Review of Primitive Behavior by W. I. Thomas

Ellis Freeman

Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, By WILLIAM I. THOMAS. New York, McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1937. Pp. ix, 847.

Professor Thomas work is a distinguished and erudite document which illustrates the relevancy of anthropological data to the social sciences.

His method may be characterized in terms of three factors which give a cultural polarity to his psychological treatment: (1) comparative handling of data; (2) a comprehensive sampling of representative diversification in modes of behavior; and (3) a detachment from the ethical, religious, and economic preconceptions of our own culture in evaluating the culture of primitives. The insistence upon (3) would today seem superfluous, and yet it does appear necessary to reaffirm it when a Malinowski grows to be as much concerned with demonstrating a primitive basis for our patrilineal monogamy as was Westermarck in the last century.

Although to some the question of native differences in degrees of mental endowment among 'races' has lost a good deal of its significance, Professor Thomas quite properly devotes to it an entire chapter. It is common knowledge that theories of innate group differences have not been sustained, and that such differences as may

(493) conceivably exist are too insignificant to account for the wide diversification of culture and behavior between groups; but these facts have been insufficient to shake the complacency of 'racially oriented writers who disguise their chauvinism as science. Professor Thomas adds, what is never unwelcome, a great deal of confirmatory evidence on this point and demonstrates that the specific manifest behavior within a group is not innate but developed from cultural traditions and their related habit systems. These traditions and habit systems, becoming crystallized, are accepted within the group as immutable facts of nature in default of other functionally significant alternatives. To have this point amply documented is of primary importance to social psychology. Here Professor Thomas has been conspicuously effective with an impressive body of anthropological data.

On the related question of cultural change and evolution he is equally sound. Appreciating the influence of the natural environment, he nevertheless stresses the cultural area, which includes group contact through migration, conquest, etc., as the factor in social change and advance to higher levels of civilization, in contrast to the unwarranted views of those that emphasize hereditary potentialities as the primary determinant.

In method he is consistently comparative. As an illustration of his procedure, we may take his scrutiny of the variety of treatment of twins in different groups. His sampling of practices shows, for example, that every conceivable form of behavior may be found. This ranges from the application of extremely sinister policies, to reward, and to indifference in connection with this occasional event. On the one hand there may be, all equally mandatory, the slaying of both children at birth, of either one, of the males only, of the females only, of the mother; there may be ostracism for all; and on the other hand there may be signal honor for the parents. The mother may be entitled permanently to carry the honorific title 'Mother-of-twins,' with a right to special salutation and a double greeting, one for each twin. In another case the father is entitled by virtue of having had twins to collect a fortune in cattle for a period of years out of respect for his magical powers which must be conciliated. The explanation of twins and the consequent attitude of the tribe is based on varied definitions and points of view from group to group, often depending on an acknowledged traditional coincidence of tribal calamity or of good fortune with the advent of a pair of twins sometime in the past.

A little criticism might be offered against Professor Thomas' preference for the rigid concepts of atomic behaviorism (Chap. III), when in passing he alludes to the mechanics of the psychological process by which an infant becomes the product of its culture. The chapter on language is treated philologically and psychologically. Here, too, there is a somewhat too great leaning on mechanism and behaviorism to account for the learned use of language, and little or no regard for the important psychological distinction between attributive language and symbolic language.

Chapter XIII, "Patterns of Distinction," is especially sound and significant to the social psychologist who is interested in the enormous variety of incentives which may initiate behavior. Professor Thomas shows that, once the securing of food, shelter, and a mate, on the basis of accumulated property, is effected, the striving for the expansion of personality assumes a consuming importance and a variety of forms quite wholly detached from the acquisition of property. This, too, is significant to the social psychologists in the task of distinguishing between the merely local external manifestations of incentives and their irreducible fundamentals.


This book is of first rank importance to teachers and advanced students of social psychology. While it is certainly fundamental, it is difficult to concede that it is an 'introduction,' as the subtitle states. Before this work can be used to best advantage, the student would have to become properly oriented in the elementary matters of the discipline. In a style that is clear, graceful, urbane, and always engaging Professor Thomas applies his integrating conception of the primacy of the rôle of culture in the determination of primitive behavior; and by tactful emphasis leads to the inference that this same conception, rather than a principle of innate differences, may best account for characteristic distinctions of civilized behavior.

University of Louisville


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