Wednesday, January 28, 2009

You, two hundred friends, a snowy cliff, and a herd of buffalo.

Sounds like an interesting mix?

I heard a podcast of the Canadian science show "Quirks and Quarks". It talked about the practice of indigenous peoples on the plains of northwest Canada in the harvest of buffalo. It made reference to this place.

They spoke of how for centuries, indigenous people, armed with little more than sticks and animal skins, were able to get hundreds-strong herds of buffalo to run off of cliffs each fall. They said buffalo are incredibly strong and not stupid. But the Indians were able to get them to congregate with a long series of tricks, starting with camouflage. They'd have one man dressed up as a buffalo calf, and then stage an attack on the "calf" by men dressed in wolf skins. Instinctively, the buffalo would try to rescue the baby. Eventually after so many similar tricks, there would be so many beasts congregated together that the herd couldn't stop once they came to a cliff.

It was one more reminder that older cultures were not STUPID. There is a danger of our becoming so proud of the technological accomplishments of modern society that we can assume that the prior generations just didn't have the intellect to do these things we can. But I guess the technological advances of each generation are predicated on access to those of the generation prior.

The Indians did some amazing things in a truly inhospitable environment. How many modern humans could do such a thing? Is human intelligence immediately translatable to any and all problems? Suppose aliens were to take 200 Ivy League PhD's and threw them on that plain? Suppose aliens took 200 expert plumbers, mechanics, and carpenters? In a year or two, would either group survive just as well in harvesting the buffalo? In my thought experiment, I'm guessing yes. Accomplishments in book knowledge and a building trade might do well for helping you harvest buffalo. But what about modern stupidity?

For but one example, look at the 2008 elections. I've blogged before that I thought it incredibly stupid that some 21% of poll respondents thought Sarah Palin was qualified to be Vice President AND Joe Biden was unqualified. These are dangerous folk. Reasonable folks might say that charges of being unqualified were unfairly leveled at Palin; they might say they'd prefer McCain over Obama. But it takes partisanship to a whole 'nuther level to believe Palin IS and Biden ISN'T qualified. In my thought experiment, I'm wondering what would happen if aliens took 200 of these Palin-yes-Biden-no respondents, and say 200 McCain voters who said Palin-yes-Biden-yes to qualifications, and put them on different hills. Would their worldview eventually have to mesh with reality?

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