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In which John discusses broken femurs, Margaret Mead, civilization, and the human capacity for sacrifice. SOURCES:

This whole video is a revision of the anthropocene reviewed episode on civilization: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/anthropocene-reviewed/episodes/anthropocene-reviewed-mortification-civilization

This post from the bioarchaeologist Stacy Hackner helped me think differently about the Margaret Mead (non-)quote and the incidence of healed femurs in humans and non-human animals. https://stacyhackner.wordpress.com/2020/04/21/that-margaret-mead-quote/#:~:text=Years%20ago%2C%20anthropologist%20Margaret%20Mead,of%20civilization%20in%20a%20culture.&text=Mead%20said%20that%20the%20first,been%20broken%20and%20then%20healed.

This Stack Exchange thread tracked down the seemingly original (and almost certainly invented) source of the Margaret Mead quote: https://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/47543/did-margaret-mead-say-that-a-healed-femur-is-the-earliest-sign-of-civilization

Actual Margaret Mead on civilization and much else can be read here: https://berghahnbooks.com/downloads/chapters/MeadStudying_Ch02.pdf



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Good morning Hank, it’s Tuesday.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lie that has proven very durable on the internet, and yes I know the internet is made out of lies. But I find this one particularly interesting.

By the way, head over to Pizzamas.com before all this Pizzamas stuff disappears forever. Okay, so I wrote about this lie for my podcast The Anthropocene Reviewed, but the lie turns out to be even more interesting and false than I originally understood it to be. The lie goes like this: “Years ago the anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she thought was 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.

Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. 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 to the person through recovery. Helping someone through difficulty is where civilization starts.” In the last 6 months, this has become probably the most famous Margaret Mead quote, despite the fact that there’s no evidence she ever actually said it.

It has been shared millions of times including in one recent case by a user who wrote, “I fact checked it and it’s legit.” But just to actually fact check, putting aside the made-up-ness of the entire story, as the bio archaeologist Stacy Hackner has pointed out “it’s just not true that animals never survive broken femurs long enough to heal.” In fact one review of such fractures in primates  found “the healed fracture  rate is higher expected.” Also it’s just not true that healed femoral fractures are a marker of civilization. Definitions of civilizations  are inherently fraught  but they tend to focus on things like systems of writing and concentrations of state power. When Margaret Mead actually sought to define civilization, she said “it means keeping counts, keeping records, it means some kind of taxation and revenue.

It means a great deal of division of labor.” What civilization does not mean is healed femoral fractures. We know this because there are many, many examples of healed femoral fractures among humans who lived in non-civilizational societies. Also, surviving a femoral fracture was not particularly common in civilizations.

Like as recently as the start of World War I, most people who suffered femoral fractures died. And whether you survived was largely down to whether you happened to live near a good bone center, a role that has been around for many thousands of years in lots of different human communities both with and without systems of writing and taxation. So it’s a lie.

The whole thing is a lie. But I think maybe the reason the lie is so seductive is that at its core there is something true. Many of us have been taught that only the strong survive, that life on Earth is about the powerful doing what they want, and the weak suffering as  they must, as the Atheneans  put it a millennia ago.

But in fact, the human project as a whole becomes much stronger when we do a better job of protecting the vulnerable and affording all people the same rights. Like we didn’t get good at healing femoral fractures by believing that the strong do what they want and the weak suffer what they must. We got good at healing femoral fractures because humans have a capacity to understand that serious illness or injury does not negate the value of a human life.

Civilization gave us a system of writing that allows us to compare best practices for bone setting across wide expanses  of time and space. And  civilization gave us the kind of complex tools that allow  us to heal bones better.  But civilization did not give us compassion or empathy or self sacrifice, all of which are values  that predate human  civilization, and in fact values that are no limited to humans. Maybe we need to believe this lie that civilization is where human compassion and healing begin.

But I think the truth is actually more beautiful and ultimately more encouraging. All kinds of people in all kinds of times have found ways to help and value one and other. Hank I’ll see you tomorrow.