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John Green reviews mortification and civilization.

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Hello and welcome to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. I’m John Green, and today I’ll be reviewing mortification and civilization. Two -ations for you today--one of which I know quite well, the other maybe less so.

Let’s begin with mortification, a wonderful English word that originally meant “to cause death”--like, in those days, being mortified by shame meant literally dying from it. Mortification was then adopted into a religious context to refer to rituals meant to subdue the body and its desires; to cause the death of the flesh so that the spirit might strengthen. These days, mortification mostly means to experience extreme embarrassment. And I think it speaks to how utterly social and community-focused humans are that, even in the age of self-isolation, we view embarrassment--especially public embarrassment--as a low-level form of death.


Another sign of mortification’s importance: I don’t remember what I ate for dinner last Tuesday, and I regularly forget where I left my phone. But I can recall my every mortification as if it occurred moments ago. I know this because each evening when I finish reading for the night, I’ll turn off my bedside lamp, roll over onto my side, close my eyes, and my brain will say. “Oh, good evening. Should we play the blooper reel?”

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And I’ll say, “Ah, you know, I’d really rather not,” and my brain will say, “Excellent. Let’s begin in a high school auditorium outside of San Francisco.”

The year is 2008, and I’m wearing--I can recall precisely what I was wearing--a pair of blue jeans, a green pin striped button-down that I can only describe as “vomit shaded,” and a brown suit jacket. And I’m standing before a crowd of several hundred high school students. In those days, the YouTube videos I made with my brother had a small but enthusiastic audience, and so when I would speak to an auditorium of high school students, there would generally be one or two kids who were really excited--like, wear homemade t-shirts dense with references to my novels excited--and then like 698 kids who just wanted to get out of English class for an afternoon.

And so usually, I would struggle to hold the attention of these audiences, but on this occasion, I was on fire. As I went through my forty-five minute talk, there was laughter the whole way through, even when I wasn’t trying that hard to be funny, and everyone was looking right at me, appearing genuinely enthralled. And then I reached the end of the talk and there was a big round of applause and when I asked if there were any questions, several dozen people raised their hands simultaneously, which was very unusual, and so I pointed to one student, and they said, “Yeah uh Mr. Green, are you aware that your fly is open?”

I looked down, and my zipper wasn’t just unzipped. My fly was open, as this student had aptly pointed out. And then I said, “No, I wasn’t aware.” And I turned around, zipped up my fly, and turned back around and said, “Are there other questions?” And thereafter followed the longest and most absolute silence I have ever encountered.

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And so my brain will circumambulate that particular memory before moving through a catalog of the greatest hits. The time I told a famous YouTuber I liked his new show, and he said, “Do you mind if I ask what you like about it?” and I stumbled through a muttered incoherence because I hadn’t actually seen his new show. The time I referred to a “hectare,” a unit of land area, as a “hectacre” twelve times in a single vlogbrothers video. The time in high school I wanted to sound smart so said that Goethe’s Faust had heavily influenced Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, even though Dr. Faustus was written 200 years before Faust. 

And then there’s the day after my first novel Looking for Alaska was published in 2005. I had a book signing at Anderson’s Bookstore in the Chicago suburbs, and Sarah and I drove out to the store that evening to discover that two people--one of whom was my boss but kindly pretended to be a stranger--were in attendance. I decided to go ahead with my presentation anyway, and I read a passage from early in the book, when the narrator has a disappointing going-away party. The passage in question ends with the following sentence:

“The only thing worse than having a party no one attends is having a party attended only by two vastly, deeply uninteresting people.” And then I looked up, and realized that I’d managed to offend the only two people who came to my book launch. Here is the extent to which mortifications penetrate my brain like nothing else: That novel was published over fifteen years ago. I can’t quote a single line of it to you--except that line. 

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There are more, of course--the time I found myself in an NBA locker room and made a sandwich from the table of food along one wall, only to be informed in no uncertain terms that the food was for the players and also who precisely was I? Then there was the time I was in a meeting with advertising company CEOs and one of them told me, “I’m really tired of being talked down to by idiots like you.”  The time I met Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and couldn’t think of what to say to him and so muttered, “You’re just awesome.” The list goes on and on and on and on. In fact, I can report from experience that a full accounting of my mortifications requires an entire evening to get through, and then finally my brain will free me from the litany around 6:15 in the morning, just in time for the alarm to go off.

So what is it about embarrassment and shame that sears into us in ways that joy and even criticism don’t? We’re starting to learn more about this from neuroscience--we now know for instance that the neurotransmitter norepinephrine is released into the brain during highly embarrassing moments--as it is during traumatic or tragic situations--and it seems that chemical is important for creating and retrieving long-term, highly detailed memories--which is one of the reasons that traumatic memories can be so acutely detailed and sensory.

Also, I guess there are reasons to hold on to embarrassing memories--like, recalling the moment I mistook hectacre for hectare encourages me to fact check my work more carefully and consistently. And I suppose remembering the dressing down I received from that advertising company CEO taught me that I can probably live out the rest of my days quite happily without ever again being in a room full of advertising company CEOs.

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But there’s something else going on as well, at least with my mortifications, which is that they often involve being in public, and either being in my role as a public person, or else being near people I admire or feel some kind of awe toward--NBA players, business executives, The Rock. Perhaps that’s because first impressions do matter, especially  when they are likely to also be final impressions, as when I met Dwayne Johnson--and so if you make a bad impression, it feels especially embarrassing. But I can’t claim to fully understand mortification, or why it plays such a huge role in my life. I do know, however, that I’ve been on both sides of that experience: While I am (quite obviously) not The Rock, I do still sometimes hear from people who met me at a book signing or out in public somewhere that they feel mortified by something they said or didn’t say. And if anyone out there has such a feeling, I’d like to offer a blanket absolution--whatever you said, don’t feel embarrassed about it. It’s okay. We’re all just doing our best, trying to make our way through this vale of mortifications. And actually, maybe I tell these stories to you as a way of trying to transform the memories, trying to render them funny and ultimately toothless rather than the case of actual sleepless nights, because I do often find that when I tell people about my mortifications, they usually respond very generously: That’s not so bad, they’ll say. You shouldn’t feel too bad about that one.

And then I tell the story about two vastly, deeply uninteresting people and whoever’s listening to my story will pause for a bit before saying, “Okay, yeah. That one … not great.”

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I give mortification one and a half stars.

After the break, we’ll turn our attention to broken femurs and civilization. But first…


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Alright, back to the show.

So there’s this story about Margaret Mead that’s been making the rounds online recently. One telling of it has almost 9,000 retweets on twitter; another has thousands of upvotes on a subreddit for medical students. The version I’ve been seeing is from a 2012 book on palliative medicine, and it goes like this:

“Years ago, the 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. But no. Mead said the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur that had been broken and then healed. A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery.

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Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts.” 

This was really interesting to me--I am fascinated by the questions of what humans owe each other, and how we assign value to our lives and to those of others, and I’m also a big fan of our capacity to imagine human life as sacred. But I’ve read a lot of Margaret Mead’s writing, and that just didn’t sound like her. Like, here’s Margaret Mead defining civilization in 1968: “It means a great deal of division of labor so that large groups of people can divide among themselves the skills and tasks and knowledge that is necessary.” Nary a broken femur to be found. 

But once you start digging, versions of this story show up in many different places--in sermons, and in self-help books and newspaper stories. I didn’t yet know whether Margaret Mead had really said this, but it was clear to me that a lot of people wanted her to have said it.

All of this got me to wondering 1. Whether the story was true and 2. Whether healed femurs really are a sign of civilization, and 3. What our definitions of civilization say about us, and also 4. Which bone exactly is the femur? 

I mean, I knew it was in the leg, but I found myself singing that old children’s song about how the ankle bone’s connected to the shin bone, and I wasn’t totally sure if the femur was the shin bone or the thigh bone. It turns out it’s the thigh bone, but while finding that out, I learned that the melody of that song, “Dem Bones,” was co-written by the famed civil rights advocate and Harlem Renaissance writer James Weldon Johnson.

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Together with his brother Rosamond, Johnson also co-wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” an anthem of Black Americans’ quest for civil rights. James Weldon Johnson was also a poet, and many years ago, I read a poem of his that has stayed with me. It’s called “O Black and Unknown Bards,” and it’s an ode to the anonymous enslaved people who wrote classic spirituals like Roll Jordan Roll and Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Part of that poem begins with a possible reference to Mozart:

Not that great German master in his dream

Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars

At the creation, ever heard a theme

Nobler than “Go Down, Moses.” Mark its bars

How like a mighty trumpet-call they stir

The blood. Such are the notes that men have sung

Going to valorous deeds; such tones these were

That helped make history when Time was young.

I love the idea that some melodies give us the courage to hold onto our beliefs in the face of danger, that some songs can fill us with what we need to help make better history. Of course, I still didn’t know if Margaret Mead had said that thing about broken femurs, but now I was thinking about how the word “civilization” has often been wielded as a weapon--to say that German composers are civilized in a way that the Black and unknown bards behind “Go Down, Moses” are not. 

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It’s no coincidence that the word civilization--which is often defined as a complex social order that includes cities and some system of writing--did not exist in its current form until the late 18th century, when European colonialism was on the rise and the Atlantic slave trade reached its peak. 

And ideas about who is civilized and who isn’t were constantly used to justify slavery and colonialism, often by describing people who did not live in large states as “savages” and their communities as “savage societies.”

Just a hundred years ago, a prominent Italian jurist wrote, “As a matter of principle, colonization and colonial expansion cannot be questioned. … It is not permissible that savages who are unable to derive any profit from natural products should be allowed to leave sources of wealth unproductive, leaving the ground uncultivated.” And so it wasn’t just the job of the civilized to colonize; it was also seen as the job of the civilized to extract whatever wealth from colonies could be extracted.

Alongside these constructions, so-called scientific racism emerged to further justify ideas that the purportedly civilized should control power and wealth; the hugely influential taxonomist Carl Linneaus published analyses of the so-called “varieties” of humans. The Europaeneus version he described as “gentle, acute, inventive, and governed by laws;” the Africanus version, on the other hand, he called, “Lazy, cunning, lustful, careless, and governed by caprice.” 

All these ideas of multiple human species or types were absolute hogswallop, of course, but, as Frederick Douglass observed long ago, “When men oppress their fellow-men, the oppressor ever finds, in the character of the oppressed, a full justification for his oppression.”

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And so these pseudoscientific categories were widely accepted. As Harriet Washington wrote in her book Medical Apartheid, “In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scientific racism was simply science, and it was promulgated by the very best minds at the most prestigious institutions.” 

I was still trying to get to the bottom of that Margaret Mead quote, and so I started reading about broken femurs, and I learned that for almost all of human history, they were usually fatal. At the outbreak of World War I, between sixty and eighty percent of broken femurs resulted in death, often because the break can create what are essentially two daggers in close proximity to the femoral artery. Even today, a fractured femur is very serious, although survival rates have dramatically improved in the last century. And this points to the very real and profound benefits of large social orders with high levels of specialization: They’ve allowed humans to build better systems, from healthcare systems to transportation systems to education systems. This is the primary reason why on average human life is longer and healthier than it was a hundred, or five hundred, or two thousand years ago. But I think it’s overly simplistic to claim that progress is inherent to civilization--I mean, the so-called “civilizing” of colonies was catastrophic for human health and well-being. In 1950, after a hundred and fifty years of British colonial rule in Sierra Leone, life expectancy at birth was around 27 years--quite possibly lower than it had been in 1750, or for that matter five thousand years ago.

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At any rate, I couldn’t find any references in Mead’s work to broken femurs, so I was about to give up on the whole endeavor when a listener to this podcast named Zach sent me a message about, of all things, a healed femoral fracture.

Zach thought I might be interested to learn about a burial site in present-day Central Florida, just about fifty miles east from where I grew up in Orlando. The site had been used as a cemetery for a community of people who lived around 8,000 years ago, and among the people buried there was an older woman who’d suffered a femur fracture that had healed. Because of the unusual way the bone healed, this woman probably could not walk, As the archaeologist Jessica Gantzert put it, “The people that lived at Windover were migratory people, so they would come to Florida in the winter and return north in the summer every year. Not only did someone get all the food and water for this insignificant member of society, but they had to carry her thousands of miles on their back every year. She wasn’t buried with anything that would indicate she was a high-ranking member of society or had a personal following, she was just loved by those around her.” And there is other strong archaeological evidence that this community sought to protect its injured or disabled members regardless of status. To cite just one example, a young man born with the genetic disorder spina bifida survived into early adulthood despite almost certainly being unable to walk. 

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While I was reading about this community, a user named Avery on a Stack Exchange thread tracked down the apparent source of that Margaret Mead story. It seems to have its roots in a 1980 memoir called Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, about the life of physician and Christian missionary Paul Brand.

That original passage reads, “I was soon to be reminded of a lecture given by anthropologist Margaret Mead, who spent much of her life studying primitive cultures. She asked the question, ‘What is the earliest sign of civilization?’ A clay pot? Iron? Tools? Agriculture? No, she claimed. 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… Savage societies could afford no such pity.”

Reading this version of the story, complete with the loaded term “savage,” reminds us of the ways language can still marginalize and dehumanize. And then of course there’s the tried and true strategy of attributing maybe false anecdotes to prominent people to lend those anecdotes some legitimacy. I haven’t found any evidence that Margaret Mead ever actually said any of this, or that she traveled around with a healed femur bone, although it’s possible. 

But we do know that the underlying arguments presented here are deeply flawed. For starters, we can also find much evidence of violence in so-called civilized societies.

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But furthermore, we know it is incorrect to say that “savage societies could afford no such pity.” We know that empathy and sacrifice were qualities known to humans who lived without large states or written language. We know this, in fact, partly from healed femurs.  

The truth is, each human life is sacred. Each human life is equally valuable. And the archaeological evidence that 8,000-year-old communities may have understood those truths, and built their social orders around them, makes it all the more damning that we still do not reflect those truths in our social and political power structures, and so, for now anyway, I can only give civilization two and a half stars.

Thanks for listening to the Anthropocene Reviewed, which was written by me, edited by Joe Plourde, who is also our technical director, and produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas and Jenny Lawton. Hannis Brown makes the music. If you’d like to suggest a topic for review, or just say hi, you can email us at anthropocenereviewed at gmail dot com. Thanks again for being here with us.