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Mead

How the Science Wars Ruined the Mother of Anthropology by Matthew Blackwell.

The world fell in love with Mead’s romantic description of a paradise of free love gemmed away in the tropical South Pacific – a society with little jealousy, violence, or rape. The liberal journalist Freda Kichwey wrote in The Nation that, “Somewhere in each of us, hidden among our more obscure desires and our impulses of escape, is a palm fringed South Sea Island.” Samuel Schmalhausen spoke of the “naturalness and simplicity and sexual joy” of Samoa. Within the emerging field of anthropology, Mead became a revered figure. Hundreds of anthropology books relayed her research, promoting the overarching lesson that sexuality and violence are entirely malleable and changeable in cultures. The conclusions Mead drew about the uniqueness of Samoan adolescent life validated the early American anthropological project to explain human behavior in terms of cultural specificity. When Boas and Benedict passed away, Mead became the unchallenged icon of the discipline, the mother of anthropology, and as Time called her, “mother of the world.”

But in the 1960s, Mead began hearing of a then-obscure New Zealand anthropologist named Derek Freeman, who had begun working in Samoa 1940 when he was also 23, and now taught at the Australian National University in Canberra. She had heard rumors that Freeman contested several of her claims in Coming of Age in Samoa and so, during a trip to Australia in 1964, she visited Freeman in his office to ask about the nature of his objections. During that encounter, Freeman informed her that he was preparing a public refutation of her work. When Mead asked to see Freeman’s thesis on Samoan social structure, he was left momentarily speechless. “I’ve never stuttered in my life,” he later recalled in embarrassment. “You’re trembling like jelly,” Mead told him. But what he presented that day shook her, and by the time the two-hour meeting was over, it was Mead who was left “agitated” and “shaken.”

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