From the Times Literary Supplement (London Times), this is a review of a new book not yet published in the U.S. called Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind, by Ben Shephard. This book appears to be an interesting look at the history of modern anthropology, neuroscience, psychology, and psychotherapy in Britain.
We hope you enjoy this free piece from the TLS, which is available every Thursday in print and on the TLS app. This week’s issue features Mary Beard on the afterlife of Pompeii, Henrietta Foster and Kathryn Sutherland on a portrait of Jane Austen, Leo A. Lensing on the self-destructive life of Ingeborg Bachmann, Anson Rabinbach on the First World War – and much more.
HEADHUNTERS: The search for a science of the mind
323pp. Bodley Head. £25.
Charles Seligman; from the book under review Photograph: Bodley Head
In the early twentieth century, a handful of Cambridge men, young medical doctors mostly, established modern anthropology, neuroscience, psychology and psychotherapy in Britain. Ben Shephard sums up their quest as “a search for a science of the mind”, which was certainly a large part of it, but they were interested in a great many other things as well. They were close associates who influenced one another, but it would be a mistake to exaggerate the coherence of their projects or the extent to which they shared a common sense of what they were after. Because they were so eclectic and ranged so widely, they were not installed as ancestor figures in the disciplines into which the human sciences were beginning to fragment, even if they were influential in the committees that helped to shape the new professional institutions. Their names are therefore mostly unfamiliar today. Shephard rescues them from the oubliette of disciplinary histories and presents them as members of a cohort: a network of eccentric, wilful, brilliant men who were prepared to go anywhere, try anything, to advance the scientific understanding of human nature.
Central members of this cohort were brought together in the 1898 “Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits”, that narrow stretch of sea, with numerous islands, which separates Australia and New Guinea. The expedition was organized by a zoologist, Alfred Haddon. Encouraged by Thomas Huxley, Haddon had visited the Torres Strait a year earlier to study tropical fauna and coral reefs. He became interested in the islanders and was tempted to take up anthropology, although Huxley did warn him that nobody could make a living at it. (Mrs Haddon pluckily remarked that “you may as well starve as an anthropologist as a zoologist”.) Haddon then put together a scientific expedition to the Strait. The islanders seemed particularly interesting since they might constitute a link between the peoples of New Guinea and Indonesia and the Australian Aborigines, who represented for the Victorians the archetypal savage hunter-gatherers. And their origins were mysterious. The Cambridge team would study the anatomy, physiology, sense perception and sociology of the natives.
Haddon lectured on comparative anatomy in the Natural Sciences department in Cambridge alongside a young doctor, W. H. R. Rivers, who lectured on the sense organs. Rivers had studied experimental psychology at the leading school in the world, in Jena, in Germany, and developed an unfashionable interest in mental illnesses. Haddon invited him to lead the psychological side of the expedition, but Rivers hesitated until his two favourite students, William McDougall and C. S. Myers, signed on. He then told Haddon that after the recent death of his mother he felt run down and in need of a holiday. He would come along and pay his own way. Charles Seligman, a pathologist who was a friend and contemporary of Myers, also volunteered and was directed to join Rivers, Myers and McDougall in doing experiments on the sight and hearing of the islanders.
“I put the direction of the psychological department entirely into the hands of Rivers”, Haddon reported, “and for the first time psychological observations were made on a backward people in their own country by trained psychologists with adequate equipment.” Despite Haddon’s optimism, their equipment turned out to be far from adequate in tropical conditions and they ended up doing quite simple experiments, but the results appeared to show that the sense perception of the islanders was not very different from that of Europeans. They might be better able to discriminate birds at a distance, but only because they had been trained to do so. Their colour vocabulary was undeveloped, but they could pick out the same shades of difference as an average Englishman. Personalities, too, were familiar. “The character of the natives appears to be as diverse as it would be in any English town”, Myers remarked. Their cook was “the sturdy, plodding thick-set workman”. Another man was “the best example of the high-strung nervous type: his excitement when he is telling a story is remarkable”. And then there was Ulai, “the personification of cunning”, who grasped what the expedition was after and sold Rivers a collection of rods that recorded his sexual conquests, explaining that at his age he would not be adding to their number.
Haddon directed the ethnological research. One coup was to persuade the Murray islanders to revive a male initiation ceremony that the missionaries had banned. Rivers found himself drawn to sociological issues, especially family and kinship. “While going over the various names which one man would apply to others, I was occasionally told that such and such a man would stop a fight, another would bury a dead man, and so on”, he noted. “When the clues given by these occasional remarks were followed up it was found that there were certain very definite duties and privileges attached to certain bonds of kinship.” Rivers went on to become the leading kinship theorist of his generation.
Studying hearing, Myers and Seligman collected recordings of local music. Then Seligman went off to do some ethnological work of his own in New Guinea, and Myers and McDougall made a difficult journey to Sarawak, where the administrator, Charles Hose, was orchestrating a peace conference between two groups of headhunters. Myers found it all rather trying, and objected particularly to having to do his daily rounds surrounded by pigs. “How much this distracts from the pleasures of defecation and subsequent pig eating”, he complained. Nor could he get on with the local people. His one achievement was the collection of music recordings. McDougall fitted in rather better with the swashbuckling Hose and enjoyed the company of the headhunters. He was tempted to make a career of anthropology. However, he decided that it was too easy and instead went to Germany to master the latest experimental methods in psychology.
Another Cambridge friend of Rivers was a young Australian doctor, Grafton Elliot Smith, who had been studying the brains of marsupials. When the Haddon team set out for the Torres Strait, Elliot Smith went to Cairo as professor of anatomy at the medical school. Rivers turned up in Egypt in 1900, to investigate the colour vision of the Egyptians in order to establish a comparison with the Torres Strait islanders. His experimental subjects were labourers working for another former member of the Torres Strait team, Anthony Wilken, who was doing archaeological research. Rivers brought Elliot Smith in to examine the human remains that Wilken had uncovered, and especially the well-preserved brains of pre-dynastic people. Elliot Smith soon became a world authority on the human brain. He modelled the brain’s structure as though it was an archaeological site, the different levels supposedly reflecting evolutionary advances. The neocortex, shared by all mammals, controlled basic functions while the prefrontal area was the seat of more advanced abilities.
Elliot Smith also began to develop theories about Egyptology and anthropology. His most famous idea was that the wonders of ancient Egypt were created not by Africans but by northern invaders, and that civilization had then spread from Egypt to all the corners of the world. Rivers was impressed, and he now decided that Melanesia had been transformed by an invasion of more advanced peoples. Seligman, who had gone on to do ethnological fieldwork in the Sudan, also adopted Elliot Smith’s thesis and argued that the most advanced African civilizations were the work of light-skinned “Hamitic” invaders who had passed through Egypt. The great African pro-consul, Lord Lugard, was a convert to this doctine, which had an obvious appeal to colonialists.
Rivers, more and more absorbed by ethnology and, engaged in writing his great work, The History of Melanesian Society, found the time to collaborate in a famous experiment with his friend Henry Head, another young doctor who had studied experimental psychology in Germany and Czechoslovakia. Investigating the perception of pain, Head had two cutaneous nerves on his left forearm severed. Every Friday for the next four years, he visited Rivers in his college rooms to chart the process of regeneration and the areas of acute sensitivity. Echoing Elliot Smith’s ideas about the evolutionary levels of the brain, Rivers and Head decided that the nervous system contained two layers: one older and more primitive; the other more subtle and localized. They speculated that the two systems “owed their origin to the developmental history of the nervous system. They reveal the means by which an imperfect organism has struggled towards improved functions and physical unity”. And this “could be seen as a metaphor for the triumph of civilization over savagery in human history”. Frederic Bartlett, a student of Rivers who went on to become a leading psychologist in the next generation, noted that this metaphor informed all Rivers’s later theories in physiology, psychology and anthropology. The structure of every human organ, every social institution, revealed cumulative layers of progressive development.
Myers and McDougall stuck with psychology but developed very different approaches. Myers became an anti-racist and a humanist. McDougall was a biological determinist, although he did become president of the English Society for Psychical Research.
Like Rivers, Myers initially took an evolutionary view: “The primitive mind first or the child mind, if you like; then the industrial mind; and the abnormal last of all: that seems to me the natural order, since each in a sense implies the last”. He moved from St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London to Cambridge to work with Rivers, and set up a small laboratory in a cottage in Mill Lane, funded by a gift from his mother. Here he worked on the psychological basis of rhythm in music.
Psychology was looked down on by the Cambridge establishment, but Ludwig Wittgenstein was intrigued and regularly came to Mill Lane to work with Myers. “I had a discussion with Myers about the relations between Logic and Philosophy”, he wrote to Bertrand Russell. “I was very candid and I am sure he thinks that I am the most arrogant devil who ever lived . . . . I think he was a bit less confused after the discussion than before.” When the laboratory was opened to the public in 1913, Wittgenstein exhibited an apparatus for investigating the perception of rhythm. Perhaps influenced by Wittgenstein, Myers was moving away from biological determinism. The physiologists, he complained, “in their attempts to penetrate the reality of the known, were deliberately ignoring the knower”. Experimental psychology made unrealistic assumptions, he came to believe. “The factor of feeling was expressly eliminated from our experiments on memory.” Together with Rivers, Myers lobbied, unsuccessfully, for Cambridge to establish a mental health centre. He also criticized racial theories. The “mental characters” of a European peasant were “essentially the same as those of primitive communities”, he insisted. “In temperament we meet the same variations in primitive as in civilized communities.”
McDougall, in contrast, remained committed to biological explanations of human behaviour. He moved to Oxford, championed eugenics, and began to theorize about race and instinct. A quirky and difficult man, who had quarrelled with most of his associates, McDougall made a satisfactory marriage with the daughter of a chimney sweep in 1900 and began to repair his strained relationships with Rivers and Myers. In 1901, the three men were instrumental in the establishment of the British Psychological Society. And they shared a commitment to develop the treatment of mental illnesses. Psychoanalytic theories came to their attention with the publication of lectures Freud had delivered in 1910 at Clark University in Massachusetts. In 1913, Jung attended a medical congress in London and impressed McDougall. He arranged to visit Jung for analysis, but was frustrated by the outbreak of the First World War.
The war brought them all together again. The cohort of medical doctors, anthropologists and psychologists was now deployed in a new and contentious field: the treatment of soldiers traumatized by battle. (Shephard has published a study of military psychiatry, and this section of his book is particularly strong.) Myers had gone to France immediately the war broke out, and French psychiatrists had introduced him to soldiers who were suffering from strange symptoms – struck dumb, paralysed without any evident physical cause, or suffering from a total loss of memory. He concluded that these symptoms might sometimes be caused by the stress of battle, but that they might also have a physiological basis, resulting from close proximity to heavy explosions. In 1915, he published a description of “shell shock” in the British Medical Journal. In the following year he was appointed “Specialist in Nerve Shock” to the British army with the temporary rank of major.
The diagnosis was, however, vague, and it was also problematic in operational terms. One in six shell-shock patients were officers (who constituted only one in thirty of the fighting men). And when men diagnosed with shell shock were being evacuated from the front line, even returned to Britain, there were suspicions of faking. Manpower losses from shell shock became a serious drain. In one fortnight at the height of the Battle of the Somme, 2 Division had 2,400 wounded men and 501 cases of “shell-shock wounded”. Myers was sidelined, clinics were set up near the front line to rehabilitate traumatized men, and the diagnosis of shell shock was shelved in favour of the pre-war categories of neurasthenia and hysteria.
But large numbers of soldiers had returned to Britain, wounded or psychologically incapacitated, and suffering acutely from depression: “nervous wrecks” was the common description. McDougall found himself “the head of a hospital section full of ‘shell shock’ cases, a most strange, wonderful and pitiful collection of nervously disordered soldiers”. Elliot Smith was posted to Magull hospital near Liverpool, and recruited Rivers. They experimented with various methods, including the new talking therapy favoured by Freud and Jung, and began to pay special attention to dreams.
Rivers moved at the end of 1916 to Craiglockhart, in Scotland, a facility for officers who had been diagnosed with shell shock. He cherry-picked the most interesting cases, one of whom, famously, was Siegfried Sassoon, who had been sent there after making an anti-war protest. Sassoon recalled that at their first session he asked Rivers if he was suffering from shell shock.
“’Certainly not’, he replied.
‘What have I got then?’
‘Well, you appear to be suffering from an anti-war complex.’ We both of us laughed at that.”
Rivers engaged critically with Freudian ideas. He reworked Freud’s dream theory in a neglected classic, Conflict and Dreams, which was published posthumously, edited by Elliot Smith. But as Sassoon apparently recognized, Rivers could well have featured as a classical Freudian case study himself, tormented by homosexual desires. In 1914, Rivers had abandoned a young student, John Layard, on a remote Melanesian island, evidently unable to cope with a physical attraction that Layard himself was willing to express. “Rivers had obviously not recognized the whole homosexual content of our relationship, probably on both sides”, Layard remarked. He also recalled that Rivers had “immense quantities of clever young men around him. He told me once that it was only the affection of young men that kept him alive”. (Layard returned to England suffering from depression. Rivers attended him but many years later he attempted suicide, was treated by Jung, and eventually published a Jungian study of dream analysis.)
Rivers also suffered greatly from the strain of treating young officers only so that they could be sent back to the front, and he had to retire owing to nervous exhaustion. In 1922, while fighting the general election in the London University seat on behalf of the Labour Party, he had a fatal heart attack. In the same year the founding texts of the new functionalist anthropology were published, and his speculative history of Melanesian society was consigned to the scrapheap.
More broadly, in the 1920s structural-functional accounts replaced speculative historical approaches in the natural and social sciences. The brain was now seen as an intricate working organism, its parts functionally specialized. Societies were machines for living in, not deposits of archaeological strata. Academic psychologists set out to win respect by making psychology over into an experimental natural science, abandoning therapy.
The members of the cohort did not have the best of luck in the post-war world. Elliot Smith became a famous anatomist, but his reputation was badly damaged by his endorsement of the Piltdown forgery. (A hoaxer had put together a modern cranium and an ape’s jaw and teeth, which led Elliot Smith to conclude that early hominids had highly developed brains.) McDougall was appointed to a chair at Harvard in 1919, but his advocacy of instinct theory, eugenics and racial determinism did not go down well. Nor did his enthusiasm for psychic research. American psychology was now “behaviorist” and experimental, and McDougall was regarded as a Victorian relic, “still thinking of himself as an Englishman in the British colonies”, colleagues complained. He lost a small fortune in the stock market crash of 1929 and was then swindled over an oil well. (“The professor is noted for his experiments on animal behavior through tests made mostly with rats”, the New York Times noted with some glee. “Seems this time he got caught by two oily ones.”) Seligman became professor of ethnology at the London School of Economics, but in the 1920s he was sidelined by the charismatic Bronisław Malinowski. Myers was held responsible for the shell shock fiasco. (“There’s no such thing as shell shock”, General George S. Patton was to insist. “It’s an invention of the Jews.”)
“Although many of the answers which Rivers, McDougall and Elliot Smith gave have proved to be wrong, because in their time the data to answer them did not exist, the questions they posed are still relevant”, Ben Shephard suggests. In fact their theories were discredited and their research programmes declared obsolete. And so they have largely been forgotten. Only Rivers has had an unexpected afterlife, resurrected in the imaginations of Siegfried Sassoon and Pat Barker. Yet this cohort of open-minded, cosmopolitan, adventurous young doctors was surely more interesting, more creative and more admirable than most of the narrow specialists who succeeded them.
Adam Kuper is Centennial Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics.