Thirty-two years after her death, the anthropologist Margaret Mead remains a favorite whipping girl for ideologues of all stripes. Did you know that she cooked up the global-warming "hoax"? Some over-the-top global warming deniers say it all started in 1975 when Mead organized a conference to address overpopulation.

Most attacks on Mead focus on her ethnographic writings, notably her classic Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization. Published in 1928, when Mead was only 27, the book described young Samoans enjoying casual premarital sex with little guilt and jealousy before settling down to raise a family. Mead added caveats, noting that men occasionally fought over and beat women.

Her book nonetheless posed a challenge to Western sexual mores, which according to Mead inflicted needless suffering on young men and women. The metatheme of Coming of Age and all Mead's subsequent work was that the way things are is not the way they must or should be; we can choose to live in ways that make us happier and healthier. Her writings helped inspire feminism, the sexual revolution, the human potential movement and other countercultural trends during the 1960s.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), a group of conservative academics, lists Coming of Age in Samoa as first in a list of the "50 Worst Books of the Century". (Yes, Mead's book is worse than Mein Kampf. Another "worst book" is The Pentagon Papers, the secret documents about the Vietnam War, published by The New York Times in 1971, which undermined Nixon's "statesmanlike efforts to salvage the mess in Vietnam bequeathed to him by JFK and LBJ," according to the ISI. Who are these people?) The institute's citation for Coming of Age reads: "Mead misled a generation into believing that the fantasies of sexual progressives were an historical reality on an island far, far away."

Mead is also a frequent target of evolutionary psychologists, behavioral geneticists and other scientists who emphasize nature over nurture as a determinant of human behavior. The psychologist Steven Pinker has chastised Mead for supposedly claiming that we are "blank slates" whose behavior is unconstrained by biology. Pinker's Harvard colleague, the anthropologist Richard Wrangham, has derided Mead for suggesting that "human evil is a culturally acquired thing, an arbitrary garment that can be cast off like our winter clothes."

Mead's critics harrumph that she was politically biased—and, of course, she was, from early on in her life. The child of Quaker social scientists, Mead studied at Barnard College in the 1920s under Franz Boas, a political progressive and outspoken critic of social Darwinism and eugenics, which in this pre-Nazi era were still intellectually fashionable. As a result of these influences, Mead opposed genetic determinism, racism, sexism, militarism and stultifying religious morality. She was biased—and she was right.

Mead-bashers invariably cite the anthropologist Derek Freeman, a native of New Zealand who first traveled to Samoa in the 1950s. In his 1983 book Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, and 1998 sequel, The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research, Freeman asserted that Mead had ignored evidence of male violence—often triggered by sexual jealousy—and other behavior that contradicted her rosy picture of Samoan life. According to Freeman, several of Mead's female informants, when he re-interviewed them decades later, denied her depictions of them and said they had lied to her.

Mead certainly had her defenders: "If Mead was projecting what she wanted unconsciously to see, and I am not convinced she was," the anthropologist Melvin Ember wrote in American Anthropologist in 1985, "it is at least as likely that Freeman is projecting what he wants to see." Ember, who worked in Samoa in the 1950s, pointed out that Freeman's observations of Samoa—which he said contradicted those of Mead—took place on different Samoan islands and during a much later period. In Samoa, Ember said, "customary behavior varied considerably from village to village."

In a 1999 review of Fateful Hoaxing for Science another anthropologist with experience in Samoa, Martin Orans, questioned Freeman's claim that Mead's female informants had "hoaxed" her. Many Samoans objected to Mead's characterization of them as "sexually loose," Orans noted. "Surely the claim of hoaxing Mead must be evaluated with this motive for discrediting her in mind, but Freeman never mentions it." Other critics pointed out that whereas Mead's primary sources were females between nine and 20 years old, Freeman's were Samoan elders, who were likely to present a very different picture of their culture.

The anthropologist Melvin Konner of Emory University, writing in Nature in 1999, said that Mead, like other social scientists, probably "made mistakes" in her ethnographies. Konner nonetheless praised Mead for "fighting racist theories; demonstrating the flexibility of sex roles; promoting respect for exotic traditions; challenging the ethnocentrism of psychologists, sociologists and historians; fighting colonialism; questioning research methods that 'objectify' non-Western people; preserving disappearing cultures; and resisting the generalizations of sociobiology." Mead deserved a Nobel Prize for her achievements, Konner said.

Nevertheless, Freeman's charges, which were amplified by The New York Times, NBC and other major media, have gained widespread acceptance. "Given the impressive evidence arrayed here," Amazon stated in its 1999 review of Fateful Hoaxing, "it's hard to see how Mead's work in Samoa can be now viewed as anything but a pretty fable."

A recent book on the controversy—The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy by the anthropologist Paul Shankman of the University of Colorado at Boulder, a specialist on Samoa—may restore Mead's unjustly tarnished reputation. On the anthropology blog Savage Minds, Alex Golub of University of Hawaii at Manoa called Shankman's book "the most definitive and thorough analysis of the Mead–Freeman 'debate' that has been published so far."

Golub summed up the book as follows: "Freeman's arguments about Mead are shown not to hold very much water, and his own claims about Samoa don't seem to stand close scholarly scrutiny either." Shankman also documented what Golub calls Freeman's "atrocious behavior, such as contacting universities and demanding that they revoke the PhDs of his opponents."

Shankman "points out the ways in which Coming of Age reaches conclusions about American life that Mead quite liked but which were not really supported by the Samoan data," Golub added. "Still, it is clear from his book that Mead was basically a decent fieldworker and a careful scholar while Freeman was, frankly, a nutcake."

So why do I care so much about Mead? First, it rankles me that some of Mead's modern critics are so condescending toward her, especially when she was so gracious to her ideological opponents. In 1976, a year after the publication of Sociobiology by the Harvard biologist Edward Wilson, some attendees at a meeting of the American Anthropology Association called for a public condemnation of Wilson's book (a seminal text of evolutionary psychology). The proposal was defeated after Mead denounced it as "book burning," according to the anthropologist Helen Fisher, who was at the meeting. Fisher told this tale in her introduction to a 2001 edition of Mead's book Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies.

Moreover, Mead's work still provides a powerful counterpoint to the modern scientific trend toward explaining human behavior in genetic terms. Read Coming of Age or her other writings; you will see that Mead is a far more subtle observer and analyst than her detractors assert. I'm especially impressed with Mead's theory of warfare, which is much more persuasive than the trendy attribution of war to an innate male drive that we supposedly share with chimpanzees. I'll describe her theory of war in my next post.

Image credit: University of Wisconsin Press