Who studies the studiers?

I am interested in the increase and growth of knowledge.  The more bizarre facts of life, the odd little quirks of behavior and situation, fascinate me.  Finding out the root meaning of a word like awful or rediscovering that Rainbow Brite had an enemy named Murky AND one named Lurky are true joys for my oddly-cornered mind.  Mindless details about dinoflagellates interest me simply for sheer randomness.

And then of course, there’s the extrapolation.  How does language and TV culture and science form a social trend, a cultural belief, or a political understanding?  How do we think about what we do?  How do we understand who and why we are?  How do the big questions get answered through the tiny little details?

Stefan Helmriech is finding out.  His current area of study – microbial oceanographers, formerly known as marine microbiologists – is targeted towards understanding the people who do the science, why they do it, and how they see their role in the wider world.  I’ll leave you with the last excerpts from MIT’s article:

‘Helmreich says. “The question I wanted to answer was this: How is it that people working in the field of microbial ocean biology come to see their work as meaningful both to them and to the rest of us?”

He learned, for example, that Chisholm saw ocean phytoplankton as a kind of forest that could, in time-lapse photography, be seen to breathe. “I believe the earth is a living entity,” she told him. He saw DeLong as claiming that, “the entwined orders of nature and society cannot exist without microbes” and that “microbes are mostly allies to be understood rather than enemies to be defeated.”

DeLong said his post-doc students, whom Helmreich pressed to explain their work, benefited by being questioned about their underlying beliefs about science. “Sometimes we’re so swept up in the details, that we don’t see the forest for the trees,” DeLong says. “Often times we take a lot for granted. We consider many points of view and facts as being given, but they aren’t — they’re built on presumptions.”

Science, Helmreich concludes, cannot be divorced from culture. Medieval Christians saw the ocean as frightening chaos; 19th Century Romantics saw it as a symbol of the sublime, both beautiful and terrifying. In the 20th Century, filmmakers like Jacques-Yves Cousteau made the underwater world seem downright friendly. Today, we speak of saving the ocean from overfishing, pollution, and global warming. And, he says, we do not know whether the future sea will be friend or foe; much depends on what we humans do.’

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Seasonal settlement near Stonehenge: “We’ve never seen anything like it before”

I like learning.  I like learning about people, and about our past, and about anthropology and archeology and some parts of history.  It’s interesting to me to see who we once were, to revel in and possibly unravel the mysteries of who we could be.  A part of this is extrapolation.  A part of this is examining the facts and hypothesizing what might have been.  A part of this is amazement at new discoveries and presenting those findings to the public.  However, I get quite annoyed at the sensationalism that often accompanies such publication.  The discoveries themselves are quite amazing enough – there’s no need to add hype to get us excited about the possibilities.

Take the recent studies undertaken of Stonehenge.  Fact: Carbon dating of burials has proven that the site was a burial ground for at least 500 years, 400 years longer than previously thought.  Fact: At least one burial occurred at the time the standing stones were being erected.  Fact: a nearby settlement, most likely related to Stonehenge, was seasonally occupied in midwinter and midsummer.  Fact: a wooden standing circle at the settlement was oriented towards midwinter sunrise, as Stonehenge is towards midsummer sunrise.  None of these facts requires statements to dress them up such as, “we’ve never seen anything like it before”, regarding the settlement, or ‘ The actual building and purpose of Stonehenge remain a mystery that has long drawn speculation from many sources’.  Ok, the second semi-quote is from the article itself, so that can be attributed to the flamboyance of writing for AP, but the first is Mike Parker Pearson, archeology professor at the University of Sheffield in England and head of the Stonehenge Riverside Archaeological Project.  And he’s never seen anything like a settlement near an ancient burial ground.  Or maybe he meant a seasonal settlement by an ancient burial ground.  I will give him that the site must be unique, but really, he’s never seen anything ‘like it’?

I can’t blame anyone getting excited over what they love.  And this new research is probably giving us great insight into how people living and how they respected their dead and even some of what they may have believed.  But I expect more out of respected members of the field.  I expected comments like “We are now investigating the potential of hierarchy at the settlement,” or “these new findings lead us to suspect that Stonehenge may have been a site of central religious meaning in the area.”  I don’t expect hyperpole that leaves me saying ‘duh, of course Stonehenge is a burial site.  There’s giant TOMBSTONES everywhere.’

Owing the Taliban

In recent history, anger and revolution have destroyed a number of great monuments to the work and beliefs of mankind. The Cultural Revolution comes to mind, and its destruction and defacement of a variety of religious monuments, including some of the early Buddhist temples along the Silk Road. The book burning in Nazi Germany is another example. The symbolic burning of Old Glory to support a specific cause is an example of representative destruction, as was done during the Vietnam War. The Taliban and their destruction of various non-Muslim religious spaces is another example.

But all is not lost with these acts of violence. The monuments that were destroyed are often held in even more reverence at later times. The calls to destruction can attract new attention to significant historical locations and even sometimes lead to renewed study and preservation concerns for the past. Take the recent discovery that Buddhists near Bamiyan used oil-based paints in the 7th century for example. If the Taliban hadn’t attempted to destroy the caves and the two Buddha statues outside, conservationists would have been reluctant to study the composition of the painting materials. From restoration processes after the Taliban’s reign, we now know that people in the area were using oils centuries before the advent of oil painting in Europe.

What debt, then, do we have to those who attempt to destroy culture and end up preserving it even more firmly? Does it say something more about them, or about us, that we study only those things that are most endangered or at risk. What does it mean that a high percentage of the archaeological study taking place in North America only happens as a result of land development? What does it mean that we only have the resources to discover the past when the physical presence of that past is threatened?

Neanderthals and their big, language-filled brains

One of the problems I have with modern news reporting (in addition to poor grammar and inconsistent or immature style) is the lack of concrete data presented. While quotes are used to increase validity, most ‘facts’ can be simply stated without providing the references that would be required for an academic journal, report, or paper. While for print sources such as newspapers, this kind of brevity was probably necessary to reduce costs, in the world of modern internet journalism, it’s hardly necessary. Why not give links to all your fact sources? Could it be that online publications are jealous of their readership, or that in the speed of current reporting, there is not the time or inclination to link to sources? How drole.

Take this recent article from CNN. While it clearly indicates the source for its quotes and references New Science as a location for further information, there are not direct links or complete bibliographic information for any reference. In addition, the findings of one scientist are presented as fact, rather than indicating the variety of opinion on whether or not Neanderthals even had complex language.  Why couldn’t a more diverse representation, as seen in this article, be presented here as well, especially as the claims of Mr. McCarthy seem a little far-fetched?

Let me paint you a picture of my annoyance with the audacity of ‘creating a Neanderthal sentence’, beyond the debate on whether or not they actually spoke.  First off, language is, to a certain extent, arbitrary.  With the notable exception of onomatopoeia, words do not sound like their meanings.  My intended meaning when I speak the word ‘dog’ could just as easily be represented by the sounds ‘oo’, ‘chien’, ‘pajama’, ‘calb’ or ‘gau’.  In addition, various modern languages are made up of sounds that don’t exist in all other languages.   An example many people are familiar with is the Spanish rolled ‘r’ sound, or the click sounds of the African language, Xhosa.  The idea that someone could recreate or interpret meaning from the range of sounds a species could produce is therefore based on at least two fallacies – first, that the sounds made would somehow be translatable into meaning, and second, that the range of sounds producible by an individual of a species would all be used by that individual.

Finally, while the re-creation of the sounds a Neanderthal could make may get us a little closer to understanding them, the idea of recreating what they actually said, how they may have combined sounds and stresses together, seems a bit too extreme for modern linguistics at the moment.  Linguistic studies of a range of languages on Earth through the course of history have been able to draw some conclusions on natural speech patterns in humans.  We know that one type of sound shift is more likely to occur than another (for example, it’s more easy for a ‘t’ sound to change to a voiced ‘th’ sound than the other way around, as in the German vaTer to the English faTHer).  However, there is no certainty that any shift will occur, or how frequently shifts may occur.  It is unclear to me how a Neanderthal range of sounds could then be created by working backward from modern languages, even when taking anthropological discoveries in to account, with any degree of veracity.  In addition, there is no real certainty that the speech patterns we have observed over time in modern man would be equally applicable to Neanderthals.

I am certain I do not understand much of the research involving fossilized larynx and brain and bone studies that Mr. McCarthy is drawing on to make his suppositions.  however, the lack of direct information given by the press and my own limited understanding leads me to interpret the paucity of information as indication of little prof to back up a hypothesis.

The Faith of Tiny Sticks.

Today in church our ministers discussed their recent trip to Jerusalem.  As we are a fairly progressive church, they aimed to include all aspects of the city:  The muezzins with their early-morning cries, the segregated structure of the city itself, the way belief and power shaped and continues to shape its people.  All in all, it was an interesting sermon and discussion.  However the key image that stood out in my mind was that of the Western Wall, and the way many of different faiths treated it in such differing manners.  There were accounts of dancing, singing, crying, silent or loud praying, the outstretched hand gently and reflectively stuffing a prayer paper into a crevice.  It made be thing of faith generally and the way it impacts our daily lives.

Modern science might lead to you understand that faith is not a powerful force in the universe – instead, it is merely an imagining of our own minds.  Even if it does not truly reflect the existence of some higher power however, it remains powerful, at least in regards to each of us individually.  Faith can lift and exalt the highest wishes and best dreams we have, for both ourselves and our world.  In addition, a lack of it can lead us to the deepest despair, squashing what light we have in the time given to us.

In China, wherever there is a ledge or overhang, it is supported by hundreds or thousands of thin red sticks.  These are placed into the crack or cracks as small silent prayers, or tokens of faith, a kind of moral propping-up of the rock.  It is unclear as to whether or not those who place these sticks actually believe they preserve the structure of the ledge, but I have yet to see one that has fallen.  Perhaps they know something we don’t.

This same sort of perhaps fanciful occult knowledge is seen in the Pueblo Bonito of Chaco canyon.  This particular ‘Great House’ was sited directly beneath an overhanging ledge that threatened the building.  Perhaps of reasons of the natural dominance of the overhang, or perhaps because the faith of the builders in their own engineering prowess, the site was still used, though the overhang was structurally reinforced at the time of the Pueblo’s building (and possibly subsequently).  Of course, when later stonemasons attempted to correct the weathering and erosion damage to the overhang in 1937, the work was fruitless – collapse ensued just a few years later due to heavy rains in the area.  Which leads me to wonder if earlier engineers knew something basic about the stone and perhaps natural area flooding that later generations had lost.  Perhaps they had a greater faith in the viability of their efforts.

The questions remains to me to what extent belief can impact the natural world.  We fight for it, we die and kill for it, and yet many say the beliefs we hold so dear to our hearts are not real in the truest sense of the word.  What then is its meaning, its existence, or its true worth?

Ancient Americans Followed Giant Frog Across Land Bridge

Recently discovered are the bones of this 10-pound frog.  Interesting as the animal is as yet another example of current species as smaller than ancient ones, it comes with additional questions.  For example, the skeleton was found in Madagascar.  Though there are giant frogs in Africa, these particular bones are not related to those frogs – instead, they are related to much smaller South American varieties.  Quoi?  Scientist are hypothesizing that a) theories of continental shift and how closely the continents were at that time may be incorrect and/or that b) the froggies crossed from Africa to the Americas on a land bridge, possibly via Antarctica.

Some of you may be familiar with another land bridge theory from your elementary days involving Native Americans crossing via the Arctic from Asia.  It may surprise you that this theory has been partially debunked, though not thrown out in its entirety (yet).  In case you’ve forgotten, let me refresh your memory a bit.  The Bering Land Bridge model, or Beringia model, claims that land in the Arctic was uncovered during several ice ages (when the sea shrunk) and allowed for different species to travel and mix between the Asian and American continents.  Fair enough – there is adequate fossil and evolutionary evidence to authenticate this claim for a variety of species going in either direction.  The second part of the theory is what’s more contested.  It supposes that people crossed the land bridge from Asia around 12,000 BC, discovered and explored the only path between two giant glaciers that led to more fertile land at the south (sometimes only 10 meters in width), and spread Clovis culture throughout the Americas, all the way down to the southernmost tip of South America, all within a 1,000 year period.  It is a bit unlikely, but for a long time it was the most reasonable theory.

There was some questionable evidence of earlier colonization from archaeological sites, but no one really took it seriously until Mesa Verde was analyzed by a whole team of archeologists from different countries.  This site showed evidence of human habitation about 1,000 years earlier than the earliest Clovis settlement up in North America.  If the Clovis land bridge people handn’t even gotten to South America yet, who were these earlier inhabitants, where did they come form, and what happened to them?   Theories blossomed – they came across following the Bering Land Bridge in boats and then  followed the coastline of the Americas south much more quickly than the land travelers.  They came from Australia in boats via Antarctic islands.  Some of them came across the Atlantic.  Of course, some of these theories were more reasonable than others, but for various reasons, they all lacked one thing – evidence.

And that’s what we lack for Mr. Frog now.   Who knows?  His bones may teach us to rethink everything we know about geologic drift, or everything we think we know about the population of the Americas.  But especially in relation to younger children who soak up information like sponges, it should teach us at least one thing – give tehm wisdom rather than knowledge.  The specific details of history and science are not really relevant, and, given the current rate of new discoveries and refinements, will change in their lifetimes.  But a method of analyzing, questioning, and researching specific data for themselves – that will serve them well indefinitely.