Saturday, November 07, 2009

Margaret Mead – Science Hijacked by Sex?

[the first edition]

Margaret Mead was perhaps one of the most famous anthropologists in history. She is primarily well known for her book Coming of Age in Samoa. The book was published in 1928, at a time when Americans were still very traditional for the most part. The percentage of children born to single women in 1940 was around 4%; in 1928 it was probably even lower. In the United States, single women in 1928 very seldom had sex. Premarital sex carried a huge social stigma.

Before writing Coming of Age, Mead spent six months in Samoa. She described the sex lives of young women in a small village on the island of Ta‘ū. Her conclusion was that these women were sexually promiscuous yet far happier than American young women.

Mead became a celebrity and her book became a staple in university courses. Ultimately, Coming of Age provided a scientific basis for the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

The only problem with all this is that Mead apparently just made the whole thing up.

Samoans in the 1920’s were just as sexually restricted as Americans in the 1920’s, if not more so. Mead however wanted to promote greater sexual freedom, as did a growing number of Americans during the Roaring Twenties and later.

I am not claiming that this proves that all science is false. What I am suggesting however is that frequently books labeled “science” are actually “fiction”. Always trust, but verify.


Anonymous said...

Ironically, your support link goes to a pseudoscience creationist group's site.

Anonymous said...

Did you actually read the book? Or are you just going off that catholic website?

If you actually read the book, you would know that her premise has nothing to do with restrictive or permissive sexuality or any sexuality at all.

Margaret Mead studied adolescence and her entire thesis was that the expectations of teenage angst and increased emotional difficulties at this time are purely cultural. She postulated that people in other cultures where adolescence is not seen as its own time period do not have those angst issues or "finding yourself" expectations. That was her whole book.

Anything about sexuality was a small side note, nothing to do with her book or impact.

But yes, leave it to the crazy religious people to find sex in everything they read. But you didn't even read the book.

jewish philosopher said...

"pseudoscience creationist group's site"

Ad Hominem Fallacy

You do have point however. Mead still does have her scholarly supporters and no one has a time machine making it possible to find out what exactly did happen in the middle of the night under those Samoan palm trees in 1926. I the think the preponderance of evidence however is that she was a fraud.

"Anything about sexuality was a small side note"

The illustration on the cover of the first editions seems to say something different. You are so innocent and naive my little onion. I bet you also believed Brittany Spears was a virgin until her wedding night.

Anonymous said...

I studied the book in college. A pretty liberal college. Sexual norms of the Samoans were a small side note; the point of her book, at least as it was taught to us collegiate freshmen, was the relative cultural norms of how traumatic adolescence is expected to be.

You did not even read the book. At least have the decency to read the books that you review.

jewish philosopher said...

Onion, I think you're missing the point a little bit. I'm not reviewing CA. I'm commenting on the apparent blatant dishonesty of one of history's most famous anthropologists - a fraud which had a significant (bad) influence on American sexual behavior.

Leah Gayle said...

Like ALL scientists (who get published), either her own ideology or that of those funding her study got in the way of objective results. The myth in American society that science is impartial and neutral is once again shown to be false.

And this topic is not an irrelevant one to modern America. It's hard to condense this, but here's a try:

"Scientists" claim adolescence is a somehow separate thing from adulthood, in spite of the fact that historically, western youths (and other youths in other cultures even to this day) went straight from childhood to learning a trade, a marriage, family, community, and religious obligations with no problem whatsoever during their teen years.

You will often hear this was because they had "short life spans" back then, but historical figures from scripture, the greek and roman eras, on up through the middle ages and the enlightenment and the early modern times are clearly documented in birth and death records to have lived to their 60s, 70s, 80s, and even beyond. Taking the "average lifespan" of the years of the black plague (30-40) and claiming they are normative for all of history is another way in which science pursues goals that are ideological, not based on facts. Greek Philosophers, people during Maimonides time , right up to Isaac Newton, on to Benjamin Franklin, etc. all lived what we now consider to be average lifespans.

Adolescence is a condition manufactured by western culture - largely by feminists, I would add. Biologically, the childbearing age of human females is 15-30ish. After that, quality of eggs deteriorates and you get behavioral, mental and physical defects. But by creating this myth of adolescence, feminists can meet many of their "goals" of "liberating" young women from the "chains" of domesticity by the expedient of redefining "normal" culture so that they can't get married until after college and getting their career started (that is, not until AFTER their natural child bearing years are almost OVER). The result is a large community of tearful women facing huge fertility treatment bills and little success, and a another large community of "rebels" who do things the way biology intended and are branded as aberrant "unwed teens" when their ages are in fact normal throughout history for getting married and having children. Of course, people still have the biological urge to procreate, but now feminist culture claims those feelings in teens are not normal, when in fact they are. Feminists broke the "social contract" by supporting promiscuity while denying young women the roles of wives and mothers, and now blame the young women for the inevitable results of the broken social contract which the feminists themselves caused.

The other group who most benefited from false "science" like Mead's was, ironically, men, who now presume sex before marriage is "normal" when it never was. And, of course, abortion lets them have all the benefits of marriage and none of the consequences - which is why both men and feminists support it. They claim that the ONLY reason society never condoned promiscuity was because of out of wedlock births, when in fact there are a whole host of other issues involved in refusing to settle down and be married productive members of society during childbearing years.

Whether she meant it or not, Mead's book was used to further this agenda, whose sole purpose was to destroy the normative historical structure of society in the name of "science," when there was nothing "scientific" about it - it was purely ideological.

jewish philosopher said...

I think that the word "science" has frequently been misused and it should probably be limited to knowledge which is obtained from repeatable, exact laboratory experiments. Other types of research could be called humanities, antiquities, philosophy, etc.

Leah Gayle said...

Agreed, hence the "quotes," LOL.

Anonymous said...

Ahavah Gayle, the average lifespan was indeed shorter in previous centuries.The average lifespan in the US in 1900 was under 50, as our host noted in a previous post. That doesn't mean there weren't people who lived far longer than the average. That's why they call it the average, after all.

Larry Tanner said...

Ahavah Gayle,

"The myth in American society that science is impartial and neutral is once again shown to be false."

I agree, but this is a myth that scientists themselves don't adhere to or perpetuate. It's more a popular myth, like the myth of journalistic neutrality.

Most people I know in the scientific and academic communities take pains in their published work (and in their teaching) to acknowledge elements that compromise objectivity and neutrality. That's part of the challenge and the fun of scholarship, in fact: Approach the truth despite ourselves.


Anonymous said...

Mead didn't "make the whole thing up". The essential point is that years later, some of Mead's informants told Freeman that the girls lied to Mead and told her whatever she wanted to hear. Then, Freeman's critics argued that the women were lying to Freeman. We might never know the whole truth. That's the problem with anthropology- sometimes it's hard to tell when the locals are lying to nosy outsiders.

jewish philosopher said...

That is the kinder view of Mead - she was simply gullible. On the other hand, i'm sure she realized that stories of free sex under the palm trees would sell more copies than stories of a strictly patriarchal and puritanical society,

Veronica said...

I bet JP will love, and Larry T will hate the following quote:

"It is also worth pondering why there has been general and unquestioned acceptance of Kettlewell's work. Perhaps such powerful stories discourage close scrutiny. Moreover, in evolutionary biology there is little payoff in repeating other people's experiments, and, unlike molecular biology, our field is not self-correcting because few studies depend on the accuracy of earlier ones. Finally, teachers such as myself often neglect original papers in favour of shorter textbook summaries, which bleach the blemishes from complicated experiments." (Coyne, Jerry, "Not black and white," review of Majerus M.E.N., "Melanism: Evolution in Action," Oxford University Press, 1998, in Nature Vol. 396, No. 6706, 5 November 1998, pp.35-36, p.36).

Larry Tanner said...


I think it's an excellent quote. Coyne follows it up with this:

"It is clear that, as with most other work in evolutionary biology, understanding selection in
Biston will require much more information about the animal's habits. Evolutionists may bridle
at such a conclusion, because ecological data are very hard to gather. Nevertheless, there is
no other way to unravel the forces changing a character. We must stop pretending that we
understand the course of natural selection as soon as we have calculated the relative fitness
of different traits."

Coyne's absolutely correct. Learning and knowing more are perpetual tasks and we cannot allow dogma and unquestioning acceptance to rule over inquiry.

jewish philosopher said...

I'm all for open mindedness. I was raised on evolution and then rejected it. If it's false, it's false regardless of authority.

Veronica said...

Larry, you make it sound like Coyne's harsh critique of his field is nullified by his desire for improvement. But it hardly is.

Anonymous said...

Haeckel's faked embryonic drawings appearing in a century's worth of textbooks on evolution is more than just naivete. It is downright fraud.

Anon1 said...

I would agree that there is quite a lot of pseudo-science out there (although evolution is not).

Some claims are outright fraudulent, some are conspiracy theories, and some are just "faith-based" among well meaning people.

But these are the fringe.

jewish philosopher said...

My impression is that the idea of science gained huge prestige following the Louis Pasteur and his medical breakthroughs. Suddenly everything became a science - Christian Science, etc.

Notice that there has never been a Nobel prize given for any advancement in evolutionary theory.

Anon1 said...

"Notice that there has never been a Nobel prize given for any advancement in evolutionary theory."

True, but nor has there been a Nobel given for agriculture or electronics technology or bible scholarship. So what? The Nobel prizes only deal with certain fields of knowledge. It doesn't directly relate to physiology or medicine. They give Nobel prizes in economics. Is that a science in your view?

Alex said...

Yes there has:
Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and William Alfred Fowler.

Eh, but their research was on the evolution of STARS. Oh well.

Oh, but JP, I know you'll love this link:

jewish philosopher said...

There is also no useful technology or medical treatment based on Darwinian evolution, unless you want to include eugenics.

Anonymous said...

OT, but still interesting: