The Reinvention of Humanity: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Remade Race, Sex and Gender 
by Charles King.
Vintage, 431 pp., £10.99, November 2020, 978 1 78470 586 2
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Asa postgraduate student of social anthropology in the mid-1990s, it seemed to me that I was joining a discipline committed to self-flagellation, most of which was undertaken in bad faith. In lecture after lecture it was explained that the subject was inherently racist and unscientific, and that its principal authors were all compromised in one way or another. Yet at the same time my department continued to train and dispatch anthropologists into the field in the classical manner. And while the works of famous anthropologists were routinely criticised on theoretical grounds, there was no detailed account of the discipline’s intimate relationship with colonialism, which was surely its original and greater sin.

I exaggerate, but only slightly. Anthropology did seem at the end of the 20th century to be in the throes of an existential crisis. A hundred years earlier, by contrast, it had been quite assured of its place and function. Marrying grandiose claims to disinterested scientific status with practical pursuits, in France and Britain especially it was closely associated with the administration of the colonies. However intellectually rarefied it may have been, ethnology – as it was usually known – often amounted to an exercise in gathering information about the empire’s subjects. Who was ruled? How did they live? What did they think? What languages did they speak? It didn’t help that the discipline as a whole was dependent on colonial infrastructure for access. The networks of imperial power granted fieldworkers safe passage among remote peoples and – after a hard day’s work interviewing people about what they ate for dinner or whose cousin was whose – a gin and tonic on the local district officer’s veranda. The anthropologists took up their posts in universities, the lexicons and lists of customs filtered back into colonial administration, and the masks and statues were delivered to the museums. The G&Ts were left out of the monographs, though not out of L’Afrique fantôme (1934), Michel Leiris’s riveting diary – and exposé – of an ethnological collecting mission led by Marcel Griaule across what was mostly French colonial Africa.

In the United States, different conditions lay behind the emergence of the so-called science of man. American anthropology grew up in the context of a violent, ongoing settler colonial experiment, in which the colonisers’ society was a brutally hierarchical system of racial caste. It was the world created by this system that American ethnology initially explored and shored up. Accordingly, its early history features a lot of unvarnished race science, alongside a romantic and antiquarian interest in what remained of the Native American societies decimated by colonisation.

There was, however, one grand exception. Franz Boas, whose achievements are set out in Charles King’s The Reinvention of Humanity, recast the foundations of American anthropology. Against the prevailing political and intellectual orthodoxy, Boas and his students insisted that the basic unity of humankind was beyond dispute, and that within this unity there was no natural hierarchy of races, languages or cultures. What’s more, they argued that any system of thought seeking to prove otherwise wasn’t just ethically bankrupt but demonstrably wrong. There was no great ladder of civilisation on whose rungs the different peoples of the world and their states of development could be placed; there was only a multitude of peoples, and the various ways to live they had developed for themselves. These ways of living – cultures, as Boas and his school called them – were shaped by the vicissitudes of local and global history, not in accordance with any universal law. However different or strange the customs of a people might seem, if you took the time to understand them you would find they made sense in their proper context. Who knows: they might even make more sense than the way you do things yourself. And if you could in turn look with a dispassionate eye at your own culture, perhaps you would be able to see that it was just one among many cultures, and that it had no natural claim to superiority.

It is easy to see why Boas’s ideas were controversial more than a century ago, but they are hardly less charged today. As King points out, it is to Boas and his students that the concept of cultural relativism can be attributed – they called it ‘cultural relativity’ – and for a hundred years they have been accused of ‘everything from justifying immorality to chipping away at the foundations of civilisation itself’. The idea that racism is scientifically bogus, or that gender is neither binary nor fixed, or that all ways of living have their historical roots: these things eventually became axioms in the humanities because of Boas and his school. The resistance with which their arguments were met from the very beginning is one of the origins of today’s culture wars.

Boas was born in 1858 into an assimilated Jewish family in Minden, Westphalia. He fell into anthropology almost by accident. He studied physics at Kiel, and wrote a doctoral dissertation on the photometric properties of liquids, the research for which involved dropping mirrors and porcelain plates into the harbour to test the way they reflected light at different depths. Then he changed direction. The objective properties of light and liquids were one thing, but how did an observer receive and interpret this information? Did they, for example, categorise colours differently? The problem of the gulf between sense perception and the reality of things perceived is an old one, but Boas devised a novel way of addressing it: he would travel as far from Minden and Kiel as possible, to see how people very different from himself apprehended the world.

In the best tradition of 19th-century polar romanticism, the place he chose to visit was Baffin Island, a vast and sparsely populated landmass, most of which lies within the Arctic Circle (it is now part of the Inuit-owned Canadian territory of Nunavut). He proposed to make a study of Inuit migration patterns, hoping to launch an academic career, perhaps in geography. In the summer of 1883 he sailed for the Canadian Arctic, accompanied at his father’s insistence by the family manservant, Wilhelm Weike, who can’t have had any idea what he was getting into.

Boas and Weike would be in the Arctic for fifteen months. When they arrived, sea ice and terrible conditions made it impossible for them to land on Baffin Island proper, so they came ashore at a hamlet on tiny Kekerten Island in the Cumberland Sound. Kekerten is now deserted, but when Boas arrived it was inhabited by a handful of Scottish and American whaling crews and an Inuit community that had gathered around the whaling station – and on whose expertise all visitors depended.

At Kekerten, Boas’s plans to study migration evaporated. Instead he began to look at the people around him. He took a census of Cumberland Sound, began to learn the language and build a vocabulary, and immersed himself – and the long-suffering Weike – in Inuit life. He made Inuit friends, shared meals, and travelled long distances by sled and boat on hunting expeditions. He took copious notes, gathering every detail he could about local art, clothing and social life. He had people draw him maps, and identify flora and fauna; he transcribed their music and stories. In his notes and letters, he described the change that came over him. ‘I often ask myself,’ he wrote from Kekerten to his fiancée, ‘what advantages our “good society” possesses over that of the “savages” and the more I see of their customs, I find that we really have no right to look down on them contemptuously … We should not censure them for their conventions and superstitions, since we “highly educated” people are relatively much worse.’

Such realisations didn’t come easily. ‘Renouncing tradition in order to follow the trail of the truth involves a very severe struggle,’ he wrote. The more he learned from his Inuit friends, the more firmly Boas was persuaded that everything he knew, and indeed all education, was a function of its place and time. His doctorate from Kiel meant nothing in Kekerten; a different way of knowing and being was needed to live there. And, having experienced his own ignorance and helplessness, Boas could no longer regard Inuit culture as inferior to his own. A ‘change of spirit had overtaken him in the north’, King writes, and Boas had a word for it, drawn from his own tradition: ‘Herzensbildung, the training of one’s heart to see the humanity of another’. What Weike thought of all this is not recorded.

A few years after his stay in the Cumberland Sound, Boas returned to the field, this time in the Pacific North-West, and after comparing his findings with material held at the Smithsonian Museum, he was more certain than ever that there was no hierarchy of cultures. ‘The main object of ethnological collections,’ he wrote, ‘should be the dissemination of the fact that civilisation is not something absolute, but that it is relative, and that our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilisation goes.’

Boas has been demonised in some quarters for having inspired the supposed takeover of anti-scientific, anything-goes relativism across the humanities. The charge is misplaced. He wasn’t in the least woolly-minded or anti-scientific. On the contrary, he was committed to the scientific methods in which he had been trained, and dedicated to the clear-eyed analysis of data. But what he had found was that the rigorous application of these principles to anthropological material proved, again and again, that history and culture were the final, critical variable when it came to human behaviour. In the end what mattered was always what people thought, and the way they had learned to do things. So, although Boas regarded the collection of bodily measurements – height, head size, weight and so on – as indispensable, such measurements proved only that human biology was fluid, malleable and variable. The idea of ‘race’, he concluded, was so unstable as to be essentially chimerical. It had no bearing on culture, intelligence or any of the multitude of things it was said to determine; nor were the so-called races hierarchically organised.

By the 1930s Boas was using scare quotes around the word ‘race’: it was, he said, ‘at best a poetic and dangerous fiction’. He was continually outspoken on the topic in the US, appearing alongside W.E.B. Du Bois; and on his regular visits to Europe he spoke against prejudice, eugenics and the race science of the Nazis. He would later compare American racial segregation to the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. These were moral arguments, but they stemmed from the facts: in his view, as King notes, the only ‘unassailable moral positions … were those grounded in data’. When Hitler came to power in Germany, Boas’s doctorate from Kiel was rescinded and his books were burned.

But by that time, Boas was firmly established as the founder of his field in America. At Columbia, where he had been a professor since 1897, he trained a generation of anthropologists; after the First World War he also taught at Barnard, the women’s college affiliated with Columbia. And although he was himself certainly a public figure – he once appeared on the cover of Time – it was his Barnard students who became truly ubiquitous in American intellectual life. Margaret Mead shot to fame in 1928 for Coming of Age in Samoa, her account of adolescence and social education in the South Pacific, which outraged buttoned-up opinion with its frank assertion of the variability of sexual mores. As well as being the most visible and influential of Boas’s students, Mead was at the centre of the circle’s intellectual and romantic intrigues. She had a lifelong, on-off love affair with another of Boas’s students, Ruth Benedict, in comparison with whom her other lovers and husbands come off looking much slighter figures. (The linguist Edward Sapir, in particular, disgraces himself with belittlements and lies almost every time he writes a letter to or about her.) Benedict, the organisational lynchpin of the group, was on a slower trajectory than Mead. But her account of Japanese culture, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), is possibly the most widely read anthropological book ever written, according to King; it went through eight editions in five years, and the first Japanese translation sold in the millions.

Zora Neale Hurston, another of Boas’s pupils, is better known for her fiction than for her anthropology, but King emphasises the significance of her fieldwork in the Caribbean and in the American South – work that would feed into her novels, particularly Their Eyes Were Watching God. The fourth protégée King considers is Ella Cara Deloria, also called Aŋpétu Wašté Wiŋ (‘Beautiful Day Woman’). Born in 1889 to parents of Yankton Dakota descent and raised on the Standing Rock reservation, she was one of the first anthropologists who could claim, he writes, ‘to be both objective observer and object of study’. ‘I stand on the middle ground and know both sides,’ as she put it.

Although Benedict and Mead both faced professional difficulties and academic hostility, based partly on gender prejudice and partly on the universalist humanism they brought into their work, they eventually became tenured professors and widely respected public intellectuals. Hurston and Deloria had a much harder time. Boas’s support was unwavering, but both women struggled, drifted in and out of poverty, and rarely had regular academic work, let alone secure posts. Hurston had desires and ends for her writing and intellectual life beyond anthropology, but Deloria, who remained committed to her research, is seldom mentioned outside specialist circles.

There are obvious, and obviously unjust, reasons for this, which continue to distort our understanding. Mead and Benedict were stars, lived well-documented lives, and left behind letters and diaries. Here, King has ample evidence to work from – a spidery diagram by Mead of all the affairs and relationships between members of the Boas circle is a nicely intense piece of marginalia. And although Hurston was neglected for many years, she left a significant literary footprint, and was respected in her own places and spaces. But Deloria was poor, itinerant and insecurely employed; sometimes she had to sleep in her car. When she wasn’t in the field or working in the archives on projects that Boas could arrange through his position at Columbia, she made a little money setting up pageants of indigenous dance and music, to be performed for tourists and at children’s summer camps across America.

But of all Boas’s students, it was Deloria who worked hardest to shift attitudes, in her case away from the antiquarian condescension usually directed at Indigenous Americans in favour of a recognition that they were still very much alive in the present: a contemporary people in modern America, not the sad relicts of a pre-contact Arcadia. This was ‘the inverse of American history as it was normally taught in schoolrooms and summer camps’, King writes, where white children played at being ‘Indians’ in dress-up and learned campfire stories about the noble savages who had lived in America long ago. Deloria’s grasp of linguistic detail, idiom and nuance made Dakota Grammar (co-authored with Boas) more than a technical record of a dying tongue: it was a document of a living tradition, assembled by a native speaker. Her achievement ‘was at last to verify Boas’s foundational theory: that the people whose remains had been put on display, whose cultures were made over as pop primitivism, were fully human after all’.

That such a thing should have needed proving tells us something not only about early anthropology but about white America and European thought. Generation after generation of Europeans – and the Americans they became – had been trained to believe that other peoples were lacking or lagging behind, yet to attain to full humanity or civilisation. It’s not a coincidence that Boas and his collaborators, variously Jewish, Black, Indigenous, female and queer, were all outsiders of one kind or another to the mainstream of American society. That their ideas were found radical and strange is an indictment of their culture; that King’s book seems timely is an indictment of our own.

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