Reply to Peter Frost (part 4): Grant vs. Boas

From Jonathan Spiro's Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant:
Nordic and Anti-Nordic

The lifelong hostility between Madison Grant and Franz Boas was the personification if not the core of the nature-nurture debate in the United States. Grant was the prophet of scientific racism and, in Ellsworth Huntington’s phrase, the perennial “cheer leader of the Nordics in America.” Boas, on the other hand, devoted a lifetime to counteracting “the vicious, pseudo scientific activity of so-called scientists” who belittled nurture and pro- moted “this Nordic nonsense.” [. . .]

But Franz Boas (1858–1942) was the antithesis of Madison Grant. Whereas Grant was the scion of an aristocratic American family and displayed all the attitudes and prejudices implied by such a heritage, Boas was the product of an upper-middle-class German household in which, as he put it, “the ideals of the revolution of 1848 were a living force.” His progressive Jewish parents raised him with a firm belief in the dignity of the individual and the equipotentiality of all humans. As such, during his four-decade reign at Columbia University as the world’s most famous anthropologist, Boas preached with increasing vigor and confidence against racial prejudice, and consciously and actively worked to thwart the dangerous influence of Grant (“that charlatan”) and his disciples. 3 Boas rejected Grant’s division of mankind into biologically distinct and hierarchical subspecies. He challenged not only the superiority but the very existence of the Nordic race. And he denied that there was any correlation between the physical characteristics of a population and its mental or moral traits. The latter, he asserted, were created by the “culture” in which an individual was raised, not his or her germ plasm. Where Grant proclaimed that man was a mammal like any other and that anthropology ought to be a branch of zoology, Boas took the opposite tack and, in the words of Elazar Barkan, “divorced the biological from the cultural study of humankind.” In sum, Boas categorically rejected every tenet of Grant’s scientific racism and actively opposed every facet of Grant’s eugenic program. Of course, it was clear to Grant that the root of Boas’s hostility lay in the fact that he was a Jew, and Grant explained to Maxwell Perkins that Boas “naturally does not take stock in [my version of] anthropology which relegates him and his race to the inferior position that they have occupied throughout recorded history.”

Interestingly, the two titans rarely attacked each other directly in public, at least in the early years. Neither felt he could afford to antagonize the other, and besides, each man invariably affected a tone of charming refinement that required he behave in a courtly manner whenever possible. Instead, for decades they engaged — like the United States and the USSR during the Cold War — in a series of proxy wars on the periphery, each of which was intended to showcase their strength and prevent their opponent from increasing his sphere of influence. This chapter explores just a sampling of those incidents, to wit: Madison Grant’s attempt to establish the Galton Society as an alternative to the American Anthropological Association; the struggle for control of the National Research Council; and the contest over the Journal of Physical Anthropology. If, as we delve into these complicated and long-forgotten controversies, the issues sometimes seem arcane if not downright petty, it will be good to bear in mind that, like the Cold War battles over Quemoy and Matsu, a great deal more was at stake then met the eye. The lives of millions of persons depended on the struggle over the validity of scientific racism. [. . .]

Later that year, Boas renewed the attack with his most famous and widely read book, The Mind of Primitive Man, in which he argued, contra the eugeni- cists, that mental aptitude was not determined by heredity, and that given the proper conditions all races could achieve the level of civilization attained by “our own people” (i.e., “the white race,” in which Boas included the Jews). Ex- plaining that there was more variation within each race than between races, Boas concluded that environment accounted for most of the racial distinctions that did exist. As such, The Mind of Primitive Man was a founding statement of the notion of cultural determinism, and Boas’s student Leslie Spier called the book “a Magna Carta of race equality.”

[. . .] Grant’s ungenerous reaction, expressed in a letter to Henry Fairfield Osborn, was that Boas’s book was “a rather feeble effort. . . . The fact that Boas does not belong to the dominant North European race shows on every page of his book.” Still, Grant’s bravado masked a very genuine fear that Boas’s efforts were having some effect, and he decided that somebody must “publish something that is absolutely orthodox . . . to counteract the evil effects of the Boas propa- ganda.” The famous result, four years later, was The Passing of the Great Race, which the Eugenical News hoped would finally put a stop to “certain anthropolo- gists, like Boas,” who attempted to deny mental differences between the races. [. . .]

Among academics, Boas was practically alone in those days in his opposition to Madison Grant. The eminent anthropologist William J. Sollas of Oxford, for instance, after reading The Passing of the Great Race, passed it on to his col- leagues and then excitedly wrote to Grant to say: “I found great pleasure in fol- lowing your argument in detail and I envied you the pleasure you must have had in building up your rich store of facts into a compact body of doctrine. I hope your work will be widely read and that it may have some influence on our States- men whose knowledge of history has not been illuminated by the teachings of anthropology.”

For years, however, Boas had been diligently training a cadre of professional anthropologists who shared his revulsion for the theories of Grant, so that by the end of the 1910s Boas was surrounded and supported by a growing group of scholars well positioned to use their expertise to join in the assault on eugenics. Some of the more important anthropologists who received their Ph.D. from Boas were A. L. Kroeber (who earned his degree in 1901), Robert Lowie (1908), Edward Sapir (1909), Alexander Goldenweiser (1910), Paul Radin (1911), Leslie Spier (1920), Ruth Benedict (1923), Melville Herskovits (1923), Margaret Mead (1929), and Ashley Montagu (1937). With the exception of Kroeber, Benedict, and Mead, all were Jews, many were immigrants, and several were both. (It was a poorly kept secret that Ashley Montagu, the son of a Polish-born Jewish tailor, had been Moses Israel Ehrenberg before metamorphosing into Montagu Fran- cis Ashley-Montagu.) 11 By the early 1920s, the members of the first generation of Boas’s students were devising the intellectual weapons and amassing the ethnographic data they would need to combat the disciples of Grant.

On a theoretical level the debate between the Grantians and the Boasians pitted the defenders of heredity against the proponents of environment. Intellectually, the split was a disagreement between adherents of polygenesis, who were obsessed with the classification of races, and adherents of monogenesis, who were fairly certain that races were socially constructed myths. And professionally, it was a conflict between an older generation of physical anthropologists (often gentleman amateurs with no academic affiliation or perhaps an association with a museum) and the newer generation of cultural anthropolo- gists (usually trained professionals with full-time positions in academia). But for all that, it was difficult not to notice that at heart it was a confrontation be- tween the ethos of native Protestants and the zeitgeist of immigrant Jews. 12

The older generation of amateurs were aristocratic WASPs with the money and leisure time to ponder fossils as an avocation, whereas the younger generation of professionals were immigrant Jews who saw higher education as a route to social respectability and jobs in academia as a means of economic sur- vival. [. . .]

The culturalists were well aware that their work was viewed as trivial and un- scientific. And their response — with Boas leading the way — was to professional- ize their discipline. They understood that by transforming anthropology from an amateur hobby into a professional vocation, they would garner not only re- spect but also academic positions (and funding) that would be distributed on the basis of merit rather than through the anti-Semitic old-boy network. (One of the main reasons why Boas had emigrated to the United States was because he recognized that his chances for a professorship in Germany would be thwarted by anti-Semitism.)

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