ASA February 2010 AN Column

Anthropology News • February 2010 • Volume 51 • Issue 2
Paul L Doughty, Contributing Editor

In light of all that has been happening over the course of the past six months or so in this country, the following contribution from Alice Kehoe “on stupidity” could possibly assist understanding.

On Stupidity
By Alice Kehoe

Franz Boas received a request, in July 1931, for examples of human stupidity. Walter B Pitkin, preparing the manuscript A Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity, explained to Boas that many of the examples he had pursued turned out not to evidence stupidity, thus he sought many more cases, hoping Boas could provide a few. Boas responded to Pitkin’s letter; the book appeared the next year, 1932, published by Simon and Schuster. At 574 pages with a dense detailed index, it is hardly “Stupidity for Dummies.” Bertrand Russell had sent comments on the “psychic mechanism of stupidity,” but Boas is invoked as the authority denying any “deep inner connection” between race and language, or culture and language: “A culture, as Boas correctly maintains, flows from innumerable influences…” Pitkin then asserts a version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that grammar exerts an unconscious effect upon a speaker’s thinking. It is a jolt to turn the page and find he continues with extended discussion of the intellectual limitations of Chinese, African American and other people, directly contrary to Boas’ statement.

Boas’ colleague James McKeen Cattell is acknowledged by Stanford professor David Starr Jordan for providing material for a slightly earlier book, The Higher Foolishness (Bobbs-Merrill, 1927). Jordan invents the term “sciosophy,” or “shadow wisdom,” to contrast with “science,” noting that the Greek root skia is also the root for skiouros, “squirrel” (squirrels shade themselves with their tails). The title he takes from Israel Zangwill, and from Edwin Grant Conklin the definition that it is “thinking wishly.” Pitkin calls his work “the epitome of morology,” listing a litany of moronic pronouncements including, on the economy, Hoover and his Secretary of Commerce, Robert Lamont, assuring the nation in 1930 that “Decline has Ceased.” Considering the vast and constant display of stupidity, Pitkin was surprised that the New York Public Library had “only a few short essays, skits, verses, and rather feeble jokes” cataloged as Stupidity. His learned friends were of little help. He did locate two German tomes, Aus der Geschichte der menschlichen Dummheit (Kemmerich 1912) and Über die Dummheit: eine Umschau im Gebiete menschlicher Unzalanglichkeit (Löwenfeld 1921). A generation after Pitkin and Jordan, writer Paul Tabori published The Natural Science of Stupidity (Chilton 1959). His many examples are drawn from European history, and are pleasanter to read than Pitkin’s grossly racist assertions. Tabori concludes his 263-page book, “THE END … but there is … NO END TO HUMAN STUPIDITY.”


Along with many colleagues, I learned at the recent annual AAA meeting that none of us, despite scientific pretensions to the contrary, is exempt from this human proclivity. Ample evidence reveals that “morologists” are on the loose everywhere, in print and on the airwaves. Nevertheless, many colleagues in the social sciences safeguard against detection by employing arcane, convoluted and verbose modes of expression that discourage critical analysis by anyone beyond a tribal circle of followers.

Quite a different experience benefited a large and diverse group of attendees at the 2009 ASA session, “Anthropologists Do the Strangest Things,” who heard a set of excellent papers. Among them was Jim Peacock’s review of his successful efforts to help “globalize” North Carolina’s K-12 education statewide, beginning 15 years ago (Grounded Globalism: How the US South Embraces the World, 2007). The effort reached thousands of students and teachers, broadening their cultural and social horizons. He lamented that anthropologists by and large did not seem interested in these efforts, a fact that once again points to the crying need for putting anthropological skills and knowledge to constructive public use. Oh, by the way, on Facebook I received an urgent message that Franz Boas wanted me to confirm that I was his friend! I didn’t waste a minute in responding, yes. It is worth remembering that our founder did not shrink from addressing public issues with anthropological knowledge either.

Finally, ASA is organizing stimulating sessions for the 2010 annual meeting with the topic: “Old Friends: Revisiting Field Sites, Decades Later.” Papers should describe going back to one’s early fieldwork sites, discussing changes and what hasn’t changed—theory implications welcomed. Contact ASA Program Chair Alice Kehoe ([email protected]) or any of our other officers for information.