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Sex and Temperament: In Three Primitive Societies Paperback – May 22, 2001
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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About the Author
Margaret Mead (1901-1978) began her remarkable career when she visited Samoa at the age of twenty-three, which led to her first book, Coming of Age in Samoa. She went on to become one of the most influential women of our time, publishing some forty works and serving as Curator of Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History as well as president of major scientific associations. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom following her death in 1978.
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Mead refrained from the grand, overall comparisons of Benedict to focus on how male and female roles differed in the three cultures. In one, males were dominant and head-hunting epitomized their aggressiveness. In a second culture women dominated, and the subordinate males showed less aggression. The third culture featured equality between the sexes with the least aggression while also demonstrating an equality and a freedom that might serve as a model for the West.
No doubt Mead emphasized some culture traits over others to reach her conclusions, but her results have helped the feminist movement and given general readers much to think about.
The book reads much like a novel with few technical terms from anthropology to slow the reader.
"Sex and Temperament" is very well-written, almost captivating, and gives you an eerie feeling that you are present in New Guinea together with Mead and the somewhat strange peoples she was investigating. From a purely literally point of view, it's a tour de force. Mead's political message is also crystal clear: she criticizes authoritarian childrearing practices, male dominance, and discrimination against "deviants". I read the book from cover to cover over a week-end.
The book describes the way of life of three quite different peoples in the northeast part of New Guinea, then under British control. The Mundugumor and the Tchambuli lived along the Sepik River, while the Arapesh dwelled in the hills further north. In Mead's opinion, the Arapesh were a gentle people who promoted peaceful co-operation among both men and women, while the Mundugumor were cannibals and head-hunters, who promoted aggressiveness among both sexes. The Tchambuli, most sensationally of all, lived in a kind of matriarchy where the women were dominant and the men submissive.
Critics of the book usually attack Mead's descriptions of the Arapesh and the Tchambuli (called Chambri in later sources).
Despite the criticism, there is nothing inherently implausible about Mead's descriptions of the Arapesh. Mead does idealize them, but she nevertheless reports the facts so objectively, that a dispassionate reader can question her own interpretations. The Arapesh turn out to be a patriarchal society that practices infanticide of female babies, treats people with skin disease as out-casts, and have an almost "Straussian" view of their own religion. The initiated men of the Arapesh know very well that their tribal god is a fiction whose function is to keep people in line. On a more positive note, the Arapesh emphasize consensus, co-operation and sharing. Their chiefs have a mostly symbolic function, and violence between the villages is never allowed to escalate beyond a certain point. Anthropologists have described relatively egalitarian cultures in other parts of the world as well, and archeological excavations prove that at least one ancient high culture was peaceful, the Indus Valley Civilization, which incidentally also had strangely egalitarian traits. So what's the big deal about the Arapesh? It's also obvious from Mead's description that the co-operation among this people is to a great extent enforced, rather than voluntary, and that their society is less efficient because of it. Arapesh society gives the impression of a controlled chaos. Nobody has any incentive to learn new hunting skills, since everyone is expected to share the game with everyone else, and there are no innovations in agriculture or house-building, since everyone works on plots and houses belonging to somebody else. The best hunter in the village was ostracised since he refused to share. Many necessities are imported rather than locally produced. There is also a strong degree of suspicion between members of each village, and all Arapesh at some point consult sorcerers from the Plainspeople to cast magical spells on their fellows. Why the Arapesh are peaceful and co-operative is never really explained, but living in a poor region in the hills might be the reason. It's a survival strategy. Nobody is allowed to rock the boat, or else disaster might follow. As for being peaceful, perhaps the head-hunters of the plains simply aren't interested in raiding the mountain villages of the Arapesh?
The Tchambuli are described as a people where the men are subordinate to the women. A later anthropologist who visited this people failed to confirm Mead's sensational findings. Mead apparently misinterpreted a temporary crisis situation during which traditional authority structures had broken down, enabling the women to challenge at least some of the men. This would explain certain curious anomalies in Mead's description of the Tchambuli. Mead points out that the Tchambuli are patrilineal, and that all land is owned by the men. Despite this, women wielded a lot of influence when Mead studied their culture. For instance, the women chose their mates, and controlled the household economy. There seems to have been a lot of tension between the sexes, between the legal power of the men (a husband even had the right to beat his wife!) and the extralegal but real power of the women. This doesn't sound like a "matriarchy" but rather a society moving in the direction of complementary gender roles without really succeding. Of course, "complementarian" societies have been described from other parts of the world. The most famous example of such a culture are the Iroquis, where men were chiefs and warriors, while the women owned all land and had legally recognized political power. Among the Iroquis, this system was stable. The Tchambuli never reached such a stable situation. It seems the men quickly regained the power after Mead had left New Guinea, perhaps due to their land ownership? The fact that further research has failed to confirm matriarchy among the Tchambuli has lead some to the rather rash conclusion that all societies are patriarchal, as if the only alternative to patriarchy is a situation where women oppress the men. In reality, there are many examples of cultures where men and women have equal influence.
Ironically, the culture that really challenges the credulity of the dispassionate reader are the Mundugumor. They were supposedly affluent and owned rich lands, but nevertheless spent most of their time attacking other peoples and even each other, for no better reason than cannibalism. Further, the Mundugumor were neither matrilineal nor patrilineal, but organized in a kind of pseudo-clans known as ropes, which pitted a man against his wives, and sister against brother. Yet, members of conflicting ropes nevertheless lived in the same compounds! Somehow, *this* challenges our deeply held convictions about human nature. Why would an affluent people risk war or civil war, simply to eat human flesh? Why did the ropes pit family members against each other? In all other societies, some kind of family is the basic social unit! Yet, the conservative critics seem to have no problem with the Mundugumor. Why not? Presumably because they look like White middle-class philistines expect "primitive" peoples to look like: they are polygamous, aggressive, Hobbesian, know nothing about family values, and like the taste of boiled human meat. And, of course, they are patriarchal! Perhaps the aggressive sexual intercourse between Mundugumor men and women wet the appetites of a certain kind of androcentric males in our own society? My guess is that Mead and her associates encountered this people during an advanced stage of crisis or even dissolution. Indeed, several of the informants claimed that the Mundugumor ropes were not at each other's throats in the past.
How does Mead explain the different gender roles in these and other cultures? She denies that there are any mental differences between men and women. Instead, she believes in individual differences of temperament. It's left unclear whether these are inherited or acquired at a very early age. Each society promotes some kinds of temperaments and attempts to suppress others. This is done mostly through childrearing. Most people, regardless of temperament, are successfully socialized and espouse the "right" temperament, at least in public. A few refuse and become deviants or out-casts. I consider the question of the exact relationship between nature and nurture to be complicated. However, the large variation of gender roles around the world surely means that social constructions and individual differences are more important than average genetic differences between the sexes. Also, it's unclear how effective the socialization process really is. All socities described by Mead seem to be torn between the official ideology and conflicting invidual interests, not just those of a few deviants. The Arapesh aren't perfectly peaceful - they have peace because they actively suppress the conflicts that *do* occur among their villages.
Opposition to Mead comes from two quarters: patriarchal conservatives who believe woman's position is prone, and sociobiologists who consider patriarchy, hierarchy and war to be human universals. The former criticism is uninteresting. The Tchambuli may not have been matriarchal, but please note that the women did challenge male dominance when given the chance! This, of course, is what patriarchal conservatives fear might happen in their back yard, too. The sociobiological case relies heavily on the fact that later research failed to confirm matriarchy among the Tchambuli, plus sheer incredulity towards the Arapesh. That's an argument? Both anthropology and archaeology strongly suggests that patriarchy, hierarchy and war are *not* human universals. This doesn't stand or fall with the Tchambuli and actually confirm the Arapesh. Incidentally, the sociobiologists never discuss the Mundugumor, who seem to disconfirm kin selection. Questioning matriarchy is a more pressing problem, it seems. I leave the conclusions to the reader.
"Sex and Temperament" is a flawed book in many ways. But it's not a book that can be willfully rejected either. Mead wasn't always right, but the errors are on the level of interpretation. The empirical facts themselves seem reasonably correct. Human nature may not be "infinitely" malleable, but it can construct societies that are peaceful, egalitarian or have other gender roles than the ones we are used to. It can even construct... the Mundugumor.