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How the “Father of Anthropology” Fought Social Darwinism
by Alan McGowan
When Franz Uri Boas (1858-1942) emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1886, Social Darwinism was at its peak and anthropology was largely a racist discipline devoted to sanctioning colonialism. “Experts” portrayed European civilization and its peoples as superior to all others, and few questioned the inferiority of “primitive races” of man. “Culture” was what Europeans (including Euro-Americans) had, no one else.
By the time Boas died in late 1942, anthropology was firmly established as an academic, professional discipline that had thrown off its racist mantle and dramatically changed its concept of “culture.” As an early biographer of Boas wrote: “Both the theories of cultural and racial inferiority, implicitly questioned by Boas in his earliest anthropological writings and later challenged by him with the rich documentation he was to bring to bear in support of his position, have, certainly in no small measure because of his work, come under severe attack.”
It is hard to overestimate the impact Boas had as the “Father of American Anthropology.” By the end of his career, practically every department of anthropology in the country was headed or strongly influenced by one his students, who included Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston, Melville Herskovitz, and Vernon J. Williams. His first Columbia University doctoral student was Alfred L. Kroeber, who started the anthropology program at University of California, Berkeley (along with Robert Lowie, also a Boas student). Boas also trained William Jones, one of the first Native American anthropologists. Others of his students started programs at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago, and the New School for Social Research.
Boas was unrelenting in his insistence on accurate measurements and fieldwork, on taking nothing for granted, and on the fundamental dignity of man. His most important book, The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), countered the denigrating picture of “savages” put forward by Herbert Spencer, Frederick L. Hoffman, and other apologists for Social Darwinism and eugenics, and became a classic in the field.
It was at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, from 1888 to 1906, that Boas fought the battles that defined much of his anthropology. Boas believed that abstract classification schemes largely reflected the mind of the classifier rather than any qualities inherent in the objects being classified. “Like effects do not necessarily have like causes,” he observed, and therefore did not feel that objects ought to be grouped together in museums — knives with knives, pots with pots, as was the style at that time — but rather should be grouped in historical settings. Today, visitors to any serious natural history museum can see the impact of his work.
Boas’ grandparents on both sides were Orthodox Jews, and his parents followed the form of the religion but did not indoctrinate their children. Nevertheless, Boas and his siblings were deeply influenced by the liberal Jewish thought of the time. One of his biographers suggests that “his life was molded by the social and cultural values of emancipated German Jewry.” Boas also experienced instances of fairly vicious anti-Semitism — many of his facial scars from duels, which were common in Germany at the time, may have been the results of reacting to anti-Semitic remarks — and this led to his life-long hatred of prejudice.
The failed German socialist revolution of 1848 was also a strong influence in Boas’ life. Although it preceded his birth by a decade, a number of “forty-eighters,” as its supporters were called, would play a role in his life, including Carl Schurz, who became treasurer of the American Germanistic Society, of which Boas was the corresponding secretary; Felix Adler, the founder of Ethical Culture; and Abraham Jacobi (for whom Jacobi Hospital was named), who married Boas’s aunt, served two years in a German prison for radical activities, and then moved to the U.S. and established a very successful medical career.
Boas’ mother was substantially involved in these revolutionary ideals, although she chided the leaders for not paying enough attention to women and women’s issues. Boas would later write to his older sister Toni: “I am and remain an unregenerate idealist — and for that you and I have our mother to thank.”
After getting a degree in physics from Kiel University in Germany, Boas traveled to Baffin Island to study Eskimo perceptions of their environment; his degree had a minor in geography, and he was especially interested in their understanding of the color of water. “[I]n the hard Arctic winter [of 1883-84] he was to spend with the Eskimos,” one biographer writes, “Boas was to discover values in their personalities and ways of life that constituted a challenge he would devote the rest of his life to meeting.” The experience led him not only to change his career but to believe strongly in the importance of doing actual field work.
The Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer, the very influential philosopher and self-taught scholar, had been influenced by tales he had heard from travelers to Africa and elsewhere, not his own direct observations. Similarly, the racist views of Frederick L. Hoffman, the statistician whose very influential report, “Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro,” landed him a job with the Prudential Life Insurance Company (where he eventually became vice-president), were buttressed by data collected by others, not by himself. Boas was deeply suspicious of such reports, especially since the “categories” into which people assigned information were formed before the data were collected, instead of being inferred from the data, as most scientists do today.
As George W. Stocking has written, the “inner consistency” of Boas’ anthropology is sometimes difficult to determine because of his wide range of activities. He did ground-breaking work in physical and cultural anthropology, and his detailed study of languages launched a new academic field, linguistics. Boas spent long periods of time recording and translating the languages of indigenous peoples. His work on the languages and folktales of the Kwakiutl tribes, for example — in which he was often aided by members of these tribes, whom he trained and taught the techniques to assist him — led to many important observations, including the fact that their tales and myths were extremely sophisticated and worthy of significant analysis.
One of his most important legacies was in the area of race. Here we see all the hallmarks of his approach: the emphasis on data, not generalizations; attention to the individual, not only the group in which the individual was placed; and attention to the fundamental dignity of the human being. Upon retiring from Columbia University in 1936 at age 81, he told the New York Times: “With the present condition of the world I consider the race question a most important one. I will try to clean up some of the nonsense that is being spread about race these days.” Although Boas has been criticized for not taking the final step in his thought and declaring the totally equal potential of human beings of all races, his “struggle to understand the saliency of race in the U.S. at the beginning of the century,” writes another biographer, Lee Baker, “defined the parameters from which we still grapple with racial issues” to this day.
On May 31st, 1906, Boas gave the commencement address to the graduating class of Atlanta University, a struggling Black college where W.E.B. DuBois was professor of history. The leading Black scholar of his day (and the first to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard), DuBois issued the invitation primarily to have Boas speak at the annual Atlanta Conference, for which DuBois was constantly having to raise money.
Boas took some risks — intellectual, political, and physical — in coming to Atlanta, where Jim Crow was in full strength. In September of that year, a race riot had left at least seventeen Blacks dead. Atlanta University was reviled by whites, as it allowed the races to mix on its campus and in its buildings; African-Americans and whites ate and studied together.
In his speech to the Atlanta Conference, Boas said that there is no direct proof of the inferiority of the Negro, and that therefore there is no reason that the Negro cannot participate fully in American civilization. He also claimed, however, that the brain of the Negro was slightly smaller and structured slightly differently than that of the white. This would probably lead, he believed, to fewer men of “high genius” coming from the black race than the white race. Understandably, the audience was a bit miffed at this.
His commencement address, to an audience that included the Black elite of Atlanta, drew inspiration from African history. “The fundamental requirement for useful activity on your part is a clear insight into the capabilities of your own race,” Boas told his listeners. “To . . . early advances the Negro race has contributed its liberal share. . . . it seems likely that at a time when the European was still satisfied with rude stone tools, the African had invented or adopted the act of smelting iron.”
Boas also attributed to “native invention . . . the extended early African agriculture, each village being surrounded by its garden patches and fields in which millet is grown. Domesticated animals were also kept in the agricultural regions . . . while in the arid parts of the country where agriculture is not possible, large herds of cattle were raised . . . The existence of all these arts of life points to an early and energetic development of African culture.”
This “evidence of African ethnology,” Boas continued, “. . . should inspire you with the hope of leading your race from achievement to achievement. Shall I remind you of the power of military organization exhibited by the Zulu, whose kings and whose armies swept southeastern Africa. Shall I remind you of the local chiefs, who by dint of diplomacy, bravery and wisdom united the scattered tribes of wide areas into flourishing kingdoms, of the intricate form of government necessary for holding together the heterogeneous tribes.”
He continued: “Nothing, perhaps, is more encouraging than a glimpse of the artistic industry of native Africa. I regret that we have no place in this country where the beauty and distinctiveness of African work can be shown; but a walk through the African museums of Paris, London and Berlin is a revelation.” Indeed, Boas tried for many years to raise money for an American museum devoted to African art and culture, feeling that it would set many myths of Black inferiority aside.
He cautioned that Black progress would be slow, but pointed to his own ethnic group as a reason to hope: “The best example, however, is that of the Jews of Europe, a people slightly distinct in type, but originally differing considerably in customs and beliefs from the people among whom they lived. The separation of the Jew and . . . gentile was enforced for hundreds of years and very slowly only were the various occupations open to him; very slowly only began to vanish the difference.” There are still difficulties for Jews in many countries, he said, but the Jewish experience should give hope to Blacks that although it will take some time, they, too, will see barriers begin to fall.
Starting with the 1898 Spanish-American War, Boas became increasingly involved in politics. In a letter to the New York Times dated January 7th, 1916, he wrote in protest of anti-German sentiment during World War I: “At the time of my arrival here, more than thirty years ago, I was filled with admiration of American political ideals . . . I thought of it as a country that would not tolerate interference with its own interests, but that would also refrain from active interference in the affairs of others . . . A rude awakening came in 1898, when the aggressive imperialism of that period showed that the ideal had been a dream . . . The America that had stood for right, and right only, seemed dead . . .”
Strongly worded protests like these would lead to accusations (some by his fellow professors at Columbia, as shown in his FBI file) that he was a Communist. Boas nevertheless increased his political activism as he got older. He was one of the first scientists to realize that the positive attitude of the public toward science gave its practitioners immense prestige and influence, and he was willing to speak out on issues of the day, particularly when he thought science was relevant.
Boas was particularly concerned about the rise of fascism, which represented everything he abhorred in society and politics, so it was perhaps natural that a committee formed to oppose a particularly obnoxious piece in Nature magazine — which its editors criticized but published so that Nazi views on science would be known — chose him as its spokesperson. An anti-Nazism manifesto was issued, signed by twelve hundred and eighty-four scientists, including Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, three Nobel Laureates, sixty-four members of the National Academy of Sciences, and eighty-five college presidents, deans, directors of industrial laboratories and experiment stations. “We firmly believe,” it said in part, “that in the present historical epoch democracy alone can preserve intellectual freedom. . . . When men like James Franck, Albert Einstein, or Thomas Mann may no longer continue their work, whether the reason is race, creed, or belief, all mankind suffers the loss…”
The manifesto’s success led Boas to organize the American Committee on Democracy and Intellectual Freedom (ACDIF), which lasted until just before his death in 1942. ACDIF’s primary goal was the protection of free speech, particularly of those who spoke for a world free of prejudice and oppression. Although often criticized for his support of leftists, Boas insisted that they were the ones who needed defending. A personal statement dated November 20th, 1939, contains the following: “The present hysterical search for Communist activities and the increasing tendency to denounce liberal groups as dominated by Communists requires a remark. . . . At present such methods are almost always direct[ed] against radicals, hardly ever against un-American reactionary minorities . . .”
The ACDIF was founded, he continued, “to rally scientists and educators to active participation in the struggle to preserve and extend our academic freedoms . . . The outbreak of the second world war has given this general statement of principles new meaning. The signs are already visible of a concerted drive against civil liberties. Attacks against the alien and other minority groups are becoming increasingly frequent and they seek to destroy the unity of the American people. There is a great danger of a repetition of the war hysteria of 1917 when the schools and colleges became propaganda centers for war and witch hunting. There must be no recurrence of the subjection of science and culture to a propaganda of hatred. . . .”
Boas had good reason to be fearful. Redbaiting was rampant. In 1940, when British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell was appointed to a position at City College, a media frenzy ensued, ending with the New York Supreme Court determining that Russell was morally unfit to teach philosophy. (On the title page of a book of lectures given at Harvard, An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, Russell included in his list of academic honors: “Judicially pronounced unworthy to be Professor of Philosophy at the College of the City of New York.”)
The New York State Legislature soon established the Joint Legislative Committee to Investigate the Educational System of the State of New York, known as the Rapp-Coudert Committee, to examine the extent of subversive activities in New York’s high school and collegiate systems. One person investigated was Morris U. Schappes, former long-time editor of Jewish Currents. In the archives of the American Philosophical Society, where most of Boas’ papers are archived, there is a wonderful letter from J. Robert Oppenheimer, dated October 27th, 1941 — one year before he was to become the scientific director of the Manhattan Project — which says, in part: “I think that a man like Schappes might find this investigation committee in New York almost as inimical to the welfare of this country as the Gestapo to that of Germany.”
The ACDIF did not limit itself to fighting red-baiting, however. Boas, who never lost his focus on the issue of race in America, became concerned about the misinformation contained in textbooks, which bandied about the term “race” without precision or accuracy. ACDIF examined one hundred and sixty-six high school textbooks and mailed its report to newspapers around the country. An editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch made the point that vindicated Boas’ belief that scientists should speak out: “Since the foregoing dicta enjoy the imprimatur of highly informed scientific opinion in this country, it is important that we pay heed.”
For the first time in American history, organized scientific opinion weighed in against the shameful “scientific” racism that for so long had gone unchallenged. This alone should be enough to generate awe at Boas’ work. The world had changed.
On December 21st, 1942, after delivering a talk at the Columbia University Faculty Club honoring Paul Rivet, who in 1940 organized the anti-fascist resistance network at the Musée de l’Homme (which Rivet had founded in 1936), Franz Boas, 84, sat down and died of a heart attack in the arms of Claude Levi-Strauss, who was on the platform with him.
Alan McGowan wrote “Jews and Genes” in our Autumn, 2009 issue. He is associate professor of interdisciplinary science in the Department of Natural Science and Mathematics at Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts, and an executive editor of Environment magazine.