A New Control of Destiny

Margaret Mead - New York, New York
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, July 17, 2009
Margaret Mead
Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Margaret Mead says she can’t separate what she believes as a person from what she believes as an anthropologist. And she believes humans beings, as part of a greater biological whole, have a responsibility to everyone else on the planet.

Children used to play a game of pointing at someone, suddenly saying, “What are you?” Some people answered by saying, “I am a human being,” or by nationality, or by religion. When this question was put to me by a new generation of children, I answered, “an anthropologist.” Anthropology is the study of whole ways of life, to which one must be completely committed, all the time. So that when I speak of what I believe as a person, I cannot separate this from what I believe as an anthropologist.

I believe that to understand human beings it is necessary to think of them as part of the whole living world. Our essential humanity depends not only on the complex biological structure which has been developed through the ages from very simple beginnings, but also upon the great social inventions which have been made by human beings, perpetuated by human beings, and in turn give human beings their stature as builders, thinkers, statesmen, artists, seers, and prophets.

I believe that each of these great inventions—language, the family, the use of tools, government, science, art, and philosophy—has the quality of so combining the potentialities of every human temperament, that each can be learned and perpetuated by any group of human beings, regardless of race, and regardless of the type of civilization within which their progenitors lived; so that a newborn infant from the most primitive tribe in New Guinea is as intrinsically capable of graduation from Harvard, or writing a sonnet, or inventing a new form of radar as an infant born on Beacon Hill.

But I believe, also, that once a child has been reared in New Guinea or Boston or Leningrad or Tibet, he embodies the culture within which he is reared, and differs from those who are reared elsewhere so deeply, that only by understanding these differences can we reach an awareness which will give us a new control over our human destiny.

I believe that human nature is neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically evil, but individuals are born with different combinations of innate potentialities, and that it will depend upon how they are reared—to trust and love and experiment and create, or to fear and hate and conform—what kind of human beings they can become. I believe that we have not even begun to tap human potentialities, and that by continuing humble but persistent study of human behavior, we can learn consciously to create civilizations within which an increasing proportion of human beings will realize more of what they have it in them to be.

I believe that human life is given meaning through the relationship which the individual’s conscious goals have to the civilization, period, and country within which one lives. At times, the task may be to fence a wilderness, to bridge a river, or rear sons to perpetuate a young colony. Today, it means taking upon ourselves the task of creating one world in such a way that we both keep the future safe and leave the future free.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead spent many years in Polynesia studying native cultures there. She also worked as an associate curator at the American Museum of Natural History, professor at Columbia University, and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.