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Douglas Adams and Aquatic Apes

post #1 of 6
Thread Starter 
This is the preface Douglas Adams wrote for a new book, <a href="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1842170635/qid=1015778242/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/002-0991255-7627237" target="_blank">Digging Holes in Popular Culture : Archaeology and Science Fiction</a>:
[quote]The thing that I have always liked about science fiction, or at least my little corner of it, is that it gives you the opportunity of seeing familiar events from unfamiliar points of view and makes you think or realise different things about them. It illuminates the real world.

Its not just science fiction that does this, of course; most good fiction does something similar. Its just particularly clear (or should be) that that is what you are up to in science fiction. Aliens, robots and spaceships are just a bunch of fictional tools for doing it with.

What is alarming is when people start to take these fictional tools literally. The seriousness with which people take Star Trek or Star Wars is worrying enough (I believe it was William Shatner who actually coined the phrase: Get a life!) though mostly they know somewhere in the dark recesses of their brains that its not real. (The one that really worries me, however, is The X Files, which actively promotes credulity over rationality.) But cartoon science tends to mean more to people than real science. It is no longer thought of as either an imaginative commentary on reality or a temporary, refreshing escape from reality, but as an effective substitute for it.

It begins to worry me whenever I sit down to sketch out a new story that I may be contributing to a problem rather than doing anything more positive. So I tend to find myself, in the current climate, taking an over-sharply sceptical view of things and coming on a bit like Richard Dawkins (whose thinking I greatly admire, but who sometimes attacks his targets too ferociously to win hearts and minds).

I read with a sharply cocked eyebrow some of the recent highly speculative books about the pyramids and the questions about how old they might really be. I found them to be frustrating. This was not just because the level of argument came across as tosh (the answer to the rhetorical question Can it be a coincidence that. . .? is very often Yes!) but because it sounded as though there might genuinely be some stuff that should be analysed in a more rigorous way. However, it seems that the battle lines between the mavericks and the Egyptological establishment were much too deeply drawn to allow any actual information to pass either way.

I happened to run into an archeologist who specialised in the Middle East, and he confirmed what I had been wondering, which was that when you looked at it freshly the assumptions on which a lot of Egyptology is based are actually no more or less conjectural than a lot of what the mavericks are saying just an awful lot more entrenched. Hence the hostile defensiveness.

Its just a pity that the alternative viewpoints are not better served by the level of argument with which they are presented. If they were, the Establishment would have to put up a much more rigorous defence, which might in turn winnow out some of the conjecture.

Years ago I was very impressed by (but unable to judge on anything more than a laymans respect for logic) a book about Knossos by a German amateur archeologist-cum-professional geologist called Hans Georg Wunderlich. In it he sought to re-evaluate the evidence starting from the standpoint of his specialist knowledge.

To cut a long, complex but logically executed argument to its conclusion, he suggested that Knossos was not a thriving metropolis as described by Arthur Evans, the archeologist who excavated the site, but a necropolis, and indeed the origin of Egyptian embalming techniques.

What was interesting about the book was that Wunderlich came across not so much as a madbat attacking a supposedly dry and unimaginative establishment, but as quite the opposite. He seemed like a thoroughly logical rationalist exposing the degree to which Evans had subordinated the actual data to his dreams of what Minoan Crete might have been.

Of course, we know that Evans did this. What stood exposed, though, was that in the meantime we had merely adjusted Evanss view incrementally, and not stood back and done a thorough Poirot on the original evidence.

I asked a friend of mine, an archeology graduate, about the Wunderlich book and she was very dismissive and said it was known to be nonsense. But when I pressed her about it, her argument only really amounted to the fact that it was not what she had been taught at Bristol University, so I remained unpersuaded.

My favourite lost cause, though, is the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, by which I am impressed. This is the notion that all of the palpable oddities about the human animal our bipedalism, our hairlessness, our subcutaneous fat, our replacement of oil glands with salty sweat glands, the arrangement of our larynx and tongue, and so on would be very neatly explained if a small band of our ancestors had been trapped into making a living in an aquatic or semi-aquatic environment between 5m and 7m years ago, specifically on the Danakil Alps on the east coast of Ethiopia.

Whether or not it turns out to be a true account of what happened, I love it for the sheer elegance of its solution to a set of problems which, it appears to me, the archeo-anthropological establishment has not properly addressed, but merely buried under a sedimentary accretion of assumptions.

It seemed curious to me that the two oddest features of human beings (bipedalism and hairlessness) rated scarcely a mention in the magisterial Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Human Evolution. The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis is an idea that richly deserves to be properly tested. Dismissing it is too easy. Refuting it will be a much more rigorous task which, again, is better for all concerned.

Revolutionary changes to accepted models quite often come from outside the orthodoxy of a given discipline. But if a new idea is to prevail it has to be supported in better argument, logic and evidence than the old view, not worse. Feelgood science is no science at all.

Science fiction is a great territory in which to play with the kind of perspective shifts that lead to new discoveries and new realisations. But imagination tempered with logic and reason is much more powerful than imagination alone.<hr></blockquote>
Sounds like it might be interesting reading for those of us who've been discussing this kind of stuff in AppleOutsider.
Chicanery.
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Chicanery.
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post #2 of 6
actually, at the old AI there was an entire thread about the aquatic human/ape idea. quite interesting in fact.

i was sad to see douglas adams pass away though, he was a great author.

-alcimedes
post #3 of 6
Wow that's a lot to take in all at once there.

I have always been facinated with the Pyramids in Egypt...

<a href="http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/pyramid/explore/builders.html" target="_blank">NOVA</a> had a feature on it where they now believe that the Egyptians themselves...not slaves built them...

They excavated right near the Pyamids of Giza and found a whole area...a village let's say, where these workers lived. They lived a very modest but good life. And they were called upon whenever a Pyramid was planned to be built by the Pharohs.

Kinda throws out all those Cecil B. DeMille flicks out the window...even the Bible itself, right?
I AM THE Royal Pain in the Ass.
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I AM THE Royal Pain in the Ass.
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post #4 of 6
Thread Starter 
I love these alternative theories. People often forget that many of these theories were developed very recently in our history, and that many have also been proven false (or at least inadequate) since.

If anyone's interested, there's more about the Aquatic Ape Theory <a href="http://www.geocities.com/Athens/5168/aat.html" target="_blank">here</a>, with a very useful summary <a href="http://www.geocities.com/Athens/5168/aat/leaflet.html" target="_blank">here</a>.

Do I believe it? I haven't made up my mind because there isn't enough evidence... yet. But then the evidence supporting other, more mainstream, theories isn't exactly definitive either.

I guess that any history too far beyond living memory is only going to be as accurate as the weight of remaining evidence to support it, but we have to accept that theories need to be liquid, and one could quite easily replace another if the weight of new evidence tips the balance.
Chicanery.
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Chicanery.
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post #5 of 6
I personally remember a time when continental drift was considered an alternative theory.
post #6 of 6
I remember a time when Cold Fusion was the savior of the world.
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