05/02/2003

I Don't Watch Stargate for the Science, or, How a self-respecting anthropologist can watch "The Broca Divide" and not tear her hair out.

Okay, that's actually a lie. I can't watch "The Broca Divide". I made it through a first viewing on SciFi, screaming the entire way, and a second on the DVD, with judicious use of the scan on the remote. I can put up with a certain amount of bad science (I willingly went to see "The Core"...), but I have my limits.

It's ironic, really, that I'm sitting here about to rant on bad anthropology in a series built on the idea that aliens used the pyramids for landing bases. And I'm not so not even touching on how the show takes creative license with mythology and history, Egyptian or otherwise ("Spirits"? "Demons"? *shudder*), or the language issue.

Ahem. Okay, I'm better now.

I have a particular sensitivity to how the field of anthropology is mistreated in mainstream media and popular fiction (ask me about my carbon-dating issues sometime. I dare you). So it says a great deal about the other strengths of this show, that I can love it so despite how heinously they mangle the anthropology on occasion.

"The Broca Divide" is the classic example. Not only did they use the horribly clichéd "early man as ravaging wild animal with uncontrollable desire to mate" trope, but they couldn't decide on which early man variety they were talking about. Daniel kept going on about Homo erectus, but it appeared that all the behavioral assumptions they were using are those that are attributed (usually incorrectly) to Neandertals.

It's a good thing I found the later seasons first, because if that episode had been one of my first introductions to the series, I might have never come back.

And then there was the archaeologists opening the sarcophagus in "Hathor". Ignoring that every time someone in a movie does that they die, usually that sort of thing is done post-field in a lab under controlled conditions. Especially because if you do make the find of the century by discovering an Egyptian sarcophagus in South America, you're not going to want to give your colleagues any more ammunition to claim you're a nutbag than necessary by opening it in the field and possibly contaminating your find and thus destroying any credibility of your analysis. You're going to box it up, ship it home, x-ray it, and then open it in front of trusted colleagues, and then study it very carefully and to everything you can to prove it's not what it looks like (plus, you're less likely to be killed without warning if it does harbor an alien. Just good sense in every aspect!).

Ask Dr. Daniel Jackson. He'll be able to tell you about the power of academic censure.

And speaking of Dr. Jackson (who is the ultimate anthropological Mary Sue), he and I need to sit down and have a long talk about culture as artifact. Because every time he bounds up to Jack proclaiming, "These people are just like 'Culture X' back home!" I really have to restrain the urge to find the writers and say, "Look, you people have Air Force advisors, why can't you find an anthropologist to whack you with a clue stick?!"

There's a whole school of anthropological thought that looks at modern cultures and tries to use them to directly extrapolate on the behavior of archaeological peoples (you know, the dead ones). The classic example is taking the San Bushmen of Africa and using them to make assumptions about all archaeological hunter-gatherer populations. Groups like the San were literally seen as artifacts, people trapped in some sort of temporal warp, rather than as living, breathing culture that, while sharing some characteristics assumed about past cultures from archaeological observations, have changed and evolved to suit their environment (which includes influence from outside - colonialism, globalism, and so forth).

You can use the behavior of modern cultures to extrapolate on the behavior of past cultures, but you can't use them as a wholesale template. "This archaeological culture used digging sticks and spears and hunted animals and moved around in this pattern, so they must be just like the Bushmen!" is very bad anthropology.

The same goes for the reverse. Every time Daniel goes on about how ancient Earth culture A did this, so modern alien culture A that they just found must do the same thing, I really have to bite my tongue. Hello, kidnapped and transplanted by aliens?! Spent the last however many years adapting to another planet?!

Yeesh.

On the other hand, I do have to give them some credit. In a lot of shows like this, they'd simply focus on the romanticized view of archaeology you often see when talking about classical archaeology or Egyptology . you know, wandering through ancient tombs with a brush in one hand and an artifact in the other. But Stargate has actually given some idea that there are other kinds of anthropology. They do give a superficially credible view of a standard archaeological dig in "The First Ones".

They also accurately claim that Daniel has a Ph.D. in Anthropology. Despite the fact that he is introduced as an archaeologist and linguist, because he was educated in the U.S. (assumed from what we saw in "The Curse"), his degree would be in anthropology, and he would have specialized on one of the four subfields (cultural anthropology (also known as ethnology), archaeology, biological or physical anthropology, or linguistic anthropology). Higher education institutions in the U.S. don't give out degrees by subfield. Granted, he could have gotten his degree in classical archaeology (given his interest in Egypt and classical cultures), but why complicate matters?

Wow. Why the hell do I watch this show?

Well, because it's not about the science. They made it pretty clear up front that they were working from an assumption (the whole aliens and ancient cultures thing) that goes against everything a scientific study of anthropology assumes. But they were honest about it right from the beginning. You knew what you were getting, and anyone who accepted that basis for suspension of belief and then claimed later they felt cheated about the bad science, well, they have more issues than I do.

It would be nice if they'd make just a little more effort to be accurate about one or two little things, on the whole, but they've never pretended to any sort of scientifically accurate pretensions, and I can respect that.

Even if I occasionally want to throw something at the T.V.

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