So I killed a rooster and turned him into beer.
Shockingly, though, I’m not interested in discussing my cock or its majesty at any…length…in this post. A discussion about the production of cock ale will probably be put up much later, so you will have to wait very patiently to sample my cock.
I promise, I’m an adult and a professional government employee. Really.
No, this post is a further examination of a topic I’ve already addressed. In a sense, I’ve already touched upon my cock – but it warrants revisiting.
You see, from time to time I still ask myself, “Self, why are we doing this? Why did this majestic cock need to die?”
I had a lengthy discussion with my good friend Phil (the expert cock handler pictured above) during the weekend where Death Cluck was slated to die; his extensive undergraduate education netted him degrees in Archaeology, Anthropology, and Medieval History. Yes, I mean 3 separate degrees. I don’t know about you, but I was a crappy student in my undergraduate career; that level of education is somewhat intimidating to me.
Yet, despite this intense level of education and intelligence, Phil expressed a sort of dismay at the general uselessness of it all. That no matter what, holding that cock seemed somehow more generally useful than, say, digging up some old pottery shards. That it wasn’t really making a difference. That it just seemed to exist in order to perpetuate its own existence.
We talked at length about our perspectives on the archaeology community and archaeology as a discipline, and we both take a similar view: it’s at best a weak science, and at worst a field of undisciplined and poorly-controlled speculation. Phil expressed a degree of regret regarding his choice of field – what good was it? Does it help anyone? Does it fix any global problems? The community seemed to consist of a circle-jerk telling itself that it was cool and valid and stuff – but what good is that? I found myself generally agreeing with his assessment.
True, as an elite member of the S.T.E.M. master race (to use the vernacular popular of the Internets), it’s easy for me to be dismissive of all those “lesser” disciplines that result in a B.A. or M.A. – or really, anything that awards an “A” as a degree. I have a lot of practice in being an arrogant prick, and even more practice in telling people why they’re wrong and need to re-evaluate their perspectives. A valuable asset to society, no doubt.
But I’ve pondered this more, and I’ve come to something of a conclusion.
I mean, OK, we study things because they’re cool. Sure. We dig up ancient artifacts and attempt to reconstruct history because it’s pretty nifty. Is it as “valuable” as curing AIDS or cancer? Probably not, but that’s a really unfair standard – and such comparisons lead to infinite regression or reductionist cycles.
AIDS is solvable with money – so if you’re not tackling novel influenzas, you’re not really helping. But y’know, viruses aren’t even the real issue – we need to improve the infrastructure of developing nations so that they can improve sanitation and thus get healthy. Aw hell, that really pales in comparison to the socio-political biases in the world that perpetuate those situations in the first place. But that doesn’t even matter because peak oil is coming, and everything is going to hell anyway. And none of that will matter if we can’t get off of this rock before we ruin it – so really, if you’re not a gazillionaire funding a ludicrous space colony program, you’re really not helping.
You see why such comparisons are silly? No matter your discipline, someone somewhere will find a way to tell you that it’s useless and you should be focusing on something that’s “more useful.”
Sure, we have to set our priorities and decide what things will get what amount of attention – but that reality doesn’t invalidate any particular field of study.
At its core, the discipline of archaeology is one of examination and investigation of very scant material. It is a necessarily outwardly-building discipline, because there is simply a lack of stuff to fill in any particular hypothesis. It proceeds in a direction somewhat opposite the typical path of science; whereas I take a complex system and break it down into fundamental components, archaeology looks at a component and attempts to extrapolate the system.
This is a very necessary component of critical investigation and knowledge-building. Yeah, we do that in science to some extent – but it’s never really on a big scale. The only reason we have any idea about dinosaurs is because some dudes way back when looked at some bones and said, “What if it was like this?” Good science? Not the best, but a useful thing. It examines and tests the exterior of our knowledge framework, while the sciences concern themselves with describing within that framework.
That outward framework building, fraught with errors and confirmation bias, is really the best way we know to expand our analytical framework. If someone didn’t push at the boundaries of what we can confidently know, we’d progress very slowly. Archaeology is a bit like engineering or architecture, except that it attempts to build a historical narrative of a society – it’s a field for dreamers who want to build new things. Sketch the framework and let the detail-focused people fill it in. Maybe the sketch has to change – that’s OK. The point is that while science is working at tiny level, carefully shading individual pixels comprising the image, archaeology (and other similar disciplines) is trying to outline the picture.
It’s also a way to teach people how to make decisions and formulate plans with little to no workable information. As a scientist, I can be stalled by a lack of information. Too many variables. Directions unclear. Ham-fisted cock joke. But because archaeology doesn’t hold itself to the same standard of verifiability, its adherents are more free to dream big dreams and come up with ludicrously complex ideas. Most are wild speculation, but hey – so are a lot of things.
The back-and-forth between strictly disciplined science and less disciplined investigative fields helps us to fully flesh out our understanding of the world – and that is an ultimately useful and noble goal. Any pursuit that is an attempt to usefully increase one’s knowledge or understanding of the world is a useful one, and the interaction with other people doing similar things allows you to make a very real contribution to the entire progress of humanity. It might not always seem direct, but there it is. And this interaction and the reconstruction of historical narrative helps pull us together – teach us more about our shared history, and we’ll feel even more connected to one another.
Ultimately, the simple pursuit of understanding is a goal in and of itself. It might seem weak, but the truth is that pursuing knowledge because you think it’s cool is exactly what everyone does. People go into robotics because they’re fucking awesome. Prosthetics? Screw you nature, I’ma give this guy his legs back because we’re that awesome. Neurosurgery is amazing. Saving starving children in Africa? Bad-ass. Every single 5-year-old child loves dinosaurs because they’re so fucking cool, and in many cases that has lead those children to pursue careers in science. I can say confidently that I’m into biology because the T-Rex is approximately the most stupefyingly amazing thing we’ve ever discovered except maybe some sweet-ass planets. The image of the T-Rex mount at the American Museum of Natural History is burned into my brain, and that’s just fine.
Sure, we like to feel like we’re accomplishing something more than ourselves, but even that ultimately comes back to making ourselves feel good about who we are. Some people think that helping others is the coolest thing ever – and I’m hard-pressed to disagree. You’re accountable to yourself above all, and since you’ve got to be comfortable with yourself, I can’t see begrudging anyone their chosen passion.
Are you pursuing it because you love it? Are you connecting with the community? Are you taking opportunities to better yourself in pursuit of this thing? Yes? Then we’re all good.
We climb mountains because we can. We build progressively faster cars because we can. Tall rollercoasters, square watermelons, 50% ABV beers, chili peppers hot enough to physically burn your skin – all because we can.
So there’s the answer to the question. Why slaughter a chicken and throw him into beer? Why dig up 20,000 year old pottery and try to reconstruct the culture around it? Why perform open-heart surgery for 20 straight hours?
Yes, we can and should argue the particulars of what to pursue when, but the answer still stands: