Margaret Mead, the most popular anthropologist of her generation, is coming under a severe attack of revisionism. An Australian anthropologist, Derek Freeman, has made the headlines with a study devastatingly critical of her first and most famous book, ''Coming of Age in Samoa,'' published in 1928.
Miss Mead, on her field trip to a village in Samoa, reported a gentle, permissive society where the fires of competition burned low, crime was practically nonexistent, and adolescents made love casually, without guilt or jealousy.
Professor Freeman, a veteran of six years in Samoa, stands the Mead conclusions on their heads, finding them ''fundamentally in error'' and sometimes ''preposterously false'' in his forthcoming book, ''Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth,'' to be published by the Harvard University Press in April. The Freeman Samoa suffers from violence in its streets and bristles with fierce competition. Furthermore, its ''cult of female virginity is probably carried to a greater extreme than in any other culture known to anthropology.''
Who is right? Which is the true Samoa? If this were the only issue, we would have a lively academic skirmish and little more. But the battle, of course, is not restricted to South Pacific islands. There is a confrontation here between those, like the late Miss Mead, who believe that one's culture determines one's character and destiny and those, like Professor Freeman, who believe in biological determinism.
Still, this old debate of environment vs. heredity continues to keep the argument within the drawn lines of specialists. What does all the scholarly hard-ball have to do with ordinary citizens on the sidelines?
To try to answer the question, we have to go back to the reason Miss Mead's book became popular in the first place. In idealizing Samoa, her study implicitly reproved America for being what she claimed Samoa was not - a puritanical society, stressed to the breaking point by its work ethic and its self-denial.
''Coming of Age in Samoa'' arrived at a time when Americans were reexamining their traditional values. Anthropology, with its heady sense that all standards are relative, depending upon one's place and time, provided arguments for the insurrectionists. Pop anthropology joined pop psychology in supporting a glib thesis that tense, guilt-driven Americans would be made effortlessly happy and innocent if their more demanding codes of conduct were relaxed. What marvelously productive lives would be lived if only we could hustle down Madison Avenue, wrapping our three-piece gray suits around the sun-kissed souls of pleasure-loving Samoans!
Nobody but the editors of Playboy magazine and a few members of Phil Donahue's audience still subscribe to this panacea. Nature-children have had rude trips from the Sexual Revolution, the hippie movement, and other pseudo-Rousseau formulas of the liberated self.
But it cannot be underestimated how much influence books like ''Coming of Age in Samoa'' had at the time in the ways they were simplified and misunderstood. The trickle-down effect may or may not work in economics, but it certainly operates in the case of ideas. People who have never read Marx or Freud, or Margaret Mead, live with the day-to-day consequences of the fall-out from their theories. It is ironical to speculate about the effect Miss Mead's now-doubted evidence of happy young Samoans has had on the upbringing of half-a-century of American children and adolescents.
''Coming of Age in Samoa'' was only one of hundreds of books - by psychologists and educators as well as anthropologists - coming to roughly the same conclusions about the benefits of relaxing discipline. Miss Mead, as her critics now hasten to point out, was as much a product of the intellectual climate as a shaper of it.
''O tempora! O mores!'' as the really old crowd of social observers used to say.
An admirer of Professor Freeman has called his book a ''masterpiece of modern scientific anthropology'' - which translates into the cry of all revisionists: ''We don't make those mistakes anymore. Now we've got it right.''
And this, finally, may be what needs to be revised - the naive notion that the ambitiously named ''social sciences,'' like anthropology, are precise, methodologically proven avenues to truth rather than hypotheses compounded of some information, some imagination, and some prejudice by admirably ingenious and self-contradictory human beings.
Does anybody really believe we have Samoa right yet?