The Science of Sex:

Glenn Wilson on the Theory of Cultural Determinism



Curiously, cross-cultural data are often cited by feminists as supporting their point of view that sex roles are socially learned. Most frequently they refer to a very influential book written many years ago by Margaret Mead called Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935). In this book Mead compared the sex roles of three New Guinea Societies, and claimed that all three were arranged very differently from our own. In the Arapesh culture both men and women were supposed to be mild-mannered and lacking in libido (rather like European women); in the Mundugumor both genders seemed aggressive and high sexed (‘masculine’); while the Tchambuli supposedly showed a reversal of European sex roles, with the women being dominant and the men emotionally dependent. At the time, Mead concluded that ‘all personality traits that we label masculine or feminine are as lightly linked to sex as are the clothing, the manners and the form of head-dress that a society at a given period assigns to either sex.’

This statement of cultural determinism has been widely quoted in favour of the idea that sex roles are infinitely malleable and is perhaps more responsible than almost any other source for the extreme environmentalism from which American psychology is only recently beginning to recover. However, a detailed look at Mead’s own data does not support these conclusions. For example, as part of his initiation the Tchambuli boy was required to kill a victim and hang the head in the ceremonial house as a trophy. It is hard to see how this behaviour could be called effeminate. Likewise, among the ‘mild-mannered’ Arapesh the men, but not the women, were head-hunters before the advent of European civilization and most of the child-rearing was done by women.

Dr Mead has since conceded that her conclusions were to some extent unjustified and exaggerated. In reviewing Goldberg’s (1977) book The Inevitability of Patriarchy, she says: ‘It is true that all the claims so glibly made about societies led by women are nonsense.... Men have always been the leaders in public affairs and the final authorities at home’ (Redbook, October 1983, p. 38). The problem is that early anthropologists were so impressed by the differences they observed among cultures that they failed to document some of the equally important uniformities. In this sense anthropologists are like any tourists, only noticing the way in which the holiday country is different from home. Cultural determination may apply to overall levels of permissiveness within a culture and some superficial expressions of sexuality, but the basic structure of sex roles is fairly universal.

Another of Mead’s books, Coming of Age in Samoa (1929), which is also widely cited in support of ‘cultural determinism,’ has also been shown to be untrue in all its central conclusions (Freeman, 1983). In this book, Mead identified Samoa as a pacific paradise, peaceful, free from religious conflict and enjoying a system of free love, devoid of jealousy and rape. In fact, as Freeman shows, the Samoans are highly competitive, devoutly religious, place a high value on chastity and have a rape rate about two and a half times that of the United States. Freeman presents evidence that things were probably much the same in the 1920s when Mead was doing her field-work and he accuses her of naively selecting anecdotes to support her environmentalist bias. Mead became one of the most famous anthropologists in America because her findings suited the political climate of the day. Unfortunately they were little more than a mixture of self-deception, falsehood and fantasy.

This brief review of animal and cross-cultural evidence was intended to show that the gender roles and stereotypes that are observed in our society are consistent with sex differences displayed by the vast majority of other species and societies. It is therefore misleading to attribute such differences to patterns of upbringing unique to Western society. If its masculine and feminine stereotypes were arrived at by some accidental social decision, then the same ‘accident’ has occurred in virtually every other society, animal and human, that has ever been known; a coincidence rather too remarkable to be countenanced seriously.




Glenn Wilson, The Great Sex Divide, pp. 55-56. Peter Owen (London) 1989; Scott-Townsend (Washington D.C.) 1992.




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