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SUNY Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Mark Cohen often tells his students a story about how, as a graduate student working on archeological sites for Louis and Mary Leakey, he met up with Jane Goodall and her husband at the time, Hugo van Lawick.
Goodall and van Lawick taught Cohen some tough lessons about how to live in the wild. Their teachings saved him from an all-too-close encounter with a pride of lions 24 hours later.
The event has informed Cohen's teaching, causing him to make a concerted effort to prepare his own students better before sending them into the field.
According to Cohen, the story rivets his students. It humanizes him in their eyes as someone capable of making rather bad errors of judgment. And they are enthralled by the real life experiences and by Cohen's brush with great names.
Little do many of these students realize, however, that Cohen's name has its own place in history.
For most of written history, people have taken for granted that the transition from food-gathering to food-cultivating and from "primitive" to "civilized" were purely positive things. They were seen as involving clever inventions and giant steps forward for humankind. As Cohen puts it, "An older theory had it that people just invented new things and life got better and better."
Controversial at the time, Cohen's work introduced the idea that this view was incorrect and that, in Cohen's words, "civilization is clearly not good for people."
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