DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Americans are talking a lot about race these days and whether immigrants from certain regions should be welcomed into the country. Our guest, Charles King, writes about a time a little more than 100 years ago when he says educated people in the U.S. believed it was established science that there is a natural hierarchy of cultures, with Western civilization at the top, and that people's abilities and potential were defined by their race and gender.
His new work chronicles the work of a group of trailblazing anthropologists who undermined those ideas in the first half of the 20th century. They were students of German American professor Franz Boas. And some, particularly Margaret Mead, became widely read authors. Their work studying cultures around the world challenged fixed ideas about race and nationality and changed the way many Americans saw themselves and others.
Charles King is a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University and the author of six previous books. His newest is "Gods Of The Upper Air: How A Circle Of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex And Gender In The 20th Century."
Well, Charles King, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, we think of anthropologists as people who give us insight into human societies, sometimes very distant ones. And it can be kind of an intellectual, you know, tourism satisfying our curiosity. In this story, the stakes are really quite high, and they're rooted in, you know, what was a common understanding about societies and their relationship to biology, especially racial categories, in the early 20th century. What were some of the prevailing ideas in the United States before the work of Franz Boas and his followers?
CHARLES KING: Before Franz Boas and the whole school of thought that he brought to the fore came on the scene, people had a great deal of agreement on some pretty fundamental issues having to do with the structure of human society. That is, that global society could be ranked according to primitive and civilized according to savage, barbaric and civilized, that all societies went through this kind of set of stages, and that Western society - the United States, Western Europe - was at the end point of some process of evolution, that race was deep and inheritable and biological, that people came in natural gender categories, and that these would be the same across all societies and for all time.
And whatever museum you went into, whatever biology class you took, whatever university human geography class you happened to sit in on, these were ideas that were accepted and widespread at the time. And beyond all of this, there was the common idea that your - the physical structure of your body was a kind of set of clues as to where you fit into this natural global hierarchy - from skin tone to femur length to head shape - and that the forefront of science was the idea of figuring out which people fit into which categories with greater and greater precision.
DAVIES: Right, and the idea was that there were these clear, immutable, inheritable qualities that come from your biology, especially your race, and that what we see in terms of human achievement and in gender roles were rooted in the biology, right?
KING: That's right, that the best science of humanity, the most forward thinking science of humanity, will tell us the things that are true and immutable, and that this is somehow just around the corner. I mean, we're talking about the early - the late 19th century, early 20th century, that there was a great deal of optimism about the degree to which science would show us which categories people naturally fit into and which categories entire societies naturally fit into, and that this was a liberating idea, you know? You can figure out if you're farther behind on the train journey towards civilization. We'll figure out exactly how to speed that train up for you. Or if you are in a racial or gender or ethnic or national category that is somehow backward, you know, the progressive idea was that with enough flush toilets and the Ford Motor Company, you name it, we'll be able to inject the right amount of civilization to get you farther down the line.
The more conservative view at the time was that people were somehow inevitably stuck on these - in these positions, and no amount of injecting culture or injecting exactly the right amount of civilization would change that.
DAVIES: Right, and the belief was that this was all empirically demonstrated by science. For example, you know, women weren't politicians. They weren't political leaders. Therefore, this reveals a lack of capacity of initiative, of leadership, in the female gender.
KING: Yeah, it sort of - it didn't occur to lots of people I think at the time, especially those in the social sciences or to the - in the natural sciences, that the reality that you were observing in the world was a product of circumstance, culture, history, not of something that was innate and biological.
The place that people naturally went, especially people in power, was to naturalize, to justify the hierarchy of the world as they found it. And this was an early insight of Franz Boas himself, that, you know, if you happen to be in a position of power, if you're benefiting from the structure of the world as you find it, you have a huge incentive to root that in nature or in God or in biology because otherwise, you might have to face up to the fact that it was accident or circumstance or some historical process that put you where you are rather than all of that being determined by the natural order of things.
DAVIES: Yeah, or a willingness to exploit others.
KING: Right, that you - right, you had to sort of open your eyes to the way in which your circumstance in the world was down to something other than your own desert, that is, your own superiority. And that was a very, very hard thing, and it still is a very hard thing for people who occupy positions of power to understand.
DAVIES: And what's striking, as you describe this in the opening of the book, is that, you know, ideas of racial bias and gender bias are not new and clearly are with us today, but that the most educated people believed this stuff. I mean, it was believed to be the scientific consensus at the time.
KING: Well, that's right. And especially in the United States, this is the way school education was structured, how university classes were structured. Every museum of natural history you went into, you know, told you this sort of natural story of progress. And you know, and of course today, we haven't eliminated all of that. You know, if you go to the American Museum of Natural History in New York or many other museums of natural history, you will see displays on human evolution and even the cultures of what used to be called primitive peoples on display in the same building with dioramas of animals, you know?
And in New York, you can go across Central Park to the Met to sort of see what real civilization produces. You know, so the very geography of museums replayed, and even to a degree today still replays, this sense of natural hierarchy.
DAVIES: Right, so the man at the center of this story is Franz Boas - spent decades as a professor at Columbia and kind of nurtured this group of anthropologists, particularly - most of them women. So he did this early research on Baffin Island up in, like, near the Arctic Circle - right? - with...
KING: That's right.
DAVIES: ...The Inuit population there. What did he experience there that changed his thinking about societies and social order?
KING: Well, of course, Boas had come from a reasonably well-to-do middle class family in Germany. He had gone off on this expedition hoping to do some work on weather patterns and on migration of indigenous peoples on Baffin Island. But the longer he spent there, the longer he realized that in this - the more he realized that in this particular environment, he was stupid. He didn't know how to survive. He didn't know what was good to eat. He didn't know how to be a proper person in social relations with people. And from that little germ of an insight, he took away the idea that the degree to which you are civilized, if you like, the degree to which you're educated, is dependent on circumstance. Here on Baffin Island, he could die of frostbite. He could die of exposure. He had no idea how you rig a dog sled.
And from that, I think he came to realize increasingly that the idea of being civilized, or educated or in power is not a human universal. It's very much dependent on circumstance. And part of being a person aware in the world is coming to understand the degree to which you are a product of a history. You, yourself, are a product of a set of circumstances. There is nothing - you know, your position in the world is not given by God or nature.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Charles King. His new book is "Gods Of The Upper Air: How A Circle Of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, And Gender In The Twentieth Century." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Charles King. His new book is about how a group of anthropologists in the first half of the 20th century, including France Boas and Margaret Mead, challenged what were then the dominant views in the United States that there was a natural order of human potential and achievement which put white men at the top and Western civilization as the highest form of social organization. His new book is called "Gods Of The Upper Air."
Now, before we talk about this remarkable group of anthropologists that Franz Boas nurtured, I want to talk a little bit more about how these ideas of, you know, white superiority and the superiority of Western civilization actually impacted the world. You write about a guy, named Madison Grant, who wrote a book in 1916 called "The Passing Of The Great Race." Tell us about him and his influence.
KING: Well, so Madison Grant was exactly the kind of person that Franz Boaz is, as an itinerant scholar without a permanent job, felt that he was really doing battle with because Grant represented the scientific and cultural establishment of the day. From a wealthy New York family, he had been involved with the founding of the Bronx Zoo. He was a great conservationist and traveled throughout the American West doing studies of bison and elk. In fact, had it not been for Grant and his lobbying with Congress, the American bison might well be extinct. He believed deeply that the noble species of the American West had to be preserved by allowing them to have dominance over their natural - the natural range, the natural landscape that they inhabited.
And when he came back to New York, it dawned on Grant that he was experiencing exactly the same kind of problem in his hometown. You know, he saw these invasive species, as he might have put it, coming from Eastern and southern Europe, the height of immigration to the United States, and he worried increasingly that the noble race that had founded the United States, in his view, people of Northern European, particularly Anglo-Saxon heritage, were being swamped by these invaders just as the domain of the bison or the elk or the wolf would have experienced a similar thing in the West.
And so he wrote this book, called, "The Passing Of The Great Race," the great race being people like him, warning of the rise and fall of civilizations based on the degree of purity that they maintained in their own environment across their own landscape. And that book went on to have great influence in contemporary debates about immigration to the United States. It was frequently cited in debates on halting immigration, particularly by the middle of the 1920s, when new immigration laws came into effect. And that was the view of the world, this purity-focused view of the world, that Boas wanted to counter.
DAVIES: And that book was read by presidents, right? I mean, leaders of the United States.
KING: Sure. It was one of those sort of big-think books, you know, that, if you were an educated, aware American, you would want to have read. It makes its way, in a fictionalized way, into "The Great Gatsby" because one of the characters there has read it and now has a view on the perils of immigration. It was translated into German in 1925, and Adolf Hitler, just completing the final edits on "Mein Kampf," read it. In fact, he described it as, my Bible, because it gave this sort of racial account of European history, of the rise and fall of empires, based on the purity that those states maintained within their core populations.
In fact, you can go to the Library of Congress in the rare books room now and hold Adolf Hitler's copy of the German edition of Grant's "Passing Of The Great Race." It was collected by the library after the Second World War. And holding it, you realize, of course, that the Germans, that the Nazis were not so much, you know, creating from whole cloth a racialized system that would, of course, find its expression in the Third Reich. They were part of a global consensus among many states about the natural hierarchy of the world and the importance of racial purity.
DAVIES: Wow. That's kind of chilling.
KING: Well, it is. And you know, there's now - there's more and more really terrific historians who are writing about the connections between eugenicists in the United States and in Britain, and in what would become Nazi Germany. You know, no country in the world had a more perfect system than the United States of racial hierarchy and racial segregation. The Nazis were actively studying the Jim Crow system in the United States, a system in which, you know, you inherited a race, in which the state had a real interest in categorizing you by race and in which that category had a deep impact on every aspect of your life - you know, from what school you went to, what swimming pool you could go to, what what gravesite you could be buried in.
You know, the international congresses of eugenics before the Second World War were held around the world, some of them held in New York at the American Museum of Natural History. American eugenicists were given, you know, state medals and awards by Germany even after 1933, after the coming to power of the Nazis. So the story of the '20s and '30s, of the time that Boas and his students were very active, is about battling the obviousness, the consensus about racial and gender and sexual hierarchy that a lot of people at the time agreed on. This was not part of the fringe, you know? This was really the establishment.
DAVIES: Right, so Boas took these folks on in talks and articles and letters. It's interesting that he himself engaged in this practice of measuring people, anthropometry. Is that how you say this?
KING: That's right. Anthropometry, yeah.
DAVIES: And in fact, he got a commission. There was a congressional commission, the Dillingham Commission, which wanted to look, well, at the physical attributes of European immigrants. Maybe you can explain what its goal was and what Boas did for them.
KING: Right, so the Dillingham Commission was established by Congress as a scientific study, massive, massive scientific and social scientific study of the effects of immigration on American society. Of course, this was the height of immigration - late 19th, early 20th century, immigration particularly from eastern and southern Europe.
And they wanted to understand how this was transforming American society. And they commissioned a huge array of scholars and specialists to work on various studies. And Boas's contribution to this was to try to answer the question - what is the literal, physical effect of immigration on the bodies of people who immigrate to the United States?
And he knew at the time that he was taking on a really fundamental idea because if you believed in the inheritability, the inheritability of race as an idea - and of course, at the time, race didn't just mean the categories we might have on the U.S. Census now. Race was a term that that also referred to Slovaks or Jews or Poles or Italians. The word race sort of applied to each of these categories as well. If you believed that those things were real and biological and could be inherited, passed down from a parent to a child, then there should be some measurable difference, it was believed, in your anthropometric features - head shape and femur length and so forth.
So he asked this question. He sent students and research assistants all across New York measuring people. And what he found was that once children were born in the United States, raised in the United States regardless of their racial background, if you like, they had more in common physically with other Americans than they had with groups from their old homelands.
And today, that strikes us, of course, as pretty obvious. It's, you know, neonatal nutrition and all sorts of other environmental factors that would go into shaping your body. But the finding was revolutionary because if there's no stability in this idea of race, there's no stability to it in terms of your physical features of your body, how could you then attribute other things to it? How could you attribute civilizational level or intelligence or these other things that folks wanted to marry to the idea of race?
DAVIES: Right, and this congressional commission, did they get his point - aha, race isn't what we thought it was?
KING: Well, unfortunately, the study was buried in this long, huge set of volumes that comprised the the Dillingham Commission's final report. And then once you get to about a decade later in 1924, of course, those old ideas about race and the natural hierarchy of human societies is the thing that informs the very restrictive immigration policies that come in then, that are designed explicitly to increase the percentage of people of Northern European ancestry.
DAVIES: Charles King's new book is "Gods Of The Upper Air." After a break, he'll talk about Margaret Mead and other women in Boas' circle of anthropologists, whose field in popular writings opened new ways of thinking about race and gender. Also, linguist Geoff Nunberg reflects on how we've learned to express emotional nuance in emails and social media. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with author Charles King. His new book "Gods Of The Upper Air" is about how a group of anthropologists in the first half of the 20th century, trained by Franz Boas, challenged the view among intellectual leaders in the U.S. that there was a natural order of human potential and achievement, which put white men at the top and Western civilization as the highest form of social organization. King says those racist and sexist views were embraced by political leaders of the early 20th century and embedded in public policy.
What were some of the other ways that laws and practice embraced these ideas of racism and cultural superiority?
KING: Well, of course, this is the constant of American history. The reality of this braided history is a thing that I think, you know, any American has to understand. That on the one hand, the country has a set of foundational documents that are written in a kind of enlightenment era universalism, about free - about liberty and the essential equality of all people. But at the same time, it was a society founded on the idea of human chattel, of enslavement, of the natural God-given and, later, scientifically demonstrable hierarchy of different racial types, that, you know - and so we're the inheritors of both of those ideas.
The era that Boas and his students were working in, this was all around you, of course. This is the era of Jim Crow, of segregated schools, of segregated swimming pools and cemeteries. You know, that your racial difference was so rooted in your person that you couldn't be buried alongside people of a different racial category.
DAVIES: So Franz Boas develops this group of anthropologists. It was a new field. One of them was a brilliant woman named Ruth Benedict, who went and did fieldwork among the Zuni tribe in the Southwest. Do I that right?
KING: That's right. She did a lot of work in the Southwest and elsewhere.
DAVIES: Yeah. So what did she find among their customs about sex and gender, which were eye-opening?
KING: Ruth Benedict was a very fine field worker. She was also - perhaps even better than that, she was an incredible synthesizer of the work of other people in the circle, and particularly on issues of sexuality, sex and gender. She understood that those things in every society didn't get clustered in the way that they might in our own society.
You know, she discovered among a number of plains tribal groups the idea of an intersex category, where a person could have some of the biological, the outward biological features of one sex, but occupy a social role that was very different from that, occupy a social role that was on the opposite side. So you could have some biological features of a woman, but have the role of a man in society, or vice versa. And the cultures that she studied seemed to have a place for this, that that type of person was socially placed, as Benedict put it. They had a clear role, and people didn't seem to be much bothered by it.
And for Benedict, this was, in a way, personally important to her because, of course, she, in her own life and in her own career, constantly battled the limitations placed on her simply because of the gender to which she was assigned. She had a long and loving relationship with another member of the Boas circle, Margaret Mead. You know, she was a professor at Columbia but couldn't go to the faculty club because that was restricted to male faculty.
And so in - as with so many of the elements of fieldwork that these folks did, you know, when they would go to a different society, a very, very different way of organizing things just sort of revealed itself to them, and that, in turn, cast a very important light back on their own society.
DAVIES: Right, Margaret Mead was probably the most famous of Franz Boas' followers. And I guess her first big trip was to Samoa, where she lived among villagers there. What was she interested in researching? What did she discover?
KING: So Mead is, of course, the - you know, the member of this circle that many people will have heard of, and she lived longer than, of course, Boas and Benedict and other members of this group that I talk about in the book. And so she's the person, you know, who would become one of the great public scientists in the 20th century and carry many of these ideas into popular culture and the counterculture of the 1960s and so on.
She began her fieldworking career when she was 23 years old - went to American Samoa to do independent dissertation research on the problem of adolescence. She asked, you know, is this angst that attends being a teenager - a transition from childhood to adulthood - is this something that's universal? Is it simply a result of biological changes that are happening in the human body? Or can you imagine a world in which the transition is less fraught? Can you find a world in which the transition is less anxiety-ridden than it seemed to be in the 1920s in the United States?
And that's the issue that she was investigating. And similar - how do people come to understand sex, relationships, their relationship to their parents? How do they become full adults, in other words?
DAVIES: And in fact, she found, while some might regard the Samoan civilizations as, quote-unquote, "primitive," they were very much, in some ways, like modern folks living in New York, in terms of their attitudes towards sex and things like that.
KING: Well, that's right. I mean, Mead's book, which came out of this research - "Coming Of Age In Samoa" - in 1928, was very controversial at the time, and it continued to be controversial throughout the 20th century. I mean, people always seemed to be attacking Margaret Mead for some reason because, I don't know, she was very - she was extremely outspoken. She relished being a target, especially later in life.
But if you read "Coming Of Age In Samoa," you know, it's really a book about the United States in the 1920s because she's saying you can take lessons from how other places, other cultures, other societies, have organized themselves that might be useful to us. And this was, I think, for all the members of the Boas circle, a core idea when they were going away to do their fieldwork.
Just like the the cure for some disease might lie in a as yet undiscovered plant somewhere, we might, by looking at other societies, find some clues as to how better to construct, how better to answer the core questions that face us.
DAVIES: You know, you have a phrase in the book - I don't know where it comes from - but it's, getting over yourself is bound to be hard, but the payoff is getting smarter about the world, about humanity, about the many possible ways of living a meaningful life.
KING: Yeah. You know, Boas and his students were - they were asking Americans of the early and mid-20th century, they were asking Americans today to do a very, very hard thing; that is, to look at the world in which you are on top, in which your politicians say you're the greatest country that has ever existed, in which your power seems to be unconstrained in the world, and say that that is not due to your own - you know, a thing that you deserve in the world. It's not due purely to your own hard work. It's not due to the will of God. It is due to history and circumstance and a fair amount of accident.
And that's a very hard thing, I think, for any - historically, it's a hard thing for any group or nation or society in power to do. But for Boas, there was no way of doing science without first rejecting that idea.
DAVIES: Margaret Mead lived a long and eventful life. And I have to say, her romantic life was just remarkable to read about. Your book is biography as well as an explanation - you know, explication of the ideas. I mean, I'm sure you're not the first to chronicle this. But I'm wondering, you know, there was a point where, you know, I guess she was with her second husband on a expedition in New Guinea, and she just falls madly in love with Gregory Bateson, another guy who was in the same business. And the three of them are - spend enormous amounts of time together, where there must have been crazy tension.
And I'm wondering, I don't know - can't tell the whole story here - but how her personal relationships in some way affected or were affected by her views of society and gender roles, as she explored them.
KING: Yeah. Well, I mean, the book is about, of course, ideas, but it's really important to me as well that we realize that ideas are made by people, and those people are just regular people like all of us, with their own foibles and their own blind spots, their own passions and loves and so on. And I think for each member of this group, they - you know, they were all outsiders in one form or another.
I mean, Boas is this German Jewish immigrant to the United States. Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead in this lifelong loving relationship between the two of them at the same time they were married to men and, in Mead's case, multiple men. The two women having a relationship that at the time was unnamable. And other members who - of the circle who at some point all realized that the tensions, the frictions, the difficulties they were having in their lives. For the women, you know, being a female scientist in the 1920s, battling this male establishment, where - who simply wouldn't take their work seriously, you know, largely because it happened to be written by women.
They all realized at some point that, either I'm broken, you know, something is deeply wrong with me. I'm a deviant. I'm abnormal, which is what the science of the time would have told them. Or, I'm OK. I'm a perfectly fine, coherent person. But there's something about the relationship between who I am as a person and the social categories that define the world around me, and maybe I need to understand something more about how those social categories work.
DAVIES: Charles King's new book is "Gods Of The Upper Air: How A Circle Of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, And Gender In The 20th Century." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Charles King. His new book is about how a group of anthropologists in the first half of the 20th century, including Margaret Mead and Franz Boas, challenged what were then the dominant views in the United States, that there was a natural order of human potential and achievement which put white men at the top and Western civilization as the highest form of social organization. Charles King's book is called "Gods Of The Upper Air."
Another member of the Boas community was Zora Neale Hurston, an African American writer who kind of came into his - their orbit. Tell us something of her work and contributions.
KING: Well, we know Hurston, of course, as a novelist, you know, one of the great figures of the Harlem Renaissance. "Their Eyes Were Watching God" is - you know, it's one of those things that, to be an informed American, you should read and that school kids now read as part of their introduction to American literature, something that I think she never could have imagined would be the case.
But another side of Hurston that many people don't know is really her role as a social scientist. And I have to say, even though Boas is the kind of intellectual polestar of this group, Hurston is the person who to me most embodied some of the core ideas that Boas, Mead, Benedict and others were trying to get across. You know, we might say that Hurston was a person who really - she jumped off the high dive when it comes to trying to understand a different culture or a different society, a different way of seeing the world and really inhabit it.
DAVIES: Did Boas and, you know, others in his community take her less seriously because she was African American? Was it easier to be fascinated by the Samoans than an African American from the South?
KING: Oh, I think so. And you know what? There's a long segment of the book about the relationship between, you know, how these anthropologists were studying Papua New Guinea or American Samoa or the Northwest coast versus how African Americans were studied in the early years of what would become African American studies. You know, I think even for people like Boas, it was easier to see Samoa, Baffin Island, Papua New Guinea as a coherent culture. When many of these white anthropologists looked at the American South, the Gulf Coast, the Caribbean, what they mainly saw were either a broken version of white culture as they would see it, or they were kind of doing a kind of social archeology to try to find the remnants of old African cultures that had somehow survived the passage to the Caribbean or survived the experience of slavery.
And you know, what Hurston said was wait a minute, there is a coherent, beautiful, observable and study-able society here in its own right with its own songs and ways of speech and ways of being that you have to understand kind of on its own terms. And that's why, you know, when we read her ethnographies today, they're so incredibly rich because she's not treating her informants or the society she's studying as the leftover of something. She's treating them right here, right now, as real, living, purposive beings with their own unique ways of seeing the world.
DAVIES: You know, the book is about how there was, you know, a little over a hundred years ago, a generally understood intellectual framework that upheld, you know, a natural order of society in which races were separate and distinct, and Western civilization was dominant, and gender roles were fixed. And you know, these people, particularly the women and the anthropologists in the book, had done enormous work and had written a lot of books, many of them best-sellers, you know, disputing these notions. How much impact did they have if things were such a mess?
KING: Well, I think they - I think over time, their impact grew. You know, when "Coming Of Age In Samoa" came out in 1928, Mead was almost instantly famous. And she was, it has to be said, very good as a self-promoter. But I think they laid the foundation for a way of seeing the world that we now, you know, describe as sort of modern and open-minded.
The revolution that they sought to create is in no sense finished. But, you know, if you go into a university classroom now, you know, you will sort of discuss issues about the constructedness of race. You will not be given a textbook in which there is an obvious set of categories and a racial hierarchy. The idea of gender fluidity - that, you know, gender is not fixed but is also a thing that can exist in lots and lots of different forms on lots and lots of different spectrums. Similarly about, you know, about sexual attraction and what constitutes marriage and all of these issues that are so present in our society today, they were pioneers in our way of thinking about them.
You know, at the same time, I think they would recognize the pushback that we're experiencing on all of these issues, from gender fluidity to immigration to even, you know, genetics testing companies that while showing that we're all mixed will still somehow give you down to a percentage figure what your, you know genetic ethnicity, whatever that means, is supposed to be. So I think they would say, you know, we were happy to be there at the beginning of the revolution, but it is in no way finished.
DAVIES: Charles King, thanks so much for speaking with us.
KING: Thank you very much. It's really nice to be with you. Thanks.
DAVIES: Charles King's new book is "Gods Of The Upper Air: How A Renegade Circle Of Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex And Gender In The 20th Century." After a break, linguist Geoff Nunberg reflects on how language has evolved in email and on social media. This is FRESH AIR.
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