Sunday, December 13, 2020

Civilization - A Good Idea?

The other day someone shared this story on Facebook:

It looked like something I'd seen before.  It had the feel of a sermon illustration, and even though it was going against Science to question a doctor, I looked it up, and sure enough, it is probably bogus.

First off, Mead probably didn't say it.  No one seems to have been able to track it to a named source close to Mead, let alone Mead herself.  One of the benefits of attributing a story to a student is that you don't need to provide a reference.  But that's also one of the hallmarks of an urban legend, that you heard from a friend of a friend of a friend.  It doesn't prove it isn't authentic, but it makes it suspicious. That malicious little voice in my head crowed triumphantly, "And that student's name?  It was Albert Einstein!"

Byock's version was published in 2012, as you can see.  Someone has, however, found a variant from 1980, two years after Mead's death, "in the surgeon Paul Brand's Christian memoir Fearfully and Wonderfully Made (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Zondervan). This screenshot is from page 68."

This at least seems to be an eyewitness account by someone who'd attended a lecture by Mead, recalling what he remembered she'd said at some remove.  I'm trying to make sense of that "I was soon to be reminded", but maybe it would be clearer in context.

Second, there are problems with its account of "civilization."  One is that Brand's characterization of "primitive" societies is false: modern capitalist societies are "savage, competitive societies," yet we do treat broken bones and other injuries.  It's false that "primitive" societies don't treat injuries or care for ill or wounded people, and "clues of violence" inflicted by arrows and clubs are not limited to such cultures -- just read the accounts of warfare by the children of Israel in the Tanakh, or the fantasies of mass bloodshed by the Lamb in the book of Revelation. Nowadays, of course, we have added guns, explosives, napalm, and nuclear weapons to the armory.  I don't believe that Mead, who spent a fair amount of time among "primitive" people, would have uttered such a falsehood about them; at best this must be a fabrication by Brand.

While looking up the story, I found this blog post about it by a paleoarchaeologist, Stacy Hackner, who corrects some of its numerous factual errors.  (See also this post from a Christian blog, which not only perpetuates the Mead legend but distorts what Hackner said about it.  The blogger also seems to misunderstand or misread the word "truthiness."  Then there's this version from Forbes magazine online, which adds its own embellishments and distortions to the mix.)

The quote has a bit of “truthiness” to it. The general idea of the quote – other versions have her saying “in the law of the jungle, if you can’t hunt, you die” – 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 such fractures in primates was conducted by Bulstrode et al (1986). The authors examined wild animal skeletons in natural history collections, finding the healed fracture rate higher than expected.

I'm not a naturalist, nor do I own a pet, but I knew it was false that non-human animals don't exhibit compassion or care for one another.  A day ago on the street I passed a cat that caught and killed a squirrel.  In a nearby tree another squirrel was chittering angrily at the cat; it was aware that its fellow had been hurt, and was upset about it.  A couple of years ago I found a dead squirrel lying in the middle of a sidewalk near my apartment.  Another squirrel had spreadeagled itself flat on the concrete a few inches away and was chittering noisily in what I took to be distress.  It fled as I approached, but returned as I walked away and continued its cries.  When I returned later, it was gone, having apparently given up.  I don't know exactly what these squirrels were feeling, of course, but they certainly weren't indifferent to the fates of other squirrels.  (A quibble: "Nature red in tooth and claw," to which Hackner alludes, is Tennyson, not Darwin.)

Hackner adds:

Another key point about the quote is that only humans have the tools to actually fix a broken limb. (I mean, only humans have the tools, period. We invented tools.) If a wild animal has a broken limb, it can heal, but it will heal improperly.
Among human beings, bonesetting is at least 3000 years old.  Other animals don't have bonesetters, surgeons, antibiotics, or vaccination.  We didn't have such things ourselves for most of our history and prehistory, but that didn't mean people didn't care about the suffering of others.  When people stood by helplessly watching someone suffer and die, it didn't necessarily mean that they didn't care, only that there was nothing they knew to do about it.

Hackner concludes:

We tend to think of people before us as cruel and barbaric, a fallacy I continue to address in my teaching. But they’re only as cruel as people today, and also as compassionate. There’s a whole field exploring archaeology of disability, including the social treatment of people with injuries and conditions that affected their mobility.

It's significant, I think, that this distortion and attempted erasure of human (and animal) compassion should have been spread by a palliative-care physician and a Christian surgeon.  It seems clear to me that Brand's reference to monks caring for the injured is meant to suggest (to a fundamentalist Christian readership, who'd welcome the suggestion) that only Christians care for the sick and hurt.  That's also false: pre-Christian Greek and Buddhist temples, among others were places of medical treatment.  But leave their motivations aside: the key point is that both projections of non-human and "primitive" human responses to suffering are false.

I don't believe that Margaret Mead actually said anything like the words that these men put into her mouth.  For one thing, Mead was constantly accused, during and after her life, of being too positive about "primitive" societies, of seeing them as better than modern "civilization."  As it happens, I also found this transcript of some of her remarks about culture and civilization, which reads much more like what I would expect a world-class anthropologist to say on the subject.

What annoyed me at first glance in Byock's and Brand's parables was their misuse of the word "civilization," a misuse typical among non-anthropologists.  Generally when a non-specialist talks about "civilized" behavior, or "true" civilization, they mean that the society in question exhibits values and conduct they approve of.  You can see this when someone uses "normal" as a normative term: they might be referring to a trait or conduct that's found in a minority of people, or even quite rare.  That doesn't matter to them: it's how people should be.

Similarly, "civilization" and "civilized" are not normative terms.  They refer to certain structures of human society.  As Mead described it:

When we start to distinguish between cultures and civilization we come up against a quite different problem. Over the last ten thousand years and possibly longer—we don’t know yet—there have periodically appeared in different parts of the world dense populations, a tremendous  increase in the number of people and a corresponding increase in the ability to grow food and to store it. Under the impetus of people living with far greater density, we have developed—this has been developed several different times in different  parts of the world—our capacity  to  manage such large groups of people.  This means keeping accounts, keeping records. It means some kind of taxation and revenue. It means a great deal of division of labor so that large groups of people can divide among themselves all the skills and tasks and knowledge that are necessary to manage a large civilization—like  ancient China, like the civilization of the Incas in South America, or the civilization of the Maya and Aztecs in Mexico, like ancient Greece or Rome, and like our own complex civilization today.
I've read a fair amount of anthropology over the decades, and this fits with everything I've read about what civilization is.  You might think (and many people do) that large, complex, densely populated societies with a specialized division of labor are a bad thing; you might prefer to live in a "primitive" kinship-organized society (as long as you can have your iPhone and a good 5G signal).  But that means you don't think civilization is a good thing.  It's okay, I'm tolerant.

So to repeat, I don't believe Byock and Brand accurately present what Margaret Mead said about civilization.  I certainly agree that caring for other people is an essential element of a good society, but it doesn't matter whether it's called "civilized" or not.  Telling the truth does, and that brings me back to why I refer to this legend as a sermon illustration.  When someone is caught spreading misinformation online, the most common defensive move is to say something like, "Who cares who said it?  It's true, and I like it."  Just as a matter of truth-telling, which is also a universal human value no matter how often it's violated, we should all care that we are accurate about who said something, and whether they said it.  But in this case as in so many, it also matters that the story being spread is not true.  It misrepresents animals and human beings alike.