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Reconstructing ETs Lessons From A Neanderthal

From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <ufoupdates.nul>
Date: Fri, 31 Oct 2008 07:16:04 -0400
Archived: Fri, 31 Oct 2008 07:16:04 -0400
Subject: Reconstructing ETs Lessons From A Neanderthal

Source: Space.Com - New York, New York, USA


30 October 2008

Reconstructing ETs: Lessons From A Neanderthal

By Douglas A. Vakoch
Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI
Institute and an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology,
California Institute of Integral Studies.

SETI scientists and astrobiologists share a common challenge:
they are limited in the amount of observational data they can
gather to test their theories.

SETI researchers are separated from potential interlocutors by
the vast distances between stars. Geologists studying other
planets and moons within our solar system face a similar
challenge, exploring other worlds through the proxy of

Clinging to Observations

But even when we can go to other worlds, the amount of
information we can gather is seriously limited. The wildly
successful Mars Exploration Rovers have each covered only a few
miles of terrain in over four years of travel on Mars, amounting
to a tiny fraction of the planet's surface. Consequently,
conclusions built on observations at these locations should be
extrapolated to other regions with caution.

A vivid reminder of the limitations of such "local knowledge"
comes from NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, now exploring the North
Plains of Mars, an arctic region with unique conditions. Early
in the Phoenix mission, scientists encountered unexpected
challenges in analyzing soil samples at this polar landing site,
where soil "clumps" so readily it's difficult to get into the
ovens designed to analyze the soil's chemical composition. Based
on previously available observations, there was no hint that
arctic soil on Mars would be "clingy."

Fragmentary Evidence

As we move from understanding extraterrestrial geology to
understanding extraterrestrial cultures, additional challenges
arise. By the nature of the instrumentation we use to process
signals during SETI observations, we may well be able to detect
distinctly artificial signals without being able to extract any
information-rich messages embedded within the 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. Like SETI scientists, anthropologists are looking for
evidence of other forms of intelligence, and in the best case
scenario, they have only a fraction of the observational data
they would like. What lessons might SETI scientists learn from

A Half-stooping Slouch

Consider for a moment the challenges anthropologists faced in
reconstructing Homo neanderthalis, first discovered near
D=FCsseldorf, Germany, in 1856. By the early twentieth century, it
was widely held that these now extinct hominids were brutish in
form. For example, in 1924 G. Elliot Smith described an "uncouth
and repellant Neanderthal man" in his book The Evolution of Man:
"His short, thick-set, and coarsely built body was carried in a
half-stooping slouch upon short, powerful, and half-flexed legs
of peculiarly ungraceful form."

A few years earlier, Henry Fairfield Osborn included
illustrations of stooped Neanderthals in various editions of his
book Men of the Old Stone Age, where he said that Neanderthals
had "knees habitually bent forward without the power of
straightening the joint or of standing fully erect," and that
their hands were deficient in fine motor control, lacking "the
delicate play between the thumb and fingers characteristic of
modern races."

A Thoroughly Unattractive Fellow?

Similarly, William Straus and A. J. E. Cave, in their 1957
article "Pathology and Posture of Neanderthal Man," described
the stereotype of Neanderthals in the mid-twentieth century as

"Neanderthal man is commonly pictured as but incompletely erect;
as an almost hunchbacked creature with head thrust forward,
knees habitually bent.... According to this view, he was a
thoroughly unattractive fellow who was but imperfectly adapted
to the upright, bipedal posture and locomotion characteristics
of the modern type of man."

There's only one problem. Anthropologists now believe
Neanderthals walked upright.

The turning point came with the article by Straus and Cave just
noted. After citing all of the same passages mentioned above
that characterize Neanderthals as stooped, they made the
compelling case that this stereotype was based on excessive
emphasis on one particular Neanderthal.

A Neanderthal who just happened to have arthritis.

Bathed, Shaved, and Dressed in Modern Clothing

Central to this image of Neanderthal as brutish savage was the
reconstruction of one especially complete skeleton, found in La
Chapelle-aux-Saints, by French anatomist Marcellin Boule. Why
did this particular skeleton play such a dominant role in
determining our image of Neanderthals, when there were many
other remains discovered elsewhere?

The skeletal remains from La Chapelle-aux-Saints, it turns out,
included a good sampling of vertebrae=97bones essential to
reconstructing a hominid's posture. Given the interest in
understanding the gait of early hominids, Boule's specimen was a
logical starting point.

And while the Neanderthal from La Chapelle-aux-Saints may have
had the stooped posture characteristic of a modern day human
with arthritis, other Neanderthals didn't. Moreover, the La
Chapelle-aux-Saints Neanderthal didn't look like the
Neanderthals in Osborn's book. Rather, Straus and Cave argued,
"if he 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."

Compounding the fact that this particular Neanderthal had
arthritis, Straus and Cave contended, was the widespread
presupposition that Neanderthals were ancestral to all later
hominids, rather than an independent line. Consequently, it
would be natural to attribute them with more ape-like
characteristics - a trap that many anthropologists fell into.

Mirrors of Our Assumptions

What lessons can SETI researchers gain from the reconstruction
of Neanderthal posture?

First, whether sampling Martian soil or analyzing Neanderthal
bones, the conclusions we draw will depend on the observational
data we have available. If we find a civilization on a planet
circling a sun-like star, should we expect that it represents a
typical extraterrestrial civilization?

I think not. Rather, we should anticipate that this particular
observation - this particular civilization - is influenced by a
panoply of biological, cultural, and historical factors that we
will only be able to sort out over a long time, if ever.

Finally, recall that early anthropologists were influenced in
their reconstructions of Neanderthals by their presupposition
that Neanderthals represented a phase of development in the
evolution of Homo sapiens. So too should we be careful to guard
against imposing our own presuppositions onto extraterrestrial
civilizations, making our images of extraterrestrials not so
much reflections of their true nature, but rather mirrors of our

[Thanks to 'The Norm' for the lead]

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