The Diggers


37 Responses to “The Diggers”

  1. Darren Garrison says:

    I’m shocked– shocked! to see that racist slur from a guest blogger on Boingboing! We, as a culture, should be beyond using “the d-word!”

    Okay, kidding, but “digger” really is considered a slur to some.

    If only I had known, when I had one of these as a kid:

  2. jjasper says:

    What’s interesting is meeting people almost by random, and being able to discover how easily you are connected in today’s world. Over a decade ago, during a lunch after the Macy’s T-day parade, I ran into someone and got to chatting about travel, and Bali. Turns out we both knew a fellow named Leonard Lueras who lived there.

  3. Chrs says:

    Carl Sagan’s ideas on this matter are a nice example of sound evolutionary reasoning that is no longer particularly supported by facts.

    Primates have been arboreal for as long as we can trace them, right? Over 60 million years? It is at least as important for tree-dwelling animals to have excellent spatial maps as for burrowing ones, and tree routes don’t need any sort of cooperation. Given that there is very little evidence for arboreal dinosaurs, it’s quite likely that early mammals, and primate ancestors in particular, may have lived in this niche for much longer than 60 million years.

    There has been enormous progress on early mammals, and on dinosaurs, since Carl Sagan came up with this idea. His reasoning might work, if the contemporary scientific view of mammalian evolution had been correct.

    Behavioral specialization for sociality doesn’t require any particular set of conditions besides those that encourage cooperation. There is no reason to suspect any cooperative, subterranean dawn mammal urges underlying our current successes and failures. If anything, birds are at least as successfully social and cooperative, and if anyone’s suggested they were subterranean once, I haven’t heard it.

    You can make most of Paul Spinrad’s arguments based off the evolution of social systems, but that’s just rolling the same number using a different set of loaded dice. Everyone is working backwards from many of the same conclusions about human nature, and if the ancient Greeks were any evidence, that doesn’t require any knowledge of our evolutionary history. Just how social systems work.

  4. thequickbrownfox says:

    That shrew thesis reminded me of the Collyer brothers, ferreting their way through tunnels in the refuse that filled their Harlem brownstone.

    Regardless of how shaky or not the thesis may be, that’s a fine piece of writing there Mr.Spinrad.

  5. Lucifer says:

    One shift I see coming is whether we will continue to anchor human history through human experiences – such as world wars and collapsing skyscrapers. Someday, we may define our experiences through natural events beyond our control. It already started in pockets – the post-Katrina economy, sexual moray changes post-AIDS.

  6. chrisb says:

    You accidentally a word out in the “Guest blogger Paul Spinrad…” piece.

  7. Xopher says:

    ChrisB, I’m assuming you did that on purpose, but I kind of hope you didn’t!

  8. SednaBoo says:

    CHRS@30 is right
    We evolved from the forests and not from the ground. Rodents and moles don’t have strong communication skills. You have to look to where complex communication developed: Primates, cetaceans, maybe parrots and crows. The only common threads I can see are social living, wide daily ranges in a complex environment, and a complex variety of food sources. Any of which could require more complex language.

    I do think though, in a tunnel, your choices are limited, so you don’t need much communication. You can go forward or backward mainly. But in a dense forest or the murky seas, you might want to yell out “where are you, Bob?” where it’s much easier for sound to travel than bodies.

  9. Tdawwg says:

    The “lossy” model doesn’t really work when compared with almost every major theory of language that’s been advanced in the last 100 years or so. First, there’s “no there there,” as is commonly stated: rather than a signal or message that degrades over time, it’s more helpful to think of language as having its own organic life of sorts: a message that morphs over time according to its own needs and predetermined factors, regardless of the intention of a given user. We simply don’t need, as a species, the same lexicon or mental map, nor could we even have one, the pliability and plasticity of language being what it is. Read Saussure, Heidegger (of “we are spoken by language” fame), Lacan et al.

    The loss, slippage, change is the point. Just play Telephone!

  10. Made in DNA says:

    “Last year I was on my bike, stopped at a red light, and saw a busker whom I guessed had no fixed address playing a nice old accordion. I asked him about it, and he immediately told me that he was mentioned on some page of some book– he actually gave me the page number. Here I was, a complete stranger, and the first thing he tells me is how he’s connected into a shared structure that neither of us had anything to do with. Whenever we dig a tunnel, we want other shrews to appreciate it.”


    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      Made in DNA,

      Congratulations on learning how to use ‘Cut’ and ‘Paste’. Good luck with the quiz on Caps Lock.

  11. Anonymous says:

    To follow up on CHRS’s and SENABOO’s comments, recent fossil finds indicate that mammals were *not* living hidden, underground, only come out at night lives during the time of the dinosaurs.

    See for a description of mammals as big or slightly bigger than labs, which are pretty big for dogs. They were dinosaur hunters, not the egg-sucking varmits that used to be pictured.

  12. Robert says:

    ‘But when it comes to historical or moral “reality,” there’s no external anchor, and our species fights and dies over its conflicting compressions.’

    I would argue that our species fights and dies over ideological memes for the same reason our species and other species fight and die over genes. Memes are “mind-genes”.

    What I mean to say is that memes don’t make us fight because memes have no “external anchor”, that is, no objective reality one can point to for an immediate proof or disproof. We’re just along for the ride — memes make us fight because a meme becomes successfuly by triumphing over other memes.

    And heck, even an objective reality isn’t enough for some people.

    Check out “The Lucifer Principle” by Howard Bloom. It’s a fascinating look at why we murder and are willing to die over ideas.

  13. LogicalDash says:

    I am trying to figure out what the thesis of this essay is. If it’s trying to say that most history is made up to serve whoever’s telling it, I vaguely agree, but it makes a pretty poor argument to support that; some examples of where the retellings of history have drifted far away from any particular data would be more convincing.

    But if the point has more to do with the busker in the last paragraph, the idea that we are all very concerned with fitting into a master narrative, then the rest of the essay did a poor job of leading up to that point. What does a shrew’s mental map of a tunnel have to do with a busker’s attempts to get you to recognize who he is? A busker is not like a tunnel. You’re discussing social behavior, and if you want to talk about the evolution of social behavior, then I think you’d be better off working with some examples of mammalian social behavior. We’ve observed a lot of human-like social groupings in macaques, for example.

    I guess I just don’t know where you’re coming from.

  14. Made in DNA says:

    Thanks ANTINOUS! I’m sure to do really well!

    And may I ask, is it common for Boing Boing mods to insult posting guests just because they didn’t understand a story? =)

  15. noen says:

    Hey Paul Harrison – #6 pfh

    I just want to say I’ve seen your website and it’s really fantastic.

  16. Felix Mitchell says:

    scienctific ‘fact’ is not fundamentally different from moral ‘values’. your dichotomy is a boring and simplistic way of seeing the world

    the reason it appears easy to agree on scientific questions is because as pure science they’re unimportant. They become important when they have a bearing on human values.

    but at that point you’d call the question a moral one, so your argument’s circular – of the ‘no true scotsman’ vein

  17. fltndboat says:

    Clearly elitist. My Naked Mole Rats are suing for fur.

  18. Takuan says:

    You noble Diggers all, stand up now, stand up now,
    You noble Diggers all, stand up now,
    The wast land to maintain, seeing Cavaliers by name
    Your digging does maintain, and persons all defame
    Stand up now, stand up now.

    Your houses they pull down, stand up now, stand up now,
    Your houses they pull down, stand up now.
    Your houses they pull down to fright your men in town
    But the gentry must come down, and the poor shall wear the crown.
    Stand up now, Diggers all.

    With spades and hoes and plowes, stand up now, stand up now
    With spades and hoes and plowes stand up now,
    Your freedom to uphold, seeing Cavaliers are bold
    To kill you if they could, and rights from you to hold.
    Stand up now, Diggers all.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Whenever I tell my boss I’m mentioned on the page of some book, he knows I’m fishing for a raise.

    So how much did you give that accordion-toting busker anyway?

  20. Xopher says:

    Felix, what are you talking about? Scientific fact is entirely different from moral values. They both exist as conscious constructs in human brains, but there the resemblance ends. A judgement about what ought to be done is entirely different from an observation or deduction about what is happening.

    Example: ‘The sun rises in the southeast (north of the Tropic of Cancer).’ That’s a fact. ‘At sunrise every day, you must intone “Hail, Ra, Sustainer of the World!” and prostrate yourself with your head facing the sun’ is a moral value.

    If you tell me the sun rises in the northwest, I can simply tell you that you’re wrong (perhaps after politely inquiring what planet we’re discussing). If you won’t do the morning prostration, I can tell you you’re a bad person, but that’s all.

    If you mean anything that’s not entirely stupid by what you said, please explain.

  21. fltndboat says:

    #25 Dam. You mean I could have buried that nasty Neuc?

  22. Felix Mitchell says:

    Robulus, Xopher:

    I was, to clarify, responding to this paragraph:

    when we turn this strategy towards empirical pursuits like scientific discovery or engineering, the behavior of physical reality itself helps to keep people in agreement on the tunnel questions, except at the margins. But when it comes to historical or moral “reality,” there’s no external anchor, and our species fights and dies over its conflicting compressions.

    I feel his suggestion that we can agree on science because it’s reinforced by ‘the behaviour of physical reality’, whereas there’s no ‘physical anchor’ for moral questions and so we disagree is a really trivial way to see things.

    The problems with the objective/subjective worldview are many, and I shouldn’t have really mentioned it without time to back it up, sorry about that.

    But basically, scientific fact that is only observation and without judgement is fairly (I might even say totally) useless to us. The idea that stripping all values away from science helps us is misleading. Values are an inherent part of our perception of the world – which is important when deducing fact.

    That doesn’t explain it at all really, you’ll have to look into the idea yourself if you’re interested.

  23. Haroun says:

    I would think that sense of smell would rule in the organization of a tunnel dwelling system. Eat here, crap & piss here, sleep here, & so on. The idea that dwelling in tunnels had something to do with the development of mammalian intellingence sounds dumb. How about surviving after the comet wiped out most of the rest of life on your planet? That’d separate the smart kids from the dumb ones in a few generations, make a nice filter.

  24. robulus says:

    scienctific ‘fact’ is not fundamentally different from moral ‘values’

    Scientific fact describes testable hypothesese that have proven to be resilient to experimental challenge.

    Moral values are a subjective belief system often driven by cultural norms and tradition. They are a grey area of human understanding, where what seems like obvious, incontrovertible fact to one person will be completely inconsequential to another.

    You seem to be arguing that there is no debate over scientific fact because it is purely academic, therefore somewhat trivial. Yet, quite clearly, there is hot debate in the academic community over the most pure theoretical constructs. The point is this kind of discourse occurs within the limits of testable hypothesese.

    Once the arguments move into morality, there are no such rigid structures to contain them. This is why there is, quite obviously, a fundamental difference between the two.

  25. Takuan says:

    perhaps the natural competition for survival underlying all informs the “But when it comes to historical or moral “reality,” there’s no external anchor, and our species fights and dies over its conflicting compressions.”

    Eusocial creatures (like the ants vectoring a single direction of pull without mentation) manage very complex, built environments without a clue as to why. How self-aware are African Mole Rats?

  26. UstinJay says:

    In your italicized bio quip you forgot the word “is”:
    Guest blogger Paul Spinrad IS just some nice leftover pasta for lunch.

  27. robulus says:

    Darren, Xopher, Australians call our soldiers diggers, a nickname used with the utmost affection and respect.

  28. grimc says:

    Did you ever look him up?

  29. finisterre says:

    You shouldn’t be so hard on dinosaurs – not living in tunnels doesn’t mean you don’t need to be able to remember spatial information. I’m sure dinosaurs did have persistent models of reality, for example because they maintained territories larger than the scope of their senses.

  30. noen says:

    There’s gonna be a quiz!? Shit, I never study. Would bribery help?

  31. noen says:

    I’m in a book too but I don’t really think it’s that important. Anyway, I agree with finisterre. Carl Sagan’s account does seem to me like a big guess.

    When I was in high school the narrative was the humans were big game hunters on the African savanna and T-Rex stood upright and was a predator not a scavenger. Today’s understanding is a bit different.

  32. Anonymous says:

    I remember The Dragons of Eden! Ill have to dig that one out. The lasting impression I remember retaining from that book was the actual dragon mythos. Still valid, IMO (beware the big screechy reptile!).

  33. karl_jones says:

    Whenever we dig a tunnel, we want other shrews to appreciate it.

    Reminds me of something Jared Diamond writes about in Guns, Germs, and Steel.

    In the wilds of New Guinea, when two strangers meet, the first thing they do is try to establish that they have some relative in common, in order to defuse incipient violence.

  34. dove says:

    I like this.
    Please write more things like this.

  35. pfh says:

    This is assuming that morality somehow comes from outside, and needs to be compressed to fit in our limited brains.

    The alternative hypothesis would be that we just make it up as we go along. Science can not say anything about how the world should be, just about how it is.

    Anyway, ants do just fine with very little brain at all. What’s important is everyone in the hole being part of the one big family. Pretty successful strategy, but limited. The problems humans are mostly facing are of strangers getting on together, which is an altogether harder problem, and our solutions are altogether weirder.

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