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Who Was Franz Boas?


MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. Franz Boas is known as the father of American anthropology. In the early 20th Century he bucked the trends of the time with his pioneering anti-racist theories. He gave birth to ideas that have shaped policy and become enormously controversial. This week we take a look at Franz Boas, the man, the controversy, and the legacy. To learn more Think Tank is joined by: Lee Baker, associate professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University, and author of From Savage to Negro, Anthropology and the Construction Race, 1896 to 1954; and Matthew Frye Jacobson, associate professor of American studies and history at Yale University, and author of Barbarian Virtues, the United States Encounters Foreign Peoples Abroad and At Home, 1876 to 1917. The topic before the house, who was Franz Boas, this week on Think Tank.

(Musical break.)

MR. WATTENBERG: Recently PBS aired a three-hour prime time Think Tank special, The First Measured Century, a look at trends and social change in America during the last 100 years. The life and work of anthropologist Franz Boas helped us tell that story. To set up our conversation today here are some excerpts.

(Film clip shown.)

MR. WATTENBERG (From video): Through the early 1800s immigration to America had looked like this, primarily English, Scottish, German and Scandinavian. But, between 1880 and the 1920s the flow changed. Eastern and Southern Europeans made the move to America in record numbers. These newcomers were often described by what they were not, not Protestant, not English speaking, not skilled, not educated, and not liked. The newly arrived immigrants found themselves in a hostile and alien environment. Could the new immigrants adapt to life in America? Many learned men thought not. A superintendent of the census, and later president of MIT, Francis Walker had this to say.

MR. (From video): The entrance of such vast masses of peasantry degraded below our utmost conceptions is a matter which no intelligent patriot can look upon without the gravest apprehension and alarm. They are beaten men from beaten races. They have none of the ideas and aptitudes such as belong to those who are descended from the tribes that met under the oak trees of old Germany to make laws and choose chiefs. Francis Walker, 1896.

MR. WATTENBERG (From video): Leading the opposition to this nativist view was a German Jewish immigrant who got his start in one of the coldest places on Earth. In 1883 a young scientist named Franz Boas traveled to Bathin Island in the Arctic Circle. While studying Eskimo customs Boas began to develop one of the most important concepts on modern anthropology. At the time tribal groups like the Eskimo were considered primitive and uncivilized, Northern European society was seen as the pinnacle of evolution, culturally, racially, and biologically. Boas wrote in his diary.

MR. (From video): I often ask myself what advantages our good society possesses over the savages, the more I see their customs, the more I realize that we have no right to look down on them. The idea of a cultured individual is merely relative.

MR. WATTENBERG: Gentlemen, Lee Baker, Matthew Frye Jacobson, thank you for joining us.

Lee, tell us a little bit about who Franz Boas was.

MR. BAKER: Franz Boas was a Jewish-German immigrant who came over to this country in the 1880s, after an extensive period of studying the Eskimos. And he came to the United States, and through a long kind of arduous journey ended up at Columbia University where he founded the important department of anthropology there. And his students, along with himself, really forged what became known as American anthropology, actually distinguished from French and English.

MR. WATTENBERG: What was the essence of what he was teaching?

MR. JACOBSON: Well, I think there are two important parts o the context of the development of his thought, especially in the last decade of the 19th Century, and on into the early 20th Century. One is he was responding to evolutionist thought, which at the outset in the 19th Century had battered the harshest edges of 19th Century racism by saying, well, in fact, the different races aren't from multiple origins, which is what racists in the mid-19th Century had argued, but are from a single origin and then they just developed differently.

But, by the turn of the century that evolutionist thought itself had taken on some of the hardest edges. And the argument then went that, although all humanity might be from a single site of creation, some had developed so much further than others that evolutionism itself had become quite hierarchical. So that was one of the things Boas was arguing against. Another was the ascendents of biological, and especially genetic thinking, in which different human types were thought to be completely fixed, and completely immutable.
MR. WATTENBERG: What was the -- go ahead.

MR. BAKER: So there were two major contributions -- I'd think his two major contributions were challenging this notion that there was something called savage, primitive, and civilized cultures, that was number one. And number two, that there was something called inferior and superior races. Those were his -- and he was reacting, he spent his career trying to tackle those two very important 19th Century ideas, and I think was successful. So today when we talk about cultures, plural, we can thank Franz Boas, because before that it was Culture, with a capital C, and there was just people who either had it or didn't.

MR. WATTENBERG: That is a very interesting point. We have another clip from that First Measured Century program that perhaps puts that in a broader context. Let's take a look.

(Film clip shown.)

MR. (From video): We've come to think of race in this country almost entirely in the binary terms of black and white. But, at the turn of the century there were upwards of 36 in some schemes, 75 in other schemes, races. And the largest difference being the divisions within what we now think of as being one white race.

MR. WATTENBERG (From video): One scientist named William Ripley, believe it or not, identified a hierarchy of three fundamental white racial types in Europe, by measuring head shape: The long-headed, blonde, Teutonic, type; the short headed, brunette Alpine; and the long-headed, dark Mediterranean, the Jews, Italians, Slavs, and Greeks. Surprise, the new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe were ranked at the bottom of the scale.

MR. BAKER: This was the age of the science, and science in this time, social science as well as physical science, measuring everything from heads to leg lengths, to nose size was used to bolster discrimination.

MR. WATTENBERG (From video): In 1907 Boas began an intensive study of close to 18,000 children of European immigrants. The results were published as Changes In Bodily Form, part of a 42-volume congressional study on immigration. Boas measured height, weight, head shape and other physical traits, all cross tabulated by whether his subjects were born in Europe or America, and how long they had lived in America. The results showed that in just one generation the head shapes of children of long-skulled Nordic immigrants, and those of the round headed Slavic and Jewish immigrants were quickly becoming more like each other. In effect, once in an American environment, eating an American diet, the children were physically becoming more like American children.

MR. WATTENBERG: The people who were espousing this, as I have come to understand, I mean, it coincides with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

MR. BAKER: Absolutely.

MR. WATTENBERG: But, these are some of the tiffany scholars in the newly formed social sciences. I mean, the president of MIT, the head of the census bureau, America's leading novelist at the time, Kenneth Roberts, they are all devotees of this idea of eugenics, is that right?

MR. BAKER: Teddy Roosevelt.

MR. JACOBSON: And Calvin Coolidge. I mean, one of the things that I think is really important here is there is a tendency to call this pseudoscience and to kind of dismiss it. And, in fact, it was science, it was the science of the time.

MR. BAKER: Before Boas started doing this research, race traits and tendencies, to culture and race were seen as one. And Boas pulled them apart, he says, we've got to look at races, and he did a lot of work, he measured heads too, and we've got to look at cultures and language as three distinct modalities, which I think was profound, because before that you get Frederick Kauffman, you get the eugenic people that said, morals, behaviors, races, they're all lumped together, and we can measure their heads to determine that. And we need to engineer more and less, and it was this sort of stuff. So I think it becomes important to understand that the anthropologists at Columbia at the time were really hitting hard on this saying, if you look at race you've got to make the distinction between race and culture and language. And they literally pulled them apart.

MR. WATTENBERG: People who studied with Boas had an enormous influence later in the century, is that right? Can you sketch that in for us?

MR. BAKER: What happened is people started really thinking through and understanding whether it was Margaret Mead, or Ruth Benedict, or Melvar Hearstavist (sp), or Neal Hearston (sp), people started looking at cultures, again, like I said, on their own terms and looking at their very unique history. And this was, again, in the context where people were still talking about, they must be savages, they must be inferior. So he was saying, you know, let's look at something like the Papuan -- the people in Papua New Guinea and explain their sexuality, explain their socialization, and see that not in terms of whatever white civilization, or whatever, and in a way they're critiquing American society by looking at these so-called other cultures.

MR. WATTENBERG: I mean the argument is made that Boas' theory of cultural relativism, while certainly profound and prophetic and important in the early part of the century to knock down these racist and eugenicist feelings that were going on. Does, as the century goes on, go overboard in some respects. Margaret Mead is pointed to as one of the examples that everything is relative. I mean, can you say that the Aztec society that sacrificed 13-year-old virgins and tore their heart out on a funeral pyre is -- well, it's just the same as Middletown, USA.

MR. JACOBSON: I know you have strong feelings about this. I mean, one of the things I would say about that is, why ask the question in the first place? And the reason the question is posed, I mean it's almost always a political question. And however you want to argue the relativist position, it's actually, I think, a very useful foil for thinking through the kinds of political questions. But usually involving things like foreign policy, or imperialism, or various kind of international questions that are almost always heavily racialized, and heated, and complex. And, I don't know if there's an answer in the grand scale of philosophy, or the relativistic question, but I think the question itself --

MR. WATTENBERG: I'm struggling with this, but the argument is that Boas' successors, the pure cultural relativists sort of argued against any absolute values, any absolute standards, everything was the same, everything was relative, and it leads you, I think, to sort of this deconstructionist thought in the American academy today that says, you know, nothing means nothing.

MR. JACOBSON: You can speak to this more than I, but I mean my sense of it is that none of his followers have taken that position quite as much as his detractors have --

MR. BAKER: Foisted it upon them, yes. Using your example of the Aztecs, I would say, well, is that more barbaric than the mustard filled gas trenches of World War II. That was pretty barbaric. The crusades. I mean, there's so many countless examples in European history that are as ruthless as anything the Aztecs even dreamt about.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. We have another clip from that First Measured Century program. Let's take a look.
(Film clip shown.)

MR. WATTENBERG (From video): Throughout his life, Boas continued to argue that environment played a key role in shaping individuals, but eugenicists turned to another way of sorting out the races. In the early 1900s, the American scientist H.H. Goddard was in the vanguard of those promoting the newly invented intelligence quotient, the IQ test. Goddard outlined a scale of feeble-minded intelligence. At the very bottom were the idiots, barely able to function. Next came imbeciles, mentally four to ten years old and capable of only simple tasks, and Goddard added another stage just on the edge of normal intelligence, the moron.

In 1917, America entered the first world war. Millions of young men were mobilized to join the fight. Eugenicists saw an opportunity to gather a huge test sample. Louis Terman (sp) of Stanford University convinced the Army that IQ tests could help sort the draftees according to their mental ability, almost two million soldiers took the new tests. The written or alpha test included questions about American popular culture, the brand names of products, and even the location of a university. If the draftee failed the alpha test, or was unable to read, he was given the verbal beta test. He had only a few minutes to look at pictures and draw in what was missing.

MR. (From video): In looking at the intelligence tests, especially the verbal intelligence test, there was a tremendous cultural bias that was involved. Often an immigrant would be shown a picture of a tennis court and asked, what's missing from this picture? Well, if you're an Eastern European Jew fresh from the schtetle (sp) you'd hardly be aware of the fact that there's a tennis net missing from the picture of the tennis court.

MR. (From video): So scientific racism itself isn't new, but what is new in this period is the level of influence that science is having on policy debates, and on policy itself.

MR. WATTENBERG (From video): Eugenicists seized on the Army IQ tests to prove to Congress that the races of Southern and Eastern Europe were a threat to the biological makeup of the nation.

(End film clip.)

MR. WATTENBERG: This is a classic example of how social science, for all its claim to objectivity and scholarship, immediately is plunged into the political debate, and it leads directly to this 1924 Immigration Restriction Act. I mean, the Congress hears testimony that says, 75 percent of the immigrants who took the selective service, that's the draft test -- we showed them that clip, idiots, feeble-minded, morons, whatever. And they say, well, we don't want those people around. And they cut back the immigration quotas.

MR. BAKER: That's right. And they ignored Boas' Herculean effort. There was like, you mentioned, 50-some-odd volumes, Boas' was one of the most important and statistically sound volumes, but they shelved it. They didn't take one line saying, oh, we don't think we could reproduce this scientifically, or something like that, and summarily shelved what, at that point, was actually very good data. So you're right, they saw it through a political lens, which is nothing new.

MR. WATTENBERG: Which goes on as we speak today on various sides of the equation.

MR. JACOBSON: One of the ways to think about this, I think, is that while there may be such a thing as a detached, objective, scientific fact, there is no such thing as a completely objective, detached, scientific question. The answers that we get are a product of the questions that we ask. And the history of race thinking from the 19th Century onward, all of the theories are developed in very heated political context. And so that in 1912, it was important to know the IQ difference between Anglo-Saxons and Italians. We could ask the same question now, but as far as I know it's not occurring to anybody to ask that question.

MR. BAKER: Well, they're asking blacks and whites.

MR. JACOBSON: But the questions are framed in a completely different way.

MR. WATTENBERG: This whole argument that Boas gets into sort of excludes blacks. They're sort of off the scale, blacks, and Asians, and Latinos, they are not even in the contest at that point in terms of this superior/inferior rating; is that right?

MR. BAKER: In some respects, yes. But I think what Boas also did, perhaps better than anyone else is saying, there is no lines. I mean, all this imbecile stuff, moron stuff, that was within the white Anglo-Saxon race, so it was happening on both sides. It was both vertically as well as horizontally. So he would argue that, well, there are imbeciles and morons in every racial group, and there is no way to rank them, if he was going to argue that.

MR. WATTENBERG: And some of them are today teaching in our best universities, present company excluded.

MR. BAKER: But I think what he also did in the important contributions, Boas looked at ancient civilizations to show that African Americans, Asians, Indians, he went back to their ancient civilizations, the Songhai (sp) empire in Timbuktu in Africa, and said, hey, African Americans haven't always been at the bottom of the barrel, look at their great kingdoms. So, I mean, he also looked historically using archeology as well as a number of other research methods to say, they've got civilization, too.

MR. WATTENBERG: Looking back, what effect did Boas have on the perception of race and immigration in America?

MR. JACOBSON: I would say, in the short term, at the time that those eugenics debates were taking place, he had very little influence. I think that in the long-term he kind of won out in that argument. Over the balance of the 20th Century, his views have ascended on the race question anyway.

MR. WATTENBERG: And on the immigrant question.

MR. JACOBSON: And on the immigrant question. I think that one of the ironies, though, right at the end of his life, he really was trying to dismantle the notion of the distinct white races, and this is in the '30s, especially as news was coming out of Germany. And that was, I think, for him going to be part of a much bigger project of dismantling race entirely. He died before that ever happened. And one of the ironies is, and I think it's one of the really vexing things for American political culture, afterwards, is that the white races, in fact, did get dismantled around mid-century. Now we have kind of one consanguine Caucasian race, where the distinction between a Celt and a Slav really is not so salient to us. But race and color kind of coalesced in a way that's as fierce and as intractable as the earlier races were in the early part of the century. So that race itself, the race concept, has not been successfully dismantled in the way that I think he had hoped. Privilege maybe has been reorganized.

MR. WATTENBERG: Lee, it has not been dismantled, but is it in the process of dismantlement?

MR. BAKER: Yes, and no.

MR. WATTENBERG: You ought to go into politics, you're in the right town.

MR. BAKER: What he did is, he laid the foundation to establish that we cannot say one race is biologically superior or inferior to another, which was historic. That ended segregation, and his research was used in Brown, et al. But what he also opened the door for was allowing the idea that these -- now that race is not biology, it's simply another cultural fact, which is very persistent. Now we have to fight race on social, cultural, economic grounds, because we know it's not biological.

So what he did is, he took out the biological component of race, and what was left standing was the scaffolding which was there from the beginning, which was the economic, social and cultural foundations of race.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. We are going to have to leave it at that, but he is, Boas, I have found at least in learning something, quite an intriguing American thinker.

Thank you, Lee Baker, and Matthew Jacobson. And thank you. Please remember to send us your comments via email. For Think Tank, I'm Ben Wattenberg.

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