22.20, Wednesday 27 Oct 2004

Homo floresiensi has been discovered, an 18,000 year old specimen of a new branch on the human evolutionary tree. Liang Bua 1 is only a metre tall, but an adult. LB1 shared its island with a pony-sized dwarf elephant called Stegodon, a golden retriever-sized rat, giant tortoises and huge lizards - including Komodo dragons. A local branch of Homo erectus apparently.

It's been dubbed the hobbit. Now, let's see: There's William's Condition, which gives children a pixie- or elfin-like appearance (and, despite cognitive disadvantages, a rich and complex grammatical and musical ability, with striking conversation and richly expressive story telling skills). And there's Charles Bonnet syndrome which can involve hallucinations of extended landscape scenes and small figures in costumes with hats; [and] hallucinations of grotesque, disembodied and distorted faces with prominent eyes and teeth. I'm not saying anything, just free associating.

We pretend, in this industrial world of our, that we're more-or-less interchangable. We can do more-or-less the same tasks, with training, we're all people afterall. It's almost heresy to assert fundamental differences, but that's because there's a measuring tape involves when we say difference and it always translates into worth, and importance. How well or otherwise we perform. Efficiency at a task.

It strikes me sometimes how different we are in our private lives, how incredibly different we are when we're on our own--what we do in lonely moments, how we think or occupy ourselves, that some of us talk out loud, and some of us think and think and think, coming up with permutations and combinations, or whatever. Then as soon as we meet with other people we pretend these big differences in the way we operate aren't there--or rather we do acknowledge them, but we dismiss them as personality quirks, just rough edges to the same basic shape.

In a pre-industrial society, where interchangable consumers and cogs weren't needed, could we operate like this all the time? In a world like this, where distributed cognition is more important than being a step on a production line or a part in a machine, maybe we'd see how certain attributes had uses. A person with a great memory who talked all the time would be a wonderful contextual serendipity component to the distributed cognition machine-mesh. A rearticulator would be handy to avoid being stuck on local adaptive peaks. Once we've internalised the social network concepts, can we get on and start talking about what kind of organs (heh, branes) would be necessary in a dist.cog. world, before we had to keep up standards, when people could be really different, when it was okay to become the material because you took up the craft that spoke your internal language, so quiet and gruff was a blacksmith, and there were witches, and yes, hobbits and elves and the little people too. (The fairies, on the other hand, and their fairy rings--that was just a warning about drinking too much cider and wasting your life under an apple tree. Step into the fairy ring (which grows under apple trees) and you'll come to 20 years later, after a life wasted on scrumpy. Myth, reality, whatever.)

Other thing about H. floresiensis.

(And how very appropriate I should have tangented onto networks from this species, the name of which reminds me of Flores and these conversational meshes. Acausal interconnectedness! Can we confabulate an analogy? Phonosysthesia/words/sentences--it all blends there, but what are the organs of language? Hm.)

Oh yes, other thing about H. floresiensis, the exciting bit: Even more intriguing is the fact that Flores' inhabitants have incredibly detailed legends about the existence of little people on the island they call Ebu Gogo. The islanders describe Ebu Gogo as being about one metre tall, hairy and prone to "murmuring" to each other in some form of language. They were also able to repeat what islanders said to them in a parrot-like fashion. "There have always been myths about small people - Ireland has its leprechauns and Australia has the Yowies. I suppose there's some feeling that this is an oral history going back to the survival of these small people into recent times," said co-discoverer Peter Brown, an associate professor of archaeology at New England. [...] The myths say Ebu Gogo were alive when Dutch explorers arrived a few hundred years ago and the very last legend featuring the mythical creatures dates to 100 years ago. But Henry Gee, senior editor at Nature magazine, goes further. He speculates that species like H.floresiensis might still exist, somewhere in the unexplored tropical forest of Indonesia.

The ethical possibilities here are wonderful. Let's say they exist, still. Are they human, or animal? Can we take one to bring up in Homo sapien society, to see if it can learn language? I feel wonderfully decentred even now, not sure whether I can say human or not to talk about our own species. If they're dying out, can we give them medicine, or should we stay out? Should we start a reserve, withdraw from a portion of the Earth's surface to let them live? How do we treat them? If they're like us but without the propensity to religion, do they have souls? How about numbers, or property rights? Do they live in a smell-space? Fantastic.

When Mead was fooled by the Arapesh it was because she was seeing past a surface truth to one further beyond: You don't need a kitchenette and a white skin to be human. A big step at the time. She could only communicate the enormity of this by being fooled by the claim that the family unit and monogomous mating weren't also human but constructs [I know, I know]. We should listen to her lesson every time we see counter-cultural activity (the 1960s) and see it dismissed as less than human. How many of the human universals go before you stop being human? We need to remember her lesson, and find some meaningful way to judge (or really, escape the question-answer) which isn't centred on ourselves.

Ebu Gogo. Let a thousand floresiensis bloom.

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