Originary thinking is scenic; to think of human origin is to propose a hypothetical originary scene. Throughout human history, this has been done through sacred texts. In the period from Hobbes to Freud, it was often done through the exercise of the thinker’s own scenic imagination.

From World War I until the end of the 20th century, and even today in most contexts, this is no longer the case. The only school of thinkers who have retained faith in the explicative value of a scene of origin are the creationists, but for them we are the scene’s beneficiaries and in no way its creators; the scenic imagination is wholly subordinated to scenic revelation. The social sciences in general and anthropology in particular mistrust the singularity of the originary scene as a denial of human diversity. If any stories of origin are to be told, they will be the “emic” tales of specific human societies rather than the global “etic” narrative of the anthropologist. Contemporary academic anthropology’s only real quarrel with the creationist is that he presents his narrative as a context-free, scientific truth rather than as simply the dominant religious myth of hisculture. In a scientific age, our obsession with the etic has abrogated our right to an emic of our own.

In the United States, the discrediting of universal theories of human origin and evolution in favor of data-gathering, emic description, and an ethic of cultural relativism is most closely associated with the work of Franz Boas (1856-1942), the “father of American anthropology.” Boas, trained first as a physicist and then as a geographer, saw the anthropologist’s primary task as grasping the specificity of each particular culture, or as he put it, “tracing the full history of the single phenomenon.” Skeptical of generalizations, he viewed cultures as composed of a multitude of elements of diverse sources, each of which had a different distribution. Boas affirms the uniqueness of each individual society, but this uniqueness is that of a singular combination of discrete traits rather than of a specific place in an evolutionary tree. Each culture is a singularity, and even groups of related cultures that share many traits do not embody a Lévi-Straussian “structure” from which we can predict the configuration of the traits that remain. Boas’ ethnographic descriptions are never couched in terms of scenes; the only scenic moments to be found in his writings occur within the separate myths he collected from the Pacific Northwest (Kwakiutl, Tsimshian, Haida, Bella Coola…), myths whose text he transcribes as literally as possible. Yet implicit in his method is that a society whose separate parts do not cohere structurally can only be grasped as a unique entity in actu, that is, in the context of a socially significant scene. Clifford Geertz’ importance in American anthropology reflects his understanding of this implication; his famous “thick description” of the Balinese cockfight defines Balinese culture by means of a characteristic scene whose typicality can only be grasped by the ethnologist’s public outside the culture through the deliberate mediation of an “esthetic” narrative.

Boas was profoundly hostile to cultural uniformitarianism, the idea that in human societies “equal causes produce equal effects,” which was the underlying principle of the theories of social evolution that, beginning with Lewis Henry Morgan, had previously dominated the American scene:

The grand system of the evolution of culture, that is valid for all humanity, is losing much of its plausibility. In place of a simple line of evolution there appears a multiplicity of converging and diverging lines which it is difficult to bring under one system. Instead of uniformity, the striking feature seems to be diversity. (“The History of Anthropology” in The Shaping of American Anthropology 1883-1911 A Franz Boas Reader ed. George W Stocking Jr., Basic Books, 1974, p. 34)

If Durkheim refused to speculate on the origin of the sacred, he nonetheless recognized it as the basis for a universal human scenicity. Boas has no theory of the human scene; he not only does not but cannot propose a theory of human origin because he cannot tell us what the human is. Hence it is not surprising that his discussions of religion, language, and art simply take these human institutions as empirically given. Whether the cultural material he discusses be marriage patterns, taboos, myths, art, or technology, Boas never relates it to the fundamental human activity of representation. Yet the representational nature of human culture is the very justification for Boas’ skepticism; it is only because culture is transmitted through representations that its elements diffuse readily across different social groups, making linear filiation along the lines of a taxonomic tree impossible.

Here, for example, is Boas’ most highly articulated definition of religion:

For the purpose of a brief description of the religion of the American Indians we may define religion as that group of concepts and acts which spring from the relation of the individual to the outer world, so far as these relations are not considered as due to physical forces the action of which is accounted for by purely rationalistic considerations. The scope of religious concepts will depend to a certain extent, therefore, on the knowledge of the laws of nature; and, since the border-line of he natural and the supernatural, as conceived in the mind of primitive man, does not coincide with our view of this subject, there will be marked differences between the scope of religion among civilized nations and that among less advanced peoples. (“The Religion of American Indians.” Op cit., p. 257; my emphasis.)

Boas’ definition of religion as a substitute for “rationalistic” knowledge of “physical forces” inverts that of Durkheim, who makes a fundamental distinction between the spheres of religious and practical discourse, insisting that the value of religious assertions cannot possibly depend on their practical value in relation to the natural world, but can be understood only in relation to the maintenance of the social order. Boas’ idea of religion befits a society that attributes the effects of natural forces to the intentional acts of anthropomorphic gods only until such time as these effects can be derived from mathematically expressed laws of nature. As Stocking points out in the Boas anthology cited above, this is a “residual” definition of religion as what is left over when rational explanations have been exhausted, one incompatible with the Durkheimian conception of religious phenomena as constraints imposed by the society as a whole upon its individual members. Later in the same essay, Boas dissolves another of Durkheim’s seminal distinctions, that between (social) religion and (individual) magic; he refers to

the numerous customs of purification that are required in order to avoid the ill will of the powers. These, however, may better be considered as constituting one of the means of controlling magic power, which form a very large part of the religious observances of the American Indians. (262)

In the discussion following this passage, individual prayer and amulets are listed along with public sacrifices as means for controlling “magic power.” Although Boas would surely agree that the concept of “magic power” has its source in the collectivity, he sees no need to privilege the collective operations inspired by this concept over the private activities that are parasitic on it.


Although it has received less attention than his more direct effects on fieldwork, language description, and the nature-nurture equilibrium, probably Boas’ most significant influence on the practice of American anthropology concerns the discipline’s internal organization: the division of the subject among biologists, linguists, and ethnographers, presaging the current subdivision of departments of anthropology into nearly autonomous units of physical, linguistic, and cultural anthropology, with the concomitant turning-away from the original conception of anthropology as a unified “science of man,” proposing and testing universal hypotheses concerning humanity in general.

Boas’ empiricist skepticism is exemplified by his failure to provide a clearly articulated definition of what anthropology is. Boas’ rejects the necessity of positing from the outset a unique object of study: “man,” or as we would say today, “humankind.” Just as he defines religion as what remains when the rational explanations of the world have been eliminated, so he tends to see anthropology as what one studies about man when the subject-matters of the other human sciences have been eliminated. As early as 1904, in his lecture on “The History of Anthropology” (op. cit. p 35), he claims that the “general anthropologist” is giving way to specialists in biology, linguistics, and ethnology-archaeology. In “What is Anthropology?” the introductory chapter of Anthropology and Modern Life (1928), Boas never gives a direct answer to the question posed in the title. He opens by dismissing the common view that anthropology is “a collection of curious facts . . . about . . . exotic people . . . describing their strange customs and beliefs” (11). He then claims that in order to persuade us of the contrary, he “must explain briefly what anthropologists are trying to do,” which activity turns out to share features with the work of the anatomist, the physiologist, and the psychologist. The difference, he affirms, is that whereas these scientists are concerned with “the individual as a type,” to the anthropologist, “the individual appears important only as a member of a racial or a social group” (12). Anthropology, then, is not so much “a single science” as a “point of view.” Furthermore, although such sciences as anatomy and physiology “are amenable to an individual, nonanthropological treatment,” this is not true of “all basically social phenomena, such as economic life, social organization of a group, religious ideas and art” (14). The culmination of this section is the following paragraph, which could almost have been written by Durkheim:

In short, when discussing the reactions of the individual to his fellows we are compelled to concentrate our attention upon the society in which he lives. We cannot treat the individual as an isolated unit. He must be studied in his social setting, and the question is relevant whether generalizations are possible by which a functional relation between generalized social data and the form and expression of individual life can be discovered; in other words, whether any generally valid laws exist that govern the life of society. (15)

Almost, but not really, because the question raised here as to the possibility of generalizations must be answered before we can speak of anthropology as a “science of man,” that is, as something other than “a collection of curious facts.” The only substantive change since Boas’ time is that contemporary ethnology expresses even greater reverence for the “curious facts” of pre-state societies, complemented by a diminished respect for the “strange customs and beliefs” of advanced societies such as our own.

It is not enough to claim that the distinctive trait of human action is that it is essentially social; the social is constitutive of the human itself. “Human science” is not contingently but necessarily the science of humans in society, using language and engaging in religious ritual and other symbolic practices; the fundamental objects of this science are the specific features that distinguish human societies and modes of intraspecific communication from their animal counterparts. Although Boas makes the social the determining factor of anthropology, he never extends this pragmatic definition into an ontological claim about the human. And just as Boas sees religion as a set of residual beliefs and practices with no central social function, he avoids any discussion of the origin or the originary function of language. In the chapter on “Early Cultural Traits” in his The Mind of Primitive Man (1911; Revised Ed., Free Press, 1963), Boas cites as universals “elementary features of grammatical structure,” “belief in the supernatural,” and “the belief in the multiplicity of worlds” (154), and finally affirms that “Language is . . . a trait common to all mankind, and one that must have its roots in earliest times” (156); but he proposes no theory concerning the unity of these “beliefs” with language itself in the constitution of the human.


An important factor in Boas’ extreme skepticism about theories of human cultural evolution was his desire to counter the racist doctrines that were becoming increasingly important during his formative years in Germany. Boas expended a good deal of effort measuring skulls and other anatomical features of immigrants of different races and ethnic groups in order to confirm his hypothesis that physical differences between peoples tended to diminish in their new American environment; according to his data, even the relative dimensions of the heads of immigrant children born in the US were closer to the American norm than those born abroad. Although he did not go so far as to deny that there might be intellectual as well as physical differences among different racial groups, Boas strongly rejected the idea that some races were more “primitive” or less amenable to civilization than others. But this praiseworthy concern with minimizing the intra-human differences exaggerated by contemporary racialists turned Boas’ attention away from the intraspecific difference between the human and the non-human that turns on the presence or absence of the scene of representation.

It was Boas’ prejudice in favor of nurture over nature that inspired Margaret Mead’s 1928 best-seller, Coming of Age in Samoa, which describes Samoan adolescents as practicing a guiltless, conflict-free sexuality. In Anthropology and Modern Life, which also appeared in 1928, Boas affirms the value of Mead’s fieldwork as a test of his personal conjecture concerning adolescent sexuality (albeit with a nuance not respected in Mead’s dithyrambic popularization):

It may well be questioned whether the crises that are so characteristic of adolescent life in our civilization and that educators assume to be organically determined, are not due . . . in part to the artificial sexual restraints demanded by our society. . . . It is necessary that the crises and struggles that are characteristic of individual life in our society be investigated in societies in which our restraints do not exist while others may be present, before we assume all too readily that these are inherent in “human nature.” . . . An instructive example of the absence of our difficulties in the life of adolescents and the occurrence of others is found in the studies of Dr. Margaret Mead on the adolescents of Samoa. With the freedom of sexual life, the absence of a large number of conflicting ideals, and an easy-going attitude towards life, the adolescent crisis disappears, while new difficulties originate at a later period when complexities of married life develop. (pp. 188-190; my emphasis)


Boas’ faithful collection of tribal myths and legends in the original language was an important advance over the westernized texts of his predecessors. But once the data were gathered, his reluctance to submit the products of the tribal scenic imagination to the scenic hypotheses of anthropology testifies to a lack of faith in human universality; no member of any group is able to create models that can encompass the experience of other groups, including those in pre-state societies. This attitude has only intensified since Boas’ time. Model-creation by “hegemonic” Western society, rather than being cited as proof of humanity’s ability to understand itself, is seen as a form of cultural imperialism, with anthropological universals mere masks for imperial aims and the scenic imagination a tool of domination.

What mitigates in part this negative picture is the growing familiarity of members of tribal cultures with “first-world” culture as a cultural as well as economic trading-partner, making possible their accession to higher education, including the study of ethnology (see James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, Harvard, 1988). No doubt anthropological theory is a “Western” product, and however scrupulously we attempt to let tribal cultures speak for themselves through the products of their own scenic imagination, we cannot borrow from these cultures a model of the ethnologist’s procedures. Yet nothing essential prevents the members of tribal societies from adapting these procedures for their own use. Insofar as Boas’ turn away from anthropological universalism was a reaction to theories of anthropological inequality, the affirmation of human equality in practice should permit the eventual return to a “science of man” expanded to include all humanity.