High Strangeness: Arthritic Neanderthal! Part II

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Arthritic Neanderthal! Part II

I have now written a few posts about "Archeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication," the free NASA eBook about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), and I am pleased to say that I have finally read the "epilogue," and it was worth the wait...

"Mirrors of Our Assumptions -- Lessons from an Arthritic Neanderthal" is a fitting wrap-up to this book, as it illustrates how badly the most well-meaning, scientifically-sound attempt to interpret and understand incomplete information from outside our frame of reference can go. Here's how author Douglas A. Vakoch sets up the problem:

"By the nature of the instrumentation we use to process signals during SETI, we may well be able to detect distinctly artificial signals without being able to extract any information-rich messages within those signals. We could know that extraterrestrials are out there but have no direct way of knowing much about them.

"In a sense, we are faced with challenges akin to those of anthropologists who reconstruct extinct species from fragmentary evidence."

Here's where our arthritic caveman friend enters the story (and as Arthritic Neanderthal is actually reading and commenting on this blog, I hope he'll chime in with his or her thoughts on Vakoch's comments...).
What science gets wrong, Hollywood gets right...

When the remains of Homo neanderthalensis were first discovered in Germany in 1856, the immediate conclusion of the anthropology community was that the hunched-over creature was "uncouth and repellant," "peculiarly ungraceful," and "a thoroughly unattractive fellow." Soon our old friend Neanderthal Man was being portrayed in illustrations in both scientific journals and the popular press as a brutish, stooped, knuckle-dragger, and that pretty much cemented his place in human history: an evolutionary mistake that conveniently died out and made way for our own majestically upright and relatively clean-shaven species.

One problem: the skeleton that was used to create the popular image of Neanderthal Man was from an individual, Vakoch writes, "who just happened to suffer from arthritis." This mistake was actually discovered in 1957 and yet, over 50 years later, most of us have never gotten the memo... The authors who uncovered the lapse went on to state that "...if (Neanderthal man) could be reincarnated and placed in a New York subway -- provided that he were bathed, shaved, and dressed in modern clothing -- it is doubtful whether he would attract any more attention than some of its other denizens"

I'm not sure if that tells us more about Neanderthal Man or the New York City subway system, but it all comes down to the same thing: we need to be careful about making assumptions about extraterrestrials based on incomplete data.

Think of it this way: if a superior alien from an advanced civilization landed on earth and I was the first human it encountered, it would undoubtedly deduce that humans are just like them, but the minute it encountered the rest of you, it would be faced with the crushingly disappointing reality of the situation. It would then just go on back to its home planet and that would be the short history of man's contact with extraterrestrial life...

Conversely, Vakoch points out that if we encounter an alien civilization, "...we should anticipate that this particular observation -- this particular civilization -- is influenced by a panoply of biological, cultural, and historical factors that we will be able to sort out only after many years, if ever."

Vakoch concludes by saying that we must guard against "...imposing our presuppositions on extraterrestrial civilizations," and therefore "making our images of extraterrestrials not so much reflections of their true nature but rather mirrors of our assumptions." 

What does that say, I wonder, about the popular conceptions of aliens as "greys," "reptoids" and "mantises?" I'll have to think on that a while...

1 comment:

Arthritic Neanderthal said...

As the saying goes, the correction never gets as much attention as the lurid headline. For some reason. I just have to wonder what the Enlightenment would have assumed about us if they had encountered examples of our art, or our poetry instead of the bones of poor old Uncle Ernst. He had an awful time for the last half of his life, but he was a good provider and boy did he know how to roast a hyena.

Now I'm really happy I did not have to read the whole article, for there were plenty of slurs and distortions in the passages you felt the need to quote. That is not to say I think it was wrong to quote them, or that I would have done things differently, but one does get tired of being called a cave man. Sure, it might be technically accurate, but the term has accumulated a lot of baggage that does no one any good. As for the New York subway: no thanks. I'll walk.

Among the many ironies in this situation is the fact that arthritis often is hereditary. Those genes came from somewhere...