I often think about how interesting the premise of the movie Encino Man really is — someone digging in their back yard happens to find an ancient caveman from thousands of years ago, and must acclimatize him to modern life.
The education of this being so much outside of the normal flow of time must be similar to an extra-terrestrial, because the world he would have known died many worlds ago, and the experience of even understanding something as pedestrian as a bicycle would require leaps of logic beyond comprehension. Current modern anthropology puts the invention of the wheel at 3500 BC — 5515 years before the writing of this article, while the period we associate with frozen cavemen is about ten times that length of time ago. This caveman would have to understand what a bicycle is, how a bicycle works and what he can do with it, such as that he can ride it to the grocery store to buy some eggs to make breakfast on a gas stove in an iron skillet, which he can then consume from a porcelain plate using a stainless steel fork.
But at least the bicycle is a mechanical machine, one that is relatively easy to understand once examined — the pedals connect to the wheel via gears and a chain. But imagine explaining to our caveman friend the concept of a modern smartphone, a concept that in itself within my own lifetime has shifted paradigms so drastically from a handset used as a telephone to a fully fledged computer that functions as a camera, organizer, game console and next generation communication device. To someone whose idea of communication is limited to verbal and limited pictography, the concept of a written alphabet used in a digital plane of existence to foster a conversation between people who could quite possibly be on opposite sides of the world would be something beyond the scope of what he in his time may have considered plausible enough to even call magic.
But the most difficult thing to explain to our caveman would be our ideologies, or the lens through which we view the world, ourselves and others. His society, to the best of our knowledge, were based around small bands of mobile hunter gatherer peoples. The concepts we draw on every day to help us formulate not only decisions but judge the actions and appearance of others are rooted in the common unspoken rules of our time and the framework of our own personal ideology that helps us make sense of it all.
It is this line of reasoning that makes it easier to put into perspective that some of the truths we cling to are in fact not truths at all, but are merely interpretations that emerge from the basic fabric of what we believe. The intricate card house of our own unique world view is built on a collection of various things including actual empirical observation, common wisdom, and of course projections of our own desires and fears. These bleed into our views of what is right and wrong, for example.
Take any of the plethora of concepts that are highly debated in our day and age — abortion, economic models, immigration, or even who is the best actor or actress ever. Everyone has an opinion, and as the old adage goes, “opinions are like assholes: everyone’s got one and it stinks”. People could live next door to each other their whole lives and still disagree on even the most basic of issues.
One way to explain how people have learned to resolve these differences of world views is the concept of Hegelian dialectic, which is the approach that a status quo can be expressed as a thesis, which naturally will have a counter-argument which is referred to as the antithesis, and when the two of them are further developed, argued and scrutinized, a common solution is possible, known as a synthesis. So if one were to see the world around us as a countless series of theses that are based on an even more infinite sets of syntheses, our caveman would truly have to travel through a long tradition of syntheses in order to understand how we arrived at the society we did.
But the reason the frozen caveman is such an interesting hypothetical test subject is that learning everything there is to know about a society in the space of a short time would require us to explain many of our own shared ideologies to him so that he can attain the context of some of the past syntheses of the current theses. Imagine his questioning gaze as you explain to him a complex concept such as a credit card — the idea of short-term high-interest borrowing of currency would be alien for the caveman on many fronts.
It is reasonable to think that depending on how the person doing the explaining feels about credit cards, that the caveman could be convinced to like or dislike the concept. Even when explaining the factual concept of what a credit card is, ideology may bleed into the discussion. Someone that rarely uses one for online shopping and has no debt may view it as a helpful option on those months where unexpected expenses may come up, while someone that has racked up thousands and is having trouble repaying it may struggle to conceal (if they even desire to) the hopelessness he may feel at the very same item.
Interesting comparative studies using variants of game theory tests such as the ultimatum game, dictator’s game or the prisoner’s dilemma have shown different results depending on where in the world the study is held as well. For example, Canadian economist, anthropologist and psychologist Joe Henrich has done fieldwork that variations in the results of these classic tests exist between cultures around the world — in particular he posed a mix of those three to an indigenous group in the Amazon Basin called the Machiguenga. His test was as follows: one participant is given an amount of money, and is tasked with determining how to split this money with a second participant. The second participant can choose to accept the money or to reject the offer from the first. If the offer is rejected by the second participant, both participants get nothing, and if accepted, they both take their money and leave.
The results of the fascinating study (which you can read here) showed an empirically detectable bias of cultural traditions in the participants’ choices. One can imagine that if a simple controlled experiment game like Henrich’s lead to such variance, that real world scenario concepts would have an even greater difference. Henrich went on to test a number of other people and “truths” and found that almost every part of how a person interprets and interacts with the world contains variations based on cultural values.
What we can conclude from all of this is that the person who is tasked with educating the Encino Man caveman holds a great responsibility. Their ideology and the society in which the “awakening” takes place will greatly influence the result, because it is the summation of our own education. If Encino Man teaches us anything (admittedly unintentionally) through this analysis, it is the importance of self-examination of our ideological world. While a caveman sidekick would be a great way to do this, we must probably do without and constantly question why we believe what we do.