The Margaret Mead Hoax

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, some mischievous Polynesian girls played a joke on a gullible young utopian named Margaret Mead and the world was never the same again.

Young Margaret was a student and disciple of the anthropologist Franz Boas. Though few people recognize his name today, the social influence that Franz Boas has exerted through the efforts of his renowned students is exceeded by only one other German Jew: Karl Marx. Like Marx, Boas was an extreme leftist utopian. His contribution to the science of anthropology was the doctrine of cultural relativism, which holds as axiomatic that no culture is any better than any other culture, but merely different. This doctrine is a great leveler, for its seemingly value-free approach to cultural studies has the effect of placing Western civilization on the same level with any clan of Brazilian headhunters.

Boas was a foreign transplant. He arrived in America in 1886 already imbued with radical ideas, and like so many radical immigrants, hating America even before his feet left the gangplank. He became one of a rising generation of young scholars, many of them Jewish immigrants like himself, who were hostile to America’s Anglo-Saxon establishment and who were bent on subverting its values. Once he had established himself at Columbia University, Boas began his political campaign by nurturing a following of admiring students, many of them women, who would go on to become apostles of his new approach to social analysis which would do so much to subvert traditional social values and sexual morality.

Franz Boas, his disciples, and other like-minded academics launched a full-scale intellectual war against the notion of cultural hierarchy, the idea that cultures could be graded or ranked on a scale of comparison. They questioned all standards of classification, they denied that there was any intrinsic difference between the races, they revived the debate about nature and nurture. They denied that there was any such thing as “human nature”. It was, in short, an assault on Western standards and values.

In 1883 Boas had made a field trip to Baffinland where he became enamoured with the Eskimo way of life. He revealed his alienation from the modern world and a romantic inclination toward Rousseau’s noble savage when he wrote in his diary: “I often ask myself what advantages our “good society” possesses over the “savages”. The more I see of their customs, the more I realize that we have no right to look down upon them.”

When Boas completed his study of the Kwakintl Indians of Vancouver Island he wrote a glowing and detailed account of their culture. In keeping with his concealed subversive political agenda, he kept from his readers the fact that these “noble” savages also had a long tradition of slavery. Boas didn’t want his readers to question his “value-free” approach to anthropology, especially then, when it had been only eighteen years since 600,000 European-Americans had died in a struggle over the worthiness of slavery in America.

It was Franz Boas who suggested that the young Margaret Mead should go to Samoa. Boas suggested to Mead that the difficult phase of adolescent sexual adjustment might be peculiar to Western culture and that a truly liberated people, such as the Samoans, might not behave in so repressed a fashion as Western youth. He impressed upon her that this would be a very important contribution to social science.

It should come as no surprise that the impressionable young Mead “discovered” exactly what her influential mentor sent her to find. The fruit of Mead’s 1925-1926 south sea voyage was Coming of Age in Samoa, which was published in 1928. Millions of copies have since been sold in dozens of languages. It is easily one of the most influential books in the social sciences ever written; it made Margaret Mead the most famous anthropologist on the planet.

Like her mentor, Mead was every inch a cultural relativist. She believed that other cultures should not be held to Western standards, she insisted that in some ways other cultures were superior to her own. She saw the Samoans as admirable behavioral models to be emulated, like Rousseau’s unrepressed noble savages. Her book was a tour guide to Paradise Found. She wrote of the Samoans: “They laugh at stories of romantic love, scoff at infidelity...believe explicitly that one love will quickly cure another...adultery does not necessarily mean a broken marriage...divorce is a simple, informal matter...Samoans welcome casual homosexual practices...In such a setting, there is no room for guilt.”

Mead’s tale of sexual liberation, which boldly challenged Western moral values and perceptions of perversion, was a message which many people were eager to hear and she was eager to tell. She believed that Americans were far to constrained by conventional morality; they were, in her opinion, repressed, guilt ridden and unhappy; they raised their children , she thought, to be repressed and joyless as well. Ultimately her book was not so much about Samoa as it was about what was wrong with America and Western moral norms. Her ode to free love places her squarely in the forefront of what became The Sexual Revolution.

Mead’s cultural relativism trivialized Western moral precepts by making them out to be no more valid than those of the south sea islanders, indeed, even less valid because they were the cause of unhealthy repression. If, as she claimed, humans had no hereditary human nature, if our emotional selves were infinitely elastic, then why not shed the confining garments of our prudish culture and go completely native? It told millions of people that their morals were a mere hangup, it altered people’s behavior, it changed the way people in America raised their children. Throughout it all, Margaret Mead kept well hidden her own inclination toward homosexuality.

Sadly for America and the Samoans, it was all rubbish. The gullible young Mead breezed into Samoa in 1925 without any knowledge of the language. She picked up what she could in one short course. She did not live with the Samoans, but stayed in the home of a Navy pharmacist. She spent much of her time working on an unrelated project and she quit the island after only nine months. What she took away with her is revealed, upon closer examination, to be little more than an adolescent prank lovingly bundled up inside Mead’s own cultural relativist illusions.

Years later, Samoan students studying at American colleges would denounce Mead for grotesquely distorting the truth about their culture. Anthropologist Derek Freeman, who completed over six years of field work on Samoa, concluded that Coming of Age in Samoa stands as the worst example of “self-deception in the history of the behavioral sciences.” Freeman clearly documented that almost everything Mead said about Samoan behavior was dead wrong.

Mead claimed that the free-loving Samoans were never jealous or anxious in sexual matters. Repression and guilt are, in fact, widespread in Samoa and bridal virginity is highly valued. While Mead had asserted that Samoans took adultery lightly, the Samoan legal code in force at the time of her visit made adultery a crime punishable by fine and/or prison. In former times it had been punishable by death. Suicides were regularly reported in the local Samoan newspapers, but Mead proclaimed the absence of suicide among the Samoans to be a sign of their robust mental health. Mead wrote that rape was alien to the Samoans, but Freeman demonstrated that the rate of commision was several times higher in Samoa than in the United States. In fact, “among the highest in the world.”

Mead’s preposterous distortion of Samoan culture is in part traceable to the adolescents who were Mead’s informants. Mead’s unceasingly prurient fascination with their sex lives apparently led these girls to make up the sorts of stories that they sensed Mead wanted to hear. So the girls tried to please Mead, who, in turn, was trying to please Boas, and the result was junk social science. In the end, Mead is unmasked as a dupe and a fraud. For his part, Boas was uncritically enthusiastic in his acceptance of whatever his students brought him that flattered his political prejudices.

As time passed, the products of the Boas school of anthropology took on a certain rubber-stamp familiarity. All of the cultures studied by the Boasians, no matter how seemingly primitive, were revealed to be wellsprings of richness worthy of admiration, comparing favorably to Western culture. Europeans who thought their culture superior to that of the headhunters and slavers were merely being arrogant.

There was nothing “value-free” about the way that disciples of cultural relativism employ their scholarship today. The notion that all “cultures” are co-equal is now used to excuse an out-of-wedlock birth rate of seventy percent among African Americans. It is used to promote “ebonics” in America’s schools. It is used to excuse high rates of woman-beating among minorities. We are told that cultures that still practice slavery are just as good as our Western culture which invented institutional anti-racism and spent much of its wealth to stamp out slavery around the world.

In an ideal world truth would displace falsehood, but in the hermetic left-liberal strongholds of America’s colleges beloved fantasies are not soon relinquished. On many benighted campuses Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa is still to be found in classrooms. If you are a student who is being indoctrinated with this nonsense, then you are a victim of educational malpractice. Demand a tuition refund.

Recommended reading: Margaret Mead and the Heretic by Derek Freeman, published by Penguin Press. For another example of educational malpractice see “Rigoberta Menchu” in this series.

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Thomas Clough
Copyright 2001