Gods of the Upper Air
A dazzling group portrait of Franz Boas, the founder of cultural anthropology, and his circle of women scientists, who upended American notions of race, gender, and sexuality in the 1920s and 1930s--a sweeping chronicle of how our society began to question the basic ways we understand other cultures and ourselves.At the end of the 19th century, everyone knew that people were defined by their race and sex and were fated by birth and biology to be more or less intelligent, able, nurturing, or warlike. But one rogue researcher looked at the data and decided everyone was wrong. Franz Boas was the very image of a mad scientist: a wild-haired immigrant with a thick German accent. By the 1920s he was also the foundational thinker and public face of a new school of thought at Columbia University called cultural anthropology. He proposed that cultures did not exist on a continuum from primitive to advanced. Instead, every society solves the same basic problems--from childrearing to how to live well--with its own set of rules, beliefs, and taboos.Boas's students were some of the century's intellectual stars: Margaret Mead, the outspoken field researcher whose Coming of Age in Samoa is one of the most widely read works of social science of all time; Ruth Benedict, the great love of Mead's life, whose research shaped post-Second World War Japan; Ella Deloria, the Dakota Sioux activist who preserved the traditions of Native Americans of the Great Plains; and Zora Neale Hurston, whose studies under Boas fed directly into her now-classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Together, they mapped vanishing civilizations from the Arctic to the South Pacific and overturned the relationship between biology and behavior. Their work reshaped how we think of women and men, normalcy and deviance, and re-created our place in a world of many cultures and value systems. Gods of the Upper Air is a page-turning narrative of radical ideas and adventurous lives, a history rich in scandal, romance, and rivalry, and a genesis story of the fluid conceptions of identity that define our present moment.

Gods of the Upper Air Details

TitleGods of the Upper Air
Author
LanguageEnglish
ReleaseAug 6th, 2019
PublisherDoubleday Books
ISBN-139780385542197
Rating
GenreNonfiction, History, Anthropology, Science, Biography

Gods of the Upper Air Review

  • Mehrsa
    January 1, 1970
    A really fascinating history of Margaret Mead, Boaz, Hurston and others who challenged and upended (at least for a little while) some crazy backwards thinking on the essentiality of race. Cultural relativism has been attacked by the right for a while, but it's amazing to go back and remember that before it, the scientific thinking was so....well, so...primitive.
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  • Rose
    January 1, 1970
    This is nonfiction written in novel form. It is a wonderful read for any fan of anthropology or anyone who wants tho learn about cultures. I highly enjoyed this book recommend it. I would like to thank netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a copy free of charge. This is my honest and unbiased opinion of it.
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  • Peter A
    January 1, 1970
    This is a brilliantly told story of the lives of several important individuals; their collective story addressing with data and science issues of race, sex, and gender; the scientific and social context and history within which they worked; and their impact on the then nascent field of cultural anthropology and the impact that it has made on society. The story includes the turbulent lives of the protagonists, the struggle and conflict that new ideas which contradict old idea pose, and impact goo This is a brilliantly told story of the lives of several important individuals; their collective story addressing with data and science issues of race, sex, and gender; the scientific and social context and history within which they worked; and their impact on the then nascent field of cultural anthropology and the impact that it has made on society. The story includes the turbulent lives of the protagonists, the struggle and conflict that new ideas which contradict old idea pose, and impact good science (and bad science – eugenics) can have on society. Moreover, the author writes so well that I consider it a page turner. This is one of the best history-of-science books of the year!The central figure in this telling is Franz Boas, born in Germany, with a desire to ultimately make a name for himself. He lived with and studied the natives of Baffin Island and later the Pacific Northwest Native Americans. His thinking of primitive versus advanced culture evolved with these direct experiences. His work took place when the research luminaries thought of “peoples” advancing evolutionarily through savagery, barbarianism, to reach the final level of civilized. He also lived in the age of anthropometrics, the study of human body measurement, which at the time were trying to relate race to measurements. His personality gave him the strength to move forward while at the same time alienating other peers. But ultimately, he and his many students where able to use their results to bring about a rethinking of human diversity, and dismiss the old model (not supported by data) of superiority of the “white” race, in fact show the data do not support any ability differences based on race.The set of his students is almost a whose who of researchers: Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston (“one of the most significant unread authors in America” according to Alice Walker – author of “The Color Purple”), Edward Sapir, Ella Deloria, and Ruth Benedict, who served as Boas effective lieutenant during his years at Columbia University. Boas and each of these contributed to the growth of the field of anthropology, and the related fields of folklore (Hurston, who worked with Alan Lomax collecting so many folksongs now part of the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress), and sociology. Mead’s work lead to a rethinking of the role of gender in societies. Hurston’s work gave voice to black Americans as people, and Benedict’s “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” allowed people in the US to see Japanese as people, with a different set of norms, rather than as lesser people.The author does a wonderful job explaining the impact of the collection of work of these controversial and complex people. He also explains the science and its important very clearly. The author also talks about the interactions between the people who are in Boas’ orbit; scientists are after all people, and their experience does impact how they see the world.What one also sees in this book is that it often takes a lifetime to transform thinking of a society, often by the sheer weight of evidence, the persistence of articulating the idea, and in some cases the death of those who say otherwise. It also takes a consistency in approach (in Boas’ case – reason inductively and follow the data) to help transform thinking and approach of his students. There is much that I learned in this book, and much that I take for granted now, however I fear that many other citizens of this planet do not want to grasp. One point that Boas made throughout much of his career, captured in “The Mind of the Primitive Man” is that the “strongest moral schemas rest on the proven truth that humanity is one undivided whole” (p 310). Another, my own poor wording, is that every civilization (culture) is another expression of ways people who live together work together and function together. Thus, you can think of cultures as multiple experiments humanity is conducting (in its own way). And one should not judge another culture with the lens of one’s own culture. But one should try to see it through the eyes of that culture, which means to live it and suspend one’s own beliefs. This is hard and disorienting. There is also a point in the book that reminds me of the point made by Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Righteous Mind. People reject data that don’t adhere to their view of the world, and spend time defending their own positions and beliefs rather than trying to understand what the data are staying. This leads to issue of racial hierarchies, to protect the power one has.As a disclaimer, I almost studied folklore as a graduate student. During my undergraduate studies I took several classes in it and was then exposed to the book “Mules and Men”. The current book helps put her work in context.A great read. One of the best science books of this year!For those of you who want to know more about the book, I list a couple of places below. I first heard about it in an interview on NPR (a few days before it was published) and knew this was a book for me to read.https://www.npr.org/2019/08/05/748128...https://www.washingtonpost.com/outloo...
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  • Mac Hendrickson
    January 1, 1970
    Masterpiece. Recommended reading for every American
  • Stephanie G. Lewis
    January 1, 1970
    Learned a lot. Want to read again.
  • Tom Griffiths
    January 1, 1970
    I enjoyed this book more than the review would seem. My issue was the enormous level of detsil on the anthropologist love lives. I just dont care about that. The rest was grest.
  • Lisa
    January 1, 1970
    I was an anthropology student in the '70s, and this enlightening, engrossing, beautifully written book reminded me why I was so passionate about it and how studying it fundamentally and forever changed my worldview . . . Want to better understand the reasons why racism, sexism, and bigotry of all kinds are utterly indefensible — and how a group of visionary adventuring scientists came to understand and teach that? Want to grow a deep love for the human story? Want to understand the rationale of I was an anthropology student in the '70s, and this enlightening, engrossing, beautifully written book reminded me why I was so passionate about it and how studying it fundamentally and forever changed my worldview . . . Want to better understand the reasons why racism, sexism, and bigotry of all kinds are utterly indefensible — and how a group of visionary adventuring scientists came to understand and teach that? Want to grow a deep love for the human story? Want to understand the rationale of the scientific community which Boaz and his circle challenged (and which still rules many a political and social school of thought today)? What could be more important in our times (or any)?THANK YOU, Charles King, for delivering the gripping story of Boaz and his circle — and for telling it with all the humanity, compassion, and wonder they brought to their own work.
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  • Avid
    January 1, 1970
    I was only able to get through the first 3 chapters, although i enjoyed what i read. It’s just too much information for a casual reader. Also, i was drawn to the book because of the part of the description which included women’s early contributions to the study and definition of anthropology, but after three chapters, all i got was franz boas - not a woman in sight. I can’t wait forever to get to the part for which i chose to invest in the book! For those readers wanting to learn about franz boa I was only able to get through the first 3 chapters, although i enjoyed what i read. It’s just too much information for a casual reader. Also, i was drawn to the book because of the part of the description which included women’s early contributions to the study and definition of anthropology, but after three chapters, all i got was franz boas - not a woman in sight. I can’t wait forever to get to the part for which i chose to invest in the book! For those readers wanting to learn about franz boas, this book is for you. It’s well-written and clear and very thorough. Unfortunately, it’s just not for me.
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  • Mark
    January 1, 1970
    This is an involving and brilliant window into a small community of scientists. They attempted to show that there is one common humanity, even though vivid differences are what attracts the eye. This book also documents their opposition, which continues to insist on racial superiority for currently privelidged groups.The personal lives of these people serve as vivid threads that drive the narrative forward.
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  • Meriel J
    January 1, 1970
    https://www.npr.org/2019/08/05/748128...
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