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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.
David Thomas, curator of anthropology at the
American Museum of Natural History in New York, tells
"once we anthropologists
said race doesn`t exist, we have
ignored it since then,"
but now, the reappraisal of Boas` work
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.
October 14, 2002