13 January 2007

Midwives, Neandarthals and Greeks

This one is a cheat: I'm taking my comment from someone else's blog and dressing it up as a new post of my own. I defiantly refuse to feel guilty about it, though.

At the end of yesterday's Dr C, Mrs T & Mr K, I recommended a lengthy new piece by Dr C under the title Some thoughts on information. There's a great deal in there: it covers a four billion year time span, starting from the first information coding which led to RNA formation and ending with Homer. From Homer onwards is promised in a follow up instalment.

(As an aside on how the first RNA molecules might have come about, there is an interesting set of multimedia clips from the Georgia Institute of Technology including a slide show illustrating the "midwife" hypothesis.)

I thoroughly endorse his assertion that it's much more fun (I would add, also intellectually more useful) to think things through oneself than to simply retail what others have thought - if only I could persuade more of my students to take the same view!

Anyroad ... to get back to my comment. Dr C notes that:

"It is amazing, though, that Homer and the Neanderthals were both at the same level in terms of information. Of course aesthetically (a rathersubjective thing) they are miles apart. It is interesting that the aesthetic appeal is due to complexity since there is no difference, basically in the level of information between apes singing around a fire and Greeks singing around a fire."

Another sense in which they were also miles apart is the geosocial reach of their information sharing, and this (it seems to me) is a crucial step change.

The songs of those neanderthals, I hypothesise (as Dr C cautions, I cannot know for sure), were storing information as language within a social unit which was primarilty self contained: each individual saw the other members of the storage unit (the tribe) on a daily basis. The storage of information extended beyond the life of the individual temporally but not spatially.

The songs of Homer, on the other hand, were the transmission vector for information which spanned an area many hundreds of kilometres acoss, encompassing multiple groups of individuals which would never physically meet. More than that: they were a vector which crossed not only time and space but linguistic barriers as well, surviving code translation into the adjoining non‑Greek language communities.

There we go ... a comment turned into a new blog post — recycling in action!

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