In 1928, Margaret Mead published Coming of Age in Samoa. An immediate success, this slender volume established Mead as the most famous and most influential anthropologist of the 20th century. For nearly half a century, whether writing scholarly articles from her desk at the American Museum of Natural History in New York or pontificating as contributing editor of the popular magazine Redbook, Mead helped to refashion attitudes on nearly every social issue. In 1979, a year after her death, Mead was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Few women have been more adored, more honored and more influential than she.
If Mead's influence were for the good, then she would deserve the profuse praise she received. The truth about Mead, however, points elsewhere. Coming of Age in Samoa, perhaps more than any other work, helped to convince the intelligentsia of the West that the only natural expression of sexuality was casual sexuality. Even more distressing, Mead's work in Samoa, which allegedly established the naturalness of casual sex, was a work of fraud and fiction, merely a projection of Mead's own sexual beliefs.
Mead portrayed Samoa, a small island in the South Pacific, as a sexual paradise, free from all the oppressive restrictions of sexuality burdening the west. According to Mead, “Romantic love as it occurs in our civilization, inextricably bound up with ideas of monogamy, exclusiveness, jealously and undeviating fidelity does not occur in Samoa.”
Perhaps Mead's most famous picture of this sexual paradise was that of the casual lovers rendezvousing “under the palm trees.” In her famous description of “A Day in Samoa,” she painted the following tantalizing scene: “As the dawn begins to fall among the soft brown roofs and the slender palm trees stand out against a colourless, gleaming sea, lovers slip home from trysts beneath the palm trees or in the shadow of beached canoes, that the light may find each sleeper in his appointed place.”
As one might have guessed, according to Mead, Samoans took marriage lightly. “If … a wife really tires of her husband, or a husband of his wife,” she wrote, “divorce is a simple and informal matter, the non-resident simply going home to his or her family, and the relationship is said to have ‘passed away.’” Mead's Samoans had quick and easy no-fault divorce in place long before the backward West caught on.
The “only dissenters,” according to Mead, “are the [Christian] missionaries.” But Mead's Samoans happily ignore them, so that the missionaries' “protests are considered unimportant.” Even though missionaries had “introduced a moral premium on chastity,” the “Samoans regard this attitude with reverent but complete skepticism and the concept of celibacy is absolutely meaningless to them.”
Indeed, Mead claimed that although Samoans had been Christians since the 1840s, the Christianity they actually accepted was “gently remoulded” by being filtered through the carefree and casual attitude of Samoan life, so that “its sterner tenets” were blunted, resulting in a liberalized form of Christianity “without the doctrine of original sin.”
Mead ended her study of the Samoans by stating the underlying goal which had animated the entire work, a call for release from the moral strictures of a society still formed by Christianity. “At the present time,” she claimed, “we live in a period of transition,” still, unfortunately, believing “that only one standard can be the right one.” The sexual revolution must begin in the home. “The children must be taught how to think, not what to think. And because old errors die slowly, they must be taught tolerance, just as today they are taught intolerance. They must be taught that many ways are open to them, no one sanctioned above its alternative.”
Contrary to Mead's assertions, the Samoans, once converted by missionaries, became almost fanatical in their practice and observance of Christianity.
Research as Romantic Fiction
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this chapter of popular scholarship, looking back on it, is that, despite its aura of scientific authority, Mead's influential account of Samoa as a sexual “paradise” was almost completely false. Yet it was not until 1983 that the myth of Mead was exploded.
The blow was delivered by Derek Freeman's Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Freeman, an anthropologist and professor at the Australian National University for 40 years, showed step by step that nearly every assertion made by Mead in Coming of Age was either completely false or severely distorted. “The main conclusions of Coming of Age in Samoa are, in reality, the figments of an anthropological myth which is deeply at variance with the facts of Samoan ethnography and history,” Freeman wrote.
As it turns out, Mead completely mis-represented Samoan sexual attitudes and practices both before and after Christianity. Rather than being a society built on promiscuity, the entire civilization was actually built on the veneration of virginity, a devotion that Christianity only intensified.
For Samoans, there were no women more esteemed than the ceremonial virgins (called taupous), whose virginity at the time of marriage was so important that Samoans had an elaborate pre-marital, public ritual to determine virginity.
Furthermore, as Freeman shows, this regard for virginity was not confined to the upper classes from which the taupous came, but permeated the entire society, down to the lower levels—the levels Mead claimed were sexually the freest.
Casual sexual liaisons under the palm tree, rather than being smiled upon, were (when they actually did occur) “recognized by all concerned as shameful departures from the well-defined ideal of chastity.” Finally, contrary to Mead, marital exclusivity was taken with the utmost seriousness by the Samoans. Adultery was punished by beating, mutilation or even death.
As for Mead's assertions that the Samoans paid only “the slightest attention to religion,” this claim contradicted the actual, fervently religious nature of the Samoans both before and after Christianization. According to Freeman, pre-Christian Samoans were devoted polytheists, with very intricate and elaborate religious beliefs and rites. After being converted by missionaries in the mid-19th century, they became “almost fanatical in their practice and observance of Christianity.”
Also, in complete contradiction to Mead's claim that the Samoans were guilt-free, and that they quickly dispatched with Christian notions of original sin, Samoans themselves informed Freeman that “sinfulness, or agasala (literally, behavior in contravention of some divine or chiefly ruling and so deserving of punishment), is a basic Samoan concept antedating the arrival of Christianity, and, further, that the doctrine of original sin contained in Scripture is something with which, as converts to Christianity, they have long been familiar.”
In regard to Mead's fantasy-images of casual sex, Christianity only elevated the Samoan regard for sexual purity, the result being that “fornication is strictly forbidden to all church members and any suspicion of indulgence in this is in’ results in expulsion from the church.” In short, as Freeman concludes, it should “be apparent that Samoa, where the cult of female virginity is probably carried to a greater extreme than in any other culture known to anthropology, was scarcely the place to situate a paradise of adolescent free love.”
How could Mead get it so wrong? Simply put, it appears her desire to eliminate restrictions upon her own sexuality determined her conclusions about that of the Samoans. For Mead, science was a form of autobiography, as is clear from her own life. She was married and divorced three times, apparently with the ease which she falsely claimed was characteristic of the Samoans; she engaged in numerous affairs with the same casualness of the fictional youth slipping off to the palm trees at dusk; and she was also bisexual as were the Samoans in her fantasy work Coming of Age.
How ironic that Margaret Mead's anthropological myth, masquerading as science, could help to bring about a real sexual revolution, leading the west not only to casual sex and casual divorce, but the scourge of abortion. Such are the ways of the culture of death.
Ben Wiker teaches philosophy of science
at Franciscan University of