Monthly Archives: February 2012

Science Fiction and Anthropology

Stories have always been a window to the spirit of humanity. Whether they are written or told orally, through stories we face our greatest failures as well as our greatest victories. We can climb the highest mountain, or plummet in to deepest depths of the underworld. We experience the depth of the human condition. To even try to generalize the vision of humanity through stories is beyond my capacity.

Science fiction is one of my great loves. Sci-fi I think it kind of unique in the fact that it often looks at the future of humanity. Will we colonize the worlds of the galaxy, or succumb to our own devices of destruction. Will we be enslaved by robots or an alien invader, or will we find a harmony and ascend towards a golden age of civilization. While all fiction probes as human nature, science fiction holds a special place in investigating humanity.

As my first example, I will use Star Trek: The Next Generation. The stories told over the course of this series touch upon technological progression, and a future humanity free from war and most disease. It is set in a time when humanity has ventured out into the galaxy. We meet all kinds of alien species, and each asks us to question how we look at others as well as ourselves. In one episode, Who Watches the Watchers, a team of anthropologists has set up on a planet to study a proto-Vulcan culture. Now, this episode presents a unique conflict in my opinion. Anthropology, especially sociocultural anthropology, puts great emphasis on participant observation, actually living with the people you are studying. In Who Watches They Watchers, we find the anthologists at a distant in a blind. The people they are studying at the beginning are unaware they are being watched. This is because of the Prime Directive, a philosophy that prohibits interference with an alien culture because such interference may change the evolutionary course of the culture.

This begs an important question for me. How much do anthropologists change the people they study? How much influence do our views and opinions have upon other people? This is especially true of archaeology, as the people that are studied cannot always speak for themselves. Does the very act of studying a people, whether living or dead, change those people? It is an important question.

The rest of the episode explores some of the questions I have asked. One of the proto-Vulcans becomes injured, and is transported to the Enterprise for medical treatment. Here he gets an image of captain Picard, and thus thinks he has seen some kind of deity. This leads to debates within the society about the existence of the Overseer, a kind of god that was long ago rejected by the logical proto-Vulcans.

As another example let’s look at Isaac Asimov’s Prelude to Foundation. This is the story of how Hari Sheldon develops psychohistory, a mathamatical science used to predict the future. It is part of Asimov’s Foundation series. Most of the story takes place on Trantor, the capital of the galactic empire. It is said to be home to 45 billion people, layed out in a variety of sectors, each with a unique culture.  The wikipedia article on Trantor says; “Trantor had over 800 (sectors), averaging 50,000,000 people each.”

As an example of the cultural diversity on Trantor, I list a few quotes concerning the different sectors on Trantor. All from wikipedia

Dahl—One of the poorer sections of Trantor.The main job of the lower class is heatsinking, where workers supervise the conversion of heat from the planet’s core directly into electric power by sinking extremely long rods into the inner core of the planet; ‘heatsinkers’ were generally looked down upon by other Dahlites. Naturally, most Dahlites hated the Empire, and the soldiers of the Empire (‘sunbadgers’). Dahlites were dark skinned, black-haired, and fairly short. Dahlite males wore a large, thick mustache, and all carried knives. Rather than using ‘Mr.’, ‘Mrs.’, or ‘Dr.’, as forms of address, Dahlites always used ‘Master’ and ‘Mistress’ (never ‘Doctor’).

Imperial—The sector in which the Imperial Palace and the Galactic Library lie. When Seldon first visited Trantor to deliver his speech at the Decennial Convention, fashion in the sector called for bold, bright colors and wearing hats without chinstraps. According to Asimov, many of the inhabitants of this sector were tall Northerner yellowhairs, implying that they were people of what we call Nordic ancestry.

Mycogen— As Asimov explains in Prelude to Foundation,their name is formed from the Greek stems myco- (meaning ‘yeast’ or other types of fungi) and -gen (meaning ‘maker’ or ‘producer’), which matches the description of the Mycogen as specialized in breeding and exporting yeast, or “microfood,” to other portions of Trantor. It kept the best for itself; the food eaten by Seldon in Mycogen was the best he had ever had. They lived by a strict religion (to Mycogenians, ‘history’). The ‘high priest’ was the leader of the council of elders, the government of Mycogen. During a rite of passage, all Mycogenians are completely depilated, so they can tell the difference between themselves and non-Mycogenians. Because hair is considered so repulsive, most Mycogenians shriek at its appearance; foreigners must wear skincaps at all times. The sight and feel of hair was considered similar to pornography lewdness by Mycogenians. By tradition usually wear a cloak called ‘kirtle’, men always wear a white kirtle; women, a gray one.

It seems to me that diversity is a natural part of human development. People that once held a common ancestry and language are now barely able to communicate with one another. One example of this is Scandinavia, Germany and England. All speak modern forms of Germanic languages, but the languages (and associated cultural systems) are now so different that intercommunication is not possible without knowing more than one language.

Trantor can be used as an example of how even unified political units become more diverse over time. Star Trek can be used as an example as well. Different humanoid races emerge as the result of unique geographic (planetary) locations, history and cultures. As more time passes, new cultural forms will emerge from old ones, increasing human cultural diversity. This may be part of what is going on in America today. The country is growing more diverse through the influx of immigrants, as well as internally. What it means to be American varies from person to person, from state to state and from region to region. Can it be said that Michiganders are the same as Texans?

I do not know what the future will look like, but science fiction will continue to explore these possibilities. And anthropology will be there to study the diverse experience that is the human condition.


Connections to the Past

It is easy to view the past as something that belongs to yesterday. It is an age that has gone by and is no longer relevant to the modern world. Such a view could not be further from the truth. The past laid down the foundation, and modern society has built upon it. Societies can take many different forms, owing much to their unique history and traditions. Think of it this way, how different would America look today if it were founded (primarily) by the Germans, or the Chinese instead of the English? What if we had fought our war for independence against the Chinese?

In that sense, our history is still very much alive today, albeit changed into modern forms. Our Constitution itself was based on earlier forms reinterpreted by our founders. Threads of that past still enter into modern times. Look at many state capitol buildings, or the money in your pocket. These are threads from the past. Our history defines our society as much as our choices today.

In addition to these threads, the past is still widely presented today in a wide range of media. How many times has the story of Robin Hood been told? Stories of Greek Gods? Stories from medieval times? Stories from our past are told over and over again with a varying amount of embellishment, even in modern times.

Take for example, the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. The original was composed sometime between the 7th and the 10th century. However, even in modern times I have seen two movies that draw upon this original source material, Beowulf (2007) and Beowulf and Grendel (2005). Both of these movies took liberties with the original poem, but both represent modern retellings of Beowulf. Now, when I look at these movies I see a blend of c0nservatism and some new material. When I watch a movie, I look for two things. First, I want to see an attempt to stay true to the original source. At the same time, I want to see something new. Movies would get really boring if they just kept doing the same thing over and over again. They have to be relevant to a modern audience, but they should teach to a degree as well. If someone views a Beowulf movie and then turns to the original poem, that can be measured as a success, in my opinion.

As another example, let’s look atHow to Train your Dragon (2010). This is the movie based upon the book by Cressida Cowell (2003). It is the story of how a young viking named Hiccup comes to make friends with a dragon named Toothless. The Vikings have been at war with the dragons for a long time, but it takes the efforts of Hiccup to make his people realize that the dragons are not their enemies. This movie is one part old Viking myth, and one part family friendly entertainment. While this movie is based upon a recent book, it can be said that both draw from a pool of inspiration over a thousand years old.

As a final example, take the video game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. One of the races in the game are called Nords. It is my opinion that the name is no coincidence. The game says the Nords are a hardy, tall and fair haired people. They think highly of prowess in battle.

Here is quote from a source I found online, dated 1870. ” What history tells us, so far as it goes, is quite in accordance with the suggestions of biology. It is certain that, from the fifth century to the tenth a vast number of people from North Germany and Scandinavia poured into the British Islands on all sides, but, as might be expected, most persistently and numerously into the eastern moiety of Britain. They brought with them languages which may properly and conveniently be termed dialects of Teutonic, in contradistinction to the indigenous dialects of Celtic. Out of the North German dialects the language usually known as Anglo-Saxon was developed, and from it, by subsequent modification and absorption of, for the most part, Scandinavian, Celtic, and French elements, has grown English. The invasion which thus changed the language of Britain introduced no new element into the physical conformation of the people, so far as stature and complexion are concerned, though it may have done so in the matter of cranial conformation. It is unquestioned that Saxons, Danes, and Norsemen were alike a tall, fair-haired people…”(Forefathers of the English People)

The similarities do not stop there. During the course of the game, the main character is allowed into Sovngarde, the Nordic underworld. In this place is Shor’s Hall, the immortal dwelling place of those who died gloriously in battle. It is a hall of heroes, and some of Skyrim’s most honored heroes are found in this hall. Now, in old Norse myth (in real life) those who fell honorably in battle were welcomed into Valhalla, Odin’s Hall of warriors, to await the final battle. To continue the comparison, Shor and Odin are both chief gods and gods of the dead, though it should be said that Odin had many other functions.

Many other examples could be provided. However, I feel I have given enough to show that the past is still very much alive today. While it will continue to be reinterpreted and retold, there will always exist the connections to the past. Whether they show up in media, in cultural and social institutions or in our own lives, the specters of the past still walk among us.


Forefathers of the English People