Famed anthropologist Margaret Mead warned against non-critical thinking—the kind that spawned false memes about her ... and religion.
I’ve loved Margaret Mead ever since first reading her classic Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization. I read it more than 50 years ago as a clueless college sophomore.
There was something seductive about this diminutive, headstrong, homely, strikingly honest young woman, intrepid enough to will herself into anthropologically studying an indigenous tribe on a remote South Seas island at age 23.
In black-and-white photos of her dressed in native attire in a Samoan village, inevitably surrounded by girls, she looked oddly exotic, like an albino Samoan. It was all very tantalizing, really, reading her book in the late, still-Kennedy-esque ’60s, a revolutionary time when I was only newly, cautiously, edging away from my buttoned-down, preppie persona.
In her book, Mead, for one thing, talked expansively about sex in a very matter-of-fact, comme ci, comme ça way I had not encountered in my cloistered, suburban adolescence—indeed, in a way America hadn’t.
Every paragraph in Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) seemed revelatory to me, a profound truth, and I questioned none of it at the time. None.
I found the book so engrossingly romantic and adventurous it might as well have been Typee (1846), another book that enthralled me back in the day. Typee was lionized American author Herman Melville’s first novel, a thrilling tale about a young seaman who jumps ship in the South Pacific Marquesas Islands and ends up cohabiting with cannibals.
While the veracity of both books—Mead’s and Melville’s—was questioned professionally at the time (perhaps fairly, in certain respects), their romantic power was never doubted then and not now. Both tomes remain classics of American literature.
But they’re also object lessons in the importance of not letting ourselves get so carried away by transcendent dreaminess that we give objective truth an unearned holiday—lessons in the importance of recognizing what is as distinct from what we wish to be.
I’m thinking of this after recently reading about a recurring meme among lay persons interested in anthropology, which asserts that ethnologist Margaret Mead once said the first sign of civilization is a healed human femur—the long bone that connects the knee and hip.
The problem is, there’s no evidence that Mead actually said that, despite the compelling “truthiness” of the idea.
What is the most fundamental evidence of civilization?
Filipino anthropologist Gideon Lasco in a Sapiens.org essay in June, explained the dynamics of the meme, in which a student at a Mead lecture once reportedly asked the legendary ethnologist what she believed was the most telling evidence of human civilization when primitive peoples:
Mead proceeded to explain, as the story goes, that wounded animals in the wild would be hunted and eaten before their broken bones could heal. Thus, a healed femur is a sign that a wounded person must have received help from others. Mead is said to have concluded, “Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts.”
It is, to be sure, a beautiful, “feel-good” story—one that puts kindness, altruism, and collaboration at the heart of being human. One version, published by Forbes at the start of the pandemic, vaguely references an archaeological site “15,000 years old” where the femur was supposedly found—suggesting that these qualities are deeply embedded in human history. It’s no surprise that the anecdote began recirculating online during a time of historic uncertainty and isolation.
However, the story immediately aroused skepticism on my part. And the more I dug into it, the more it seemed to fall apart.
What did Mead actually say about civilization?
Lasco said he found no evidence of this likely apocryphal story but did find a transcript of a documented interview with Mead, who, when asked roughly the same question, answered:
Looking at the past, we have called societies civilizations when they have had great cities, elaborate division of labor, some form of keeping records. These are the things that have made civilization.
That sounds more plausible.
Even absent a healed femur, there’s unquestionably lots of such revealers of ancient civilizations, from the Pyramids in Egypt to the Dead Sea Scrolls to slaves buried with their masters and mistresses in pre-history graves.
Bioarcheologist and blogger Stacy Hackner seconded Lasco’s skepticism in a 2020 piece, writing that,
It’s interesting the quotes that are attributed to Margaret Mead—another is “Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world—indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” (And other variants of this sentiment with differing word choices.) Both are things she could have said, given her personality, but neither is fully attributed.
Hackner further explained:
The general idea of the [femur] quote … is that all animals but humans live in a tooth-and-claw Darwinian world where literally only the fit survive. This is not so. Animals are adapted to living within their environment, and the most fit to their environment survive. Femoral fractures in wild animals can be survivable if they happen to juveniles who heal fully in few weeks (and are taken care of as a matter of course, at least in primates).
A review of femur fractures in primates conducted by Christopher Bulstrode, John King and Brian Roper in 1986—“What Happens to Wild Animals with Broken Bones?”—examined wild animal skeletons in natural history collections and found healed fractures more common than they anticipated, Hackney reported.
But there was a caveat: the healed breaks, as Hackner noted, were generally sustained before adulthood.
Concluded researchers in the Bulstrode et al. study:
Many fractures in adult skeletons seem to have occurred while the animal was still young. A review of the original skeletons in two museums does not support the view that major long-bone fractures in adult wild animals heal well. Contemporary observations on primates in the wild over long periods show that fractures of long bones in adult wild primates are rare and usually fatal, while falls which might be associated with juvenile fractures are much more common and may well be the source of the many well-healed fractures found in museum collections.
False memes distract from scientific truth
Whether or not Meade uttered this quote, which went viral and is still commonly attributed to her, it’s a distraction from the anthropologist’s impressive body of work—a legacy that has been questioned due to her alleged penchant for literary flights of fancy and occasionally mashing science with pop culture.
Yet, who remembers her field notes over the engaging prose in Coming of Age in Samoa, the title of which refers not to her right of adult passage, except perhaps tangentially, but to a scientific cataloging of the ways Samoans, particularly girls, grow up in the culture she studied.
A renowned ethnologist takes Meade to task
In Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth (1986), Derek Freeman, professor emeritus of anthropology at the Australian National University, sought to debunk Mead’s scientific conclusions from her Samoan research.
Freeman, a world-renowed ethnologist in his own right, believed Mead erred in how she interpreted her field results, and in concluding nurture more than nature created the ostensibly “gentle” and sexually free Samoans. Mead wrote that Samoans enjoyed a far more carefree adolescence than American kids, but Freeman’s own fieldwork in Samoa revealed to him significant stress and aggression among Samoans—and many fellow anthropologists agreed with his assessment over Mead’s.
But not all.
Freeman’s book ‘a work of great mischief’
“This is a work of great mischief,” wrote George E. Marcus, chairman of Rice University’s anthropology department, in a 1983 New York Times essay pushing back against Freeman’s full-book assault on Meade. Marcus had worked in western Polynesia and wrote a book on anthropology as cultural criticism.
Perhaps Mead’s basic mistake as cultural critic was to accept the existence of an ”adolescent crisis” in American life as an indisputable, if culturally determined, fact; this presumption encouraged her to distort the Samoans, so that she could use them as a base of comparison. An alternative much more in keeping with contemporary anthropology would be to use comparisons with Samoa to challenge the empirical validity of an adolescent crisis in America. …
A rereading of ”Coming of Age in Samoa” is a good antidote to Mr. Freeman’s characterizations of it. The book is not at all obsessed with the nature-nurture issue …
Where Mead’s claims about Samoans become most distorting is in her last two chapters, which her publisher urged her to add to the book. These chapters are a commentary on adolescence and various other aspects of American life, presented in contrast to her findings about Samoa. Here Mead begins to assume the role of critic of American life, the role for which she became most noted among both anthropologists and the public.
Did the arrival of Christianity skew Freeman’s conclusions?
Some of Mead’s other supporters in the anthropological community argued that her depiction of a “free love” ethos among Samoans was not invalidated by Freeman’s criticisms, which held she had been duped by her female sources. They contended that Freeman’s fieldwork in the Samoan culture occurred decades after the integration of Christianity had fundamentally changed the community’s social dynamics, Mark Heimans concluded in his 1988 film, Margaret Mead and Samoa.
Encyclopaedia Britannica characterizes Meade as a scientist “whose great fame owed as much to the force of her personality and her outspokenness as it did to the quality of her scientific work”—and to her recognizing the naturally occurring variety of sexual mores in different cultures, an idea that was controversial at the time because it seemed to condone libertine sexuality. And before the “sexual revolution” of the ’60s, America was anything but that.
Nonetheless, the quality of Mead’s scientific fieldwork and writings has been widely upheld by many anthropologists who found Freeman’s infamous take-down of the icon “much ado about nothing” and, in fact, misleading.
And one of Mead’s prime intentions in writing Coming of Age was spectacularly realized: to inspire nonscientists, including “teachers, parents, and soon-to-be parents … those who might make the best use of its theme, that adolescence need not be the time of stress and strain which Western society made it.”
The book certainly inspired me. Sometime after I read it, I was very seriously considering a career in cultural anthropology, until my embarrassing performance on the graduate-school entry exam at Arizona State University in 1970, which distressed me to the point that I switched to journalism. Which worked out fine.
Teaching children how, not what, to think
Besides its tantalizing adventurousness and bracing cultural ideas, Mead’s book also spoke to me irreligiously. As a budding nontheist trapped in dogmatic, theist US culture, her insights reaffirmed my own adolescent cognitive dissonance regarding faith. She wrote, for instance, that:
We must turn all of our educational efforts to training our children for the choices which will confront them … The child who is to choose wisely must be healthy in mind and body. The children must be taught how to think, not what to think.
Indeed, how to think, not what. This is exactly how Americans don’t generally think about religion, which is a purely emotional conviction.
Mostly, though, Mead said, Coming of Age, which focuses intently on the lives of Samoan girls, was written for future understanding:
I wrote this book as a contribution to our knowledge of how much human character and human capacities and human well-being of young people depend on what they learn and on the social arrangements of the society within which they are born and reared. This is still something that we need to know if we are to change our present social institutions in time to prevent disaster.
It contains not a hint about femur bones.
But, so what?