Saturday, March 7, 2009

The evolution of roads & asking for directions. Really.

I know it's been a long while between posts and I apologize for that. I initially wanted to keep the Halloween post up there for a while just because I think it's an important idea for amateur astronomers (pros too) to use the one night in the year where there'll be kids out and about ready to look through our telescopes.

Then I just got busy & lazy.

So no more excuses, here's something I came up with on my own a couple years ago while driving down Rt. 29 in my brother's Camaro. It's completely off-topic and not particularly astronomical, but that's how the cookie crumbles sometimes.

I had the girls in the back of the car sleeping (as kids are wont to do) so I had to amuse myself while driving. I was taking the girls to a week-long Girl Scout camp in Ferrum, so it was at least a 2 1/2 hour drive. This was just before I started listening to an iPod and the car's radio didn't work, so I had nothing but my thoughts to keep me company.

I kept my eyes on the road and noticed how I could tell that the road ahead was going to curve to the right even before I could see the road surface because I could see the lack of trees ahead and to the right. It was as if I was driving in a tube of treelessness and I could see the tube ahead even if I couldn't yet see the road itself.

I got to thinking about roads, and how smooth asphalt strips like I was on were a recent invention and mused at what a caveman would think of the road & car. I then wandered mentally into what must surely be a gedanken experiment.

I thought about the caveman era, with small villages of 20 or 30 people every 10 or 20 miles in a seemingly trackless expanse of forest. The men were the hunters and the women would go out gathering in the traditional hunter/gatherer society. It came to me that the women were probably the road (trail) builders of their era. They would journey to the same spot on the creek, the same fruit trees and berry patches and wear down a trail with their feet. The trails must've led outward, branching this way & that to the various destinations, the water, food, sources of raw materials for making cord & rope, clay for pottery, that sort of thing. Later on there would be garden sites near the village, but the trails still went onward to the source of water & raw materials.

I mused how the men would go out hunting and initially would follow one of the many trails the women made until at some point they'd veer off the trail and head into the forest to hunt. Then the men would be on their own, without the familiar landmarks that they had along the trail. Women, using the trail, would use the landmarks, a particular tree or rock outcropping to tell where they were, but the men would have to make a rather large map in their heads to orient themselves. They'd also have to be able to navigate by the Sun & the stars too. I was rather attracted to this explanation due to my astronomical background.

Then it occurred to me that a man who couldn't make such a mental map, or who couldn't otherwise navigate in the forest wouldn't be able to find his way back to the life-sustaining village and would likely become tiger chow. Thus I came to believe that this might be the origin of the male reticence regarding asking for directions while driving his car (as I was doing at that very moment).

A man back then who had to ask directions was a dead man.
And dead men leave no descendants.

I don't want to ask directions because I frakkin' evolved not to ask! I can find my own way with my maps, mental or otherwise, so I don't need to ask anybody for directions. I also don't even want to ask directions, it's almost a point of pride that I can find my own way without help. It's like a puzzle and I want to figure it out for myself. It's purely conjecture but it sure looks like evolution's at work and powerful forces are at play. Better not mess with Mother Nature, ya know!

It's a guy thing.


Nicole said...

LOL! Sure, use the old "evolution" excuse again, sheesh. I would have been one of those dead cavewomen b/c I don't ask for directions either. "I'll find the darn road myself..." *SABERTOOTH TIGER ATTACK!*

Thank humans for GPS.

Pretty background, btw!

Richard Drumm The Astronomy Bum said...

It -IS- purely conjectural, but I'll bet it's right!
As an astronomer I'd expect you to not need directions, you'll orient yourself properly in jig time where others would get lost.

But in any event cavewomen didn't need to ask directions much, they navigated the trails they made by the landmarks they passed. It was the cavemen who had to navigate trackless forests to find their way back to the village. It probably wasn't that big a deal for them, I have a mental map of the forest behind my house and of forests in various places I've been hunting, so it probably wasn't too hard to not get lost just using landmarks like rivers, rock outcrops and such to navigate. Thus evolution might not have had much to work with, not much leverage there. Perhaps that's a fly in my ointment?


The background is courtesy CAS member Steve Reilly of Dogwood Ridge Observatory.