Margaret Mead (1901–1978) was an American anthropologist. Often forgotten today, her work, writings and speeches have impacted many of our lives. In today’s world of social media, she may have been described as an ‘influencer’ with a very large following.
Mead served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1975. A year later, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 1979, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by US President Jimmy Carter.
Who was Margaret Mead?
Although an effective communicator of anthropology, Mead was a controversial figure in the 20th century, largely due to her contribution to the 1960’s sexual revolution. Much of Mead’s academic work focused on sexual attitudes in South Pacific and Southeast Asian traditional culture, with a significant amount of her time spent in Samoa. Mead also wanted to change the way sex was perceived in Western culture.
The anthropologist shared her views and beliefs with her well-known paediatrician, Dr Benjamin Spock. Many of these ideas derived in part from her field work, particularly those relating to breastfeeding on demand, which she favoured over the American encouragement of using a milk formula. Such ideas were incorporated into Spock’s book.
Presidential Medal of Freedom
One year after Mead’s death her daughter collected the Presidential Medal of Freedom on her mother’s behalf. The citation stated:
“Margaret Mead was both a student of civilization and an exemplar of it. To a public of millions, she brought the central insight of cultural anthropology: that varying cultural patterns express an underlying human unity. She mastered her discipline, but she also transcended it. Intrepid, independent, plain spoken, fearless, she remains a model for the young and a teacher from whom all may learn.”
The first traces of civilisation
Mead is still being talked about today. In a recent social media post, an anecdote appeared. A student had asked Mead what she considered to be the first evidence of civilisation in a society, perhaps expecting the answer to be some sort of artefact, tool or weapon, possibly the astronomical alignment of ancient structures.
A broken human femur, was Mead’s response.
In the animal kingdom a broken femur usually proves fatal, and it becomes impossible to escape from predators, to find shelter and safety, to hunt, and to find food and water. An animal will not usually survive a broken femur long enough for the bone to heal.
Mead’s argument, so the post claimed, was that a healed femur is proof that another human took the time to carry the injured person to safety, stayed with them, and comforted them through recovery. She said, “We are at our best when we serve others.”
There is some fossil evidence to suggest that at least one individual example of a relative of the modern wolf, an animal with severe injuries to its jaw and leg survived long enough for the wounds to heal. This suggests other pack members shared food and cared for and protected their wounded pack mate, the researchers say, as the injured wolf would have been unable to hunt.
Kipling’s ‘Law of the Jungle’ is apt here: “for the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack”. This would, according to Mead’s view, seem to qualify as ‘civilised’.