In my last essay I argued for the de-funding of the social sciences, especially sociology. I also argued that unlike the humanities, which have only relatively recently been corrupted from their original purpose and turned into factories for churning out cultural Maoists, sociology had far left leanings right from the beginning.
Today we will be looking at another social science, this time one of the disciplines where the humanities and the social sciences intersect. This discipline has been dominated by far left thinking for over a century now, but unlike in the case of sociology, this can be traced to a definite moment when the field underwent a hostile takeover, subverting it from its original course. The discipline in question is anthropology.
If you run an internet search for the “father of modern anthropology” or even just the “father of anthropology” the results that will pop up will for the most part name either Claude Lévi-Strauss or Franz Boas. I just ran such a search and Lévi-Strauss was the first and highlighted result.. This is highly amusing in that while both answers are wrong, Lévi-Strauss is even more wrong than Boas, as the latter was already the first chair of the department of anthropology at Columbia University nine years before the former, who died only eleven years ago, was born. Incidentally, no, Claude Lévi-Strauss was not the guy who made blue jeans. Levi was the first name of the jeans guy, not part of a hyphenated family name.
We shall return to Boas momentarily, for Boas was the architect of the left-wing takeover of anthropology in America. I shall defer discussion of Lévi-Strauss and his similar, but later, influence in Europe to another day. First, let it be noted that anthropology is much older than either of them. Arguably – and James M. Redfield, the University of Chicago classic professor, said this very thing – it goes all the way back to Herodotus, the father of history. Even, however, if we limit ourselves to Modern anthropology, it is still older than either Boas or Lévi-Strauss. Nor does the qualifier “American” produce an accurate answer in Boas. Lewis Henry Morgan, the prominent nineteenth century American anthropologist, died in 1881, a few years before Boas even arrived in the United States.
In reality, Modern anthropology goes back to the eighteenth century, the period of the so-called “Enlightenment.” It was in this century that Gerhard Friedrich Müller, a German historian working in Russia, pioneered the scientific collection of data pertaining to specific people groups that is called ethnography and which is the basic field work that informs all branches of anthropology. In the same period the Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus developed the Modern system of taxonomy, the first to classify human beings and apes together under the category of primates. In 1779 German physician Johann Friedrich Blumenbach took the taxonomy of human beings a step further and classified people into five “races” based on common physiognomic traits. We shall have more to say about this later, but for now note that while Blumenbach was not the first to try and sort people based upon physiognomy, his system of classification was the one which prevailed and became the basis for physical anthropology. Physical or biological anthropology was one of the two main branches of anthropology from the nineteenth to the early twentieth century. The social anthropology of Sir. E. B. Tyler and Sir James G. Frazer was the other.
Now, there is much in the anthropological writings and theories of this period that an orthodox Christian traditionalist can find to disagree with. Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890), for example, much like the positivism of sociology founder Auguste Comte, argued that religion was an intermediate stage in man’s progress from myth to science, which argument requires the nonsensical presupposition that efforts to explain and understand creation without recourse to its Creator are superior to those which do make such recourse. Also, the theories of Charles Darwin and his cousin Sir Francis Galton, which are problematic for a similar reason, were extremely influential on nineteenth century anthropology. These problems are miniscule, however, compared with those of Boasian cultural anthropology.
Franz Boas was born in Prussia in 1858 into a family of liberals and radicals, who had supported the early nineteenth century revolutionary movement that was descended from eighteenth century Jacobinism. He shared the leftist views of his family, although it might be slightly anachronistic to call him a Marxist. He studied physics, mathematics, and geography in the universities of Heidelberg, Bonn and Kiel, receiving his doctorate in 1881. He shortly thereafter joined an expedition to Baffin Island. His initial interest was geographic, but the experience converted him into an ethnographer. He briefly returned to Germany and pursued further studies in this field, before permanently re-locating to North America, where he joined the small anthropology department of Clark University in Massachusetts in 1888 and was named its head the following year. In 1896, he became the Assistant Curator of Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan as well as an anthropology lecturer at Columbia University. In 1899 we was given the position of Professor and made the head of a new, united department of anthropology at Columbia, where he remained until his death in 1942.
Under Boas, Columbia’s new united anthropology department became the first in the United States to offer a doctorate in the field. This gave Boas an unprecedented amount of influence over the discipline of which he made full use. He pushed to make it more professional, as can be seen in his famous dispute with William John McGee over the organizational structure and principles of the American Anthropological Association when it was founded under the latter’s leadership in 1902. While this is hardly ground for criticism in itself, the fact that he was the only one giving out Ph. D's in the field at the time meant that making the discipline more professional translated into filling it with his own disciples. Indeed, by only a little over twelve years after the AAS was formed, it was packed with Boas’ students who comprised a super-majority on its executive board. About the same amount of time later every anthropology department in the United States was headed by someone who had been trained personally by Boas. The first recipient of the doctorate in anthropology he had initiated, Alfred Kroeber, had gone on to become the first Professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Edward Sapir, another of Boas’ students who worked under Kroeber for a time, became Professor of Linguistics and Anthropology at the University of Chicago in the 1920s, before finishing up his career as head of the department of anthropology at Yale in the 1930s. Melville Herskovitz, who founded the first African Studies program in the United States at Northwestern University, was another of Boas’ students. A list of Herskovitz’ classmates while studying under Boas reads like a “Who’s Who” of early twentieth century anthropology, including Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Elsie Clews Parsons.
Boas was noted for disparaging the work and ideas of almost every anthropologist who had preceded him. The obvious positive spin that can be placed on this is to say that he was forcing the discipline down a new, more respectable, path by imposing rigorous standards upon it. Those who interpret him in this way point to his opposition to generalization. First the facts must be collected, he would argue, and only then can a general theory be drawn from them. Those who laud this as empirical rigor maintain that he can be criticized only in that that point in time never came, and that an increasing skepticism as to whether it could ever be reached can be traced from the beginning to the end of his career.
The flaw in that interpretation of Boas is that it became apparent by the end of the twentieth century that he had, in fact, encouraged extreme sloppiness – the opposite of rigor – among some of his best known students. The foremost example of this pertains to the work of Margaret Mead.
While Mead’s career spanned most of the twentieth century and included many accomplishments, she is still best known for the book that launched her career and made her famous in 1928 – Coming of Age in Samoa. It was a study, based on field work she had done on the Samoan island of Ta’u, of girls in that society in the age range that corresponds with what we would call adolescence in the West. As she depicted them, these girls passed through this period between childhood and adulthood without any of the emotional and behavioural turmoil associated with this age here, due to the absence of a rigidly enforced sexual morality. For forty years this was the most read book of anthropology
In 1983, New Zealand born anthropologist Derek Freeman, who had taught in Samoa in the 1940s, and later returned to do further anthropological research in the 1960s, published the first of two books he wrote rebutting Mead. Entitled Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth it argued that the society Mead had studied had all the problems she claimed it didn’t and that it was more rigid when it comes to sexual morality than the West rather than less. Mead, Freeman argued, had spent far too little time doing her fieldwork, and had been taken in by girls who deliberately told her tall tales. He had interviewed some of the girls she had spoken to in the 1920s, obviously now decades older and more mature, and they confessed to having done just that. His second book, The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead, focused more on this evidence that she had been duped.
Freeman’s books generated a huge amount of controversy. Defenders of Mead, who were mostly cultural anthropologists themselves, argued that the Samoa Freeman knew had underwent a major transformation since Mead had done her field work, that research done elsewhere supported Mead’s conclusions even if her Samoan research was faulty, that the mature Samoan women whom Freeman had interviewed were lying about having lied when they were teenagers, and that Freeman had an ideological axe to grind.
Certainly the latter charge holds true about Mead herself. It is not necessarily what you might think. While her book did indeed seem to have a strong influence over the loosening of sexual mores in the West in the 1950s and 1960s – or at least was cited as making a “scientific” case for it – her primary agenda was quite different from this and the opposite of that which is imputed to Freeman. It is evident from Boas’ foreword to her book what that was. She wished to please her teacher-mentor by providing him with evidence for his favourite ideological axe – the nurture side of the nature versus nurture debate.
The case against Boas is often overstated by sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, behavioural geneticists and others who lean heavily to the nature side in said debate. Boas was not a nurture absolutist, although he seemed to be moving in that direction towards the end of his career. It was his students who took his position to the extreme of imposing the tabula rasa view of human nature upon the next generation or two of anthropologists – and with help from the behaviouralists in psychology upon the social sciences in general. Nevertheless, his championing of the nurture side in the debate is part and parcel with his feud with the anthropologists who had gone before him. These, especially after Dawin and Galton, stressed nature, sometimes to the apparent exclusion of nurture.
Boas maintained that the primary determining factor in human society and behaviour is culture. This seems to have come more from his left-liberalism than from any actual evidence. A cultural explanation of human behaviour and social institutions lends itself more easily to an ideology that wishes to radically alter these than a hard-wired, universal, biological explanation. Furthermore, and this is especially relevant in light of the nature of the leftism that is currently spewing forth from the social science departments of the universities, it was race as it was being studied by the physical anthropologists to which Boas took particular exception. If Boas was not truly the father of anthropology – except, perhaps, of cultural anthropology if there is any validity to the distinction between it and social anthropology – he was certainly the father of anti-racism.
Remember that Blumenbach had classified people into five races based on physiognomic traits back in 1779. While the nomenclature for these was not constant, these remained the five major races that physical anthropology studied until it become politically incorrect to continue to do so. Population geneticists continue to study them under the label “populations.” The basis of classification is different. A population in population genetics is distinguished by an identifiable degree of shared genetic relatedness, whereas a race in physical anthropology was distinguished based on physiognomy. Nevertheless, compare the populations discussed in the book of late population geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza with the races identified by Blumenbach, Cartleton Coon, and John R. Baker, and it is obvious that they are the same groups. Which makes it rather frightening that Cavalli-Sforza insisted that race does not exist and that his work proves it. This is cognitive dissonance on the level of Orwell’s “we have always been at war with Eastasia” which indicates that a sort of totalitarian groupthink is at play here. The origin of that groupthink can clearly be traced to Boas, through his student Ashley Montagu, who wrote Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (1942) and co-authored and later helped revise UNESCO’s “Statement on Race.” (1)
This denial of a basic factual aspect of human nature, combined with the claim that it was socially constructed to serve oppressive ends, and the demand that everybody pay at least lip-service to the denial in the interests of combatting the “oppression” is very familiar today. It is the thought paradigm that produces “wokeness.” We have just seen that it goes back to the Boasian takeover of anthropology a century ago.
This means that it is time to cut anthropology as well as sociology off from the public purse.
(1) Montagu was also the author of The Elephant Man. It is his only work with merit.
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