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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 24.1 > The Mead-Freeman Controversy 4.0

The Mead-Freeman Controversy 4.0

Review of Truth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the War Over Anthropology by Peter Hempenstall.

University of Wisconsin Press, 336 pp. $34.95

ISBN-13: 978-0299314507

ON JANUARY 31, 1983, AN INTRIGUING story about a new book on Margaret Mead appeared on the front page of the New York Times. Derek Freeman, an anthropologist based in Australia, was about to publish a scathing critique of Mead’s 1928 best-seller, Coming of Age in Samoa.1 Freeman argued that Mead got Samoa wrong, asserting, for example, that Samoans were sexually restrictive, not sexually permissive. He contested Mead’s finding that Samoan adolescence was relatively free of “storm and stress.” And he affirmed the important role of biology in human life, in contrast to Mead’s emphasis on culture. This was the opening salvo in the ongoing Mead-Freeman controversy—a controversy not only about Samoa and anthropology but also the broader issue of human nature.2

In a second book published in 1999, Freeman argued that a naive young Mead got Samoa wrong because she sincerely believed the innocent lies that two Samoan women told her about their private lives, publishing them as the truth in Coming of Age in Samoa. In Freeman’s words, Mead had been “hoaxed.” What could be worse for an anthropologist’s credibility than to be fooled by one’s own informants? As a result of Freeman’s critique, Mead’s reputation went from respected scholar and public figure to cultural roadkill.

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