Margaret Mead Vindicated, Chimpanzee Culture, And Ancient DNA

Colorado Daily.Com has an interesting article on the work of Paul Shankman on the Mead/Freeman controversy. Shankman was able to look through Freeman’s archival records. Some interesting things stand out:

He revealed that Freeman “cherry picked” evidence that supported his thesis and ignored evidence that contradicted it.

Mead’s task in Samoa was to test the theory that a rough adolescence was hard-wired into the human condition. She concluded that it was not.

Some of the Samoan girls that Mead interviewed in the 1920s engaged in premarital sex with little guilt, when compared to American standards.

Freeman, though, argued that Samoan society was devoutly Christian, patriarchal, violent and sexually inhibited. His evidence included discussions with male Samoan leaders, who told him about the ceremonial virgin, or “taupou,” whose chastity was celebrated and protected.

In 1983, Freeman told the Los Angeles Times: “The evidence I have presented is final; it’s devastating.”

In his second book, Freeman reported the statements of an 86-year-old woman who said she was Mead’s “closest friend and informant” in Samoa. The woman said she and a companion lied about going out with boys at night, but that Mead believed them.

After Freeman’s death in 2001, Shankman studied Freeman’s archival records. He found previously unreleased transcripts of the 1987 and 1993 interviews with the woman. Those documents show that the woman’s statements were contradictory or unclear, and they were inconsistent with Freeman’s arguments on key issues.

Further, in Freeman’s archives, Shankman read Freeman’s graduate school thesis, in which Freeman concluded that by the 1940s, the taupou system was “virtually defunct.” This directly contradicted his published work.

Apparently, Shankman has written a book on the subject called The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy which I will have to track down…

The evidence for culture in chimpanzees continues to grow:

To help get around earlier limitations in the new study, Zuberbühler and his colleague Thibaud Gruber presented the two well-known chimpanzee groups with something that they hadn’t seen before, in this case, honey trapped inside a narrow hole drilled into a log.

“With our experiment we were able to rule out that the observed differences in chimpanzee tool use behavior are the result of genetic differences because we tested members of the same subspecies,” Zuberbühler said. They also ruled out habitat influences by exposing the chimps to the same unfamiliar problem.

Zuberbühler said that they were surprised by how quickly the animals found their respective solutions. “The cultural differences, in other words, must be deeply entrenched in their minds,” he said.

There is also interesting news on the ancient DNA front in the form of two papers. Hawks fills us in on the first paper while PhysOrg.Com gives details on the second:

Using the remains of humans that lived in Russia about 30,000 years ago, Pääbo and his colleagues now make use of the latest DNA sequencing (i.e., reading the sequence of bases that make up the DNA strands) techniques to overcome this problem. These techniques, known as “second-generation sequencing,” enable the researchers to “read” directly from ancient DNA molecules, without having to use probes to multiply the DNA. Moreover, they can read from very short sequence fragments that are typical of DNA ancient remains because over time the DNA strands tend to break up. By contrast, DNA that is younger and only recently came in contact with the sample would consist of much longer fragments. This and other features, such as the chemical damage incurred by ancient as opposed to modern DNA, effectively enabled the researchers to distinguish between genuine ancient DNA molecules and modern contamination. “We can now do what I thought was impossible just a year ago – determine reliable DNA sequences from modern humans – but this is still possible only from very well-preserved specimens,” says Pääbo.

I will have more to say about the second paper latter, time permitting.

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2 Responses

  1. Mead’s task in Samoa was to test the theory that a rough adolescence was hard-wired into the human condition

    Haha, what a research design. Send one researcher to one site in search of human universals that may or may not exist. Cargo cult science!

  2. And yet Malinowski’s study of the Trobriand Islanders disproved Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex – at that time considered a universal. Mead claimed to find one exception to a universal in Samoa and looked at the same question in, if memory serves, Palau and in New Guinea so it was not just one site…

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