At the time of the publishing of Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), a large portion of the academic world had recently rediscovered the works of Gregor Mendel and built upon it a pseudoscientific doctrine of genetic determinism. This meme gave root to the social darwinism and eugenics movements. Conversely, there were the cultural determinists who believed human behavior was almost entirely a result of culture or environment. Seeing as human behavior is distinct from animal behavior, the cultural determinists, or "nurturists" took the argument that selective breeding is a dangerous proposition when dealing with humans.

Mead brought about the downfall of the eugenics movement with a book containing lines such as "at last there is only the mellow thunder of the reef and the whisper of lovers," as well as "It is not pleasant to realize that we have developed a form of family organization (meaning the nuclear family) which often cripples the emotional life, and warps and confuses the growth of many individuals' power to consciously live their own lives." Mead found a "negative instance" in which the turmoil of adolescence, believed to be a natural force in human development, was an unknown.

Throughout the book Meade boldly contrasted American and Samoan life, arguing that the open, permissive Samoan attitudes about adolescent sex provided a smooth transition between childhood and adulthood. Conversely, of American life she wrote, “when there is added to the pitfalls of experiment the suspicion that the experiment is wrong, and the need for secrecy, lying and fear, the strain is so great that frequent downfall is inevitable.”