Was Franz Boas an “early intellectual debunker” of pseudo-science? Not exactly
When I check the WordPress dashboard of my blog each day, I am always curious to see who has linked to the Unrepentant Marxist. A couple of days ago, I discovered that Ross Wolfe had linked to my blog as part of his response to the Jacobin article by Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss that made an amalgam between anti-Semitism and anti-Enlightenment philosophy, whose exponents ranged from William James to Martin Heidegger in scattergun fashion. For Frim and Fluss (what evocative Hobbit-like names), Marx was part of the “Enlightenment” tradition and once philosophers such as Nietzsche began to criticize that tradition, it opened a Pandora’s Box that led to fascism.
Much of Wolfe’s commentary is couched in the sort of language found in the grad school milieu of the Platypus club that expelled him for some reason a few years ago: “Even Ideologiekritik ought to be grounded in something more solid than Foucauldean discourse analysis or Derridean textual marginalia.” My mind tends to wander when I read this sort of thing.
I raced forward to see what Wolfe had to say about my article. Here it was:
Fluss and Frim are doubtless right that the Enlightenment is presently under attack by a host of both antimodernist and postmodernist ideologues, some even purporting to be from the Left (like the “unrepentant Marxist” Louis Proyect, who’s relinquished his previous support for Sokal in order to better crusade against the dastardly Vivek Chibber). A brilliant rebuttal to Proyect’s tendentious quotation of Kant’s anthropology, as well as the still more banal survey of Diderot, Voltaire, Holbach, Kant, and Hegel conducted over at Suburban Idiocies, is once again presented by Goldner: “Polling Enlightenment figures for their views on slavery and race is… is an extremely limited approach to the question, susceptible to the worst kind of anachronism. What was remarkable about the Enlightenment, in a world context, was not that some of its distinguished figures supported slavery and white supremacy but that significant numbers of them opposed both. Slavery as an institution flourished in the colorblind sixteenth-century Mediterranean slave pool. None of the participating societies, Christian or Muslim, European, Turkish, Arab or African, ever questioned it.”
I might try to defend myself against the charge of being an “antimodernist” if I knew what that meant. How does one take a position on “modernity”? Does that mean being a Luddite or wearing clothing made of hemp? Or using a typewriter instead of a Macbook? I really have no idea. In terms of me being a “postmodernist ideologue”, this makes about as much sense as describing someone like Jim Blaut a “postmodernist” because he would have polemicized against Chibber or anybody else espousing Political Marxism.
Goldner is never at a loss for words. The article cited by Wolfe contains 17,000 of them and there’s not much point in replying, even if I had the time. I am interested in the final paragraph, which is the real takeaway:
For many of these post-Enlightenment developments, the Enlightenment itself is of course not to be blamed. Many Social Darwinists, eugenicists, suffragettes, Progressives and socialists ca. 1900 undoubtedly identified with the Enlightenment and thought their ideas of “science”, including “scientific” demonstration of the innate inferiority of peoples of color, were an extension of the Enlightenment project, and the preceding discussion shows they in fact had their Enlightenment predecessors. Nevertheless, the early intellectual debunkers of this pseudo-science, such as Boas, were also heirs to the Enlightenment. When the Enlightenment is remembered today, it is not Bernier, Buffon and Blumenbach who first come to mind, but rather Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Kant (as philosopher, not as anthropologist) and Paine, and one could do worse than to summarize their legacy as the debunking of mystification. The Enlightenment contributed to the Western theory of race, and the real separation of culture from biology was the work of post-Enlightenment figures such as Marx, and above all the real historical movement of the past century. Nevertheless, when the Enlightenment is attacked today by Christian, Jewish, Moslem and Hindu fundamentalists for separating religion and state, or by the new biologism of the New Right or the Afrocentrists for its universalism, or by the post-modernists as an ideology of and for “white European males”, it is the best of the Enlightenment, the “Liberté- Egalité- Fraternité” of the Parisian and Haitian masses in 1794, and the best post-Enlightenment heirs such as Marx, which are the real targets. Such attacks remind us that, once critique is separated from the limitations of the Enlightenment outlined here, there is plenty of mystification still to be debunked.
The problem with all this is that falls within the purview of the history of ideas, which is exactly what I thought was a mistake. If Heidegger was a symbol of the consequences of anti-Enlightenment thinking, how do you explain his influence on his two students Hannah Arendt and Hans Jonas who could never be confused with the alt-right that Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss were amalgamating with anti-Enlightenment thought?
Perhaps Goldner was not familiar enough with Franz Boas when he cited him as one of the “intellectual debunkers of this pseudo-science”. If you’ve spent any time studying the relationship between anthropologists and native peoples, you’d be hesitant to endorse him.
While at the Museum of Natural History, Boas decided that Eskimos were suitable objects for study, because they represented a kind of “living fossil” that demonstrated a connection to Ice Age hunters in Europe. So eager was he to have some useful specimens that he commissioned Robert Peary to bring back some back from an Arctic expedition on his ship “The Hope.” Some 30,000 New Yorkers paid 25 cents each in 1896 to view the six Eskimos that Peary retrieved from their home. Later on they were transported to the basement of the Museum in order to be studied. When a reporter asked Boas how they were kept busy, he replied:
Oh, we try to give them little things to keep them busy. Their work doesn’t amount to much, but they have made some carvings, and occupied themselves either indoors or around the place with any employment that suggested itself to them. They do not seem discontented.
Only 8 months after their arrival, four of the six Eskimos had died of tuberculosis. One returned to Greenland and the last, a young boy named Minik who was the son of Qisuk, one of the deceased, remained in the custody of William Wallace, the Superintendent of the Museum. When Minik learned that tribal customs required the bones of ancestors be interred in their homeland, he was convinced by Boas and Wallace that a burial of the bones in New York City would suffice. When he reached the age of 15, he learned that Boas and Wallace had lied to him. The skeleton was being warehoused in the Museum’s basement, alongside hundreds of other bones that belonged to indigenous peoples. In “Skull Wars,” a book focused on the Kennewick man controversy, David Hurst Thomas, a curator of anthropology at the Museum of Natural History, recounts Boas’s flippant attitude toward the entire affair:
Pressed as to why the museum could claim Qisuk’s body when relatives were still alive, Boas replied, “Oh, that was perfectly legitimate. There was no one to bury the body, and the museum had as good a right to it as any other institution authorized to claim bodies.” When an Evening Mail reporter wondered if the body didn’t actually “belong” to Minik, Boas bristled “Well, Minik was just a little boy, and he did not ask for the body. If he had, he might have got it.”
Minik’s lifelong struggle to retrieve his father’s skeleton and return them to his native soil has been documented in Ken Harper’s “Give Me My Father’s Body: The Story of Minik, the New York Eskimo.” A review of this book by Rhode Island College professor Russell A. Potter includes this observation on the cold-blooded “scientific” stance of Boas and Alfred Kroeber, a student of Boas’s who became famous for his writings on “Ishi”, the last hunter-gatherer in California.
They were brought to a damp basement room, and as might have been foreseen, most of them soon came down with tuberculosis, against which they had little resistance. Studied, even as they were dying, by some of the most prominent anthropologists of the day, including Franz Boas (also remembered as Zora Neale Hurston’s thesis advisor) and Alfred Kroeber (“discoverer” of Ishi and father of science-fiction novelist Ursula K. LeGuin), their last days were spent in agonizing pain without benefit of meaningful medical attention.
Considering that Franz Boas was one of the foremost critics of racial doctrines in the US, one must surely wonder about the nature of such a social science. I think the key to understanding this kind of tunnel vision is unequal power relationships. No matter how enlightened the scientist, there is a built-in imbalance in the way that one side is doing the studying and the other side is being studied. This imbalance rests on economic inequality. “Primitive” peoples simply lack the capital to fund scientific expeditions of the sort that Boas thought useful. Historical laws of capital accumulation made it impossible for Eskimos to send ships to countries like the United States to retrieve specimens to be studied in Greenland or Alaska. Fundamentally, anthropology rests on imperialist inequality no matter the good intentions of the scholars involved.