The divisions of the human league

‘It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that anthropology developed from a hotchpotch of uncoordinated, pseudo-scientific speculations into a set of separate but interlinked disciplines’

Margaret Mead with a collection of masks, c.1928 (©Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

An anthropologist travelling in a remote part of the Philippines sought shelter in a shepherd’s cave. Far from seeming surprised at being greeted in a dialect of his own language by a white-skinned alien, the host merely asked if the visitor was from Oxford, to which the amazed anthropologist replied that he was. “Oh, we had one of you before,” said the shepherd, and laughed at the reminiscence. “We had such fun. He was always asking very rude questions, so we kept performing made-up dances, and we thought up new gods and forbidden things.”

Apocryphal or not, the story epitomises the ineluctable difficulties of a subject which should never pretend to be an exact science. Anthropology (“the study of man”) was demarcated, as were most disciplines, in ancient Greece, but it was only in the 19th century that it began to emerge in something like its present form, and only at the beginning of the 20th that it developed from a hotchpotch of uncoordinated, pseudo-scientific speculations into a set of separate but interlinked disciplines. Charles King credits this development, and that of specifically “cultural” anthropology, and of the notion of “cultural relativism”, to Franz Boas. He, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston and Ella Cara Deloria (four of Boas’s students), are the heroes of this book, which aims to convey their ideas through accounts of their lives (or parts of them). King presents them as fighters, and victors, in what he calls “the greatest moral battle of our time: the struggle to prove that—despite differences of skin colour, gender, ability, or custom—humanity is one undivided thing”.

What exactly, though, does “the study of humanity” comprise, and how is it to be conducted? At the earliest scholarly institutions officially dedicated to anthropology, it was treated as a branch of anatomy or natural history. The first professors appointed as “anthropologists” in the 19th century hoped to follow in Darwin’s footsteps by producing a dispassionate zoology of humankind.

Unlike that of other species, however, human behaviour, if dealt with as a set of visible or deducible survival strategies, makes no sense, precisely because it essentially involves subjectivity and deliberately invested meanings. It must be decoded, not simply observed. Humans, unlike animals, can invent, lie and fabricate. Even if they tell the truth, they will tell it in a language that the intruding anthropologist needs to interpret not just as piecemeal words but as an interwoven web of myth, history and metaphor.

The idea of “social” (rather than biological) evolution was mooted by John Wesley Powell. A soldier, adventurer and geologist, and the first director (in 1879) of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, Powell saw anthropology as an (indirect) history of the human species: far-flung tribes which lacked the polish of Western modernity were closer to nature, or to the more unvarnished original nature of what had become homo sapiens. Studying them should provide clues about how humans evolved. 

Some scholars, like the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Daniel G Brinton, asserted that the non-white differed anatomically from the white races—so greatly that they had been, and still were, incapable of progressing as far. Others dusted down the immemorially recurrent theory, helpful alibi for slavery and colonialism, that there is not one human species but several, each with its own separate genesis. “Man has been studied more carefully than any other animal,” wrote Darwin, with what King justifiably calls irony,

And yet there is the greatest possible diversity among capable judges whether he should be classed as a single species or race, or as two (Virey), as three (Jacquinot), as four (Kant), five (Blumenbach), six (Buffon), seven (Hunter), eight (Agassiz), eleven (Pickering), fifteen (Bory St Vincent), sixteen (Desmoulins), twenty-two (Morton), sixty (Crawfurd), or as sixty-three, according to Burke.

Christians, too, opposed the multi-species notion, if only on the basis of biblical testimony, but it took Boas, a German-Jewish émigré, to turn the polygenists’ weapons against polygeny itself. Having studied physics, geography and maths in Germany, done self-funded research on the Inuit (“my Eskimos”) in Baffin Island, near the Arctic, Boas had at last got a job as lecturer at Clark University, Massachusetts, and in 1908 was asked to prepare an official report on the effects of immigration into the United States. Boas elected to use anthropometry (the “scientifically conducted” study of human measurements and proportions) on immigrant parents and their children. His data (since replicated) showed that skull size could change even over the course of a single generation, and therefore that environment trumps heredity in determining cultural differences. “No serious scientist”, says King, “would now accept the pre-Boasian view of race as a stable, inheritable, and anatomically measurable classification for individual human beings”.

Boas, as King continually insists, was committed to the unity of humankind, but he also wrote that “in ethnology all is individuality”. The scientific stringency that he is said to have introduced into anthropology is sometimes hard to square with human complexity, and with the subjectivity not just of the observing anthropologist, but of those observed. It is, as Boas repeatedly wrote, hard to avoid seeing other cultures through the conceptual framework of one’s own, but, more tellingly perhaps, those within a culture have, and voice, multiple and conflicting opinions about it. In the classic Omaha Sociology, James Owen Dorsey authoritatively describes elements of the Omaha culture, only to then report the exact opposite because offered a contradictory view. Invariably, just after a detailed account of the Omaha buffalo dance, or their supernatural tie to the bison, comes “but Two Crows denies” in mournful parentheses (Two Crows being one of the local chiefs).

Boas warned his students that they should avoid overarching schemas and grand conclusions, yet random data are unsatisfactory; any anthropologist yearns for them to yield a theory. The idea of “culture” itself runs the risk of being “superorganic”, an enveloping, catch-all category, complained the linguistic anthropologist Edward Sapir (a minor character in the book); though he also accused Boas of eschewing “scientific cathedrals” in favour of “cornerstones, unfinished walls, or even an occasional isolated portal”. Zora Neale Thurston, a star of the Harlem Renaissance, better known for her novels than for her fieldwork among African-Americans and in Jamaica, wondered if anthropology is any more than “formalised curiosity”.

King professes admiration for researchers’ scrupulous honesty, with its concomitant of inconsistency, but he is extraordinarily uncritical of Margaret Mead and the questionable thesis she garnered from a five-month stay in a small region of Samoa. In 1925, before setting out, she asserted that she could “master the fundamental structure of a primitive society in a few months” (King does not quote this) and, as her famous Coming of Age in Samoa shows, clearly thought she had done so. King remarks of her skimpy fieldwork that she “found a way of tying all these examples together in one sweeping insight”—which was that the turmoil of adolescence in Western societies is neither natural nor inevitable. Samoan teenage girls, she wrote, can “in almost all cases” be guaranteed “a perfect adjustment”, and avoid being “tortured by poignant situations”, as are their Western counterparts. King relegates to a footnote the enormous controversy that erupted about 50 years later, when her student, Derek Freeman, who lived in Samoa in the 1960s, reported that Samoans did after all exhort female virginity and (pace Mead) suffered outrageously high rates of sexual violence and suicide.

He hunted down her informants, who apparently insisted that the happy sexual free-for-all they had described was all a joke. Predictably,Freeman  in turn met enormous flak, and spent the rest of his life rebutting it. The jury is still out, but Mead was surely careless at the very least.

Far less space is given to this 30 year-long controversy than to Mead’s (admittedly enthralling) marriages and love affairs. Ruth Benedict was probably the only lover she unstintingly loved; she seems to have been ruthless in the way she treated her men. While she and Gregory Bateson were embattled with her then-husband Rio Fortune beside a mosquito-ridden river in New Guinea, they concocted a theory to explain the fractiousness of relationships (people come in four hopelessly incompatible basic types—rule-oriented “Northerners”, passionate, experimental “Southerners”, mysterious and contemplative “Turks”, and “Feys” who are “expansive and creative”). “Don’t damn X’s character because you want to fuck Y” was part of Rio Fortune’s understandably furious riposte. King conveys how silly and self-serving was this theory of “the squares”, but refrains from mentioning Mead’s claim that rape hardly occurred in Samoa, had only been introduced there by Europeans, and is, in any case, hardly feasible: “For a woman to be actually raped—that is, copulated with against her entire conscious and unconscious choice—by a sane unarmed man, special circumstances are necessary,” she wrote in Male and Female. “By and large, within the same homogeneous social setting, an ordinarily strong man cannot rape an ordinarily strong healthy woman.” This sits very uncomfortably with our ideas of rape in general, let alone “date rape”; but, then, on what grounds can a cultural relativist cavil with it?

King’s blithe triumphalism makes it sound as if Boas’s cultural relativism has solved the problems of racism, conquest, inequality and injustice. He ignores the embittered strife among anthropologists, not just over details like Mead’s Samoa but over the whole still-unsolved issue of what anthropology is and should be.

The Reinvention of Humanity should perhaps be called “The Reinvention of the West”, since what it actually describes is the reinvention over the last 100 or so years of how Westerners think. It is their change King charts, not humanity’s as a whole. The theory of cultural relativism is anyway of dubious benefit. It is uncannily similar to polygenism. Anthropologists seem to have a vested interest in emphasising the otherness of others, but those “others” can be made to sound as immutably set in their ways, and slow to evolve, as non-human animals: badgers dig sets; the Ilongot go headhunting. For Michelle and Renato Rosaldo (Ilongot experts) Christian missionaries are thoroughly reprehensible for trying to stop them doing so.

Cultural relativism, wrote George Stocking, originally “buttressed the attack against racialism”, but can now “be perceived as a sort of neo-racialism justifying the backward techno-economic status of once colonised peoples.” Also, in a catapult effect, it encourages humans everywhere to withhold criticism of non-Western cultures only to more absolutely trash the West.

Surely the glory of humans is that there is no “natural” for them; which is why, by discovering, inventing, creating and lying, they have conquered the world, and why they are able to criticise and change themselves. “Ideas that we find to be held in common and in high esteem around us . . . seem to be universal and natural”, wrote Montaigne at the brink of the Enlightenment, “and that is why we think that it is reason that is unhinged whenever custom is”. He is often called the first cultural relativist, but wrongly. He had, admittedly, said that our criterion of reason can be no other than the opinions and customs of our own country—but only when we don’t properly evaluate them. Having compared Europeans unfavourably with Brazilian cannibals, he adds that, even if “not in comparison to ourselves”, with our tyranny and cruelty, “we can nonetheless call those folk barbarians by the rules of reason”.

“Reason” of course is now often denounced as a Western construct, a weapon of European colonialism; Enlightenment thinkers are branded “Eurocentric”. In fact they were the opposite, or trying to be: dedicated precisely to the critique of Europe and of their own preconceptions. Without their attempts at dispassionate, self-critical rationality, cultural relativism would never have existed, any more than the identity politics that grew out of it. Cultural relativists question (perfectly reasonably) whether it is ever possible for anyone to know the unbiased, objective, universally-translatable truth about anything. Many of them make the further claim that there is no such thing as truth, even of the most mundane sort, to be known. Yet cultural relativism, in some form, must—they inadvertently assume— be true, absolutely and forever. Perhaps, though,  it will turn out to have been just another time-bound Western custom that Westerners have imposed on themselves—and others.


The Reinvention of Humanity:
A Story of Race, Sex, Gender and the Discovery of Culture
By Charles King
Bodley Head, 433pp, £25