Monday, February 5, 2018

Groundhogs and Stonehenge

Friday was Groundhog Day.  This is the day when a great deal of pomp and festivity takes place in the small western Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney.  The town officials drag out a groundhog and put him in a position where there may or may not be lighting.  As the mystical story goes, if the groundhog sees his shadow, we will have six more weeks of winter.  Otherwise, of course, we can expect ... well, I don't actually know, but given it is gray western Pennsylvania and up in the Allegheny Mountains, I imagine that it would be pretty much the same thing either way.

That pomp and festivity, of course, does exactly nothing, save to have a bunch of people who couldn't spell "Punxsutawney" if their lives depended on it, show up there to take pictures and attend whatever ceremony they have.  And then people with a shred of common sense point out that if you bring in a billion lumens of TV lights and put a groundhog in the middle of it, it's going to be pretty hard for him not to see his shadow, even in the middle of a snowstorm.

So it is no surprise that about nine times out of ten, or whatever, "Phil" indeed sees his shadow, and about ten times out of ten, there are at least six more weeks of winter.  I did point out, remember, that we're talking about western Pennsylvania, where the weather is not really great and it is, well, cold and gray.  Duh.  And after he sees his shadow, we don't talk about Punxsutawney for another year, unless you happen to be a fan of the TV show "Breaking Amish."

This column appears daily on the website "Steemit", along with many others.  Steemit is an odd site that is a dumping ground for content of all kinds, whose authors are paid in a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, except not worth nearly as much.

The point of that aside is that Steemit and, by extension, this column, is viewed worldwide by people in many, many countries, including a lot that don't speak English as a first language.  They do not understand American culture, and therefore, when they read this piece, will have read the story above with no idea why American people would actually watch a groundhog amid a bunch of TV lights and cameras, at least without then going ahead and eating it.

That point is important -- not the eating, but the "not understanding."

It is important because what goes on every February 2 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is what we call simple, unadulterated fun.  What is done there serves no productive purpose whatsoever.  It is a bunch of people in a small town, with a long tradition, doing something solely to keep their town on the map.  It actually doesn't matter if the groundhog sees his shadow or not, and it wouldn't even matter if his seeing his shadow or not actually did predict the weather.

It is just a dumb, old stupid-head thing that humans do that has no purpose whatsoever.  We are, one could argue, different from most lesser mammals in that we are utterly capable of doing something for no purpose whatsoever (our cat, who is absolutely capable of doing something for no purpose whatsoever, might disagree with her categorization as a "lesser mammal").  Having fun for fun's sake is a decidedly human thing to do.

Can't we concede that if it is a 21st-Century human thing to do, and given my age, I can certify that it was also a 20th-Century human thing to do, that it might always have been a human thing to do?

Could this have been just a big joke played by the ancients?
When we think about the ancient Egyptians, we think of the Pharaohs, and the pyramids, and the construction of those pyramids that must have taken so many years of hard work.  We think only of their labors, not their pleasures, right?

When we think of the cavemen who were our ancestors, we think of them going out to hunt and coming back to the fire with (or without) a deer or squirrel or boar for the little lady to cook up.  A tough life they had, and we only think about it in terms of their labors, too, and not anything they actually enjoyed doing.

But we know, we just know, that humans have a marvelous capacity for fun and purposeless amusement, and we indulge that all the time, playing video games, or tossing groundhogs in front of TV cameras, or using phony dossiers to get FISA warrants to spy on our political opponents.  And if we have that capacity, surely our remote ancestors did.  Yet we rarely hear about anything that the ancients did that was collective, collegial pointless fun on the scale of Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney.

If you looked at the picture and get where I'm going, then you're right with me.  I know that anthropologists pore over the sites where we have memorable artifacts, like the Easter Island statues and Stonehenge (pictured above right).  You watch the shows on the Discovery Channel, and so do I.  Guys and ladies with multiple Ph.Ds try to glean the motivation for the ancients to have built such confounding edifices and other creations.  But the motives imputed to those ancients, well, they're always serious.

Is it not just as reasonable to have imputed a different motivation to these ancients?

Is it not possible that at least some of those artifacts were not built for the purpose we assume?  Could it be that the alignment of the massive stones at Stonehenge, that we are told provide some sort of astronomical pointers, is simply a coincidence, and that the people who ordered its construction were just having a good old time?  Perhaps the leaders of the people who built it, a couple-three thousand years before Christ, thought it might be fun to have a ring of big rocks, or that building it sounded like fun for them (though not for those who dragged the stones there).

Perhaps the pyramids, built by disposable Egyptian slaves, were just like the pharaohs' Rubik's Cube, done for no productive purpose.  "Well, I need a tomb for myself anyway", one might have said in early Egyptian.  "How about I build it in this wacky tetrahedron my pal Khufu showed me?  I just need a couple thousand more slaves.  Come here, Megaflops -- go find me two thousand Israelis!"

Sometimes, as the "Occam's Razor" principle teaches us, the accurate explanation is the one you discover when you look for the simplest rationale.

Sometimes, it might have turned out to be just ancients out for a good time.

Copyright 2018 by Robert Sutton
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