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New Lives for Old: Cultural Transformation--Manus, 1928-1953

New Lives for Old: Cultural Transformation--Manus, 1928-1953

by Margaret Mead, Stewart Brand (Introduction)

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When Margaret Mead first studied the Manus Islanders of New Guinea in 1928, they were living with a Stone Age technology. Economically vulnerable and burdened by a complex moral code, the Manus seemed ill-equipped to handle the massive impact that World War II had on their secluded world. But a unique set of circumstances allowed the Manus to adapt swiftly to the


When Margaret Mead first studied the Manus Islanders of New Guinea in 1928, they were living with a Stone Age technology. Economically vulnerable and burdened by a complex moral code, the Manus seemed ill-equipped to handle the massive impact that World War II had on their secluded world. But a unique set of circumstances allowed the Manus to adapt swiftly to the twentieth century, and their experience led Mead to develop a revolutionary theory of cultural transformation, one that favors rapid, over piecemeal, change. As relevanttoday as it was a half-century ago, New Lives for Old is an optimistic examination of one society that chose to change, offering hope and a valuablemodel for today's developing societies.

This edition, prepared for the centennial of Mead's birth, features introductions by Stewart Brand and Mead's daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson.

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HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
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Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.36(d)

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Chapter One


In each age there is a series of pressing questions which must be asked and answered. On the correctness of the questions depends the survival of those who ask; on the quality of the answers depends the quality of the life those survivors will lead. But first of all it is necessary to identify carefully what questions must be asked. What are some of the crucial questions today? Are they: How soon will the population of the earth outrun the food supply? How soon will all human beings break down under the strain of modern life? How complete will the destruction of civilization be in World War III? But such questions presuppose doom. In the very asking they plunge us into an abyss of hopelessness, or apathy, or the quick snatching violence of despair.

Yet the blandly certain questions provide as little solace: How soon will it take for men to come to their senses, realize that the old ways were best, return to nature and to God, learn to borrow rakes and hoes over the backyard fence, learn to spell as our forebears did, and learn to live a proper life by always deferring consuming until tomorrow anything that we can possibly save today? One has only to listen to this diluted utopia, which is all that it is possible to build out of the ghost of former ways of life, to know that it is a ghost as fleshless and inadequate as the way of life was once full-bodied. Those who rear their children on the nostalgic memories of long-dead lilacs in the dooryard give their children's imagination thinner fare than tiny plastic jet-plane toys which crunch on thenew scratch-proof floors with a sound out of which no one has yet written any music.

We are squarely up against the dilemma of whether out of fear and desperation we will seek to prop up a crumbling old pattern or too hastily run up a new one, intent only that the new shall be a bulwark against the destruction of the old -- new scaffolding against an old, too-weathered wall -- or whether we can believe that we can build a new world suited to men's needs, twentieth-century housing for twentieth-century people. But if we choose the new buildings and yet realize that no blueprint of an unknown is ever satisfactory -- that there are always a thousand small adjustments to make until doors and windows and passages from room to room become harmonious and livable -- what estimate can we make about how long it will take and what the price will be?

What will have to happen before we have constructed a world which takes into account that instead of near-starvation we can hope for food for all, that instead of the picture, grown unbearable as it has become real to us, of nine-tenths of the world living in poverty and near despair, there is now a possibility for all people to have food and health for their children? What will have to happen before those who teach learn a new tone of voice so that those who are taught can hear what they say? Or before men learn that machines can be as homely, as fit for human uses, as tables and chairs, loaves of bread, and bottles of wine -- all as artificial, as man-made, as a calculator or a carburettor -- on the basis of which we now hymn the simple life or even see visions of the essential itness of a chair, as if a chair were of the same order as a wild rose rather than a roadster? How can we circumvent the depressing and damaging effects of both those who so lament the old that the new cannot be welcomed and those who so hail the new-claiming that the revolver has forever replaced the rose -- that men deprived of traditional imagery have no free imagination left to work with loving hands upon the necessary present?

For what we need today is imagination, imagination free from sickly nostalgia, free from a terror of machines bred of mediaeval fantasies or from the blind and weather-bound dependence of the peasant or the fisherman. And yet that imagination must not be empty, for an empty imagination and a free imagination are not the same thing. From a room out of which all the devils have been swept come only meditations about other devils or counter-devils. Then the mind is free only to take horns on or off the frightening face of the future. To be really free one must have good fare to eat, adequate for flesh and bone, one must have tools that one can trust, a horse or a ship or a car or a plane with which to travel swift and far as need be; one must have companions for the task in hand, elders whom one can trust and youngsters for whom the effort is worth the making.

There are a host of voices raised today to say that one or another or all of these conditions cannot be met, that there are no good fare, no tools that can be trusted, no steed to be safely mounted, no companions for the task, that we are hopelessly alienated from the old and only fearful of the fate of the young, and so without faith.

This book is set firmly against such pessimism. It is based on the belief that American civilization is not simply the last flower to bloom on the outmoded tree of European history, doomed to perish in a common totalitarian holocaust, but something new and different. American civilization is new because it has come to rest on a philosophy of production and plenty instead of saving and scarcity, and new because the men who built it have themselves incorporated the ability to change and change swiftly as need arises. This book is based on the belief that...

New Lives for Old. Copyright © by Margaret Mead. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Margaret Mead (1901-1978) began her remarkable career when she visited Samoa at the age of twenty-three, which led to her first book, Coming of Age in Samoa. She went on to become one of the most influential women of our time, publishing some forty works and serving as Curator of Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History as well as president of major scientific associations. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom following her death in 1978.

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