Margaret Mead and that femur …

28 Nov

Anthropologist Margaret Mead was once asked what she deemed the first sign of civilization in a culture. Fish hooks? Pottery? Flint spear heads?

No. Mead replied that the earliest discovered sign of civilization was a femur which had been broken but had then healed. In the animal kingdom, she said, if you break a leg, you die. You cannot hunt, flee from danger, or get to the river to quench your thirst. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for it to heal. 1

Someone had stayed with the one who fell. They bound up the wound, carried the injured party to safety, and nursed that person to recovery. This, she insisted, is where civilization starts.

We can read this as a pretty and uplifting anecdote. And why not? At that level it houses truth, but there’s a greater truth yet. Unlike the tiger or pike, homo sapiens sapiens – doubly wise in that we know that we know – is a social animal. Individuated, yes, but as Donne reminds us – and Defoe would have us forget – we do not and cannot exist in isolation. Our dual nature as social yet individuated beings, and tensions arising thereof, inform all our systems of law and morality.

And our knowing that we know?  That, and the attendant ability to imagine ourselves in the predicament of the other, informs our systems of etiquette and mutual respect.

What so imperils humanity now is a socio-economic system which, oblivious to the significance of Mead’s reply, elevates one half of our humanity to an unsustainable degree and, while paying lip service to the other, for all practical purposes downgrades it at every turn.


  1. This is not to say animals are not capable of altruism, including cross-species altruism. Witness the true tale of the magpie helping the hedgehog, and that of the jackals who got the honey badger out of a spot of bother with a large python. Both are discussed in my April post, Magpies, jackals and animal altruism.

4 Replies to “Margaret Mead and that femur …

  1. Thanks for this, I’ve been thinking similar, but without the Mead story as a backdrop. I hope we can find a way out of this destructive system.

    • Hi Ian. While I find merit in all three of the main strands of resistance in the West to the existential threat posed by capitalism in its monopoly phase of imperialism – organised labour (including trade unions), Marxist sects and direct action as per Occupy, XR etc – I see the only force capable of halting and reversing the madness as the rise of China.

      I set out my reasons in this open letter. My views are popular neither with a brain-washed mainstream nor those ultraleftists, more interested in purity than in effecting change, who now shriek that China has betrayed its revolution …

      Because China poses such a challenge – beating Western capitalism at its own game and using the proceeds to raise hundreds of millions from poverty – imperialism is bent on vilifying it at every turn on a slippery slope that may yet take us to Armageddon.

      Interesting times.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *