Alien zoology: would that legwarmer look good on me?


I often wonder: Why do humans invent things? Why do we have culture?

Let’s face it, all we really need to do is eat and copulate. Why do we bother with so much more than that? To an outside observer, say an alien zoologist, what could possibly explain all the details in the following picture?

bike photo from Library of Congress Bain Collection

Who are these humans, he/she/it ponders? What are their machines? What, particularly, is the significance of the fuzzy ball on the cap of the human at the right? Is he, perhaps, a priest?

Experience suggests this event is not a life or death interaction, our zoologist reflects — nothing strictly necessary to survival or reproduction. So what is the purpose this contest? Are those ones in the front, with those distinctive mustaches, leading, or being chased? Are they destined for glory, or infamy? And most important, he/she/it muses, would one of these knitted legwarmers look good on my psuedopod?

Human culture is so ornate it beggars my imagination. Biological instinct meshes with learned traditions and technology to give us churches, french fries, bike races, oral sex, merry-go-rounds, death camps, astronomy, astrology, the family dinner, real estate, golf, John Coltrane, Scary Spice, and Christmas, to pick just a few grubs from the cultural stew. Culture, more than metabolic chemistry or the morphology of our reproductive organs (two factors biologists often employ to distinguish species), has got to be the #1 attribute of our species.

That makes humans flexible. Culture can be changed a lot faster than instinct. And that gives me hope. Perhaps the current fad for greening everything from toilets to trailer parks isn’t just a fad.

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