The Ethnocentrism of Science: Race, Biology, and Bigoted Fictions

Matthew Mutter on Charles King

Gods of the Upper Air by Charles King
Charles King. Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. New York: Doubleday, 2019. pp. 448. $30, Hardcover.
Near the end of Gods of the Upper Air, Charles King plucks a 1958 letter from Margaret Mead’s correspondence. A stranger wrote Mead for help: “My problem is a ‘craving’ to write a book because of factual material. However, the lack of talent prevents it. Is this normal behavior or a frustration deeply rooted in [my] African, American Indian, and Anglo-Saxon heritage?”

Mead wrote back a week later: “I think you will find that it is very normal for people in every part of the world to have a feeling that they have a great deal of factual material they would like to put into a book, but lack a particular talent for writing it. I don’t think you should feel this has any relationship to your very interesting ethnic heritage.”

By the 1950s, social science had become the premier tool for “teaching people to know themselves.” As Mead put it, “It’s All Anthropology,” so “the whole world is my field.” Given this mission creep, it is unsurprising that King’s protagonists – the Boas circle – began to “form” their “enormous mounds of empirical data… into something that might be called a worldview.” If your worldview makes you expert in the human, people will seek your counsel. “Your renowned authority on Anthropology,” the letter begins, “has made me feel free to consult you.”King views this letter as exemplary: it is “social science in action.” But what is the action?

Mead’s correspondent signals an unease with the terms of this science, even as she takes its authority for granted: ‘craving’ is in scare quotes, as if she might be mishandling a clinical term, though it ostensibly describes a feeling only she could experience. The letter does not ask whether this “craving” is meaningful or fantastical, whether it should be cultivated or purged. It asks only that Mead explicate this craving in relation to some other terms of art: “frustration,” “normality.” Mead generously dispels the notion that one’s racial composition has any bearing on such a craving. But that’s all she has to offer. Her correspondent can rest assured that her craving is… “normal.” Most people, Mead acknowledges – including those with a “very interesting ethnic heritage” — want to do things they don’t have the “talent” to pull off. (Mead used psychology in her anthropology, but she was not, apparently, in the self-esteem business.)

For King, Mead’s response is an intimate emblem of her coterie’s broader mission: to dethrone racialized social science by patiently accumulating better “data” and forging “methods” uncontaminated by grand theories of racial superiority. Gods of the Upper Air narrates this mission with both ethical urgency and dramatic flair. No one can finish this book and fail to recognize Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Zora Neale Hurston for what they were: moral heroes. King reminds us how entrenched white supremacy was in the mainstream social science of the early twentieth century. It was far more than an attitude: white supremacy – or, more specifically, Northern European supremacy —  was baked into the theory itself. For those who expected social science to take its cues from natural science, “race” – a set of binding physiological parameters, obedient to the laws of  biology – became the governing concept used to classify further subsets of homo sapiens into hierarchies of endowment. Even those social scientists who saw non-physiological factors –technology, geography, culture – as holding greater relevance to human societies contended that there was a single arc of social evolution that led from “savage” to “barbarian” to “civilized” peoples. The social scientist was the vanguard of that evolution, facing backwards. As King writes, “the highway of human development led straight to us.” This was the paradigm that the Boas circle demolished.

There are two sources of drama in Gods of the Upper Air: moral struggle and intellectual struggle. One of the book’s virtues is its demonstration that the two are inseparable. If our cultural moment is marked by naked bigotry in the public square, it is also characterized by a crisis of confidence in the university and a general suspicion of intellectuals. King tells a story about social scientists whose intellectual daring was galvanized by their moral revulsion to bigotry. What’s more, their academic achievement had real-world consequences. The Boas circle made it intellectually respectable, indeed intellectually necessary, for scientists to shed their ethnocentrism and engage other societies on their own terms. They invented the concept of “cultural relativism,” which meant that another society could not be understood by positing universal laws of social development and plotting it along a rising axis. “Cultures,” rather, were discrete, integral systems with internal, rather than external (law-like), principles of cohesion and evolution. In the sphere of morals and ideals, cultures “selected,” as Ruth Benedict argued, particular configurations of value from “the great arc of potential human purposes and motivations.” She called these configurations “patterns” — ideal orders of human conduct elaborated in myth and sustained in rituals and institutions. These patterns were not provisional waystations to be abandoned when the superior moral ends of individual autonomy, liberal egalitarianism, and industriousness were ushered in by modern economic or organizational forces. “Cultural relativism” shattered the evolutionary theories of society that Darwinism accentuated. The Boasian emphasis on “culture” displaced physiological notions of “race” as the animating energy of social life. They placed equal emphasis on the “accidents” of geography (nutrition, climate, available means of production), which for them were far more consequential for social forms and achievements than any purported “laws” of racial composition. The United States became a laboratory in which to prove these claims: Boas would gather monumental data from immigrants and their children that demonstrated the mutability of ostensibly “fixed” racial features. When humans of various extraction were exposed to new geographical conditions, their constitutions changed significantly.

The achievement of the Boas circle was indeed an intellectual and a moral triumph. But there is a tenacious ambiguity in King’s narrative as to the relation between these two domains. King insists that his is a story about “science and scientists,” not “about ethics, politics, or theology.” He places the Boas circle “on the front line of the greatest moral struggle of our time: the struggle to prove that – despite the differences of skin color, gender, ability, or custom – humanity is one undivided thing.” One may assent to the general description of this struggle and still hesitate at “prove.” How could such a conviction be “proved”? King seems determined to preserve a romantic image of “science” – and especially social science – as the great truth-telling and prejudice-dispelling agent of modernity. The twentieth century, King writes, was “awash in new social science that upended old ways of thinking.” It does not occur to him that many of those “old ways” are synonymous with “culture” itself, that element newly revered. Nor does King fully perceive that, within the parameters of “science” as such, the research he details was a grand work of disproving rather than of proving. King justly emphasizes Boas’s epistemic modesty – like the American pragmatists, he was skeptical of “grand theory” and insisted that social scientists must first collect reams of neutral data, without which theories were likely to be articulations of mere prejudice. But Boas did not “prove” that “humanity was one thing”; he proved that the pseudo-scientific theories of race had no empirical validity. It took patient, responsible empirical work to dislodge the consensus scientific theories of race superiority because those theories claimed the authority of “data” for themselves. As the reader moves through King’s book, he begins to wonder what agency, if any, “science” proper had in this “moral struggle.” The notion, endorsed by this book, that Boasian anthropology was a victory of “better” (neutral, honest) science over “bad” (prejudiced, blinkered) science is unpersuasive. The Boas circle certainly gathered better data that undermined despicable scientific theories. In King’s accounting, however, “the only unassailable moral positions, Boas believed, were those grounded in data.” This claim is hard to decipher, either as a description of Boas’s own position or as a general affirmation. The only moral positions that can be “grounded in data” are baldly utilitarian ones. It is “culture,” not data, that galvanizes our moral affirmations. “I am far from believing,” Boas wrote in a passage King overlooks, “that it will ever be possible or that it will even be desirable, to cast away the past and to begin anew on a purely intellectual basis….we must see that it is our task not only to free ourselves of traditional prejudice, but also to search in the heritage of the past for what is useful and right, and to endeavor to free the mind of future generations.” For Boas, values and ideals were not articles of reason, much less the fruit of empirical methods.

Many passages in King’s book, in fact, express discomfort with the very logic of social scientific research. King consistently wonders if even his enlightened anthropologists are seeing their subjects as “real people.” They felt little compunction in stealing human remains and putting them in museums. Boas’s work, he says, “depended on turning real people into exemplars of something beyond themselves.” Hurston is praised for discovering that “to really see people” one must “ ‘love unselfishly.’” Herskovits is chastised for writing a study in which Haitians were seen as “embodiments of tenacious traditions” rather than “as people.” The reader is tempted to ask: which iterations of scientific practice are notable for their attention to “real people”? King is uneasy when “[m]essy reality solidifie[s] into neat abstraction,” but abstraction is essential to the methods of science. Boas’s radicality, as the book observes, lay in his resistance to conceiving social science in terms of uniform, universal laws. “We shall never be able to explain” social phenomena, Boas wrote in Anthropology and Modern Life, “by reducing one and all of them to social laws.” Like his countryman, Wilhelm Dilthey, Boas believed that the human sciences should aspire to “understanding,” not explanation. Yet King minimizes the Boas circle’s ongoing commitment to discovering law-like causal structures and regularities in social life, or to thinking in terms of “types,” which always involve abstraction. Nor does he ask a crucial question: in what sense do disciplines like anthropology remain “sciences” when they abandon the pursuit of universal law? King wants his heroes to enjoy the radiant authority of “science,” much as he wants the human equality they celebrated to enjoy the self-evident rationality of a mathematical “proof.” Yet he is proudest of them when their “research” least resembles the procedures of science. It is unsurprising that Zora Neale Hurston, out of all of King’s maverick anthropologists, moves closest to his ideal science of “real people”: she ultimately rejected the basic aspiration to “systematize,” and her “literary science” was far more concerned with the aesthetics of experience than with laws, causes, or data.

When Hurston commends the imperative to “ ‘love unselfishly,’” or when we are told of the young Boas’s Herzensbildung — “the training of one’s heart to see the humanity of another”– we are listening to the language of spirit, not the language of science. Indeed, the sticky question is whether these attitudes are compatible with the methods of social science at all. King wants to ennoble and anchor the ethical by infusing it with the density of empirical science. This leads to a conflation of “method” with the ethical movements of the will. It is far better, on the balance, for a social scientist to train her heart to see the humanity of another. It is also better for doctors, judges, politicians, shop-keepers, and race-car drivers to do so.

This conflation is consequential. It is a key ingredient of the insidious mutation of social science into a “worldview.” Gods of the Upper Air recapitulates – indeed, it consecrates — this mutation without fully reckoning with the implications. Boas’s “mounds” of “data” became “something that might be called a worldview.” King returns to this theme with a famous passage about the ramifications of “cultural relativism” in Benedict’s Patterns of Culture: “As soon as the new opinion is embraced as customary belief, it will be another trusted bulwark of the good life. We shall arrive then at a more realistic social faith, accepting as grounds of hope and as new bases for tolerance the coexisting and equally valid patterns of life which mankind has created for itself from the raw materials of existence.” King argues that Benedict’s lines constituted “a clearer definition than anyone before her of how social science could be its own design for living.” Benedict often described cultural patterns as “designs for living.” But a step is missing: how does the “science” of culture itself become such a design? Benedict herself does not quite say this, yet we can see an associative logic at work. Her language trades on the anthropological aura of “customary belief” while surreptitiously stretching that concept to the breaking point. As Boas himself said, most “customary beliefs” are not products of reasoning; they are tacitly felt and later rationalized through “secondary interpretations.” “Cultural relativism” is an abstract doctrine that emerged, not organically from inside any particular culture, but by stepping back and looking at all of them with the universalizing rationality of social science. It has indeed been “embraced,” but it is hardly a “customary belief.”

Boasian social science is not a “design for living,” but a design that organizes other designs for living. Yet King’s framing is familiar enough. Part of what makes it remarkable is that it renders explicit a widespread but tacit mood. If social science is a “design for living” – complete with a “worldview” – what is its content? A page later we encounter one item in its creed: “there is no such thing as a defective human being.” But social science cannot tell us this, either: at most it can marshal empirical evidence to subvert some pseudo-scientific rhetoric of defectiveness, in which statistical standards of intelligence are correlated with “race” or other factors. The notion of the “defective” is only intelligible in relation to an ideal model of the good or the perfect, and those ideals are elaborated culturally, not empirically. The same empirical body might make a defective sumo wrestler and faultless marathon runner; neither designation is meaningful in isolation from the cultural practices of wrestling or running.

Ultimately, the content of King’s social scientific “design for living” can be boiled down to a single creed: “difference” cannot be measured “my” own or “our” own standards. Difference should therefore be venerated. This is a compelling creed. In light of its current fragility, King is surely justified in calling us back to intellectual tradition that articulated it. But King also wants to persuade us that, in this tradition, difference was to be not only respected, but loved. Love, moreover, is construed as indiscriminate affirmation. But there are signs that this is a distortion of the tradition. King suggests that Hurston, even more than the others, “glimpsed what it might mean to make [social science] into a life.” Here is King: “To really see people, unvarnished and stripped of your own prejudices, you needed to ‘love ‘unselfishly,’ as Hurston wrote in the manuscript she was working on, and to ‘[fondle] hatred with the red-hot tongs of Hell.’” King scolds Hurston’s publishers for their censorship of “harsh” material and usually quotes from the uncensored versions. But here is the ‘uncensored’ passage in Hurston: “I have served and been served. I have made enemies of which I am not ashamed. I have loved unselfishly with all the ardor of a strong heart, and I have hated with all the power of my soul. I have been faithless, and then I have been faithful and steadfast until the blood ran down into my shoes.” King does not catch the sensuousness of “fondle”; in his rhetorical framing “hate” belongs to someone else, not Hurston, and must be handled responsibly, as a cook uses tongs so as not to burn her hands on a grill. Something similar happens to a neighboring passage from Dust Tracks on a Road: “I have sat in judgement upon the ways of others, and in the voiceless quiet of the night I have also called myself to judgment.” King reads these lines as if “called myself” were a penance for “sat.” But the spirit of these passages is the spirit of Ecclesiastes, or even of William Blake: love and hate, fidelity and infidelity, judgment of others and judgment of self, are equally part of the energy, perhaps even the ethics, of living. King seems unable to acknowledge that the moral life inevitably involves certain judgments of “others.” Indeed, sizable portions of this book are justified eviscerations of particular “cultures,” for instance the culture of racialized social science, or more broadly the mainstream cultures of the United States and Germany between 1880 and 1945. Yet in one breath King can enumerate what “we now recognize to be great moral evils: scientific racism, the subjugation of women, genocidal fascism, the treatment of gay people as willfully deranged,” and in the next breath censure “the desire to root our society-bound prejudices in something allegedly deeper than our own collective imagination.” Do we hop out of our “collective imaginations” when we recognize “moral evil”? One does not ask books of intellectual history to iron out the performative contradictions of cultural relativism, but they should at least be acknowledged.

The Boas circle did acknowledge them, even if they were understandably more concerned with inaugurating respect for difference than with the normative grounds for that respect. In his extended discussion of Mead’s Coming of Age in Somoa, King ignores one of the dominant anxieties in her text: the vertigo of pluralism, or the existential difficulty of being confronted with too many “designs for living”:

Our young people are faced by a series of different groups which believe different things and advocate different practices, and to each of which some trusted friend or relative may belong. So a girl’s father may be a Presbyterian, an imperialist, a vegetarian, a teetotaler, with a strong literary preference for Edmund Burke…. But her mother’s father may be a Low Episcopalian, a believer in high living, a strong advocate of States’ Rights and the Monroe Doctrine, who reads Rabelais, and likes to go to musical shows and horse races. Her aunt is an agnostic, an ardent advocate of woman’s rights, an internationalist who rests all her hopes on Esperanto, is devoted to Bernard Shaw, and spends her spare time in campaigns of anti-vivisection. Her elder brother… is an Anglo-Catholic, an enthusiast concerning all things medieval, writes mystical poetry, reads Chesterton, and means to devote his life to seeking for the lost secret of medieval stained class. Her mother’s younger brother is an engineer, a strict materialist, who never recovered from reading Haeckel in his youth; he scorns art, believes that science will save the world, scoffs at everything that was said and thought before the nineteenth century, and ruins his health by experiments in the scientific elimination of sleep.”

One could sneer at Mead’s hypothetical: “Oh, first world problems!” Sneering won’t help. Benedict’s early journals reflect a similar uneasiness: “The trouble with life isn’t that there is no answer, it’s that there are so many answers. There’s the answer of Christ and of Buddha, of Thomas à Kempis and of Elbert Hubbard, of Browning, Keats and of Spinoza, of Thoreau and of Walt Whitman, of Kant and of Theodore Roosevelt. By turns their answers fit my needs. And yet, because I am I and not any one of them, they can none of them be completely mine.” It is plausible to see Mead and Benedict’s anthropological explorations, in fact, as efforts to come to grips with value-pluralism, so as not to slide into an antinomian despair. This is the Janus-face of their struggle against a naïve and racist absolutism. One of the most compelling aspects of the book is King’s ability to show how intricately the personal, spiritual lives of these anthropologists were entangled in their disciplinary theorizing. The book persuasively links, for example, Mead’s early conceptualizations of “personality” to the torments of her erotic life. But an implication is missed: these figures were not pursuing a sheerly negative, “renegade” freedom from their cultures. Their own theories of culture deny that possibility. Mead’s later writing can only be understood in this light. King discusses the impact of the war, and he also discusses the proliferation of “culture and personality” studies. But in his eagerness to deny any moral gap between Jim Crow America and fascist Germany, he does not observe that the aims of such studies were to ask which cultural forms might be linked to authoritarian dispositions, and (in Mead’s case) to rehabilitate a viable, normative strain of American culture that would not be susceptible to them. Mead’s essay on Alfred Kinsey took him to task for altogether dissociating sexual behavior from any relational or ethical norms. No member of the Boas circle believed that culture could be all freedom and no constraint.

Yet the tensions in King’s book – most broadly, between the self-evident morality of liberal individualism and an affirmation of the shaping power of “culture” – merely extend those found in the Boas circle. Benedict dismissed the habit of opposing “the individual” to “society”; she saw it as an artificial polarization. Yet in her journal, none of the great cultural scripts can be “completely mine,” because “I am I and not any one of them.” Boas disavowed the idea of “moral evolution” – a staple of liberal self-understanding – while tentatively proposing that societies were moving towards democracy and greater awareness of a common humanity. The tensions abide in Gods of the Upper Air. At least once, King calls “culture” a “moral order.” Is our recognition of certain “moral evils” made possible by such an order? Or does the social scientific “worldview” transcend all cultures, even as it taught us to think of “culture” as irreducible? In a later book Benedict wrote, “In any matter of spectacles, we do not expect the man who wears them to know the formula for the lenses.” The social scientist, in her metaphor, is the meta-“oculist.” Everyone else uses spectacles. Does she see without them, or does she just have a special pair, the lens of lenses? King’s title is drawn from a line in Hurston. In his gloss, no spectacles are needed: “seeing the world as it is requires some distance, a view from the upper air.” One wants to know whether the designs for living at this height make any provision for oxygen, and how those who occupy cultures on the ground are meant to shuttle back and forth.

Matthew Mutter ( is Associate Professor of Literature at Bard College. His first book, Restless Secularism: Modernism and the Religious Inheritance was published by Yale University Press in 2017. His essays and reviews have appeared in English Literary History, Twentieth Century Literature, Arizona Quarterly, Modernism/Modernity, Common Knowledge and other journals and books. His current book project explores the resistance of certain American novelists and poets to the burgeoning cultural authority of the social sciences in the twentieth century while examining the broader theoretical problems at the intersection of humanistic and social-scientific knowledge.