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Boas, Darwin, Science, and Anthropology Author(s): Herbert S. Lewis Reviewed work(s): Source: Current Anthropology, Vol. 42, No. 3 (June 2001), pp. 381-406 Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research Stable URL: . Accessed: 02/02/2012 13:31 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .
  Boas, Darwin, Science, and AnthropologyAuthor(s): Herbert S. LewisReviewed work(s):Source: Current Anthropology, Vol. 42, No. 3 (June 2001), pp. 381-406Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of Wenner-Gren Foundation for AnthropologicalResearch Stable URL: Accessed: 02/02/2012 13:31 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact The University of Chicago Press and Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research are collaboratingwith JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Current Anthropology.  381 Current Anthropology Volume 42 , Number 3 , June 2001  2001 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved 0011-3204/2001/4203-0003$3.00 Boas, Darwin,Science, andAnthropology 1 by Herbert S. Lewis This paper presents a new reading of Franz Boas’s philosophy ofscience and his approach to the understanding of culture and be-havior. It points out that his approach had important parallelswith the worldview of the major figures associated with pragma-tism and suggests that a similar perspective can be useful today. herbert s. lewis is Professor Emeritus at the University ofWisconsin, Madison (Madison, Wis. 53706 - 1393 , U.S.A. []). Born in 1934 , he was educated at Bran-deis University (A.B., 1955 ) and at Columbia University (Ph.D., 1963 ). His research interests include political anthropology, eth-nicity, cultural change, and the history of anthropology. Amonghis publications are A Galla Monarchy  (Madison: University ofWisconsin Press, 1965 ), After the Eagles Landed: The Yemenitesof Israel (Boulder: Westview Press, 1989 ), Leaders and Followers:Some Anthropological Perspectives (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1974 ), and “The Misrepresentation of Anthropology and Its Con-sequences” (  American Anthropologist 100 : 716 – 31 ). The presentpaper was submitted 20 iii 00 and accepted 26 x 00 . 1. I am indebted to many people for ideas and support. The Amer-ican Philosophical Society Library aided me with a Mellon Fellow-ship for research in June 1996 and is the source of important un-published lectures and letters by Boas upon which I have drawn forthis paper. The APS staff could not have been more helpful; RoyGoodman tracked down the Boas lecture on Darwin, and Rob Coxhelped with permission to publish it. The late Donald Campbellfirst made me aware of the power of the Darwinian metaphor in 1962 , and my friends Sidney Greenfield and the late Arnie Strickonand I first discussed Darwinian approaches to cultural evolutionalmost 30 years ago. I also want to thank Francis Schrag, MortonKlass,Karen Strier,LeonardGlick,WardGoodenough,MurrayLeaf,Lars Rodseth, Julie Smith, Walter Goldschmidt, Steven Reyna, El-liott Sober, Norman F. Boas, and Marvin Harris (for wise advice 43 years ago). As always, I must thank my wife, Marcia, for her con-stant aid and support. Although Franz Boas was the dominant figure in Amer-ican anthropology from the turn of the 20 th century,respectedbothwithintheprofessionandbyscholarsout-side the field, his reputation began to be seriously ques-tioned by the 1940 s. With the revival of cultural evo-lutionary thought and a renewed search for “laws ofcultural development,” members of the post–World WarII generation, following the lead of Leslie A. White, lev-eled serious criticisms at Boas and his work. It is ironicthat this critique has remained part of the conventionalwisdom of anthropology even though the basis of thecriticismisnolongerfashionableandthefieldasawholehas since moved in a different direction. In fact, theremay be a trajectory leading some anthropologists closerto the scientific philosophy of Franz Boas, and I shallsuggest some ways in which that perspective may stillbe of use. 2 This paper consists of a new reading of Boas’sphilosophy of science and his approach to understandingculture and behavior. I argue that Boas shows us a wayto navigate between the naive certainties of scientismand positivism on one shore and the nihilistic rejectionof science and the “shackles of textualism and excessivereflexivity” (Knauft 1994 : 117 ) on the other.Franz Boas is commonly known as a “historical par-ticularist” whose anthropology was “characterized by aprogrammatic avoidance of theoretical synthesis” (Har-ris 1968 : 250 ). Leslie White put it more colorfully, refer-ring to Boas’s “philosophy of planless hodge-podge-ism”( 1943 : 355 ). Boas’s anthropology and that of his followersis often described as little more than an attempt to col-lect “as much information as possible from living in-formants about vanished or vanishing customs of Amer-ican Indian groups” (Wax 1956 : 72 ). Thus we hearrepeatedly about the publication of a collection of un-digested Kwakiutl berry recipes, and Boas is pictured asa rigid methodological purist whose primary contribu-tion to the field was the collection of raw facts frompeoples whose cultures he thought were dying out. Ac-cording to this view he is seen, at best, as intellectuallyunadventurous and lacking an understanding of science;at worst he single-handedly impeded the advance of an-thropology for decades. In this paper I argue that, on thecontrary,Boas’sunderstandingofscienceandoftheworkof Charles Darwin in particular was more sophisticatedthan that of his critics. Furthermore, I contend that theattitude Boas brought to a scientific understanding ofhuman culture and behavior had important parallelswith the worldview of the major figures associated withpragmatism, especially William James, John Dewey, andGeorge Herbert Mead, all of whom were also deeply in-fluencedbyDarwin.Iindicatesomeofthewaysinwhichthis general approach was manifest in Boas’s social andcultural analysis, and I suggest, finally, that a similar 2. There are more recent critics and interpreters of Boas, of course,but they have not been concerned with the same issues. GelyaFrank, Faye Harrison and Donald Nonini, Julia Liss, and KamalaVisweswaran, for example, are concerned about Boas’s ideas about“race” and ethnic identity. Charles Briggs and Richard Bauman( 1999 ) present a different case against Boas, focusing on the Kwak-iutl texts.  382 F current anthropology Volume 42 , Number 3 , June 2001 perspective can be useful today as we approach the eraof post -postmodern anthropology. The Criticism of Franz Boas’s View of Scienceand Evolution The first criticisms of Boas for his alleged lack of sci-entific understanding and his role as an impediment tothe development of the science of anthropology camefrom Leslie White, who attacked the work and ideas ofBoas in a series of papers ( 1943 , 1944 , 1945 , 1963 , 1966 ).These were written as part of White’s attempt to revivethe reputation of Lewis Henry Morgan, reassert the va-lidity of cultural evolutionism, and bolster his case forwhat he called “a science of culture” to be modeled afterphysics. A similar critical approach to Boas’s anthropol-ogy was taken by Verne Ray ( 1955 , 1956 ), Murray Wax( 1956 ), John Buettner-Janusch ( 1957 ), Marvin Harris( 1968 ), and, more recently, Stephen K. Sanderson ( 1997 : 237 ).The core of this case against Boas is that he pursueda historicist rather than a “physicalist” model of sciencewhen studying culture (Harris 1968 : 262 ); that he choseparticularism, a focus on individual facts and individu-als, over classification and categorization (White 1963 : 64 ; Wax 1956 ); and that he eschewed the search for lawsofculturesuchasthosefoundinphysicsandthe“naturalworld” (Buettner-Janusch 1957 : 322 ). Drawing uponBoas’s article “The Study of Geography” ( 1940 a [ 1887 ])and upon late articles that express his belief that “cul-tural phenomena are of such complexity that it seemstomedoubtfulwhethervalidculturallawscanbefound”( 1940  h [ 1932 ]: 257 ), these critics accurately present cer-tain aspects of Boas’s attitude toward the understandingof cultural phenomena. Beyond the presentation of hisideas, however, they offer negative assessments of hiswork and career. In their view he “held up the devel-opment of the discipline” (Ray 1955 : 140 ) or at the veryleast espoused a philosophy of science that “involvederrors which are in the long run inimical to the progressof social science” (Harris 1968 : 261 ).These critics wrote from the perspective of “scien-tism” or “physicalism.” They were convinced of the ap-plicability to anthropology of a model of science derivedfromphysics andoftheimportanceofthesearchforlawsin cultural and social life. Those who favor this “nom-othetic” approach stress the search for regularities,causal relations, and laws that “take the form of if/thenstatements” (Sober 1993 : 14 ). They seek to create clas-sifications and typologies in the search for cross-cul-tural generalizations. In contrast, a “historicist” (“idi-ographic”) approach is one that puts primary emphasison individual phenomena (individuals, specific peoples,and particular histories), human choices, variation, di-versity, and chance. This is what is meant, presumably,by “particularism,” a term less often used by proponentsthan by opponents, who consider particularism and his-toricism naive or worse. (Boas referred to these as “theold controversy between historical and physical meth-ods” [ 1940 a ( 1887 ): 641 ].)The scientism of White and Harris is associated withboth a materialistic perspective and a desire to discoverthe laws of cultural evolution, positions that Boas re-jected. As early as 1882 , as he took up the study of ge-ography, he wrote to his uncle: “I became convincedthatmy previous materialistic Weltanschauung —for a phys-icist a very understandable one—was untenable” (inStocking 1974 : 43 ). And in 1888 he wrote, “Undoubtedlythe study of Kant is . . . a powerful means of guardingstudents from falling into a shallow materialism or pos-itivism” ( 1888 : 81 ).WhiteandHarrisspeakofDarwinasacontrasttoBoas;White even considers Boas an opponent of Darwin andargues that “ those who opposed Darwin did not labor for, or make contributions to, science ” ( 1944 : 219 ). Theirony is that Boas understood Darwin better than Whitedid; Darwin was, in practice andin outlook,ahistoricist.It was not Darwin that Boas and his students rejectedbut the entirely different teleological perspective of Her-bert Spencer and his followers.Leslie White writes that Boas “was not interested ingeneralizing but in particularizing,” and he quotes Boasas saying “in ethnology everything is individuality”( 1963 : 64 , quoting Boas 1974 [ 1887 ]). White continues, “Itis not surprising, therefore, that Boas never did discoverany significant laws.” But had he been more assiduoushe would have seen that the inspiration for those wordscame from Darwin himself. In an earlier piece, to whichthe phrase above was only added emphasis, Boas wrote,“In regarding the ethnological phenomenon as a biolog-ical specimen, and trying to classify it, [Otis Mason] in-troduces [into ethnology] the rigid abstractions species,genus, and family . . . the true meaning of which it tookso long to understand. It is only since the developmentof the evolutional theory that it became clear that theobject of study is the individual, not abstractions fromthe individual under observation” (Boas 1974 [ 1887 ]: 62 ,my emphasis). We may paraphrase Boas as follows: Dar-winhasshownusthattheobjectofstudyinevolutionarybiology is the individual, not abstract types and classi-fications—and so it should be in ethnology. 3 These passages foreshadow what is known today asthe “populational” approach that is basic to the modern“Darwinian synthesis” (Mayr 1982 : 45 – 47 ; Yu Xie 1987 : 274 – 75 ) in contrast to an essentialist or typological one. 4 It underlies Boas’s way of understanding race and hered-ity, and it is the foundation of much of his cultural an-thropology. It is specifically a lesson from Darwin. 3. Darwinwonderedaboutthepossibilityofgroupselectionaswell,and this is still a live issue (see Sober and Wilson 1998 : 4 – 7 ). 4. The “new synthesis” or “neo-Darwinism” builds on Darwin’sfindings and ideas with the addition of newerknowledgeinbiology,genetics, mathematical models of population dynamics, etc. Thesehave confirmed Darwin’s understanding of evolution (e.g., Brunk 1991 ).  lewis Boas, Darwin, Science, and Anthropology  F 383 Boas’s Understanding of Science Boas’s 1887 paper “The Study of Geography” has oftenbeen cited as an example of his historicistbent(Stocking 1974 : 9 – 11 ; Bunzl 1996 ; Cole 1999 : 122 – 24 ). Here hewrites of two basic approaches to science and to geog-raphy in particular: “One party claims that the ideal aimof science ought to be the discovery of general laws; theothermaintainsthatitistheinvestigationofphenomenathemselves” ( 1940 a [ 1887 ]: 641 ). He points to Comte asan able proponent of the “physical conception” of sci-ence as applied to social phenomena, while Alexandervon Humboldt’s Cosmos is offered as an example of thehistoricist perspective applied to the natural world.“Cosmography, as we may call this science, considersevery phenomenon for its own sake. Its mere existenceentitles it to a full share of our attention; and the knowl-edge of its existence and evolution in space and timefully satisfies the student, without regard to the lawswhich it corroborates or which may be deduced from it”(p. 642 ).White ( 1963 ) and Harris ( 1968 : 268 ) offer this paper asevidence that Boas, following Dilthey, saw anthropologyas one of the Geisteswissenschaften (human studies orhumanities) rather than as a natural science ( Naturwis-senschaft ),butthis isinaccurate.Infact,Boasconsideredthe historicist position one way to do the science of ge-ography. One could be a scientist without following themodel of physics. Different phenomena called for differ-ent approaches, and individual scientists might find di-verse approaches congenial to their own way of workingand thinking.George Stocking writes, “Boas’s scientific and histor-ical outlooks remained in important respects withinnineteenth-centurytraditions”( 1974 : 12 ).Butthedebatesof those times are still lively today, particularly in thefield of evolutionary biology. In order to understandBoas’s perspective more fully we must consider theparallels between his outlook and contemporaryunderstandings.According to a philosopher of science, Elliott Sober,“Some sciences try to discover general laws; others aimto uncover particular sequences of historical events. Itisn’t that the ‘hard’ sciences only do the former and the‘soft’ sciences strive solely for the latter. Each broad dis-cipline contains subareas that differ in how they em-phasizeonetaskortheother”( 1993 : 14 ).Boas’sownworkvaried, depending upon the problem.Ernst Mayr contends that “the erroneous search forlaws,” based on a physicalist model, has been one of themajor impediments to the “maturation of theories andconcepts” in biology ( 1982 : 846 et passim). The materialwith which evolutionary biologists work and the prob-lems with which they deal are fundamentally differentfrom those of most physicists; there is no reason to sup-pose that the methods and assumptions that physicistsmake will work equally well for biologists—or even forall problems in physics (cf. Sober 1993 : 14 – 15 ). 5 Whilelaws are important to the physical sciences, this has notbeen true for much of biology, says Mayr. Although heagrees that there are regularities in biology, he finds thatthe supposed laws which have been proposed are eitherobvious or too full of exceptions to warrant the name.Referring to the “evolutionary laws” proclaimed byRensch, Mayr writes, “Most of them have occasional orfrequent exceptions and are only ‘rules,’ not universallaws. They are explanatory as far asthe pastisconcernedbut not predictive, except in a statistical (probabilistic)sense” ( 1982 : 37 ). Or, as Boas wrote of “general laws” inanthropology, they “will be necessarily vague and, wemight say, so self-evident that they are of little help toa real understanding” ( 1940  h [ 1932 ]: 258 ). 6 According to Mayr, “The physical world is a world ofquantification. . . . By contrast, the world of life can bedesignated as a world of qualities” ( 1982 : 54 ) in whichthe individual differences among members of a popula-tion play a major role. “Species, classification, ecosys-tems, communicatory behavior, regulation, and justabout everyotherbiologicalprocessdealswithrelationalproperties. These can be expressed, in most cases, onlyqualitatively, not quantitatively” (p. 55 ). Among thequalities that distinguish biological phenomena fromthose with which physicists work are their uniquenessand variability (p. 55 ), their historical character, and theunpredictability of natural selection (p. 57 ). Mayr writesof the complexity, randomness, indeterminacy, and the“magnitude of stochastic perturbations” (p. 58 ) withwhich the student of evolutionary biology must deal.“Each organic system is so rich in feedbacks, homeo-static devices, and potential multiple pathways that acomplete description is quite impossible” (p. 59 ). Thesimilarities between these processes that call for a qual-itative treatment and those of social and cultural life areobvious.Biology, in Mayr’s view, is not inferior to physics, butit is a different kind of science, just as Boas argued in 1887 about one trend in geography. And still more res-onant of Boas is Mayr’s claim that “recent authors . . .have shown not only that the historical-narrative ap-proach is valid but also that it is perhaps the only sci-entifically and philosophically valid approach in the ex-planation of unique occurrences” ( 1997 : 65 ) wherechance events present the conditions for succeeding de- 5. Boas’s remarks of 1887 regarding the historical nature of socialscience,aswellasofcosmography,astronomy,biology,andgeology,are virtually the same as those of Ernst Mayr on “cosmogony . . .geology, paleontology, phylogeny, biogeography” a century later( 1997 : 65 ). 6. As we shall see, Boas did have hope for the discovery of explan-atory principles of the sort that might today be called probabilisticstatements. Although such models may take the form of if/thenstatements, they cannot specify “ when or where or  howoften thoseconditions are satisfied” (Sober 1993 : 15 ).
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