Margaret Mead


Oct 02

There is an apocryphal story all over social media about Margaret Mead. Here is how it starts:

Years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.

The first key to its dubious veracity is that somehow the story teller knows what “the student” was thinking. Hmmm.

As a human being I want to believe these heartwarming stories, but as a journalist, I see red flags popping up all over.

I had to find the source of this and I did not have to look far. A very perspicacious investigator online did it for me. I truly recommend everyone visiting his site often. He’s the Quote Investigator and here is what he found.

Quote Investigator: The first match known to QI appeared in the 1980 book “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: A Surgeon Looks at the Human and Spiritual Body” by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey. Acclaimed physician Brand described a lecture given by Margaret Mead that he attended.

To her, evidence of the earliest true civilization was a healed femur, a leg bone, which she held up before us in the lecture hall. She explained that such healings were never found in the remains of competitive, savage societies. There, clues of violence abounded: temples pierced by arrows, skulls crushed by clubs. But the healed femur showed that someone must have cared for the injured person—hunted on his behalf, brought him food, and served him at personal sacrifice.

Margaret Mead died in 1978, and the accuracy of this anecdote depends on the memory and veracity of Brand.

Love me some Quote Investigator.

However less heart-warming this story is, it is as close to the truth about Margaret Mead’s lecturing as we can come.

The fact is, I also lean rapaciously toward Freud’s rendition—“The first human being who hurled a curse against his adversary instead of a rock was the founder of civilization”—because sometimes you just cannot be cynical enough. (Yup…reached this point.)

Liberals all over the internet are sharing this because, as the apocryphal piece ends:

Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts. We are at our best when we serve others. Be civilized.

Conservatives call this COMMUNISM!!!

Your author is the “true liberal” in that I can see both sides, and I can agree with conservatives on many points, if they just tone down the bullshit long enough to have a conversation vs a shouting match.

I do believe in individual freedom. I believe that each person should have no limits on their potential as a human being even if their goal is to make money till they are so rich they will die with all that money they never spent. If that is their goal, have at it. We as a society are just lucky that not everyone has that goal in life. And as a liberal I too believe every human being deserves the right to reach their potential, and that means even if society gives them a hand by supplying the tools they need, and as human beings deserve.

Every human being deserves a home, a job, good nutrition, schooling, health care, time off, and most importantly, joy. 

Joy is every human’s birthright, but watch out for those who want to take it all from you. It’s not the commies or “socialists” who want to take anything from you. And they don’t want to “give” you anything by “taking from another.”

The more you get from a society, the more you owe back to that society, and if society cannot care for the least among us, someone’s not giving back their fair share.

That’s the biggest fucking fact you’ll hear this week, so I’ll say it again:

The more you get from a society, the more you owe back to that society, and if society cannot care for the least among us, someone’s not giving back their fair share.

And if Dr. Paul Brand’s memory of Mead’s lecture is accurate, then caring for others is what makes civilization civil—it’s what makes society.

Those early humanoids who killed, plundered, took but never gave . . . well, that was early conservatism. Liberalism came hundreds of thousands of years later, anthropologically speaking.

We wouldn’t even have a society if we didn’t care for others. Caring leads to working together, and we really don’t have to work together only to go to war against nations that have something we want.

The only reason to even go to war today is to take something from someone. Even if it’s just power. Beware of nations that need power over the world.

We don’t need to rule the world. Some of us don’t want the power to rule over anyone. I know I don’t. There are others like me who just want to live and let live and experience our birthright: joy.

So here is a bit we can call . . .

The Anthropology of Caring

  • 60,000 years ago, in the late Copper Age, a man had a hand, surgically amputated, showing both excellent medical knowledge in both surgery and wound healing. “Furthermore, the survival of the handicapped individual documents a certain social cohesion.”
  • 45,000 years ago, a Neanderthal, lived to the age of 50 in what is now modern-day Iraq though one of his arms had been amputated, one of his eyes lacked vision and he had sustained other injuries.
  • 10,000 years ago, Romito lived in Southern Italy until he was a teenager; his skeleton shows that he had a form of severe dwarfism that meant his arms were very short. He was therefore unable to live by hunting and gathering among his people, who “would have had to accept” what he could not do.
  • 7,500 years ago, a Windover boy in Florida lived to the age of 15 though he was born with spina bifida, a severe congenital spinal malformation.
  • 4,000 years ago, a young woman from a site on the Arabian peninsula lived to 18. She had a neuromuscular disease, possibly polio, with very thin arms and leg muscles that would have made walking and movement extremely difficult. She would have needed “round the clock care.”
  • A profoundly ill young man who lived 4,000 years ago in what is now northern Vietnam had most likely been paralyzed from the waist down due to a congenital disease, Klippel-Feil syndrome, and would not have been able to use his arms, feed himself or attend to other bodily needs. He had lived into his 20s, in a culture in which people hunted, fished and raised “barely domesticated pigs.” The onset of a disease that made it impossible for him to participate in any such activities did not prevent others from caring for him.

Further Reading

You might enjoy A Short Course in Economics.