Two of the major superstitions of our time are the notion that man is merely a blank slate whose behavior is merely the product of the social environment and its sister, that race doesn't exist. Yet one by one, the pseudo-scientific sources of these myths are being discredited by serious scientists, and last week, one of the biggest sources of all took a nose dive.
Franz Boas, often called the grandfather of modern anthropology and a pioneer pusher of the idea that race is not a very meaningful concept, merely a "social construct" not found in nature, probably ranks with Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud as one of the most influential thinkers of the modern age. As a Columbia professor from 1899 to 1942, he virtually created modern anthropology, and the students he trained—among them, Margaret Mead and some of the most famous names in the field—dominated the discipline until only a few years ago.
One of Boas' favorite targets was so-called "scientific racism," and much of his own writing was intended to combat what he saw—sometimes rightly—as unscientific or simply false thinking about race.
But it now turns out that Boas himself was guilty of no small degree of unscientific blunder—and maybe even fraud.
In 1912, Boas published what became a classic study that claimed to show that the skull shapes ("cranial forms") of the descendants of European immigrants to the United States altered from those of the original immigrants. Boas offered no explanation for why the changes took place, but if they were real, his finding pretty much wiped out the idea that different racial and ethnic types differ in fixed physical characteristics.
Boas's study, write Abram Kardiner and Edward Preble in their popular history of anthropology, They Studied Man, [pay archive]
"did much to establish the notion in human genetics that what are transmitted in the germ plasm are not fixed characters but potentialities ... dependent upon the environment for the particular form they will assume. The 'nature-nurture' controversy was largely obviated by this alternative."
In political terms, if human beings have few or no "fixed characters" and are shaped by the social environment, then what we know as modern liberalism is in business. So is communism, which also assumes that human beings can be transformed by manipulating the social environment.
It's no accident that Boas was a lifelong sympathizer of Marxism.
Unfortunately, for the social and human engineers, the study has now been shown to be invalid. Last week in the New York Times Science section, science reporter Nicholas Wade reported on an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by anthropologists Corey Sparks and Richard L. Jantz that took another look at Boas's study and methods. The effects of the new environment on the skulls of the immigrants' descendants, they found, are "insignificant," and the difference between the European and American born children were "negligible in comparison to the differentiation between ethnic groups." ["A New Look at Old Data May Discredit a Theory on Race" By Nicholas Wade, NYT.Oct 8, 2002]
Moreover, as Dr. Jantz told the Times, Boas
"was intent on showing that the scientific racism of the day had no basis, but he did have to shade his data some to make it come out that way."
In other words, Boas decided what his conclusions would be before he finished the research and then "shaded"—i.e., cheated on—the data to make them support the conclusion he wanted.
This is not science; it's fraud — and modern liberalism is founded on it.
It doesn't mean that the "scientific racism" Boas wanted to destroy is valid, but then again, as Dr. Jantz, says, it also "doesn't mean cranial morphology [the classification of skulls by race] is meaningless either."
Yet Boas was by far not the worst offender when it came to twisting data to support politically desired conclusions. His student Margaret Mead has been shown to have outright fabricated much of her data on Samoan sex life in the 1920s, and the claims about the lack of genetic influence on IQ of several other scientists trained or influenced by Boas have also been challenged by later research.
Anthropologist David Thomas, curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, tells the Times
"once we anthropologists said race doesn't exist, we have ignored it since then,"
but now, the reappraisal of Boas' work
"really does have far-reaching ramifications."
You can say that again.
Not only has a giant of modern social science—and a pillar of modern liberalism—tumbled from his pedestal, but the dogma that man is merely a blank slate, on which state bureaucrats and social engineers may scribble whatever ideologies they please, has toppled with him.
If that dogma really can be killed, then much of the tyranny and chaos it has helped create will die with it.
COPYRIGHT CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.
October 14, 2002