And there are ethical issues, which, as King acknowledges, Boas and his students were mostly oblivious of. Mead spent nine months, interrupted by a hurricane, in Samoa; she interviewed fifty girls in three small villages on one of the five inhabited American Samoan islands; she never returned. Yet she wrote things like “High up in our list of explanations we must place the lack of deep feeling which the Samoans have conventionalised until it is the very framework of all their attitudes toward life.” She presumed to understand not only Samoan practices but the Samoan way of being in the world. She was speaking for Samoans.

Benedict had done field work with only one of the three groups she wrote about in “Patterns of Culture,” and she never set foot in Japan. Lévi-Strauss, after his time in Brazil, did hardly any field work. He got his facts from published books and articles. This kind of ethnography began to look like crypto-colonialism, the Western scientist telling the “native’s” own story, sometimes without even talking to a native.

There was also the question of how deep cultural difference really runs, an issue aired in the nineteen-nineties in a dispute between two anthropologists, Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere, over how to interpret the death of Captain Cook, in the Hawaiian Islands, in 1779. Were the islanders who killed Cook inside their own perceptual fishbowl, operating with a completely different understanding of how the world works from that of Cook and his crew? Or, underneath the cultural appurtenances of Hawaiian life, were the islanders behaving rationally and pragmatically, much as any other people might?

And there was the complaint, directed at Mead and Benedict, but also at Lévi-Strauss and Geertz, that the cultural approach is ahistorical. The cultural anthropologist freezes a way of life in order to analyze it as a meaningful pattern. But ways of life are in continual flux.

Boas was a firm believer in this: he was interested in what he called “diffusion,” the spread of forms and practices across space and time. Deloria, too, thought that the notion of recapturing Native American life before the arrival of the Europeans was delusional. Native American life was being lived right now, in an evolving mixture of pre-Columbian customs and twentieth-century American ways of life.

But Benedict was looking for patterns. In “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” she wrote, “I started from the premise that the most isolated bits of behavior have some systemic relation to each other.” And from this premise she undertakes to explain “what makes Japan a nation of Japanese.” Japanese-ness is a rock, washed over by waves of history.

And what is gained from swapping out “racial difference” for “cultural difference”? As the South African anthropologist Adam Kuper has pointed out, cultural differences between blacks and whites were used to justify apartheid. Making the differences cultural enables people to say, “I’m not a racist—I just want to preserve our respective ways of life. I don’t want to be replaced.”

But all these criticisms of the premises of Boasian cultural anthropology (and there were others) had less impact than the direct attack made by the anthropologist Derek Freeman, a New Zealander, on “Coming of Age in Samoa.” Mead’s controversial finding in that work was that Samoan teen-agers engage in full sexual relations before marriage, with multiple partners, and largely without shame or guilt or even jealousy. She gave this as one of the reasons that Samoan adolescents didn’t exhibit the angst and the rebelliousness that American teen-agers did. The point was that adolescence is a culturally determined phase of life, not a biologically determined one.

In two books published after Mead’s death, “Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth” (1983) and “The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead” (1998), Freeman claimed that Mead had been tricked by her native informants, and that Samoan sex life was far more fraught than she represented it. Freeman’s books kicked off a wave of reconsideration.

King consigns the entire controversy to an endnote, as he does later challenges to the reliability of Boas’s findings in his 1911 study of the bodily forms of the children of immigrants. He does this because subsequent investigations suggest that the accusers were wrong and that Mead and Boas were both substantially correct. But he therefore misses the significance of those episodes. For what was under assault was the whole culturalist account of human behavior, and what the disputes symptomized was a swing back toward biology.

The new biologists are not like the scientists Boas did battle with in the early twentieth century. They agree with Boas that “man is one.” But they think this means that there exists a single “human nature,” and that the success or failure of different forms of social organization depends on how faithful they are to this species essence.

This has become almost the default mode of analysis among social and political commentators, who like to cite work by cognitive scientists, endocrinologists, and evolutionary psychologists. In the most reductive version of the new biologism, life is programmed, and culture is simply the interface. Even the social science that is most popular, like behavioral economics, is human-nature-based. Nurture is out.

And yet the issues on which Boas and Mead made their interventions, issues around race and gender, are now at the center of public life, and they bring all the nature-nurture confusion back with them. The focus of the conversation today is identity, and identity seems to be a concept that lies beyond both culture and biology. Is identity innate, or is it socially constructed? Is it fated, or can it be chosen or performed? Are our identities defined by the existing state of social relations, or do we carry them with us wherever we go?

These questions suggest that the nature-culture debate was always misconceived. As Geertz pointed out years ago, it is human nature to have culture. Other species are programmed to “know” how to cope with the world, but our biological endowment evolved to allow us to choose how to respond to our environment. We can’t rely on our instincts; we need an instruction manual. And culture is the manual.

Only we can tell us how to live. There is nothing that prevents us from deciding that the goal of life should be to be as unnatural as possible. “Human nature” is just another looking glass. ♦