Our guest blogger is Peter Hempenstall. His new book, Truth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the War over Cultural Anthropology, is now available.
When I tell people the title of my book, half of them (those who are not anthropologists or historians of the Pacific region) puzzle over the name: who on earth was Derek Freeman? If I mention Margaret Mead, some suddenly nod vigorously. Wasn’t there some controversy thirty years ago when Mead’s iconic status was suddenly thrown into dispute? Yes, I say, that’s where Derek Freeman comes in.
In January 1983 Harvard University Press published a book which sparked the longest, most acrimonious controversy in the history of cultural anthropology during the twentieth century. The book was Derek Freeman’s Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, which was a refutation of Margaret Mead’s little study from the 1920s, Coming of Age in Samoa. Mead’s book had exercised a powerful, energizing influence on American social sciences and culture with its message of how the cultural environment shaped the way humans developed through adolescence. Freeman’s book, and his subsequent battles to defend a portrait of Samoa that was diametrically opposed to Mead’s, provoked tremors across anthropology, particularly in the United States, where Freeman was vilified and dismissed as a dangerous heretic.
The disruptive figure of Derek Freeman is the subject of Truth’s Fool. Freeman was a New Zealand anthropologist, a mountaineer, who had worked among the head hunting Iban of Borneo, had spent years among Samoans studying their culture, was given a respected chiefly title in that hierarchical society, and spoke fluent Samoan. The repudiation of Mead’s arguments, and the statements that Freeman made in support of a new kind of anthropology that took biological drivers seriously in the evolution of human cultures, threw up dangerous questions about the nature of human being. For American scholars in the Reagan years, Freeman seemed to invoke the threat of racial theories once more invading the social sciences.
The last two decades of the twentieth century were full of rancorous dispute that had the character of rolling warfare between Freeman and American cultural anthropologists. Freeman spent the last thirty years of his life, until his death in 2001, defending his arguments in a vain attempt to convince his adversaries about Mead and to herald a new anthropology. Echoes of the confrontations find their way into the literature today, and Freeman’s name still has the power to arouse emotion.
The Mead debates and their fallout are at the center of Truth’s Fool. It lays out the labyrinthine twists and turns of arguments that raged from the 1980s into the new century. But it also deals with the second part of Freeman’s Mead campaign, his arguments about the evolution of humans as higher primates, and the relation between their genetically predisposed behavior and the creation of their cultures. Freeman’s refutation of Mead was originally intended as the prelude to a future anthropology, in which his colleagues would learn from neuroscientists’ discoveries about brain functions and apply them to the study of behavior in culture.
And then there is the biography of Freeman himself, which I argue cannot be ignored or underplayed in understanding this alleged antipodean “monster.” Freeman’s reputation is that of a brilliantly cantankerous man, unforgiving in debate, and carrying a career-long vendetta against Margaret Mead. Truth’s Fool examines these claims closely and seeks to peel back the gargoyle features with which he has been endowed by his adversaries. Who was Derek Freeman as a person? How is he to be defined beyond the cult of hostility and the regular ritual denunciations that seem to have grown around him? And what does all this say about anthropology itself and its manner of dealing with dissenters in its midst? I hope Truth’s Fool enlarges the narrow world in which anthropologists have confined Freeman and introduces a three dimensional historical figure of significance, rather than the cartoon-cutout figure he has become for many.
is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and a conjoint professor of history at the University of Newcastle in Australia. His many books include Pacific Islanders under German Rule and the biographies The Meddlesome Priest and The Lost Man: Wilhelm Solf in German History (coauthored with Paula Tanaka Mochida).
Publishers’s note: The University of Wisconsin Press has published many books on the history of anthropology, including another book on the Mead-Freeman controversy, The Trashing of Margaret Mead. You can also browse our 12-volume History of Anthropology series.