Rivers and Diffusionism

  • Ian Langham
Part of the Studies in the History of Modern Science book series (SHMS, volume 8)


The events described in the last chapter ran parallel to, and to some extent interacted with, the emergence and consolidation of Rivers’s “ethnological” period. For it was while he was engaged in writing up the results of his 1908 expedition to Melanesia, that Rivers first became convinced of the crucial importance of diffusion in the development of human culture.


Presidential Address British Association Lateral Geniculate Body Transcendental Speculation Egyptian Mummy 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    W. H. R. Rivers, Conflict and Dream (London, 1923), p. 94.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    W. H. R. Rivers, “The Ethnological Analysis of Culture”, Rep. Brit. Assoc. Adv. Sci. (1911), pp. 490–499. The word “conversion” is used by Rivers himself on p. 492 of this address.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Ibid., p. 493.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Ibid., p. 494.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    W. H. R. Rivers, The History of Melanesian Society (Cambridge, 1914) Vol. II, p. 2.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See F. Boas, “On Alternating Sounds”, Amer. Anthrop. II 47–53 (1889). For an illuminating analysis of this article and its place in the development of Boas’s thought, see George W. Stocking Jr., Race,Culture and Evolution (New York, 1968), pp. 157160.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Rivers, op. cit. (note 5), Vol. I, p. 18.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Note from Ray to Rivers dated 20 Mar. 1911, Haddon Collection, Envelope 12056.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    See, for example, Rivers, op. cit. (note 5), Vol. II p. 173.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    A. C. Haddon, “The Percy Sladen Trust Expedition to Melanesia”, Nature (27 Aug. 1908), p. 393.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Ibid., p. 394.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Ibid., p. 394.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Ibid., p. 394.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    A. M. Hocart, “The Cult of the Dead in Eddystone of the Solomons”, J. Roy. Anthrop. Inst. 52, 71 (1922).Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Ibid., p. 72.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Letter from Hocart to Rivers from Nanduri (Vanua Levu, Fiji), dated 27 Sept. 1912, Haddon Collection, Envelope 12019.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    A. Koestler, The Case of the Midwife Toad (Picador edn., London, 1975), pp. 30, 31.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    E. Dennert (1903), quoted in V. L. Kellog, Darwinism Today (New York, 1907), p. 6.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Kellog, ibid., p. 4, 5.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Ibid., p. 26.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    William Coleman, Biology in the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1971), pp. 165, 166.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Quoted in C. P. Blacker, Eugenics, Galton and After (London, 1952), p. 258.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Article on Galton by F. N. David in the International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (New York, 1968).Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Blacker, op. cit. (note 22), pp. 258, 259.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    A. M. Hocart, review of The History of Melanesian Society by W. H. R. Rivers, Man 15 91 (1915). See also Elliot Smith’s introduction to the discussion on megalithic monuments in Rep. Brit. Assoc. Adv. Sci. (1912), p. 607, where he attributes to the opponents of diffusionism the view that the builders of megaliths must have been motivated by an “inborn impulse”.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation (Picador edn., London, 1975), p. 118. See also ibid. p. 169, 170 for an account of an earlier semiconscious vision which had helped Kekulé to arrive at his theory of molecular constitution.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    For the relevant extract from Poincaré’s lecture, see ibid. pp. 114–116. See also ibid. pp. 164–166, 211. Poincaré’s role in publicizing the creative uses of unconscious thought during the early years of the twentieth-century was pointed out to me by Meyer Fortes.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Unpublished, untitled and undated typescript of a paper by W. H. R. Rivers, Haddon Collection, Envelope 12004. Since the paper is in a very rough and only partially corrected form, in quoting it I have taken a few liberties to tidy up the English. However I do not believe that I have altered Rivers’s meaning in any way. For a later description of the two kinds of house found on Temotu, see Rivers, op. cit. (note 5), Vol. I, p. 223.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Ibid. In his later work Conflict and Dream (London, 1923), the semi-comatose state following sleep is assigned an important role in psycho-analysis. In fact, at one point Rivers writes that “the general principle of interpretation upon which this book is based [is] that the thoughts present in the half-waking state following a dream provide a clue to the thoughts by which this dream has been determined… ” (pp. 122, 123).Google Scholar
  30. 30.
  31. 31.
    Rivers, op. cit. (note 1), p. 90.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    W. H. R. Rivers, Instinct and the Unconscious (Cambridge, 2nd edn., 1922), pp. 94, 95.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    W. H. R. Rivers, Psychology and Ethnology (London, 1926), pp. 38, 39. It may be relevant to mention that, shortly before leaving on the 1908 expedition, both Hocart and Rivers had contributed articles on perception to the Brit. J. Psychol., of which Rivers was at that time an editor. Rivers’s article, which was co-authored by G. Dawes Hicks, deals specifically with a variety of illusion. The fundamental conclusion to be drawn from the paper is that the illusion in question, once acquired, persists in the absence of the bodily function which would have seemed to hold out the best hope of furnishing a physiological explanation for the illusion. It seems just possible that this negative result may have sensitized Rivers to the possibility that the immediate explanation of the illusions he witnessed on Eddystone Island would have to be sought in fields other than physiology, especially since he and Hocart would have been subjected to the same external stimuli as the other people in the house. And, if such stimuli were deemed incapable of providing the requisite explanation, then, assuming that deliberate trickery was not involved, there would remain only the internal recesses of the subconscious, which Rivers regarded as the repository of phantasms and dreams.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Rivers, op. cit. (note 33), p. 16.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Ibid., pp. 17, 18.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Graham Wallas, Human Nature in Politics (New York, 1921). Preface to 3rd edn. (1920), p. 5.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    W. H. R. Rivers, Conflict and Dream (London, 1923), p. 62 ff.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Rivers, op. cit. (note 32), pp. 50, 51. For evidence of the fact that Rivers regarded individual instinctive tendencies as opposed to social forces of control, see pp. 115, 144, 145, 146, 157.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Ibid., pp. 93, 94.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Ibid., p. 99.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    Another way of putting this point would be to say that Rivers, while never relinquishing the claim to be proceeding scientifically, was increasingly allowing his own subjective feelings to enter into the execution and interpretation of his fieldwork.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    W. H. R. Rivers, Social Organization (New York, 1924), p. 108. Another account of the incident may be found in W. H. R. Rivers, Psychology and Politics (New York, 1923), pp. 36, 37.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    W. H. R. Rivers, History and Ethnology (Helps for Students of History No. 48), (London, 1922), pp. 10, 13–24.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    W. H. R. Rivers, “The Place of Evolution in Sociology”. Undated and apparently unpublished typescript in the Haddon Collection, Envelope 12013.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    Warren R. Dawson (ed.), Sir Grafton Elliot Smith, a Biographical Record by his Colleagues (London, 1938), pp. 21–23.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    Records of admission held in St John’s College Library, Cambridge.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    Dawson, op. cit. (note 45), p. 128.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    C. S. Myers, “On the Influence of the Late W. H. R. Rivers on the Development of Psychology in Great Britain”, Rep. Brit. Assoc. Adv. Sci. (1922), p. 181. Elsewhere Rivers is described as having been invited to Cambridge in order to lecture on “the psychology of the senses”. See, for example, Haddon’s obituary for Rivers in Nature (17 June 1922).Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    Entry for Head in Dictionary of National Biography, 1931–40.Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    W. H. R. Rivers, Psychology and Politics (London, 1923), p. 126 fn., and Elliot Smith’s Introduction to Rivers’s Psychology and Ethnology (London, 1926), pp. xiv. In Dawson, op. cit. (note 45), W. J. Perry gives a somewhat different account, which does not mention Rivers.Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    J. Roy. Anthrop. Inst 40, 540 (1910).Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    Dawson, op. cit. (note 45), p. 206, c.f. p. 51.Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    Ibid., pp. 51–53.Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    Rep. Brit. Assoc. Adv. Sci. (1912), pp. 575, 576.Google Scholar
  55. 55.
    Ibid., pp. 598, 599. For Rivers, degeneration was definable as the “disappearance of the useful”. In an article in The Sociological Review for October 1913, he discusses the converse phenomenon of survival, which he defines as “the persistence of the useless”.Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    Rep. Brit. Assoc. Adv. Sci. (1912, 1913, 1914, 1915).Google Scholar
  57. 57.
    Dawson, op. cit. (note 45), p. 54.Google Scholar
  58. 58.
    Op. cit. (note 56).Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    Rivers’s papers, Haddon Collection, Envelope 12058.Google Scholar
  60. 60.
    Dawson, op. cit. (note 45), p. 52.Google Scholar
  61. 61.
    Ibid., p. 66.Google Scholar
  62. 62.
    Ibid., pp. 63–65. Watson states (p. 62) that these events took place in Brisbane, but this must be a mistake, as Rivers says in his review of The Migrations of Early Culture (J. Egypt. Arched. II, 256 (1915)) that Elliot Smith examined the mummy “during a visit to his old medical school”, and Perry (Dawson, op. cit., note 45, p. 207) backs this up by the statement that the mummies were in the Macleay Museum, which he locates correctly at the University of Sydney. C.f. also Rivers, op. cit. (note 50), p. 127 ff.Google Scholar
  63. 63.
    Obituary for Rivers by A. C. Haddon, Nature, 17 June 1922.Google Scholar
  64. 64.
    See especially Rivers op. cit. (note 62).Google Scholar
  65. 65.
    Haddon Collection, Envelope 12017.Google Scholar
  66. 66.
    Dawson, op. cit. (note 45), p. 52. Also Elliot Smith’s preface to C. E. Fox, Threshold of the Pacific (London, 1924), p. v.Google Scholar
  67. 67.
    Elliot Smith, ibid., p. vi.Google Scholar
  68. 68.
    J. W. Layard, personal communication, 7 Sept. 1972.Google Scholar
  69. 69.
    J. W. Layard, personal interview, July 1972.Google Scholar
  70. 70.
    Haddon Collection, Envelope 3.Google Scholar
  71. 71.
    Dawson, op. cit. (note 45), p. 56.Google Scholar
  72. 72.
    Ibid., p. 60. However it was Elliot Smith who first informed Rivers of the opportunities for work on psychoneuroses at the Maghull Hospital — see L. E. Shore’s obituary for Rivers in The Eagle (1922), p. 9. See also T. H. Pear, “Some Early Relations Between English Ethnologists and Psychologists”, J. Roy. Anthrop. Inst. 90, 231 (1960).Google Scholar
  73. 73.
    Haddon Collection, Envelope 3053.Google Scholar
  74. 74.
    Lest I be misunderstood, it should be remarked that Rivers’s switch from evolutionism to diffusionism in no way involved a verbal renunciation of the genealogical method. On the contrary, Rivers tells us in the preface to The History of Melanesian Society, the book which embodies a record of his “conversion”, that he hopes to demonstrate the correctness of his prior belief in “the fundamental importance to the science of Sociology of the method of counting relationships”; to show, in fact, “that systems of relationship are far more vitally important and their investigation far more fruitful than my utmost hopes had led me to anticipate”. However, as I hope this chapter and the previous one have made clear, despite a continued verbal adherence to the goal of providing a scientific analysis of human culture, in fact the ethnological work which Rivers did after his conversion to diffusionism, when measured against the standard of his earlier achievements in anthropology, must be judged implausible and unduly speculative.Google Scholar
  75. 75.
    Elliot Smith, op. cit. (note 66), p. vi.Google Scholar
  76. 76.
    Rivers, op. cit. (note 5), p. 127.Google Scholar
  77. 77.
    Dawson, op. cit. (note 45), p. 96.Google Scholar
  78. 78.
    Ibid., p. 60.Google Scholar
  79. 79.
    Rivers, op. cit. (note 1), p. 151 ff.Google Scholar
  80. 80.
    Dawson, op. cit. (note 45), p. 208.Google Scholar
  81. 81.
    W. H. R. Rivers, “The Psychological Factor”, in W. H. R. Rivers (ed.), Essays on the Depopulation of Melanesia (Cambridge, 1922).Google Scholar
  82. 82.
    Myers, op. cit. (note 48), p. 186.Google Scholar
  83. 83.
    Dawson, op. cit. (note 45), p. 21.Google Scholar
  84. 84.
    Ibid., p. 89.Google Scholar
  85. 85.
    Elliot Smith, preface to Rivers, op. cit. (note 1), p. viii.Google Scholar
  86. 86.
    Dawson, op. cit. (note 45), p. 71.Google Scholar
  87. 87.
    Rivers, op. cit. (note 1), p. 10 n. See also p. viii.Google Scholar
  88. 88.
    Pear, op. cit. (note 72), pp. 231, 232.Google Scholar
  89. 89.
    Ibid., p. 232.Google Scholar
  90. 90.
    Dawson, op. cit. (note 45), pp. 162–64, c.f. also pp. 71, 72.Google Scholar
  91. 91.
    Ibid., pp. 172–76. Circa 1916, Rivers had been invited, apparently on Elliot Smith’s initiative, to come to Manchester to discuss the possibility of becoming the Professor of Comparative Religion there. However, his war work on psychoneurosis evidently prevented this contingency — see L. E. Shore’s obituary for Rivers in The Eagle (1922), P. 9.Google Scholar
  92. 92.
    Ibid., p. 169.Google Scholar
  93. 93.
    Ibid., p. 180.Google Scholar
  94. 94.
    Ibid., p. 178.Google Scholar
  95. 95.
    For an account of Elliot Smith’s notion of “Human Biology”, see ibid., pp. 89–95.Google Scholar
  96. 96.
    W. H. R. Rivers, “The Unity of Anthropology”, J. Roy. Anthrop. Inst. 52 23 (1922).Google Scholar
  97. 97.
    Archive A3, Part 2, Royal Anthropological Institute Library, London. See also J. Roy. Anthrop. Inst. Miscellanea, 1921–22.Google Scholar
  98. 98.
    The Sunday Times, 11 Dec. 1927.Google Scholar
  99. 99.
    Elliot Smith, letter to The Times of 27 Sept. 1926.Google Scholar
  100. 100.
    Elliot Smith, “The People of Egypt”, Rep. Brit. Assoc. Adv. Sci. (1910), p. 728.Google Scholar
  101. 101.
    A synopsis of this lecture is given in Nature, 23 Feb. 1924, p. 291.Google Scholar
  102. 102.
    Dawson, op. cit. (note 45), p. 105.Google Scholar
  103. 103.
    G. Elliot Smith, “Notes on the Natural Subdivision of the Cerebral Hemisphere”, J. Anat. Phys. 35 431 (1901).Google Scholar
  104. 104.
    Dawson, op. cit. (note 45), p. 191.Google Scholar
  105. 105.
    G. Elliot Smith, Presidential Address to Section H, Anthropology, Rep. Brit. Assoc. Adv. Sci. (1912), pp. 582, 583.Google Scholar
  106. 106.
    Ibid., p. 583.Google Scholar
  107. 107.
  108. 108.
    G. Elliot Smith, “New Light on Vision”, Nature, 31 May 1930, pp. 821, 822.Google Scholar
  109. 109.
    G. Elliot Smith, “The Evolution of Mind”, in George C. Campion and G. Elliot Smith, The Neural Basis of Thought (London, 1934), p. 30.Google Scholar
  110. 110.
    Dawson, op. cit. (note 45), p. 191.Google Scholar
  111. 111.
    See Elliot Smith, op. cit. (note 108), p. 824, and Elliot Smith, op. cit. (note 109), p. 37 ff.Google Scholar
  112. 112.
    Rivers, op. cit. (note 32), pp. 27, 28.Google Scholar
  113. 113.
    Dawson, op. cit. (note 45), p. 174.Google Scholar
  114. 114.
    Clayton Joel, “William James Perry 1887–1949”, Man 50, 3 (1950). Meyer Fortes has written, in a marginal comment to the typescript of the present work, that he believes Perry to have been related to Rivers. However, apart from the fact that Perry sometimes begins his letters to Rivers by writing “Dear Uncle… ”, the evidence seems to be against this belief. Certainly, as Rivers’s biographer, Richard Slobodin has pointed out to me, Perry cannot have been an “actual” nephew of Rivers (in terms of our kinship system). Only one of Rivers’s siblings, his brother Charles, was married; he had one child: a girl called Joan. Hence, Perry could not have been a consanguineal nephew of Rivers. Neither, since Perry did not marry Joan, could he have been a nephew in the affmal sense. It is still possible that Perry was a more distant kinsman of Rivers, but there does not seem to be any evidence for this. Perry’s obituary in The Times for 4 May 1949 stresses his association with Rivers, but does not state that they were related. Moreover, Rivers’s niece Joan talked to Professor Slobodin about Perry and Rivers without indicating any relationship between the two men (although Slobodin did not question her directly about this). Thus, in the absence of any supporting evidence, it would seem that the avuncular relationship implied by Perry’s mode of addressing Rivers in letters must have had no biological or marital basis, but simply expressed the regard and affection of a younger man for his older mentor. This conclusion is decisively borne out by a recent letter from Mr. Clayton Joel, who writes:Google Scholar
  115. I can confirm, on the authority of Perry’s daughter, that there was no family relationship between [Rivers and Perry]. During my close association with Perry over twenty years until his death in 1949, when Rivers’s name frequently cropped up in conversation, he never, as far as I can recall, referred to the “relationship”... The use of the relationship terms was undoubtedly, as you surmised, an indication of their intellectual relationship which may have emerged some time after mid-1914, for in one of the few letters to Perry in which Rivers gives the year in his date, “June 18 1914”, Perry was still “My dear Perry”; by April 1915 he was “My dear nephew”.Google Scholar
  116. 115.
    Archives, Royal Anthropological Institute Library, London, A22.Google Scholar
  117. 116.
    W. J. Perry, “An Analysis of the Genealogical Tables Collected by Dr Richard Thumwald in Buin”, Anthropos 9, 801–811 (1914). Rivers refers to Perry’s analysis in The History of Melanesian Society, Vol. II, pp. 28, 118.Google Scholar
  118. 117.
    Dawson, op. cit. (note 45), p. 161.Google Scholar
  119. 118.
    W. H. R. Rivers, Psychology and Politics (London, 1923), p. 122.Google Scholar
  120. 119.
    W. J. Perry, “On The Influence of Egyptian Civilization upon the World’s Culture”, Rep. Brit. Assoc. Adv. Sci. (1915), pp. 669, 670. Published in full in Mem. and Proc. Manch. Lit. and Phil. Soc. 60 (1915), pt. 1, pp. 1–36.Google Scholar
  121. 120.
    Rivers, op. cit. (note 118), pp. 118–121.Google Scholar
  122. 121.
    W. J. Perry, The Megalithic Culture of Indonesia (Manchester, 1918), p. ix.Google Scholar
  123. 122.
    Elliot Smith’s preface to W. H. R. Rivers, Medicine, Magic and Religion (London, 1924), p. vii.Google Scholar
  124. 123.
    Letter from Perry to Rivers dated 27th May 1922, Haddon Collection, Envelope 12081.Google Scholar
  125. 124.
    Elliot Smith’s preface to W. H. R. Rivers, Social Organization (New York, 1924), P. vi.Google Scholar
  126. 125.
    In a note to Rivers dated 25 Oct. 1915 (Haddon Collection, Envelope 12017), Perry talks about reading extracts for Rivers from a Dutch book.Google Scholar
  127. 126.
    Obituary for Rivers by L. E. Shore, The Eagle (1922), pp. 7, 8.Google Scholar
  128. 127.
    W. J. Perry, The Children of the Sun (London, 1923), pp. 476–78.Google Scholar
  129. 128.
    Perry, op. cit. (note 123).Google Scholar
  130. 129.
    Perry, op. cit. (note 127), p. 482 ff.Google Scholar
  131. 130.
    Ibid., p. 485.Google Scholar
  132. 131.
    Ibid., p. 477.Google Scholar
  133. 132.
    Ibid., p. 484.Google Scholar
  134. 133.
    Ibid., pp. 484, 485.Google Scholar
  135. 134.
    Ibid., p. 485.Google Scholar
  136. 135.
    Ibid., p. 479.Google Scholar
  137. 136.
    Joel, op. cit. (note 114).Google Scholar
  138. 137.
    R. L. Rooksby, “W. H. R. Rivers and the Todas”, South Asia 1 118 (1971).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland 1981

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ian Langham
    • 1
  1. 1.History DepartmentUniversity of SydneyAustralia

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