By Carl O. Nordling
In 1928 the American
cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-78) published her thesis for a
doctorate, titled Coming of Age in
1925 newly married Mrs. Mead had got a scholarship for fieldwork in
Professor Boas had
instructed Mead first to verify the existence of the free morals in
With regard to her
assignment, the young doctoral candidate could hardly have chosen a place less
suited to the fieldwork required. The prevalent sexual mores in
The planned interviews did not materialize, however, but Mead nevertheless considered having got useful data about 25 of the girls. She mentions that thirteen of them had no heterosexual experience whatsoever. None of the other twelve (who had menstruated altogether 350 times) had ever been pregnant - a fact that even Mead herself found remarkable. She suggested that promiscuity might have a contraceptive effect! Among the twelve supposedly "promiscuous" girls, Mead mentions one having had sexual intercourse with her uncle. The Samoans held this to be a criminal act. It remains uncertain what exactly was known about the "heterosexual experiences" of the other eleven.
Even these scanty data
should have convinced a scholarly-trained researcher that
Mead, anyway, remained
still some months in the colony in order to apply herself to gathering
ethnographical material for an American museum. While visiting a couple of
minor islands she one day took a walking-tour jointly with two Samoan girl
friends of her own age. These twenty-five-year-old women were still unmarried -
contrary to Mead who however concealed her marriage during her
Although Mead understood and spoke some Samoan, she was ignorant about the Samoan ways of expressing humor. And before all, she was anxious to get some confirmation of her notion about the promiscuous life among the Samoan youth. Therefore she swallowed uncritically the jokes of her friends, taking them for the truth pure and simple. She accepted that adolescents (and even a ceremonial virgin) regularly stayed the night with youths of the opposite sex - without this giving rise to any intervention or sanction. She must have thought that the ceremonial proving of virginity was a farce with most of the principals wangling.
After having obtained these pieces of "information" Mead wrote off definitely the plan to carry out profound interviews with a number of girls. In her book she nevertheless dwells on alleged "promiscuous customs" without any account for the actual source (which was of course her two joking friends). Incidentally, the lack of accounting for sources is a general feature of her thesis.
Mead pretends to account for three types of premarital "affairs": 1) clandestine date "under the palms", 2) public escape (leading to marriage) and 3) ceremonial wooing. As a matter of fact she reckons with yet another type, 4) insidious rape on a sleeping girl (who thereby is supposed to lose her possibility to marry any other than the perpetrator). Mead provides no data about the relative frequency of the various types, but she constantly intimates that type 1 is the normal and generally accepted pattern.
At the same time she notes quite correctly that a proposed bride convicted of lost virginity was punished with stone-throwing that could seriously injure or even kill the victim. At least this had been the custom before Christianity and American law mitigated the methods of punishment.
The only basic data accounted for in Mead's thesis are found in the table of the 25 girls mentioned above. Among the scanty data in the table is a dubious statement about 17 girls having "homosexual experience" without any specification of what it means. The text lacks any description of homosexual activities. The nearest thing is the observation that girls coming together in a group often playfully snatch after one another's genitals. Beside data on homo- and heterosexual experience the table contains data only on menstruation and residence.
The unconstrained attitude and the free morals that Mead mistakenly ascribes to the Samoans, she combines with the absence of stress and neurotic reactions that she alleges to have noticed. This unverified allegation forms a glaring contrast to her very circumstantial description of a number of maladjusted individuals, noted suicides, runaways, etc.
the almost total want of documentation of source data, the thesis also lacks
the account of previous research that forms an elementary part of every normal
doctoral thesis within the humanities. For instance, she does not mention
Charles Wilkes's observation in 1839 that "there was no indiscriminate
But the miracle did happen. Professor Boas accepted this deficient composition without calling for any revision, nay not even for the least amendment. He cannot have escaped the wants, and if he read the text fairly critically, he must have been stricken by the many contradictions and unfounded conclusions. We must assume that Boas was motivated not by scientific conscientiousness but rather by a political ambition.
"The foremost anthropologist of
The laity readers were naturally just as shortsighted and uncritical, as was the great Malinowski. A publisher anticipated this and published the corny trash with an alluring get-up. Margaret Mead became famous. The criticism was reduced to articles in stray journals with limited circulation.
Mead got her doctor's degree and learnt a useful lesson. By feigning to present science one can wield political power. Real scientism is not necessary. More important is to display opinions that are well-timed and held by the authorities. Referring to source material that others are unable to check makes it still easier to produce the desired conclusions. Mead was not slow to use this new knowledge.
A few years after the sojourn on
Now let us examine the content of Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive
Societies, a book that the professionals
let pass without subjecting it to anything like real criticism. The book
describes the behavior of men and women among three primitive tribes living in
the interior of
This was of course an excellent opportunity to study the effect of possible genetic differences between the sexes, since the environment factor was identical for boys and girls during the important childhood days. Mead herself stresses the importance of this period when she states: "The differences between individuals within a culture are almost entirely to be laid to differences in conditioning, especially during early childhood." According to Mead there was no difference in conditioning and the culture was of course one and the same for all the children. Anyway, we find that although the men were physically stronger, just as in most races, the Arapesh people depended on the fishing of the women. The men were permitted to do the "shopping", i.e. the intertribal trade. "For fifty quarrels among the men there is hardly one among the women." ... "Solid, preoccupied, powerful, with shaven unadorned heads, they sit in groups and laugh together."
To be preoccupied and at once laugh with the group is something of a feat that few (if any) except Mead have had the opportunity to witness. Unfortunately the reader is bereft of a detailed description of this rare phenomenon.
The men were theoretically and legally the rulers, but emotionally they were subordinate. They were the conspicuous maladjusted, subjects to neurasthenia, hysteria, etc - all according to Mead. A better example of sexually inherited traits would be hard to find. In spite of the identical upbringing until the age of seven, the girls were simply "absorbed" into the sober life of the typical individual of a mentally solid character. The boys, on the other hand, were apparently less susceptible to training, they did not even learn faultless execution of the big flutes until later and they frequently disobeyed their seniors. In other words, there is nothing that speaks against the possibility that a certain hysteroid trait was established already in the boy of seven. Anyway, the boys apparently accepted the idle hanging-about life just as naturally as the girls accepted diligence after the period of identical upbringing. Every indication seems to point at a case of sex-linked heritage. Since it is well known that color-blindness and hemophilia are inherited in a way that makes the male sex much more susceptible to these diseases, a hysteroid trait could of course follow the same pattern - especially within such a small tribe with much in-and-in marrying.
Mead's conclusion was, however, that she had found evidence proving that the temperamental difference between men and women in the Western society are nothing but "artificial standardization's" and "social fictions for which we have no longer any use".
Another thing that Mead noticed was that "the society" (i.e. the traditional norm) decrees that the men ruled the women, but in practice it was the other way round. In other words, people did not care a damn about what that "society" had told them to do. In spite of her own observation of this gross deviation from the norm, Mead maintains that it is "the society" or "the culture" of the tribe in question that "selects" the temperament that becomes typical of the members of each sex.
The two other tribes that Mead
The Mundugumor resided a hundred miles away and talked another language. Among them the percentage of twin births was reported to be higher than among other New Guineans and even childless women were able in a few weeks to produce milk nearly enough to rear a child. Now, as far as we know, the size of the head, the growth of hair and beard, the frequency of twin births and the ability to lactate before child-bearing are typical racial characters inherited from generation to generation by means of the genes. Therefore, there is little doubt that Arapesh and Mundugumor were of different hereditary stock. In other words, they represented two distinguished sub-races.
A careful study of Mead's reported observations reveals part of the mechanism that caused the temperamental differences. To begin with, the Arapesh territory was not exposed to the raids of the headhunters since it was a barren and infertile mountain land almost devoid of fish and game. No wonder, then, if the slight, vegetarian inhabitants led a life characterized (by Mead) as "primarily maternal, cherishing, and oriented away from the self towards the needs of the next generation". This in turn would have permitted even weaker children to survive, thus upholding and strengthening the non-aggressive, unselfish temperament.
The Mundugumor apparently had a higher birthrate, since among them "only the strongest children survive". Moreover, not all newborn babies were allowed to live. Among the members of the tribe there was a small number of "really bad men who are aggressive, gluttons for power and prestige; men who have taken far more than their share in women" etc. All this would of course tend to increase the proportion of genes for toughness and aggressivity. Quite natural that the survival and excess reproduction of the strongest and most violent in Mundugumor had eventually produced a people that was held in such terror "that no other people will venture to occupy" their territory, although it was "a good coconut and tobacco land". To be sure, they were rich too, "they have a superabundance of land, their fishing barads are filled with fish", as Mead assures us. The Mundugumor temperament had not always been quite so aggressive, Mead found good evidence for a previous state less ravaged by violence.
Pure chance in combination with certain differences in soil and topography apparently have produced genetic differences between tribes in the interior of New Guinea, similar to those that Darwin noted in other species in the Galapagos.
Mead, however, drew an entirely
different conclusion than did
Mead thought that there were hereditary differences between individuals, so that the enigmatic "culture" in a certain tribe could pick up one distinctive character and reshape all the members after this model. In another tribe the "culture" would pick up another character as model, hence the temperamental differences between tribes. We must assume that the "culture" was a kind of deus ex machina that just appeared out of nothing and without any cause chose now one model, now another.
It was to elapse some years after
the death of Dr. Mead before the New Zealander Derek Freeman could publish the
result of his many years' work on checking the factual information and the
conclusions in Coming of Age in Samoa. Only then it was revealed how immensely
Mead had misrepresented the mores of
same applies to her study of the three tribes in
But even an uneducated layman can realize that Sex and Temperament is about three genetically distinctive tribes with different diets and to some extent practicing genetic selection. Therefore the typical temperaments of these three tribes are absolutely useless for drawing conclusions about any "culture" as a causative factor. To draw conclusions from this material about the origin of typical male and female temperament in the Western society is sheer hypocrisy.
The sociological establishment has certainly pilloried itself by cherishing Coming of Age and Sex and Temperament for more than half a century.
 Margaret Mead, Coming
of Age in
Freeman, Margaret Mead and
3 Freeman, op.cit., p.227.
Mead, Sex and Temperament in Three