Sander van der Leeuw: The Archaeology of Innovation

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A couple of years ago I came across the Long Now Foundation on the web. I was plan­ning to blog on it, par­tic­u­larly some of the bets, but haven’t so far. If there’s one sub­ject which shouldn’t be affected by a delay of a few years it’s the Long Now Foundation. I remembered, because I found this on Fora​.tv. Fora​.tv is a bit like TED, but longer.


Prof Sander van der Leeuw at the Long Now Foundation

Chapter 6 has a eas­ily over­looked prob­lem. Why did things stay so sim­ilar dur­ing the Pleistocene? Change in the cli­mate, and pre­sum­ably the local envir­on­ments, didn’t spur any sig­ni­fic­ant change in tools. van der Leeuw pulls that prob­lem apart by look­ing at the devel­op­ment of short term work­ing memory and shows there’s actu­ally a lot of really com­plex cog­nit­ive pro­cesses to look at if you want to under­stand the man­u­fac­ture of Palaeolithic hand-axes.

Chapter 12 and 13 are also thought-provoking. I like the explan­a­tion that to be social you need someone to be social with. van der Leeuw’s ana­lysis shows that you can’t have a lone city. A city requires a com­munity of cit­ies. I’m more wary of col­lapse mod­els of soci­et­ies. It’s def­in­itely not a brain-dead model that van der Leeuw uses, but it is very com­pressed. If you chart the decline from the Roman Empire from its peak around AD 200-ish to AD 500-ish that’s three cen­tur­ies. On a human scale that’s the time from now back to your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, assum­ing a grand­father is around 50 years into your past. With the dis­tance of time I can see there is a decline but it’s less a col­lapse and more a gentle saunter down to the tri­umph of the bar­bar­i­ans. We could have soci­etal col­lapses because we have the his­tor­ical aware­ness and a social nar­rat­ive that ancient peoples lacked.

Ironically as I was typ­ing up that cri­ti­cism, van der Leeuw was mak­ing a sim­ilar point in his con­clu­sion. The concept of deep time provides us with a way of think­ing and ana­lys­ing the past in a way that the Romans couldn’t. It’s a good talk and brings together a col­lec­tion of dif­fer­ent prob­lems and research top­ics into the same story. It’s a long video but worth the time.

You can watch the whole video at Fora​.tv, or down­load the talk as an MP3 from the Long Now Foundation.

Strange sights in Stephenville

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Paved Bricks of Stephenville
I don’t know what this thing in Stephenville, TX, is. Ergo it’s a Mystery. Photo (cc) Broken Piggy Bank.

If you haven’t been fol­low­ing the press reports, there’s been a UFO flap in Stephenville. The best write-up of it I’ve seen is by Astroprof, who’s put up a couple of entries on it. He’s of the opin­ion that first it’s uniden­ti­fied. He also argues that the wit­ness state­ments don’t add up. For instance can any­one see the prob­lem of a UFO one mile long, half a mile wide, fly­ing just a few hun­dred yards above a town of 17,000 people and only 30 people noti­cing? I think there’s a few dif­fi­culties in say­ing that people saw a UFO like that. At the same time that doesn’t mean that the people who did see some­thing were delu­sional or lying.

Newsweek opens its art­icle on the flap by pla­cing the event in the con­text of evol­u­tion­ary his­tory. Humans are social anim­als and for most of the past we’ve also been hunted anim­als. We’ve needed to learn to spot intent. The psy­cho­logy behind that doesn’t have to be per­fect. There’s a com­prom­ise between speed and qual­ity of judge­ment. Spotting intent where there isn’t may have a pen­alty, but fail­ing to spot intent where it is could be fatal. There can also be pen­al­ties if you take time for reflec­tion. Our brains may still hold the soft­ware that knows hanging around to watch a sabre-tooth tiger does before it attacks is a Bad Idea. That would be triggered again if you think you’re being observed by intel­li­gent and power­ful beings of unknown intent. The people who have seen UFOs, of vari­ous types, around Stephenville are not idi­ots or con­men, they’re simply being human.

Astroprof’s follow-up post is inter­est­ing because it tackles the intel­lec­tual bank­ruptcy of simply throw­ing up your hands and exclaim­ing “It’s a mys­tery!” One of the UFOs is pho­to­graphed and the pho­to­grapher did a great job. It’s good enough to be able to see that it’s a sun­dog. The misid­en­ti­fic­a­tion is not the fault of pho­to­grapher. We’re grow­ing more detached from the nat­ural world. It explains the irony that Pliny the Elder knew more about sun­dogs than many mod­ern journ­al­ists do today, des­pite the bene­fit of 2000 years of research. What Texan journ­al­ists have which the Romans didn’t have (nor the Peruvians in the puna) is access to sci­ent­ists who have spent years study­ing phe­nom­ena. You’d think that the local paper in Texas could do bet­ter, but for some reason it doesn’t.

The Fort Worth Star-Tribune report that went with the report is poor. Laughably poor if you don’t live near Fort Worth. What hap­pens if you want to report an appar­i­tion of spir­its for a news­pa­per? Obviously you inter­view the wit­ness, and the Star-Tribune does this. You can also inter­view the local witch-doctors. The Star-Tribune inter­views MUFON, a UFO net­work which knows Our Universe is TEEMING with LIFE, but hasn’t got round to claim­ing the Randi mil­lion yet. It doesn’t mean they’re not inter­est­ing people. It doesn’t mean they should not be inter­viewed. It’s simply that some­thing is missing.

You could also inter­view a sci­ent­ist. Even an under­gradu­ate in met­eor­o­logy could be a help. There’s no com­ment from a sci­ent­ist in the Star-Tribune. Why? It could be that sci­ent­ists aren’t access­ible in Fort Worth, which might be Texas’ con­tri­bu­tion to the Third World. It could be that a large pro­por­tion of the edit­or­ial staff are sci­en­tific­ally illit­er­ate. If they didn’t know that the pic­ture was sci­en­tific­ally explic­able then it wouldn’t occur to them to talk to a sci­ent­ist. If that’s the case the paper needs to send report­ers for train­ing as soon as pos­sible. The final option paints the Star-Tribune in a worse light. The paper could think that its read­ers don’t need or can’t cope with basic sci­entific inform­a­tion. That would be tre­mend­ous sig­nal of con­tempt for the reader.

The cyn­ical response is there is money to be made. The longer people are ignor­ant the longer it’s a story and the longer the period money can be made. Deliberately ignor­ing or with­hold­ing simple inform­a­tion also shows con­tempt for the people of Stephenville. If there is money being made, very few of the cit­izen of the town will see it. The papers will sell adverts, if it catches on tele­vi­sion com­pan­ies will sell pro­grammes. None of this is about find­ing answers. It’s about plant­ing fear some­where else to make a quick buck.

It’s also about going “Oooh mys­tery!” without ever con­tem­plat­ing what mys­tery means. It’s not a mys­tery that some­thing is unex­plained if you choose to be ignor­ant. True mys­ter­ies are things which have defied explan­a­tions so far. Despite efforts dat­ing back to Plato, at least, people have been try­ing to work out if life could exist bey­ond the earth. So far the answer has remained unknown des­pite every intel­lec­tual assault any­one could through at it. In con­trast simply declar­ing a mys­tery unknow­able and giv­ing up research can only gen­er­ate a very limp enigma.

Finally it’s about a nar­row and paro­chial view of the uni­verse. The exist­ence of alien life is a mys­tery. It may exist, it may not. Either way if we find the answer it will be one of the great dis­cov­er­ies of all time. But if you actu­ally look for answers you can find more mys­tery. Wouldn’t you like to know what con­di­tions make vis­ions of phantom suns? Aren’t you curi­ous to know if your rational self is still haunted by its Palaeolithic ori­gins? What’s hap­pen­ing in Stephenville is inter­est­ing. It would be a shame if they only ever got a one-dimensional par­ody of an answer.

Did your brain evolve in order to understand God?

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A couple of weeks back there was an intriguing art­icle in New Scientist on how reli­gion came to be by the Evolutionary Psychologist Robin Dunbar. He star­ted from the assump­tion that ori­gin­ally reli­gion didn’t exist, so some­time in our past it came to be inven­ted. His argu­ment is that reli­gion requires a com­plic­ated brain to make sense, so it was a rel­at­ively recent inven­tion. It’s all to do with orders of intentionality.

Animals don’t have reli­gion because they only have first order inten­tion­al­ity. They think purely from their own pos­i­tion. An excep­tion are some great apes. Chimpanzees for example can deceive. They can pre­tend not to notice some­thing they want, and so not draw other chimps’ atten­tion to it, return­ing to retrieve the item when the area is quieter. If I think to leave the banana to you won’t know about it, that’s second order inten­tion­al­ity. It means that chim­pan­zees have a the­ory of mind and have more social beha­viours than your aver­age animal.
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