Continuities in Cultural Evolution
by Margaret Mead
Yale, 471 pp., $8.50
The Future of Man
by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Harper & Row, 319 pp., $5.00
It is evident that we are living in a cultural reformation: a harsh and perhaps disruptive movement in which we are all engaged. The fabric of western culture, its tangled skein of social habits, artifacts, and values, is being pulled apart and made over—by us. We have set going the headlong changes in conduct and belief which now fill us with questions. Is there a single direction in these changes? Is there, in particular, an imaginative direction in the arts and sciences which points the way for a future culture? How shall we educate fresh generations, either to follow the changes or to lead them? What is the future of man? And is there any point in our wanting that future to conform to our own conception of man?
In a time of such grand uncertainties, which we all prompted and all share, we are naturally drawn to the social sciences; and they are naturally more voluble than ever. I have picked two books from the many published in 1964, for several reasons. My overriding reason, of course, is that Margaret Mead is, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was, outstanding in intellectual depth and in scientific vision. And they mark the two ends of the spectrum of speculation: Margaret Mead is searching for the smallest step of social change, and Teilhard de Chardin by contrast looked only for its cosmic direction. They are equally at extremes in the relative importance that they give to the individual man and to his society; it is ironic that Margaret Mead, the social anthropologist, stresses the part played by the individual, and that Teilhard de Chardin, the shepherd of souls, pictured a society without men. And I must not hide my last reason: both writers understand what makes a theory scientific, the demands for order and coherence that it must meet, and they hold to this scrupulous standard.
The scientific concept which they both share is that of evolution. Margaret Mead’s Continuities in Cultural Evolution in particular tackles the heroic task of giving an exact and rational meaning to this, the oldest and, alas, the vaguest concept in social science. For the strange thing is that the ideas of evolution, in the modern sense, began in the eighteenth century in studies not of biology, but of human society. Charles Darwin was led to the critical step in the theory of evolution by something that he found in a work on social science. He had returned from his five-year voyage in the Beagle, and was patiently putting his notes and his thoughts in order, when, in October 1838,
I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new …