• Email
  • Print

Evolving Margaret Mead

In response to:

The Evolution of Margaret Mead from the December 6, 1984 issue

To the Editors:

A subtle question is raised by Stephen Toulmin’s joint review of Mary Catherine Bateson’s With a Daughter’s Eye and my Margaret Mead: A Life. Toulmin makes much of my not having known my subject, and hints at his own acquaintance with her, but neglects to say how nearly familial this connection was. In the late 1960s, when he was a professor at Brandeis, he and his then wife June Goodfield saw a great deal of Mary Catherine Bateson and her husband, Barkev Kassarjian. So solid was this relationship, in fact, that Goodfield was invited to be the godmother of Margaret Mead’s only grandchild.

Toulmin is entitled to his view of my book (on which he depends, despite what he calls its “accumulation of irrelevant detail,” for nineteen of his twenty-four footnotes), but I am amazed that someone who has written about ethics, as he has, should conceal so strong a tie as his was with Bateson. Is it not appropriate, when friends review each other’s work, for such strong bonds to be acknowledged?

Jane Howard

New York City

Stephen Toulmin replies:

1) Taken in context, the passage in my Margaret Mead essay to which Nathan Tarcov objects made a specific point about the role of anthropology and related social sciences in discussions of national policy. By 1970, Mead and her colleagues seemed to have put it beyond doubt that public policy must reflect a broadly based wisdom about the complexities of human life in different societies and cultures. Now, that lesson has been lost; and, by contrast, the alliance of monetarism and Machiavellian political theory that serves as the intellectual foundation of Reaganism is oddly two-dimensional.

Nothing in Tarcov’s statement touches on this point. I do not doubt that the State Department has some policy advisers skilled in Russian: how could it be otherwise? Nor was I making hidden personal digs at Tarcov himself. My argument was a general one, about current political attitudes to cultural diversity, and it takes hypersensitivity to read my remarks as directed individually. If nonetheless I have offended him, I regret this.

Tarcov’s letter was waiting for me on my return from a trip to Venezuela. His testimony about the Reagan administration’s intellectual resources would be more reassuring if they had any visible effect on its Central America policy: notably, if that policy showed the sensitivity to cultural complexities and social differences within the region that (say) members of the Contadora group bring to it. So, I am content to let my remarks stand. I would still prefer to see the framers of national policy both better informed and more sympathetic than they are, notably about the people whose lives and cultures will be most directly affected by the consequences of their decisions.

2) I am happy to have Derek Freeman’s concise statement of his present position vis-à-vis Margaret Mead. In my essay, I tried hard (some say too hard) to counter the view that his criticism of her work on Samoa was merely “venomous,” or otherwise ill-motivated. The problem for me was to see how Mead acquired such an elevated status in the public mind that Freeman’s intellectual interventions could be so widely dismissed as no more than malicious blasphemies.

3) I did not “make much of” the fact that Jane Howard never knew Mead personally. That fact is relevant to a critical discussion of her biography, so I mentioned it: specifically, as bearing on the way in which she handled testimony from the three hundred informants who did know Mead at firsthand. As for Ms. Howard’s hint that I was biased toward Catherine Bateson’s book, because I knew the author quite well for a time, some fifteen years ago: this illustrates the preference for gossip over argument apparent also in her Mead biography. If I were too feeble to allow for that fact, I would not have been asked to review the two books, nor should I have agreed to do so.

  • Email
  • Print