The Mind of Primitive Man Essay - Critical Essays

Franz Boas

Critical Evaluation

The best of Franz Boas’ work in anthropology exists in his collected papers, and his most important influence is undoubtedly upon his pupils, whom he trained to revolutionize the study of anthropology in America and eventually Europe as well. THE MIND OF PRIMITIVE MAN has its significance in being one of the few books for the general public that Boas ever wrote. It presents the work of Boas’ generation in comparative anthropology, with special emphasis upon the problem of race, which so beset the 1930’s and 1940’s. As a comparativist, Boas is much concerned to study primitive culture objectively, and not to judge other cultures from European prejudice, as so many social scientists of preceding generations had done.

Boas proposes to examine the question of race first to find what, if anything, one may say about this disputed question. Then he will analyze primitive culture and see if in any way it determines racial characteristics. Reviewing many writers of an earlier generation, Boas shows that while different racial characteristics exist, no one has ever been able to say specifically what cultural significance such racial characteristics have. The work of Tylor, Frazer, Durkheim, and Levy-Bruhl, at the turn of the century, shows that differences in culture are more important in man’s history than differences in race. The primitives of Australia, Africa, and America are more like one another than they are like any ethnic group in Europe. Race is formed by heredity, not by environment, but there are too many variables for anyone to show consequences for culture from racial causes. The body forms of the races of man are not stable either; malnutrition will stunt a race and raising the standard of living will increase height and weight.

No matter how primitive man is in the historical era, he is more like civilized man than any deceased prototype. All races, Boas finds, are equal to the so-called white race in faculties; there is no race on the globe today that, given proper opportunities and technical equipment, cannot reach that level of civilization enjoyed by the most favored groups. No significant relations whatever exist between race and culture; custom and language can change within a race. Boas cites the African, brought to North and South America and developing different characteristics in each locale. People may remain constant in anatomical type and language but change in culture, remain constant in type but change in language, or remain constant in language but change in anatomical type and culture. The interdependence of anatomical type, language, and culture seems to be so variable as to be unpredictable. The so-called “Aryan problem” is therefore nonexistent, for obviously people who speak an Aryan (Indo-European) language may be and often are of a large variety of anatomical types and cultures. What we call “race” embraces many language groups, as in both Europe and Africa. Contrary to what popular prejudice holds, in the past we do not find a few “mother tongues,” but rather more languages than there are today, suggesting that our ancestors were many small isolated groups, each with its own body type, language, and culture. We can never know whether so-called primitive mentality causes a simple and deficient culture, or whether such culture could adapt higher forms of life at any time the opportunities for development are presented.

Culture, in Boas’ analysis, is the sum of the acts and reactions characteristic of the behavior of individuals within a group. In Boas’ sense, animals could be said to have culture, though we generally call their acts habits, for certain animals have group behavior, a...

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