Heretic is a word that tends to make those with religious beliefs shudder. It is only a few hundred years since heretics were burned at the stake, as was Servetus in Geneva in 1553, and Bruno in Rome in 1660. Our term heretic is derived from the Greek word for choice, and so refers to someone who chooses to think for himself. But as history shows, the lot of heretics among true believers is far from easy.
Science, however, is an open system of understanding in which 'truth is the perpetual possibility of error'. In contrast to closed systems of belief, science advances by shaking the foundations of knowledge and by showing that the relevant facts are at variance with accepted dogma. Thus, as Carl Sagan points out in his book The Demon Haunted World (1996) science is a system of thought that actively encourages heresy, and which gives its highest commendation to those who "convincingly disprove established beliefs". But in science, being a successful heretic is far from easy, for the convincing disproof of an established belief calls for the amassing of ungainsayable evidence. In other words, in science, a heretic must get it right.
The twentieth century, despite major scientific advances, has been above all else, a century of old ideologies. It so happens that I was born in 1916, one year before the Russian Revolution. It is a revolution that I have now outlived. According to Marxist doctrine it is "social existence" that determines "human consciousness", and by the Bolsheviks of Soviet Russia it was fervently believed that under communism, human nature would radically and permanently change. By the early 1930s, American observers who had visited Russia were claiming that this had already begun to happen. "Mental hygiene," it was said, was "inherent in the social organization."
"the new evolutionary enlightenment will far outshine the enlightenment of the 18th century"
We have now witnessed the collapse of communism and have heard Gorbachev admit to the world at large that the experience of history has allowed the Russian people to say "in a decisive fashion" that the Communist "model" had "failed", as it had to fail, I would suppose, because of, among other things, the false assumption on which it was based.
Another leading ideology of the twentieth century - in some ways not dissimilar to Marxism - is the doctrine that "all human behaviour is the result of social and cultural conditioning". This doctrine can be traced to pronouncements in the 1890s, by Emile Durkheim, a Frenchman, and Franz Boas, a German, both of whom were born in 1858.
Franz Boas, whose Ph.D was in Physics, became in 1899, after studies of the Eskimo of Baffin Land and the Indian of Vancouver Island, the first professor of anthropology at Columbia University in New York. A Neo-Kantian idealist, who had acquired from Rudolf Virchow a keen antipathy to evolution, Franz Boas, "the father of American anthropology", was an extreme environmentalist.
In 1917, two of Boas's students, Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie, without presenting any kind of empirical evidence, proclaimed that between cultural anthropology and biology there was an "abyss", and "eternal chasm" that could not be bridged. It was in an attempt to obtain evidence for this ideological stance that in 1925, Boas imposed on another of his students, the 23 year old Margaret Mead, the task of studying heredity and environment in relation to adolescence among the Polynesians of Samoa. Mead arrived in American Samoa on August 31, 1925. After two months of study of the Samoan language in the port of Pago Pago, she spent just over five months in the islands of Manu'a before heading back to New York by way of Australia and the south of France.
"the embarrassment of the anthropologists whose beliefs had been so rudely shaken quickly turned to fury against the antipodean antichrist who had so desecrated their sanctum sanctorum"
In 1928, in her book Coming of Age in Samoa, which became the anthropological best-seller of all time, Mead claimed that adolescent behaviour in humans could be explained only in terms of the social environment. "Human nature," she declared, was "the rawest most undifferentiated of raw material." Then, in full accordance with the views of Franz Boas, she wrote of the "phenomenon of social pressure and its absolute determination in shaping the individuals within its bounds". This was cultural determinism with a vengeance.
In 1930, Mead's extreme environmentalist conclusion was incorporated in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, and, for those who went through college in the USA in the 1930s, Coming of Age in Samoa was "not only required reading but a classic of universal truths". This was also the case in the University of New Zealand, and when I myself went to Samoa in 1940, it was with the objective of confirming Mead's conclusion in the western islands of the Samoan archipelago. Indeed, so complete was my acceptance of Mead's claims that in my early inquiries, I dismissed or ignored all evidence that ran counter to her findings.
Thus, it was not until I had become fluent in Samoan, had been adopted into a Samoan family, and having been given a manaia title, had begun attending chiefly courts, that I became fully aware of the discordance between Mead's account and the realities I was regularly witnessing. When I left Samoa in 1943, after a stay of three years and eight months, it had become apparent to me, through prolonged inquiry, that Mead's account of the sexual behaviour of the Samoans was in egregious error. But I had no idea at all how this happened.
By this time, Coming of Age in Samoa had become an anthropological classic, and no one would take seriously my mistrust of its conclusions. So, in 1965, after a meeting with Dr Mead at the Australian National University in 1964, I returned to Samoa for just over two years to research in further detail every aspect of her account of Samoan behaviour.
By this time Margaret Mead had become a major celebrity. In 1969, Time magazine named her "Mother of the World". She went on to become, in the words of her biographer Jane Howard, "indisputably the most publicly celebrated scientist in America". Indeed, during the last decade of her life, she came to be viewed as an omniscient, wonder-working matriarch. One of the jokes circulating in America at this time was that when Dr Mead called on the Oracle at Delphi, she addressed the age-old sibyl with the words, "Hullo there, is there anything you'd like to know?". She was said in the American Anthropologist of 1980 to have been "truly the most famous and influential anthropologist in the world". A huge impact crater on the planet Venus - measuring some 175 miles across - has been named after her.
In 1978 I wrote to Dr Mead offering to send her the draft of the refutation on which I was working. Unfortunately, she died on the 15th of November that year without ever having seen it. When it was finally published by Harvard University Press in 1983, the consternation, especially in America, was enormous. Without warning, the Meadian reverie about Samoa had been shattered. For American anthropologists, as one of them remarked, this was "a seismic event", and, as they surveyed the fallen masonry, the embarrassment of those whose beliefs had been so rudely shaken quickly turned to fury against the antipodean antichrist who had so desecrated their sanctum sanctorum. In no time at all, as one observer has recorded, there were many who seemed willing to tear me "limb from limb".
Things reached their apogee in November 1983, when, during the 82nd meeting of the American Anthropological Association, a special session devoted to the evaluation of my refutation was held. It was attended by more than a thousand. The session began conventionally enough, but when the general discussion started, it degenerated into a delirium of vilification. One eye-witness has described it as "a sort of grotesque feeding frenzy"; another wrote to me saying "I felt I was in a room with... people ready to lynch you". This then is the kind of fanatical behaviour that is released in the zealots of a closed system of thought when one of their principal certainties has been effectively challenged.
"a whole view of the human species was constructed out of the innocent lies of two young women"
What's more, later that same day, a motion denouncing my refutation as "unscientific" was moved, put to the vote, and passed. Yet, as a moment's thought discloses, the notion that the scientific status of a proposition can be settled by a show of hands at a tribal get-together is unscientific in the extreme.
I now come to what was for me the most unexpected of denouements. When I arrived back in American Samoa in 1987 I was introduced by Galea'i Poumele, the Samoan Secretary of Samoan Affairs, to a dignified Samoan lady whom I had never previously met. During my previous visits to Manu'a she had been living in Hawaii where she had gone with her family in 1962. She was Fa'apua'a Fa'amu, who, in 1926, had been Margaret Mead's closest Samoan friend. In 1987, at 86 years of age, she was still in full command of her mental faculties.
Fa'apua'a's sworn testimony to Galea'i Poumele was that when Mead had insistently questioned her and her friend Fofoa about Samoan sexual behaviour, they were embarrassed, and - as a prank - had told her the exact reverse of the truth.
In 1988, and again in 1993 (after I had found in the Library of Congress a number of letters, all of them in Samoan, that Fa'apua'a had written to Mead in 1926), Fa'apua'a's testimony was investigated in great detail by Dr Unasa L Va'a (as he now is) of the National University of Samoa. In 1990, I obtained from the archives of the American Philosophical Society, copies of the private correspondence of Franz Boas and Margaret Mead for the years 1925 and 1926. Then, in 1992, in Washington DC, I was able to research all of Mead's Samoan papers in the Manuscript room of the Library of Congress. From these and other primary source materials it has been possible to determine just what befell the 24 year-old Margaret Mead in Samoa in 1926. It is a revealing story.
When Margaret Mead was Boas's PhD student at Columbia, her fervent desire was to do ethnological research in some untouched part of Polynesia. And so, when Boas imposed on her his quite different project she at once entered into a private arrangement with the Bishop Museum of Honolulu to do in Samoa the kind of ethnological research on which her heart was set. This arrangement she kept entirely secret from Boas, her official supervisor. Immensely ambitious, she was defiantly burning the candle at both ends. It was to lead directly to her hoaxing by Fa'apua'a and Fofoa.
On New Year's Day, 1926, the island on which Mead was working was stricken by a devastating hurricane, which, in Mead's words, "razed 75% of the houses of Tau'u to the ground" and "generally disorganized native society". Largely because of this, Mead persisted in her ethnological research for the Bishop Museum, postponing indefinitely any systematic investigation of the sexual behaviour of the adolescent girls she was supposed to be studying.
So it was in March, 1926, while doing ethnology on the island of Ofu, and with her work on adolescents, through neglect, being in a state of acute crisis, that Mead, hoping to make up for lost time, began to question her travelling companions Fa'apua'a and Fofoa (who were both 24) about the sexual behaviour of Samoan girls.
From Mead's diary and from Fa'apua'a's testimony we can date this questioning to March 13, 1926. What the embarrassed Fa'apua'a and Fofoa told Mead was the exact opposite of the truth, and we have the clearest possible evidence of this in a letter that Mead wrote to Boas the very next day. In it she tells Boas that in Samoa there is no "curb" on sexual behaviour during adolescence - this being precisely the false information which, as a prank, had been communicated to her the previous day by Fa'apua'a and Fofoa.
A few days later, Mead wrote to Boas again saying she was ready to leave Samoa. Her planned investigation of the sexual behaviour of the adolescent girls she was supposed to be studying was never undertaken. Instead, she relied on the totally false information with which she had been hoaxed.
And so, a whole view of the human species was constructed out of the innocent lies of two young women. That one of the ruling ideologies of our age should have originated in this way is both comic - and frightening! All in all, or at least as it seems to me, it is one of the more spectacular stories of the twentieth century.
The aim of both Boas and Mead was to exclude biology - and particularly evolutionary biology - from the study of human behaviour. Although, as is now known, Mead's environmentalist conclusion in Coming of Age in Samoa was counterfeit and wholly misleading, it was enthusiastically accepted by Franz Boas. In 1934, when still Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, Boas proclaimed in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, that "the genetic elements which may determine personality" are "altogether irrelevant as compared with the powerful influence of the cultural environment". It is this anti-evolutionary ideology that has dominated thinking in the social sciences for most of he twentieth century.
We now know that Mead and Boas where massively mistaken. Boas died in 1942. By that time Oswald Avery and his colleagues were already actively exploring the characteristics of DNA, which had been discovered as long ago as 1869. Since the determination of the chemical structure of DNA by Crick and Watson in 1953, an event ranked by John Maynard Smith as "the most important discovery in biology since Darwin", genetics and molecular biology have flourished in the most prodigious way. Never before have there been such fundamental advances in our understanding of the mechanisms of life. In a paper on "The Human Genome" published last year by Mandel, it is estimated that there are "about 3,000 genetic diseases" known in humans, with many of them "affecting brain function" or behaviour in some way. This makes nonsense of Boas's conclusion of 1934.
From work on the human genome, as on the genomes of other forms of life, it has become apparent, as the great evolutionary biologist Dobzhansky once remarked, that we humans are "kin to everything that lives". A remarkable instance of this has recently come to light with the successful sequencing of the 6,000 or so genes of yeast. Howard Bussey of McGill University, who co-ordinated the sequencing of yeast chromosomes 1 and 16, was recently giving a seminar on his work when a distinguished colleague raised his hand. "What," he asked, "is a muscle protein like myosin doing in yeast? Yeast doesn't move!"
"Myosin," Howard Bussey explained, "does the same job in yeast as it does in people. It binds with actin and other proteins that move things like mitochondria around in cells." "The contractile proteins, as in yeast," Bussey went on, "or, for that matter in tomatoes, are woven together in animals to form muscles." Something to reflect on when you next have a tomato sandwich.
Simon Easteal, who heads the Human Genetics Group in the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University, having established that there is only 1.6 percent difference between human nuclear DNA and that of chimpanzees, has, with his colleagues, concluded that humans diverged from chimpanzees only some 3.6-4 million years ago. We have thus reached a juncture in the history of human understanding when, as Daniel Dennett has recently put it: "the fundamental core of contemporary Darwinism, the theory of DNA-based reproduction and evolution is... beyond dispute among scientists."
We are, it is now utterly clear, the products of evolution. Or, to put it more dramatically, we are not fallen angels but risen apes. This key realization changes all of our long established assumptions about ourselves. In its light, human history, for the first time, becomes intelligible, and human behaviour understandable as never before. This radical transformation in human understanding - which has come to a peak in the mid 1990's - I shall call "the new evolutionary enlightenment". I confidently predict that, because it is based on fully tested scientific knowledge, it will far outshine the enlightenment of the 18th century.
This is a version of an address given at The Sydney Institute on July 9, 1996. The full story is told in Freeman's book Margaret Mead and the Heretic, published by Penguin in 1996 (UK) and 1997 (US).