The story of cultural anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) and “a small band of contrarian researchers” who shaped the open-minded way we think now.
In this deeply engaging group biography, King (Government and International Affairs; Georgetown Univ.; Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul, 2014, etc.) recounts the lives and work of a handful of American scholars and intellectuals who studied other cultures in the 1920s and ’30s, fighting the “great moral evils: scientific racism, the subjugation of women, genocidal fascism, the treatment of gay people as willfully deranged.” Led by “Papa” Franz, who taught for four decades in Columbia University’s first anthropology department, the group of “misfits and dissenters” (as a university president called them) included Margaret Mead, whose expeditions to Polynesia produced Coming of Age in Samoa (1928); Ruth Benedict, Boas’ assistant, Mead’s lover, and author of Patterns of Culture (1934); Zora Neale Hurston, the Harlem Renaissance writer whose ethnographic studies led to her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937); and Ella Cara Deloria, a Native American scholar and ethnographer. King offers captivating, exquisitely detailed portraits of these remarkable individuals—the first cultural relativists—who helped demonstrate that humanity is “one undivided thing,” that race is “a social reality, not a biological one,” and that things had to be “proven” before they could shape law, government, and public policy. “When there was no evidence for a theory,” Boas argued, “…you had to let it go—especially if that thing just happened to place people like you at the center of the universe.” King’s smoothly readable story of the stubborn, impatient Boas and his acolytes emphasizes how their pioneering exploration of disparate cultures contradicts the notion that “our ways are the only commonsensical, moral ones.” Rich in ideas, the book also abounds in absorbing accounts of friendships, animosities, and rivalries among these early anthropologists.
This superb narrative of debunking scientists provides timely reading for our “great-again” era.