The Cosmopolitan Predicament   /   Fall 2009   /    Essays

Cosmopolitanism and Ritual Movement

William H. McNeill

Human beings are social creatures. Infants survive only by interacting with oth- ers through gesture and then through speech, and thereby establish agreed upon meanings and learn to behave accordingly. Initially, communication with the mother is all-important, but other family members soon chime in, swiftly followed by friends, neighbors, rivals, and then enemies—all of whom join together to teach a growing child how to behave in different situations and with different persons, and thus discover how to lead a good and satisfying life.

To be sure, successful nurture is a delicate process and can go wrong. Neglect or violence may turn individuals into angry outcastes or criminals. But in most families and most societies such failure was, and still is, exceptional. The fact that humans have survived and multiplied across some two million years is sufficient proof of that, for it was cooperation among larger numbers that made our success possible.

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