 

Mead, M. (1931). Life as a Samoan Girl. In: All True! The record of actual adventures that have happened to ten women of today. New York: Brewer, Warren and Putnam. 

Shankman, P. (2009). The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an anthropological controversy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Wilson, E.O. (1998). Consilience: The unity of knowledge. New York: Alfred Knopf, 203, 211.