Monday, August 17, 2009

Walking with questions

I recently watched the documentary series "Walking with Dinosaurs", "Walking with Beasts", "Walking with Monsters" and "Walking with Cavemen", in which, as is obvious from the title(s), prehistoric creatures/early hominids are made to prance about their environments, in scenarios created by palaeontologists/anthropologists, concerning social behaviour and all that other biological baggage that comes when dealing with extinct beings. My personal favourite in the series is the "Walking with Beasts" one- it's got an epic intro!

So of course ( I dunno whether this is a good habit or bad), it set me off thinking- What if- hypothetically speaking, we all die out in the next million years and some millions of generations later, some other intelligent form of life digs our bones up? What sort of questions would they ask? Would they unravel all the unpleasantness in the world right now/ before now? Will they be able to look at our petrified bodies, now entombed in stone and find out why there are mass graves in some areas of the world? Can they find any evidence of our complex social interactions- one that uniquely defines us as human?

I thought, you know, "Let's have a look at we humans/palaeontologists/anthropologists do". So consider this example- a dinosaur has been excavated (now we are pseudo palaeontologists) and it is a relatively common dinosaur- say, an "Allosaurus" or an "Iguanodon". After all the usual examination of the fossilized skeleton and taking cross sections of these bones to see internal bone structure and all that, palaeontologists look to scan and make a 3-D image or even find a fossilized bit of the brain (Usually they find fossilized dung more easily than they find fossilized brain). Using the brain model, they compare it to several other extant species, whose brains are similar and then try to deduce behaviour. So, "Allosaurus" has a brain similar to that of a crocodile and was built similar to a bird (look at a pigeon, if you don't believe me- or better, go to the Jurong Bird Park and see a few ostriches). Therefore, looking at what diseases the skeleton shows and how the bones have healed after a fracture and many more bits and bobs, they can build up a picture of its life.

So, let us have a look at what those creatures, a million years from now, having found our bodies would do, if humans die out. Now I dunno if they would be able to find many of our inventions- unless a river overflows and covers a town in mud and silt, they would have a poor understanding of our system of government and all that... But let’s suppose that they do find these things- towns and all that- and it presents a unique set of problems; the rate of technological advancement in man is staggering- it’s an ex curve with respect to time and if they find a Roman town and maybe Singapore, they may show similar dates on the radio carbon dates- what would they make of that? Would they discover that the Romans had poisoned their air with lead with their lead mines and we, now poison our air using CO2. What would they make of that? Would they attribute these changes in chemicals to a “natural process”? And both Singapore and Italy lie close to plate boundaries on the Earth.

Let the opposite be true. Let the future beings not find our towns and cities, and bits of our civilization. What would they picture us as? There would be no apes to compare us with, as we are on our way to destroy the apes before we die out anyways- would they used future monkeys for behavioural reference? Would they adduce that we swung from trees, in the buff, making weird “oogie oogie” noises, eat lice as a part of grooming and fight over bananas? Would we be seen as the equivalent of the great migratory herds of odd- toed and even- toed ungulates (cattle, horses, pigs, deer etc etc) that populate the plains and not the apex predators that we really are? Would they believe us to be something that we aren’t? And that produces a more pertinent question- given that most DNA is destroyed during fossilization, how do we know we are right when it comes to predicting behaviour of animals that have maybe around 85-95% of their DNA matching with extant species (even make it 98%, that’s the amount of DNA a chimp shares with us- we just aren’t the same, are we?)?


  1. there are possibilites. to simplify the answers to all your questions, three categories of the beings that may be formed-more intelligent, less intelligent, and the status quo(like us). there, that should shed light on some questions.
    so, a 33 % chance that they find out about us being apes. (very rough estimate, maybe we need bayesian methods!!) :)
    nice post though. if you include stats, it becomes even more interesting.(especially to me)

  2. @gautham- nice reasoning, but then comes the other factors which should render the problem bayesian :P - like the possibility of finding clues of our social behaviour, the extant species they compare us to- there are so many other factors that make it tough to calculate the probability of their perception of us- they will know that we were way smarter than most of our contemporaries- our brains are so much more bigger than the rest. They may know we had culture of some sort- they may find us in wooden coffins, for example :D

    The stats are tough to find- most appear in papers and the palaeo-bio mechanics and the endocasts of the brain are much more difficult to find-they usually appear in research papers. More over I had to post this through someone else as my google account went ga-ga and posting hyperlinks would have been a bit difficult. I ll add a few links if my account isn't acting up now.

  3. @gautham and Narayan: Exactly WHAT are you people talking about :p (please don't reply seriously. then the joke ll be on me)

  4. @ Jagdish- Nerdiness seems to be a bit of a disease with me... :P Bear with it, right- I usually ain't like this!

    Maybe, after this post, we'll talk about how troll 2 or silent night, deadly night 2 sux ass! :D

  5. jag,
    i was joking, it is a very poor model as narayan points out. :) (there i go again)
    i just find stats amusing.
    nice post...cheers.