30 May 2008

Thoughts on 2001: A Space Odyssey

Recently I saw a special screening of a 70mm print of my favorite film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was the second time I'd seen a 70mm screening of it and, I have to say, if you have only seen it on TV, then you haven't really seen it. The level of detail is insane. You can actually read the instructions on the zero-gravity toilet.

Apart from the detail, the feel of seeing it on a large screen is different. You realize that it's not so much a typical film as a ride. Not like a typical "roller coaster" summer blockbuster, but a long, deliberate, and intelligent ride, thoughtfully taking us from our deep past to our far future.

Seeing it with an audience is fun, too. Kubrick (the director) had a very dry sense of humor, I think, and it comes out better with an audience. I've noticed the exact same thing with his Barry Lyndon. When watching it on your own, some lines are sort of dryly amusing. But in an audience, they're hilarious. HAL's calm, persistent politeness is already amusing when watching the film on TV, but with an audience laughing, it's that much funnier (and creepier). (That said, though, the first time I saw it with an audience, they laughed too much. It's not a comedy!)

As a prediction of the future, the film failed in many ways (Pan Am?), but it's held up better than anything else form that time period. In particular I was impressed with the Australopithecus makeup—it's still reasonably consistent with what we know of stem-humans.

I thought of one objection, though, after the film was over. The film supposes that the reason for humanity's greatness, what enabled us to go from rooting around for tubers to walking on the moon, is our ability to create and use tools. The film's greatest, most dramatic moments involve tools. Think of the first one, where the ape-man thinks of the monolith, and then an idea starts to form. He plays with a leg bone, flipping it around, and then sees in his head that it could be used as a cudgel. The majestic strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra swell as the ape-man experiences a violent orgasm of intellectual discovery. That scene still gives me chills.

Tools are certainly important to us, and we are clearly the best at creating them. But is that really the reason for our success?

Since the 1960s, tool use has been observed in a number of non-human species, most famously in chimpanzees, but also in other great apes and some animals much more distant from us. Recently, New Caledonian crows have been seen to not only use tools, but fashion their own, creating hooks out of wire in order to reach out-of-the-way food. (Imagine redoing the Also Sprach Zarathustra scene with a crow.)

So we're not unique in this ability (even if we are much more proficient). It's wrong to suppose that the inspiration to use tools could have suddenly set us on our course of domination, because apes have presumably been using tools for a fairly long time.

What sets us apart, then? Arguably, it's language. Well, not just language, but discrete grammar. Many animals are capable of creating symbols, vocal or otherwise, that can be used to communicate the idea of a particular object to another member of their species. For example, vervet monkeys have different types of screeches for alerting their band to the presence of different types of predator. Honeybees have a system of dance that has something of a grammar (and is used to communicate the location of flowers), but not a discrete grammar like ours. Look at this essay: you have probably not seen most of the sentences in it before in your life, and yet you can understand it (I hope). That's the power of discrete grammar.

So the big dramatic scene should not have been when the ape-man discovered how to use a bone as a cudgel. It should have been when he told the other members of his tribe, through grunts, smacks, and gestures, that a bone could be used as a cudgel, and that they should gang up on that rival tribe. That was the true moment of power.

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