Margaret Mead's pioneering work on Samoa, in which she described a stress-free and peaceful South Seas island realm in direct contrast to the pressured existence of the Western world, has been brought into serious scientific question by an Australian anthropologist.
Mead spent nine months in Samoa more than 50 years ago, and returned to describe an idyllic society filled with guilt-free teen-age love and devoid of stern child-rearing, adolescent stresses, religious inhibitions and aggressive behavior such as rape.
Mead, then unknown at 23, set both the public and the scientific world spinning. Her findings came at a time of major, almost combative, scientific debate over the effects of "nature versus nurture" on human development. They also captured public imagination when the world was growing more complex and technological.
However, Dr. Derek Freeman, an anthropologist at the University of Australia, has written a major study arguing that Mead's conclusions were more myth than reality and helped perpetuate a half-century of misleading thought about human development.
Freeman charges that Mead went to Samoa as a young and unprepared scientist with preconceived opinions that led her to see only what she wanted to see. Mead's work propelled her into the scientific and public eye, where she remained a legendary figure until her death in 1978.
In his book, "Margaret Mead and Samoa--The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth," Freeman writes that his research on Samoa indicates that aggressiveness and rape, as well as concepts ranging from sin to the virtue of chastity, have been common in the islands as long as records can be recreated.
The book is scheduled to be published by Harvard University Press in April, but advance copies of the galley proofs have been moving throughout scientific circles and have begun a debate not only about anthropological research techniques but also about the folk-heroine image of Mead.
When Mead went to Samoa in 1925, a post-Darwinian debate raged in the scientific community about the effects of heredity versus environment on human development.
One group, which rose to prominence about the turn of the century, developed the theory of eugenics, taking Darwin's theories of natural selection a step beyond Darwin and contending that selective mating could create a superior race of human beings.
Eugenics developed a strong scientific following, and strong opponents who believed that human traits such as aggressiveness and passiveness grow out of cultural determinations.
The debate had strong political overtones and at times became more emotional than scientific. One of the most outspoken opponents of eugenics, and supporters of the cultural theory, was Dr. Franz Boas, a professor at Columbia University who had such an influence on the young Mead that she changed her studies from psychology to anthropology and convinced him to support her postgraduate trip to Samoa.
In her first and most famous work, "Coming of Age in Samoa," Mead concluded that Samoan adolescents came to adulthood without the normal stresses of puberty and that, if this could occur in an isolated society, there was no biological reason why teen-age turmoil was foreordained in other cultural groups.
The book had a resounding effect, both scientifically and politically, and began a marked turn toward cultural, rather than biological, determination. By the end of Mead's life, however, anthropologists and biologists were beginning to reach a consensus that both culture and biology affected human development.
Freeman, however, contends that Mead was innocently astray on almost all her findings. The Australian anthropologist spent several years in Samoa beginning in 1940. He wrote that he found a society that believed in virginity and stern child-rearing, and produced young adults given to feelings of guilt and jealousy, with high incidences of competitiveness and suicide.
In one of his studies, he found that the incidence of rape or attempted rape was twice as high as the rate in the United States, a country which has one of the world's highest rates of rape.
Moreover, Freeman wrote that his studies indicate that the same kind of society existed in Samoa while Mead was there, 15 years before he visited the islands for the first time. He said he found court records and regular newspaper reports of rape cases in the islands in the 1920s. Missionary records report problems with rape as far back as 1845, Freeman wrote.
Freeman wrote that Samoan natives told him that the teen-age girls in Mead's study group "teased" her to please her. Freeman wrote that he has "yet to meet a Samoan who agrees with Mead's assertion that adolescence in Samoan society is smooth, untroubled and unstressed."