Raoul Weston La Barre, an anthropologist of wide-ranging interests and great accomplishments, was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania on December 13, 1911. By high school, he demonstrated the careful scholarship and versatility characteristics of his forthcoming career as a psychological anthropologist. He matriculated from Princeton (1933) and went on to Yale, earning his doctorate in 1937 with a study of the peyote religion. He was subsequently named Sterling Fellow at Yale and worked among the Aymara of Lace Titicaca Plateau and the Uru of the Rio Desaguadero. A Social Science Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship allowed him to receive psychoanalytic training at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, where his friend and colleague, George Devereux also studied.
In 1939, La Barre married Maurine Boie, a social worker and editor of Family, a social work journal. She later taught at Duke University Medical Center until her retirement. World War II interrupted La Barre’s teaching at his first post, Rutgers University. He joined the Navy as a parachutist trained for naval intelligence but spent two years in China (again, with George Devereux) and Kandy, Sri Lanka. After the war, La Barre, as a Guggenheim Fellow, studied the Japanese and the Chinese and joined the faculty at Duke University.
La Barre’s fieldwork had begun in 1935 with the study of the Kiowa of the Plains. These works concerned peyote, on which he wrote The Peyote Cult, which has been reprinted and revised numerous times and remains a standard work on the subject.
La Barre’s ethnobotanical interests continued in studies on Kiowa folk medicine, Aymara materia medica, and potato taxonomy. These developed into both descriptive and theoretical writings on Native American hallucinogens and the relation of these to ecstatic religious experience in both the Old and the New World. The works predated the interests of medical anthropology and cognitive anthropology by several decades.
A central perspective in La Barre’s work beginning in the 1930s was the application of psychiatric— especially psychoanalytic—insights to ethnography. He wrote on the importance of socialization for the development of ethics and the elements of the same that we find in folktales and myths. Despite his orthodox analytic perspective, La Barre emphasized holism in anthropology, as indicated by his classic 1954 work, The Human Animal. Here, he showed how specific human traits such a language, family, and culture were reciprocally related to the specific biology and evolution of the human species. He later continued this theme and argued for the role of human biology in religion and even gender. In his 1970 classic, The Ghost Dance, he argued that religion’s origins must be sought in its creators, human beings, and their experiences of socialization and society, a theme to which he returned in his last book, Shadow of Childhood (1991).
La Barre’s view of humans was akin to Pareto’s at the end of that theoretician’s career; much that is human is irrational, especially the sacred. This view is exemplified through his 1962 work They Shall Take Up Serpents, which discerned psychopathic and sexual elements in a rural U.S. snake-handling religion.
La Barre’s range of interests and expertise allowed him to write insightful articles on a wide range of subjects, such as social guides and the cultural bases of emotions and gestures, as well as ritual public confessions, nonverbal communication, the history and ethnography of marijuana, folktales, and the cultural relativity of obscenity. He also published articles on family, children, and socialization.
He retired from Duke University in 1977 as the James B. Duke Professor of Anthropology. In the 1980s, La Barre remained active, publishing three books in five years. His final work, Shadow of Childhood, appeared in 1991, signaling a publishing career that spanned more than five decades. His publications now occupy more than 7 linear feet of shelf space in the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution. He was also, perhaps, anthropology’s most precise English-language writer, with examples from his writings cited for correct usage 138 times in Webster’s Third International Unabridged Dictionary. His life partner Maurine Boie predeceased him, and La Barre died in North Carolina in March, 1996.
- La Barre, W. (1938). The peyote cult. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- La Barre, W. (1962). They shall take up serpents: Psychology of a southern snakehandling cult. Minneapolis: University of Minnosota Press.
- La Barre, W. (1970). The ghost dance: Origins of religion. New York: Doubleday.
- La Barre, W. (1991). Shadow of childhood: Neoteny and the biology of religion. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.