In 1949 a Columbia anthropologist named Geoffrey Gorer published an essay in his study The People of Great Russia, in which he attempted to provide insight into why those living in the Soviet Union were not more resistant to Stalinist authoritarianism. It was not because they were tortured or threatened with the gulag, according to Gorer and the study’s coauthor, the psychoanalyst John Rickman; it was because they had been swaddled for too long as babies. Gorer had studied child-rearing practices across Western and Eastern Europe and found that Russian peasants tended to swaddle their children for longer periods than other parents did, sometimes up to nine months. Therein lay the explanation, Gorer and Rickman insisted, for why the Soviets preferred the warm cloak of authoritarianism to the freedoms of Western liberalism. The theory, which came to be known as the swaddling hypothesis, was roundly and rightfully mocked. One critic called it “diaperology.” Gorer’s friend and fellow anthropologist Margaret Mead defended and even doubled down on his theory; she insisted that in swaddling them for so long, “Russians communicate to their infants a feeling that a strong authority is necessary.”

The swaddling hypothesis and the ire it justly provoked dealt a considerable blow to the prestige of the national character studies program just as it was reaching its zenith at Columbia, raising questions about the methodologies being employed there and even the value of culture as a heuristic. It also highlights a problem with the work of these anthropologists, which is often framed as revolutionary and egalitarian for insisting that human differences are rooted in culture rather than race. That such a worldview would be any less dangerous is belied by the reality of how this research—culture cracking, as it was known—was employed. From World War II into the early years of the Cold War, anthropologists in the program were repeatedly tapped by the US government to create national profiles for countries deemed threats to US national security. The most famous of these was Ruth Benedict’s wartime study of Japanese culture, later published as The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), but the program produced countless reports for the government on China, Syria, Eastern European Jews, and other “cultures” that needed decoding before they could be exploited.

Thus, while it attracted the most attention, the diaperology controversy did not represent a break with the tenets of cultural anthropology so much as it exposed the problems that had always been lurking beneath the surface, obscured by the hallowed lineage of the discipline. Besides Gorer, Mead, and Benedict, Franz Boas, Zora Neale Hurston, Ella Cara Deloria, and Edward Sapir all considered themselves cultural anthropologists. At a time when the country’s foremost social scientists, figures like the eugenicist Madison Grant, were insisting that different cultures fell along a continuum of evolution, cultural anthropologists asserted that such a continuum did not exist. Instead of evolving in a linear fashion from savagery to civilization, they argued, cultures were in a constant process of borrowing and interpolation. Boas called this process “cultural diffusion,” and it would come to be the bedrock of cultural anthropology, inspiring an entire generation of anthropologists to travel the world searching for examples of it. Hurston went to Florida to collect African American folklore, Deloria to the American Southwest to codify Native American languages, and Mead to American Samoa to ask teenagers about their sex lives. And while their findings have been heralded as revolutionary—within the social sciences and for the general public—they also laid the groundwork for a new form of liberal racism centered on cultural rather than physiological difference.

Boas referred to himself and his students at Columbia as “our little group,” and in a new book, Gods of the Upper Air, Georgetown professor Charles King puts their lives, habits, and missteps on full display. He paints their rise as a heroic struggle against xenophobia, racism, and theories of cultural supremacy. “This book,” he tells us, “is about women and men who found themselves on the front lines of the greatest moral battle of our time: the struggle to prove that—despite differences of skin color, gender, ability or custom—humanity is one undivided thing,” and he is certain that in this battle, they not only fought but won. “If it is now unremarkable for a gay couple to kiss goodbye on a train platform, for a college student to read the Bhagavad Gita in a Great Books class, for racism to be rejected as both morally bankrupt and self-evidently stupid…then we have the ideas championed by the Boas circle to thank for it.” But reading King’s highly researched book, one can come to a different conclusion. “Culture” often proved to be too slippery a term in the hands of these “gods of the upper air” (a phrase borrowed from Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road). As King traces their development, particularly Boas’s, it becomes clear that their ideas about culture and cultural differences were not as distinct as they imagined from the notions of racial difference they sought to overturn.

Franz Boas was born in 1858 in the small Prussian town of Minden. He passed his childhood years reading Robinson Crusoe and tinkering away at anything he could get his hands on. He was rapaciously curious and tactile, and it was through academia and fieldwork that he would ultimately satisfy his thirst for adventure, both physical and intellectual. He started taking courses at Heidelberg, then transferred to the University of Bonn before he eventually matriculated at the University of Kiel. German universities were, at the time, awash in the ideas of Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottfried von Herder. As Boas would do many years later, Herder challenged the idea that humankind was divided into distinct races, arguing instead that the distinctions between people were contingent and tied to culture and homeland. His ideas electrified Boas’s thinking and continued to do so for the rest of his life.

In his writings and lectures, Herder insisted that the idea of separate races or peoples was a fiction; instead, there was one human race that had been transformed over time into many different cultures. Yet as his work would show, such a view was not incompatible with a white supremacist ideology. While King does not mention this, Herder wrote, for example, that “the Negro” should be met with empathy, not hatred, “since the conditions of his climate could not grant his nobler gifts,” and Herder’s view of cultural difference would pave the way for a romantic nationalism that rooted culture in a specific homeland or “soil”—concepts of national identity that later became prominent in Nazism. Nonetheless, for Boas, Herder’s theorization of “culture” helped chart a way forward for his own work. If difference was not rooted in physicality but in culture, then culture needed to be studied with the same seriousness as other academic disciplines.

Boas did not immediately take up anthropology as his field of specialization. He first studied physics and wrote his dissertation on the way light is polarized in water. He took plates to the main harbor in the city of Kiel to see at which depths their reflections began to change in appearance. However, he soon became more interested in how different groups might perceive those changes in the first place. He wanted to understand “the point at which we make the decision that something is no longer blue, say, but aquamarine.” After defending his dissertation in 1881—just as the first British textbook on a nascent subject, anthropology, was published by Edward Burnett Tyler—Boas joined a new generation of scholars excited about the promises of ethnology to explain human diversity. What exactly the field was, no one really knew, but that was part of its appeal for Boas. So, too, was the prospect that he could satisfy his “lust for travel,” King writes, while “building, bit by bit…a master science of humankind.”

Boas’s first foray into the field was a trip to Baffin Island in the Arctic to study the Indigenous groups that lived there. From the outset, there was little doubt that he brought from Europe not only his notebooks but a certain cultural chauvinism as well, referring to the groups he studied as “my Eskimos” and writing that their dwellings were “not as dirty as I thought.” But he did go there to learn—in particular about how the local population on Baffin Island was able to navigate a landscape that repeatedly stymied outsiders. The journey was also, Boas confessed, an effort to advance his career. “I would immediately be accepted among geographical circles,” he explained to an uncle about the purpose of the trip, during which he planned to “map the ice floes, snowdrifts, and habits of seal pods.”

The terrain and weather proved too treacherous for such research, so Boas spent more of his time speaking with the locals, writing down Inuit words, and learning more about these people upon whom the European whalers were totally dependent. He jotted down notes on igloo building and the mechanics of a dogsled. He became particularly close with an Inuit man named Signa; through their conversations, King tells us, Boas learned that “Signa was no timeless native simply struggling for survival on an unchanging shore. He had a past, with wanderings and movement, a family lineage, and remembered moments of hardship and joy.” These are King’s observations, and it’s unclear how much of this made its way into Boas’s published record of the journey, which drew from his trunks of sketches, notebooks on local languages, and maps (mostly drawn by Inuit people).

Upon returning from the Arctic, Boas turned his attention to the native population in British Columbia. He hoped that fieldwork in North America would position him better for employment in the United States, where anthropology was finding a home in new institutions like the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, and the Museum of Natural History in New York City. But on the Pacific Coast, he began to have doubts about American social science. While the Smithsonian organized cultures into stages of development, beginning with “savagery” and rising to “barbarism” before finally reaching “civilization,” he found that many of the Indigenous peoples thought to exist at the same stage of human development were, in fact, quite disparate. “On the Northwest Coast,” as King writes, “Boas had found both wide variety and striking similarities among indigenous communities, with nothing to suggest that Bella Coola and Salish, for example, were all at the same stage of development.”

Boas’s growing ambivalence toward American social science was on full display, literally, at the world’s fair in Chicago in 1893. At the behest of Frederic Putnam, the curator of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Boas agreed to create an exhibit that would showcase anthropology’s potential as a new field of study. The exhibit was to focus on anthropometry, the science of measuring human anatomy and a frequent site for racist faux-scientific theories, where physical features like chin length were used to explain social behavior. Boas lined up the skeletons of Native Americans and “half-bloods” (presumably people with one black and one white parent) in accordance with Putnam’s wishes, but as King notes, no conclusions could be drawn from this display. For instance, “an attempt to show the heights of Italians ended up finding no obvious pattern from northern Italy to the south.” The exhibit was, at least from Putnam’s point of view, a disappointment, because few people attended it, but it helped sharpen Boas’s insistence that the science did not provide evidence to support white supremacy or proof that cultural differences manifested physically.

Soon after, Boas was hired by Columbia, where he would spend the rest of his career and train some of the most influential writers and thinkers of the 20th century. One of his first major research grants came from Congress. Vermont Senator William P. Dillingham had just put together a commission to study the effects of the recent wave of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. Like Putnam, Dillingham wanted Boas to create a way to, in King’s words, “distinguish advanced, healthy, and vigorous northern Europeans from the lesser subraces now stumbling over one another on the streets and alleyways of the Lower East Side.” Boas never disputed the terms of the inquiry and went forward using anthropometric tools, measuring the heads of US-born children of immigrants to see if they looked more like their parents’ or like those of other American children. Boas was not morally opposed to the idea that there were real physical differences among ethnic groups and that those differences had meaning beyond the body, but he also wasn’t convinced that this could be backed up by scientific inquiry. At the end of his study, he concluded that the children of foreign-born “round-headed Jews” took on the characteristics of their new country and “became long-headed.” The same was true of other immigrant groups, he wrote. “The long heads of Sicilians compressed into shorter heads. There was, in other words, no such thing—in purely physical terms—as a ‘Jew,’ a ‘Pole,’ or a ‘Slovak.’” Consequently, the Dillingham Commission largely rejected his findings when drafting its conclusions.

Much like Herder, Boas wasn’t interested in scrubbing culture of the kinds of differentiation and hierarchies that underpin the notion of race. He may have wanted new categories to place people into, but he never believed that people defied categorization. He regarded his work as primarily a matter of empirical analysis, not political or moral argument. But his early anthropological work and desire for factual evidence still put his research in direct contention with the fearmongering eugenicists and racists of his era.

While Boas is the protagonist of the first half of Gods of the Upper Air, King focuses on his disciples in the second half, in particular on Mead, Hurston, Benedict, and Deloria. He begins with Mead, who, like the others in this circle, proved to be as formidable as her mentor. Born to academic parents (her father taught business at Wharton, and her mother was a sociologist who researched Italian immigrants), she grew up in Pennsylvania and entered Barnard College in 1920 as a sophomore. While taking a course in anthropology with Boas and his assistant, Benedict, Mead fell in with a “group of freethinking, adventurous women, disheveled but intellectually fashionable, half of them Jewish, and all equally acquainted with Bolshevism and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay,” who were looking for a way to quietly rebel. At the time, Boas was in the midst of developing his theory of cultural diffusion, a counter to the dominant school of cultural evolution, and Mead found in it the perfect outlet. As King describes it, “Human practices and habits did not diverge from some single ancient norm; rather, from the earliest times, people living in different places had done things differently, sharing and modifying their habits as they came into contact with unfamiliar individuals and groups.” It was a provocative idea, and Mead decided to pursue it in graduate school at Columbia. (She also wanted to pursue Benedict further.)

For her PhD dissertation, Mead decided to look for examples of cultural diffusion in Polynesia. After arriving there in 1925, she became interested in a topic closer to her personal circumstances: sexual norms and how to break free from them. Mead was carrying on three love affairs at the time. “She had left behind a husband in New York,” King writes, “and a boyfriend in Chicago, and had spent the transcontinental train ride in the arms of [Benedict].” She would also become involved with another person on her sea voyage back. In Samoa, Mead began exploring the sexual practices of the people there, writing that they were freer to experiment with homosexuality and polyamory. “Romantic love,” she wrote in her book Coming of Age in Samoa, “as it occurs in [American] civilization, inextricably bound up with ideas of monogamy, exclusiveness, jealousy and undeviating fidelity, does not occur in Samoa.” She conceded that while there might be similar patterns in behavior between the two cultures (infidelity, as she well knew, occurred in the United States), how people felt about that behavior differed widely. As King writes, for Mead, “Americans…seemed to organize their intimate lives around an idealized sex experience…. Samoans saw things another way.”

Coming of Age in Samoa soon became a landmark work of cultural anthropology and was a touchstone for sexual freedom in the United States in the 1960s. As King suggests, the popularity of her book points to some of the problems with its analysis. “Mead was trying something new,” he writes, but what she ended up doing was to use it as “a mirror…to hold up to her own society.” Her desire to create a world of sexual liberation in America had led her largely to invent one in Samoa. “Coming of Age in Samoa was full of bravado and overstatement,” King writes. “Mead had few compunctions about drawing grand conclusions from a small sample set, fifty girls in three small villages on one island in the South Pacific.” It is of course tempting to excuse Mead, a young queer woman who was no doubt in search of validation and acceptance, for projecting her interests onto her research, but in the coming decades the Americanization of other cultures—the way in which other parts of the world became grist for American self-definition—would prove to be not just dangerous but deadly, especially as cultural anthropology soon became part of the war effort.

When the United States entered World War II, many American officials regarded Germany as an aberration, “a normal, civilized society that had been overtaken by a devilish ideology and a barbaric dictator,” King writes. The Japanese, on the other hand, were seen as “subhuman and repulsive,” an alien species that most Americans knew nothing about. The US government enlisted the help of Benedict, who had by then joined Columbia’s anthropology department as a faculty member, to “crack” Japanese culture.

Tasked by the Office of War Information with writing a report on “Japanese behavior patterns” that might help the US military identify weaknesses it could exploit, Benedict employed what was called anthropology “at a distance,” ethnographic work based on documents and cultural works such as novels and films. She also consulted at length with a Japanese American named Robert Hashima, who was born in the United States but was educated in Japan. He reportedly tutored Benedict “on everything from the Japanese tea ceremony to the captured diaries of Japanese soldiers, from hazing rituals in schools to popular movies. When her reports required a Japanese term or phrase, handwritten in kanji characters, it was Hashima who supplied them.” The 60-page summary eventually became the basis of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Though the book made Benedict a household name and a legend in the field of cultural anthropology, it has been widely criticized by Japanese and American scholars of Japan, not least because it relied so much on the perspective of one person. As King puts it a bit gently, “[Benedict’s] assessment of Japanese culture could sometimes look like an idealized portrait of the Japanese middle class or of its military elite, precisely the people whom Hashima and other informants knew best.”

Of all of Boas’s students, the one who provided the most enduring works of cultural anthropology was probably the one whose work departed most from his and his circle’s methods: Zora Neale Hurston. While Mead, Benedict, and others sought to identify cultural patterns, Hurston was trying to escape identification altogether. She wrote that she was born to be someone who “questions the gods of the pigeon-holes.” Already an active figure in the Harlem Renaissance by the time she was a student at Barnard, she looked for ways to exist within that flourishing movement without being defined by it. “Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem,” she observed. “I was and am thoroughly sick of the subject.”

Hurston saw in her ethnographic research less an opportunity for codification than for collecting African American folklore without the pressure of having to mold it into a larger narrative of uplift or condemnation. As the scholar Cheryl Wall explained, “The cultural relativity of anthropology freed Hurston from the need to defend her subjects’ alleged inferiority.” She could simply give them space to voice their views and describe their lives as they experienced them. “My interest lies in what makes a man or a woman do such-and-so, regardless of his color,” she wrote. “It seemed to me that the human beings I met reacted pretty much the same to the same stimuli. Different idioms, yes…. Inherent differences, no.”

Boas encouraged Hurston to return to her native Florida for her fieldwork, to collect folktales, jokes, and the kind of stories of life back home that she entranced her audiences in Harlem with. In the South she spoke to “more than a hundred different people: phosphate miners, domestics, laborers, boys and girls, Bahamian plantation owners, shopkeepers, ex-slaves, sawmill hands, housewives, railroad workers, restaurant keepers, laundresses, preachers, bootleggers, along with a Tuskegee graduate, a ‘barber when free,’ and a ‘bum and roustabout’” (the last was Hurston’s parlance), and instead of a work of anthropology, she turned her fieldwork into the 1935 novel Mules and Men, beginning what would become her hallmark of ethnographically informed fiction, or literary anthropology, as it became known.

Hurston’s writings showcased a rigor and presence lacking in many other works of cultural anthropology at the time, particularly as Benedict continued to proselytize for anthropology “at a distance.” That some of Boas’s most committed disciples believed their subjects deserved no better than this kind of detached study showed how much they carried within their work many of the same prejudices they claimed it was dismantling. Indeed, one of the most pernicious threads that emerges in King’s study of the Boasians is the way in which “culture,” despite being seen as a countertheory to “race,” ultimately just made racism more palatable. Cultural inferiority was something liberals could live with and feel less guilty about.

The long shadow cast by cultural anthropology’s troubling framework persisted well into the 1960s and ’70s. In the ’60s, the Harvard sociologist and Democratic politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan, putting together his report “The Negro Family” for Lyndon Johnson, blamed “ghetto culture,” not racism and racial inequality, for the poverty and social instability plaguing black families. This language was renewed in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton, in defending his so-called welfare reform bill, said he wanted to “change the culture of dependency” in America. Such language united across party lines the many politicians looking to scapegoat the poor and disenfranchised. In 2014, then-Representative Paul Ryan discussed his plans to take on poverty by telling reporters, “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working, and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work, so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”

That Boas’s intervention against racism and racial inequality would ultimately produce a reincarnation of them, albeit cloaked in more respectable language, is less surprising after reading Gods of the Upper Air, in which King admits that Boas fell into the habit of letting “cultural inferiority [stand] in for biological inferiority.” Boas, Mead, Benedict, and their circle sought to show the fallacy of biological and physical difference, but they also created forms of categorization without questioning the underlying biases that might inform them. To return to Boas in his days as a university student, with his plates at the harbor: Did he really think that all Germans (or all Eskimos, for that matter) agreed on when blue became aquamarine? Certainly not, but a patternless individualism would have been impossible to codify and make into a science; such chaos—or humanity—is more the stuff of great art. Hurston, attuned to both, put it best: “There is no single face in nature, because every eye that looks upon it, sees it from its own angle. So every man’s spice-box seasons his own food.”