The strengths of the work are stunning: the admirable writing, in which every syllable seems perfectly positioned for pitch, stress, euphony and evocative power; the brilliant vignettes of anthropologists’ leisure moments, usually disfigured by tortured exchanges of wild, dangerously self-referential theories; the vividness with which their private lives, sexual intrigues and secret thoughts are captured. Through their writings and other memorials, the author observes them more closely than they ever got to the subjects of their fieldwork.
He had observed that peoples who were then unquestioningly described as “primitive” had impressive skills and knowledge of their own. More importantly, they had their own histories. Rather than living in the timeless stasis usually associated with pre-industrial societies, they travelled; they learned from other groups; they were the complex products of a variety of influences. They were not “undeveloped”: – rather they had developed in pursuit of different aims from those that Westerners took for granted. King argues that it is largely thanks to Boas, and his students, and students’ students, that these ideas now seem commonplace. In the 1880s they were startling and – to many – dangerous.
A weakness of anthropology as practised by the Boas group is that it depends on hearsay. Whether to believe informants was always a problem. A later researcher (whose testimony King relegates to a footnote) tracked down one of Mead’s original interviewees, who admitted that the information Mead had been fed about sex in Samoa was a hoax. Another researcher, following Mead’s trail in New Guinea, found no evidence of the gender roles she had described. Such doubts undermine anthropology’s claim to be a science. But they do not detract from the courageous idealism of the Boas group, or from King’s hugely informative and adhesively readable account of them.
In this brilliantly written and deftly organised book, Charles King tells the story of how Boas and three of his most influential research assistants revolutionised the study of humankind in the first half of the 20th century. From a previous generation of social scientists they had inherited a narrative that assumed all humankind was embarked on an arduous journey from savagery to civilisation, a civilisation that looked remarkably like the US, or at least the bits that were still discernibly European. White supremacy was a given and you could work out how far behind everyone else was by measuring their heads and heels with callipers and doing some self-important and completely bogus calculations. From here it was a short jump for scientists to propose a rough and ready eugenics under the guise of progressive social hygiene. The criminals, people with learning difficulties and, ultimately, anyone you didn’t like the look of could be forcibly sterilised for the sake of the greater good. This pernicious practice, King points out, was still going strong in the 1960s.