Anthropology Magazine
The Problems With Coming of Age
Unit 12

The Influence of Freeman and Mead

A pair of twins, two men, hold their heads close to one another, wearing winter hats.

In this unit (to accompany the SAPIENS podcast S6E6), students go beyond Freeman and Mead’s controversy to explore the repercussions of nature versus nurture in American scholarly debates from the 1980s to the 2000s. Students will research how these debates trickled into mass media reporting and affected American society.

Learning Objectives
  • Assess how the nature vs. nurture debate shaped American society in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Relate how Freeman and Mead’s ideas shaped American views.
Professor Talking Points
  • Freeman’s 1983 book criticizing Mead’s work was met with charged emotion. In this book, Freeman focused on the nature versus nurture debate, a hot discussion topic during the 1980s. He posed Mead as “anti-biological, anti-evolutionary, and anti-scientific” (Shankman 2001,181). However, as Mead supporters pointed out, Mead’s decades-long work and research in Samoa demonstrated her consideration of biological and cultural attributes in her research.
  • Freeman’s supporters pinned Mead as an “archaic and misguided cause of cultural determinism” (Shankman 2001). This undermined her reputation as an American icon and pioneering figure in anthropology.
  • Freeman and his supporters were accused of cherry-picking and missing the main arguments in Mead’s work. Mead was not a staunch cultural determinist. She had recently addressed two major associations on the importance of evolution and genetics (American Anthropological Association in 1961 and American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1976).
  • During the 1980s, the controversy sparked nature versus nurture discussions in numerous fields. Discussions were based on whether people were born (nature) with certain personalities or inclinations versus learning behaviors (nurture). Some people used pseudo-scientific claims based on nature versus nurture to prop themselves as biologically better than others. The debates quickly escalated into heated topics such as race and sexuality.
  • After Freeman’s book was published in 1983, Samoans found more public space to criticize Mead’s work in Samoa for depicting their culture as embracing sexual promiscuity. Mead wrote her book for an American audience, and although she believed she portrayed Samoans positively, many Samoans felt she had skewed their reality. Many Samoans refuted that their culture valued female virginity, or at the very least, did not participate in sexual relations to the extent Mead portrayed. When Mead visited Samoa in 1971, a young Samoan woman challenged Mead on her claims on television (Shankman 2021, 188). This created more doubt surrounding the accuracy of Mead’s research. However, at the time Freeman published his book, Mead had been deceased for five years and could not defend herself.
  • Samoans did not entirely side with Freeman, either. Many believed he painted their culture to another extreme with sexual purity, violence, and aggressiveness. In 1987, Freeman and filmmaker Frank Heimans visited Samoa to interview Fa’apua’a, one of Mead’s informants, for a documentary entitled Margaret Mead and Samoa (1988). Freeman attests that Fa’apua’a confessed to hoaxing Mead on camera; however, she appears to have memory problems during the interview and doesn’t offer a confession, merely answering questions posed by Galea’i Poumele, a high-ranking Samoan Chief who had spoken against Mead in the past (Shankman 2013).
  • In 1999, Freeman published The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead, which claimed Mead was tricked by an informant. Freeman concluded that Mead had been naive and inexperienced; therefore, it was not entirely her fault that she produced inaccurate research.
Academic Articles
  1. Appell, George N. “Freeman’s Refutation of Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa: The Implication for Anthropological Inquiry.” The Eastern Anthropologist 37 (1984): 183-214.

  2. Doughty, Howard. “Nature, Nurture, and Story-telling—Part 1: The Freeman-Mead Controversy.” College Quarterly 14, no. 2 (2011).

  3. Ortiz, Daniel. “Creating Controversy: Essentialism and Constructivism and the Politics of Gay Identity.” Virginia Law Review 79, no. 7 (1993): 1833-1857.

  4. Pinker, Steven. “Why Nature & Nurture Won’t Go Away.” Daedalus 133, no. 4 (2004): 5-17.

Student Discussion Questions
  • Compare and contrast what a 1980s and 2000s article says regarding nature versus nurture. How has our understanding of the debate grown? What questions have been answered or arisen?
  • Why is it important to understand what plays a larger role in human development, nature or nurture? What solutions or explanations are useful once we pinpoint the reasons why we are the way we are? 
  • In his article summarizing the Mead and Freeman controversy, “Nature, Nurture and Story-telling—Part 1: The Freeman-Mead Controversy,” Doughty states the controversy “stands as one of the more important sources of data on the anthropology of anthropology.” What does he mean by that?
  • What kind of ethics come into play when using twins for nature versus nurture studies? Are there other effective ways to study this topic without using twins?
  • In the article, “How Twin Culture Challenges Our Notions of Self,” the author points out twins were used in nature versus nurture research for much of history. Find an article utilizing twins to explain a cultural or genetic occurrence. Do you think using twins in the study satisfies the questions posed by researchers, or is more work needed?
  • Watch Three Identical Strangers in “Additional Resources.” Based solely on this example, what do you think plays a larger role in human development, nature or nurture? Discuss your ideas in a small group.
  • Had Margaret Mead been alive for Freeman’s criticisms of her work, how would she respond? Write a response, as Mead, to one of Freeman’s works.
Additional Resources
  1. Article: Kaveh Majlesi, Paul J. Devereux, Petter Lundborg, and Sandra Black’s “The Role of Nature Versus Nurture in Wealth and Other Economic Outcomes and Behaviours

  2. Article: Leah McLaren’s “Does Parenting Even Matter?

  3. Article: Robin McKie’s “What Makes Us? Nature or Nurture? The DNA Debate Comes Back to Life

  4. Documentary: Tim Wardle’s “Three Identical Strangers

Unit By

Catherine Torres, Freedom Learning Group

The Problems With Coming of Age
Unit 13

The Anthropology of Sexuality

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