Anthropology Afoul of the FactsBENJAMIN WIKER
In 1928, Margaret Mead published "Coming of Age in Samoa", which established her as the most famous and most influential anthropologist of the 20th century. But Meadís work in Samoa, which allegedly established the naturalness of casual sex, has since turned out to be a complete work of fraud and fiction.
In 1928, Margaret
Mead published Coming of Age in Samoa. An immediate success, this slender
volume established Mead as the most famous and most influential anthropologist
of the 20th century. For nearly half a century, whether writing scholarly articles
from her desk at the American Museum of Natural History in New York or pontificating
as contributing editor of the popular magazine Redbook, Mead helped to
refashion attitudes on nearly every social issue. In 1979, a year after her death,
Mead was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Few women have
been more adored, more honored and more influential than she.
If Meadís influence
were for the good, then she would deserve the profuse praise she received. The
truth about Mead, however, points elsewhere. Coming of Age in Samoa, perhaps
more than any other work, helped to convince the intelligentsia of the West that
the only natural expression of sexuality was casual sexuality. Even more distressing,
Meadís work in Samoa, which allegedly established the naturalness of casual sex,
was a work of fraud and fiction, merely a projection of Meadís own sexual beliefs.
Mead portrayed Samoa, a small island
in the South Pacific, as a sexual paradise, free from all the oppressive restrictions
of sexuality burdening the west. According to Mead, "Romantic love as it occurs
in our civilization, inextricably bound up with ideas of monogamy, exclusiveness,
jealously and undeviating fidelity does not occur in Samoa."
Meadís most famous picture of this sexual paradise was that of the casual lovers
rendezvousing "under the palm trees." In her famous description of "A Day in Samoa,"
she painted the following tantalizing scene: "As the dawn begins to fall among
the soft brown roofs and the slender palm trees stand out against a colourless,
gleaming sea, lovers slip home from trysts beneath the palm trees or in the shadow
of beached canoes, that the light may find each sleeper in his appointed place."
As one might have guessed, according to Mead, Samoans took marriage
lightly. "If Öa wife really tires of her husband, or a husband of his wife," she
wrote, "divorce is a simple and informal matter, the non-resident simply going
home to his or her family, and the relationship is said to have Ďpassed away.í"
Meadís Samoans had quick and easy no-fault divorce in place long before the backward
West caught on.
The "only dissenters," according to Mead, "are the
[Christian] missionaries." But Meadís Samoans happily ignore them, so that the
missionariesí "protests are considered unimportant." Even though missionaries
had "introduced a moral premium on chastity," the "Samoans regard this attitude
with reverent but complete skepticism and the concept of celibacy is absolutely
meaningless to them." Indeed, Mead claimed that although Samoans had been Christians
since the 1840s, the Christianity they actually accepted was "gently remoulded"
by being filtered through the carefree and casual attitude of Samoan life, so
that "its sterner tenets" were blunted, resulting in a liberalized form of Christianity
"without the doctrine of original sin."
Mead ended her study of
the Samoans by stating the underlying goal which had animated the entire work,
a call for release from the moral strictures of a society still formed by Christianity.
"At the present time," she claimed, "we live in a period of transition," still,
unfortunately, believing "that only one standard can be the right one." The sexual
revolution must begin in the home. "The children must be taught how to think,
not what to think. And because old errors die slowly, they must be taught tolerance,
just as today they are taught intolerance. They must be taught that many ways
are open to them, no one sanctioned above its alternative."
as Romantic Fiction
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect
of this chapter of popular scholarship, looking back on it, is that, despite its
aura of scientific authority, Meadís influential account of Samoa as a sexual
"paradise" was almost completely false. Yet it was not until 1983 that the myth
of Mead was exploded.
The blow was delivered by Derek Freemanís
Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth.
Freeman, an anthropologist and professor at the Australian National University
for 40 years, showed step by step that nearly every assertion made by Mead in
Coming of Age was either completely false or severely distorted. "The main
conclusions of Coming of Age in Samoa are, in reality, the figments of
an anthropological myth which is deeply at variance with the facts of Samoan ethnography
and history," Freeman wrote.
As it turns out, Mead completely misrepresented
Samoan sexual attitudes and practices both before and after Christianity. Rather
than being a society built on promiscuity, the entire civilization was actually
built on the veneration of virginity, a devotion that Christianity only intensified.
For Samoans, there were no women more esteemed than the ceremonial
virgins (called taupous), whose virginity at the time of marriage was so
important that Samoans had an elaborate pre-marital, public ritual to determine
Furthermore, as Freeman shows, this regard for virginity
was not confined to the upper classes from which the taupous came, but
permeated the entire society, down to the lower levels the levels Mead
claimed were sexually the freest. Casual sexual liaisons under the palm tree,
rather than being smiled upon, were (when they actually did occur) "recognized
by all concerned as shameful departures from the well-defined ideal of chastity."
Finally, contrary to Mead, marital exclusivity was taken with the utmost seriousness
by the Samoans. Adultery was punished by beating, mutilation or even death.
As for Meadís assertions that the Samoans paid only "the slightest attention
to religion," this claim contradicted the actual, fervently religious nature of
the Samoans both before and after Christianization. According to Freeman, pre-Christian
Samoans were devoted polytheists, with very intricate and elaborate religious
beliefs and rites. After being converted by missionaries in the mid-19th century,
they became "almost fanatical in their practice and observance of Christianity."
Also, in complete contradiction to Meadís claim that the Samoans
were guilt-free, and that they quickly dispatched with Christian notions of original
sin, Samoans themselves informed Freeman that "sinfulness, or agasala (literally,
behavior in contravention of some divine or chiefly ruling and so deserving of
punishment), is a basic Samoan concept antedating the arrival of Christianity,
and, further, that the doctrine of original sin contained in Scripture is something
with which, as converts to Christianity, they have long been familiar."
In regard to Meadís fantasy-images of casual sex, Christianity only elevated
the Samoan regard for sexual purity, the result being that "fornication is strictly
forbidden to all church members and any suspicion of indulgence in this Ďsiní
results in expulsion from the church." In short, as Freeman concludes, it should
"be apparent that Samoa, where the cult of female virginity is probably carried
to a greater extreme than in any other culture known to anthropology, was scarcely
the place to situate a paradise of adolescent free love."
Mead get it so wrong? Simply put, it appears her desire to eliminate restrictions
upon her own sexuality determined her conclusions about that of the Samoans. For
Mead, science was a form of autobiography, as is clear from her own life. She
was married and divorced three times, apparently with the ease which she falsely
claimed was characteristic of the Samoans; she engaged in numerous affairs with
the same casualness of the fictional youth slipping off to the palm trees at dusk;
and she was also bisexual as were the Samoans in her fantasy work Coming of
How ironic that Margaret Meadís anthropological myth, masquerading
as science, could help to bring about a real sexual revolution, leading the west
not only to casual sex and casual divorce, but the scourge of abortion. Such are
the ways of the culture of death.
Ben Wiker. "Anthropology Afoul of the Facts." National Catholic
Register. (May 19, 2002).
This article is reprinted with permission from
National Catholic Register. All rights reserved. To subscribe to the
National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.Benjamin
Wiker holds a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Vanderbilt University, and has
taught at Marquette University, St. Mary's University (MN), and Thomas Aquinas
College (CA). He is now a Lecturer in Theology and Science at Franciscan University
of Steubenville (OH), and a full-time, free-lance writer. Dr. Wiker writes regularly
for a variety of journals, including Catholic World Report, New Oxford
Review, and Crisis Magazine, and is a regular columnist for the National
Catholic Register. He has published three books, Moral
Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (InterVarsity Press, 2002), The
Mystery of the Periodic Table (Bethlehem Books, 2003), and Architects
of the Culture of Death (Ignatius, 2004). He is currently working on another
book on Intelligent Design for InterVarsity Press called The Meaning-full Universe.
He lives with his wife and seven children in Hopedale, OH.
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