Gods of the Upper Air | Charles King

Summary of: Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century
By: Charles King


In Gods of the Upper Air, Charles King explores the fascinating story of how a group of renegade anthropologists challenged conventional wisdom about race, sex, and gender during the twentieth century. You’ll delve into the pioneering work of figures such as Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, and Zora Neale Hurston, who rebelled against the pseudoscientific beliefs in white supremacy and eugenics, and defied the cultural and racial hierarchies of their time. This book summary unveils how their ideas on race as a social construct served as a catalyst for questioning the validity of gender roles and the assumptions about ‘civilized’ societies. Be prepared to challenge your perspective on race, sex, and gender as you discover the ground-breaking contributions of these trailblazing anthropologists.

Unmasking America’s Racial Past

America proudly proclaimed freedom and equality, but the reality of racial laws and discriminatory practices during the post-Reconstruction era tarnished that image. The rise of anthropology changed the narrative, however, as it sought to establish a foundation for human equality, spearheaded by German immigrant Franz Boas.

From the 1880s to the 1960s, America grappled with racial discrimination and prejudice, despite boasting a society that championed equal treatment. The country faced a sharp contrast between idealistic slogans and harsh realities. Racial disenfranchisement ensued through segregation laws known as Jim Crow laws, which governed schools, hospitals, and even burial grounds. The impact of these laws set the stage for a divided society, further fueling racial disparities.

Attitudes towards immigrants posed another challenge to America’s reputation as a land of opportunity, with Jews, Italians, Poles, Slovaks, and other communities perceived as threats to national purity. To protect this notion of a superior Anglo-Saxon heritage, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924, which limited immigration from specific countries. This act demonstrated an unyielding belief in a racial hierarchy.

Amidst this climate of racial prejudice, anthropology emerged in the late nineteenth century, focusing on the study of humanity. Early anthropologists like Lewis Henry Morgan categorized societies based on a hierarchy of evolutionary development, moving from savagery to barbarism and eventually civilization. The Native American tribes, considered “savage,” were seen as inferior to the “civilized” society of the United States.

However, anthropology also played a crucial role in challenging these pseudoscientific beliefs of white supremacy. German immigrant Franz Boas initiated a new area of research aimed at understanding human equality, thereby sowing the seeds for a transformation in perspective.

Ultimately, anthropology questioned the validity of racial hierarchies, showing that our past is more complex than we might assume. While America’s checkered history is riddled with racial biases and discrimination, a new chapter awaits in the ongoing quest for understanding, tolerance, and unity among all humans.

An Expedition that Shaped Anthropology

Born to a modest German family in 1858, Franz Boas’s fascination with the natural world led him to study physics and geography. Driven by his dreams of exploration, Boas embarked on an Arctic expedition in 1883. Through months of challenges and dependence on the native Inuit people, Boas gained a new perspective on the relativity of one’s education and circumstances. This profound realization paved the way for his future contributions to the field of anthropology.

Intrigued by the natural world around him since early childhood – from rocks to animal carcasses – the young Franz Boas was destined for exploration. After completing his education in physics and geography, he set his sights on a groundbreaking expedition to the Arctic, determined to contribute to German research.

In the summer of 1883, Boas set sail, bound for Baffin Island. His initial focus was to study the migration patterns of the native Inuit people. However, as he filled his notebooks with observations and stories, Boas began to see the Inuits not as subjects, but as human beings who profoundly influenced his outlook.

Faced with extreme weather conditions and indomitable ice, Boas’s dependence on the locals grew significantly. The realizations formed through learning to navigate dog sleds and preventing frostbite taught Boas a crucial lesson: the value of education is relative to individual circumstances. This newfound perspective would forever change the course of his life.

By the end of 1884, Boas wrapped up his stay on Baffin Island, eager to embrace his revelations and newly betrothed wife Marie. Making his way to New York, he heard whispers of a museum in Washington, D.C. – the Smithsonian Institute – that housed an extensive collection of Arctic materials. Eager for opportunity, he ventured there only to be informed by John Wesley Powell, the director of the Bureau of Ethnology, that no positions were available.

Disheartened, Boas returned to Germany. Though the excursion appeared fruitless, Boas found solace in the realization that U.S. scholars were engaging in the same observational practices he’d embraced on Baffin Island. Taking courage, he returned to the United States the following year – this time allowing nothing to deter him from his long-term pursuit of knowledge.

Boas’s expedition triggered a paradigm shift in understanding the human experience – a perspective completely outside his upbringing and Western education. The profound insights he gained in the Arctic wouldn’t be forgotten and formed the foundation for his substantial contributions to the field of anthropology.

Challenging Cultural Evolution

Upon his return from the Pacific Northwest, Franz Boas questioned the prevailing anthropological ideas of his time. Observing the diverse coastal cultures, he rejected the notion of cultural evolution, which portrayed indigenous societies as lesser, “savage” stages in human development. Instead, Boas emphasized the importance of understanding each culture as a unique product of its own history and environmental circumstances. Advocating for a pluralistic approach to anthropology, Boas laid the foundation for the concept of cultural relativism that still holds significance in contemporary scholarship.

While Franz Boas explored the rich cultural tapestry of Vancouver Island, he encountered the myths and stories of indigenous peoples such as the Bella Coola, Tlingit, and Salish. Through his experiences, he discovered the distinctiveness of each community’s culture, defying the idea that they belonged to specific stages of cultural development. Boas understood that the history of a culture played a greater role in shaping its practices and artifacts than its environment.

Upon returning to the East Coast, Boas visited the Smithsonian National Museum and noticed how the exhibition’s classification of artifacts as “barbaric” or “savage” reinforced the mainstream notion of cultural evolution. Boas believed that this narrative was flawed and failed to appreciate the unique nuances of various indigenous cultures. As an assistant at Science magazine, Boas critically assessed the work of his contemporaries, like Lewis Henry Morgan and John Wesley Powell, arguing that anthropology should involve in-depth analyses of diverse groups before making any theoretical claims.

Boas furthered his critique by rejecting the idea of a universal history of cultural evolution. Instead of viewing societies as progressing from savagery to civilization, Boas posited that they are adaptable and constantly changing. Anthropologists, in his view, should focus on the study of plural cultures without imposing a singular human culture as a reference point.

Recognizing the implications of his theory, Boas knew that people would have to accept that their cultures weren’t products of rational development, but rather, unique outcomes of specific historical and environmental influences. For instance, the Western belief that civilized societies used forks to avoid injury was a faulty assumption, as forks could be just as dangerous as knives.

Boas’s revolutionary perspective, known as cultural relativism, emphasized assessing cultures individually, rather than comparing them to others. Although his ideas weren’t universally celebrated, they did earn him respect within the scientific community. His contributions to anthropology led to his election as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and his appointment as a professor at Columbia University in 1897.

Unraveling Eugenics Myths

When reflecting on the concept of eugenics, one’s thoughts may gravitate towards Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. However, it’s relatively unknown that Hitler’s eugenic beliefs were influenced by the American writer Madison Grant’s 1916 publication, The Passing of the Great Race. Grant’s text posited that physical differences could categorize races, even determining intelligence and ruling abilities. Grant asserted that the influx of non-Nordic Europeans into America was deteriorating Anglo-Saxon society, suggesting that eugenics could remedy this decline.

Grant’s ideas contradicted the findings of anthropologist Franz Boas just a few years prior. In 1908, Boas was commissioned by the US Congress to investigate immigration’s impact on the country. He proposed a large-scale anthropometry study to measure and compare varying human body characteristics among Americans. Joined by his team, Boas measured over 17,000 New Yorkers from various backgrounds, marking an unprecedented effort to analyze the immigrant influence on the American population.

Boas’s research concluded that US-born children of immigrants had more similarities with other American children than with their respective ethnic groups. His findings indicated that environmental or dietary factors influenced what were once considered heritable, permanent traits tied to race. Consequently, Boas’s conclusions challenged the use of race as a marker of intelligence or physical abilities. Unfortunately, despite Boas’s evidence against Grant’s claims, The Passing of the Great Race became a foundational eugenics text in universities across the United States, pushing Boas to spend his career combatting Grant’s flawed ideology.

Groundbreaker Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead was initially an average student at Barnard College with no concrete dream of becoming an anthropologist. Her relationship with Ruth Fulton Benedict, her professor Franz Boas’s assistant, urged her to enroll in Columbia’s social science graduate program. Mead was interested in studying the transition to adulthood across cultures and the social factors influencing teenage angst, partially inspired by her personal experiences. Not a believer in monogamy, Mead also explored alternative relationship structures, eventually declaring polygamy as her preferred marital ideal. Following Boas’s suggestion, she conducted field research in Samoa, resulting in the publication of “Coming of Age in Samoa” which launched her career as a pioneering anthropologist.

A chance encounter and an inspiring mentorship would shape the extraordinary path of Margaret Mead, a student with no initial ambition for social science. Columbia University professor Franz Boas, aware of the need for female researchers in anthropology, took his expertise across the street to Barnard College. Among the young minds in his class was Margaret Mead, an average student at the time.

Mead’s connection with Ruth Fulton Benedict, Boas’s assistant and eventual lifelong lover, changed the course of her life. Urged to explore Columbia’s graduate program, she delved into studying cultural differentiation, focusing on a topic close to her heart: the transition to adulthood.

Twenty-three-year-old Mead, grappling with the struggles of adolescence, questioned whether these difficulties were products of social environments rather than hormones. Yet, her curiosity didn’t end there. Disillusioned by American ideas of monogamy, Mead pondered alternative approaches and eventually embraced polygamy as her own marital ideal—a fact reflected in her relationships.

Franz Boas, whom his students affectionately called “Papa Franz,” saw Mead’s potential. He suggested she conduct field research in Samoa. Margaret Mead’s journey there culminated in the publication of “Coming of Age in Samoa” in 1928. Her groundbreaking observations catapulted her into the spotlight, solidifying her legacy as a pioneering anthropologist.

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