Evolutionary Biographies

It is interesting to note that biographies of “Leslie White”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leslie_White and “Julian Steward”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Steward have both recently appeared. William Peace’s “Leslie White: Evolution and Revolution in Anthropology”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0803236816/qid=1117164442/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/102-6229466-0987309?v=glance&s=books appeared just a bit ago, and now I see that “Scences from the High Desert: Julian Steward’s Life and Theory”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0252027906/102-6229466-0987309 is also out. For some reason — I’m not sure how — David Price has become the fairy godfather of SM, so readers might be interested in “his review of Peace’s book”:http://www.anthrosource.net/doi/abs/10.1525/aa.2005.107.2.302 (AnthroSource will download a 44 page PDF of the entire book review section, not just this review. While you’re there, why not check out Glenn Banks’s review of Saleem Ali’s book, or Peter Gow’s take on In Amazonia?).

I haven’t gotten my mits on the Julian Steward bio yet, but having written a pretty meaty research paper on the relation between evolutionary anthropology and political leftism in Michagan and Columbia in the 1950s, it’s clear to me that Peace’s book is scurpulously well researched — White is not an easy person to get sources on, and the level of detail that Peace provides is really to be congratulated. On the other hand, one worries whether White was really worth the trouble — and keep in mind I say that as his intellectual grandson! His later career was really quite underwhelming considering his earlier work.

Additionally, both Price and Peace argue that authors such as Handler and Stocking whitewash White’s career as a leftist, a charge that I think is a bit unfair. It is certainly true that Handler and Stocking are not as interested in White’s leftism as Price and Peace — who could be? — and so it is not in the center of their analysis. This is a fair point. At the same time, I feel Price and Peace’s interest in leftist anthropologists (and, in Price’s case, their persecution) lead them to jump on White’s leftism a bit too strongly. My feel for White, based on reading his work and interviewing people who knew him, is that his contrarian attitude and need to create controversy might explain his dalliance with Communism, rather than the other way around. I for one would be interested in a more nuanced analysis of his personality and personal history to explain the complex interlinkages between his political commitment on the one hand and his own complex and often troubles personal history rather than focusing on the ways he can be enlisted in a history of leftist anthropologists and government surveillance. Although, to be sure, that is obviously part of the story.

Steward, on the other hand, was a much austere personality. I was struck in the course of my research on him at how central to the discipline he was today both institutionally (in his numerous administrative appointment) and theoretically — here was a student of Kroeber and Lowie with impeccable Boasian credentials who returned to evolution and a kind of macro-theory that was alien to Boas. I’m not particularly impressed with the large group studies on modernization, or Steward’s musings on the subject, but it is worth noting that his brief stay at Columbia in the late 1940s and early 1950s produced more block-buster anthropologists than White’s entire teaching career. I mean, this is the guy who midwived Stanley Diamond, Sydney Mintz, Eric Wolf, and Robert Murphy — none of whom were buttoned-up Christian Scientists (depending on how you stretch you definitions, you could include Sahlins (student of Fried) and Harris (student of Wagley) to this list). Of course Steward can’t take credit for the incredibly rich moment of thought that that period was known for (and in fact he was in some cases downright unhelpful to female anthropologists like Eleanor Leacock despite her superb work), but all in all he seems to be articulated with anthropology’s timeline and institutions in a way that White wasn’t. It makes me very eager indeed to read Kerns’s book. Of course, there isn’t a copy on my island 🙁


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org