Falling for a sexy story?

Margaret Mead was a renowned American anthropologist

Margaret Mead was a renowned American anthropologist. A student of the way human cultures develop, she published prolifically - 24 books and thousands of articles. Her first significant work, Coming Of Age In Samoa, remains a best-seller, writes Dr William Reville.

Published in 1928, it made a big contribution to the nature-nurture debate - whether we are shaped more by the environment or by genetics - but 50 years after it was written its conclusions were challenged. The story is summarised by Hal Hellman in his book Great Feuds In Science.

Mead was born into a Philadelphian Quaker family of four children, in 1901. Her father was an economics professor and her mother a sociologist. She graduated with a degree in anthropology from Barnard University, in 1923, and later acquired a PhD from Columbia University, in 1929.

Mead made a field trip in 1925-6 to the Samoan island of Tau, where she studied the development of adolescent girls. She published the results in Coming Of Age In Samoa, which showed that, in stark contrast to American girls, Samoan girls moved without trauma from adolescence to womanhood. Mead suggested American society could learn a lot from Samoans about raising children.

At the time, genetics was thought to be primarily responsible for determining human behaviour. The idea was enthusiastically adopted in Europe and North America by the influential eugenics movement, which advocated the betterment of human stock through selective breeding.

Mead's Samoan work tested the hypothesis that genetics is primarily responsible for human behaviour. At the time there was much interest in the United States in adolescents' difficulties during the transition to adulthood, which were widely assumed to be genetically imprinted. Mead believed that if she could find a culture where the transition to adulthood ran smoothly, it would show that environment largely determines behaviour. She found such a culture in Samoa.

Mead studied 50 young Samoan women as they came of age, contrasting the smoothness of the process with American family life, which she believed "often cripples the emotional life and warps the growth of many individuals' power to consciously live their own lives".

According to Mead the Samoans enjoyed an idyllic lifestyle: gentle, peaceful and devoid of jealousy. She concluded that the Samoan ease of passage to adulthood was particularly favoured by an easy attitude to sex. She observed that, apart from exceptions associated with high social position, the culture condoned adolescent free love.

Young people looked on sex as "a natural pleasurable thing". Mead contrasted this with the attitude to sex of American adolescents, who engaged in furtive sexual experimentation, inwardly convinced their behaviour was wrong. The resultant tension, Mead reckoned, produced emotional turmoil.

MEAD'S work created controversy and was unpopular in conservative circles. It struck a chord overall, however, and was very popular with the school of thought that favoured the primacy of environment in determining human behaviour. Mead's interpretation became widely accepted and her reputation remained secure until her death, in 1978.

A number of people quietly disagreed with Mead over the years, claiming she had seriously overstated her case. But, in 1983, a bombshell exploded with the publication of the book Margaret Mead And Samoa: The Making And Unmaking Of An Anthropological Myth by Derek Freeman, an Australian anthropologist. Freeman claimed that many of Mead's assertions about Samoa were in error and some were "preposterously false".

He homed in on the casual Samoan attitude to sex that Mead made so much of. Freeman claimed not only that casual sex is uncommon in Samoa, but also that "the cult of virginity is probably carried to a greater extreme than in any other culture known to anthropology".

Freeman accused Mead of being so interested in pushing the environment position that she ignored contrary evidence. Mead's supporters made the same charge in reverse against Freeman. The controversy continues to this day. Overall, however, there is no doubt that Freeman's attack has damaged Mead's reputation.

One of Freeman's most telling criticisms was his assertion that the Samoan girls hoaxed Mead. One of the young women Mead interviewed, Fa'apua'a, who originally said free love reigned on the island, said the opposite 60 years later, in 1988. She claimed the Samoan girls had played a joke on Mead. This seems to damn the validity of Mead's conclusions. When did Fa'apua'a tell the truth, however: was it in 1928 or 1988? Samoan society has changed a lot since the 1920s, and it may be that people today are embarrassed to admit what they freely admitted to in 1928.

On the other hand, one must wonder, if free love was being practised so widely in 1928, why pregnancies were not occurring at a greater rate. There is always the possibility, of course, that the sex the girls admitted to in 1928 was not full intercourse.

In any event, the matter remains unsettled. But what is accepted today is that genetics and environment both play important roles in determining human behaviour.

William Reville is a senior lecturer in biochemistry and director of microscopy at UCC