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Xenoanthropology Notes - 2013/08/08


Humans are an odd and interesting species. They are remarkably unspecialized, and stand outside the predator/prey dichotomy that drives so much of evolution. This unusual situation has given them a unique set of senses and skills. Human vision and hearing are mediocre, and their sense of smell may as well be nonexistant by most standards, but the other senses are extremely well-developed. Taste in particular: humans consider food an art form, and the care and effort they put into preparing complicated meals is astonishing. The sense of touch is hardly less remarkable. Humans have invented a textural alphabet, which they are able to read by running their fingers over it. Only one other known sapient can do this - the Thesh, who evolved on the night side of their planet and have only vestigial eyes.

Humans are best known, however, for their hands and their voices. The five-fingered human hand looks cumbersome and complicated, but is actually one of the most dextrous manipulating limbs of any Fruhling-group sapient. Only the facial tendrils of Mnerkal are really a match for the human hand in fine motor control. There is no other species who could have invented such a variety of musical instruments, or come up with origami - a uniquely human art form that involves making small figures of animals or people by means of careful creases in sheets of paper. The human vocal apparatus, too, has a huge range. Very few sapients speak a language humans cannot learn to imitate, and the phonologies of humans' own languages vary enormously.

When discussing the physical capabilities of humans, there is one final detail that will almost always be mentioned: humans have the surprising ability to eat a deadly toxin. Theobromine (C7H8N4O2) is a substance convergently evolved by plants on many Fruhling-group worlds as a defense mechanism: ingested it causes vomiting, diarrhea, and eventually death from internal hemorrhage. Yashuei can be fatally poisoned by a very small amount; Sierks stand a better chance of surviving a similar dose, but do become violently, miserably ill. Humans, however, consume theobromine in shocking quantities, on purpose, and claim they enjoy the taste.


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 9th, 2013 06:08 am (UTC)
Nice! I had to look theobromine up :D
Aug. 9th, 2013 06:52 am (UTC)
Mmmm.... Theobromine...

Of note, the name comes from the plant, which translates to 'Food of the Gods'.... yeah, that's accurate.

It also shows up when metabolizing caffiene, though different aliens might be able to skip that somehow.

Aug. 9th, 2013 01:38 pm (UTC)
Does theobromine contribute to the taste of chocolate? I know it acts as a stimulant on the human nervous system, but I don't know if to makes chocolate taste better/like chocolate.
Aug. 9th, 2013 10:57 pm (UTC)
Even if it doesn't for human taste buds, I suspect the species to which it is poisonous are quite adept at detecting minute quantities of it by taste; the evolutionary advantages to such a mutation are pretty clear.
Aug. 9th, 2013 03:22 pm (UTC)
It's always interesting to me to see someone rank human abilities compared to aliens. Since we have yet to meet aliens in Real Life, we can at most make an informed guess about what attributes we're mediocre at, and which we're insanely good at, by comparing ourselves to Earth animals (which might themselves be wildly off compared to the galactic average), and hypothesizing about which abilities are required for a species to achieve star travel.
What we can guess at is that we have excellent stamina (trained runners can beat pretty much any animal on Earth when it comes to long-distance running in hot weather), rather flexible bodies (especially if not every alien species has evolved spines) and are pretty adaptable over-all, capable of doing any manner of job with some training.

This particular comparison seems pretty plausible. We do actually have relatively good eyesight for mammals, but there's nothing saying galactic averages aren't higher than that - particularly if the aliens can distinguish the polarity of light, or have receptors for more than three different colours, or if their eye gunk isn't opaque to infra-red light like ours is.

By the way, does Yrek change his internal biochemistry as he changes shapes, or is he capable of eating stuff like sugar and chocolate no matter what his form is? If so, he could probably severely chock some unprepared aliens by stuffing himself with chocolate pudding in non-human shape...
Aug. 9th, 2013 04:52 pm (UTC)
Yrek's shapeshifting is mostly external, and he's got a pretty robust digestive system. Turrkaks are herbivores, as Steve the elephant noted, but Yrek has eaten eggs in Turrkak form.
Aug. 10th, 2013 06:42 am (UTC)
We might have relatively good eyesight for mammals, but if so that probably says unkind things about other mammals ;)

If the stats I've found are to be believed, between 65 and 75% of all adults wear use corrective lenses of some sort (includes contacts, reading glasses, bifocals, nearsighted, farsighted, etc.). Plus, exposure to our own sun is extremely damaging to our eyes- UV-A damages the retina, and UV-B can apparently increase your chances of getting cataracts. And we can all pretty much count on basically going blind as we get old, between the degradation of our retina (from so many causes) and our eye simply losing the ability to focus.

When you compare us to other animals, we see a lot *less* than they do even when our vision is as good as it gets. Amphibians, reptiles, birds, and even fish (if Wikipedia is to be believed) are all tetrachromats- instead of having our mere 3 color receptors, they have 4, giving them an order of magnitude better color distinction. (Pigeons apparently have 5 color vision. Seeing the world through their eyes must be a treat... or an unending horror of poor human fashion choices. Either way.)

If Wikipedia is to be believed, most birds can see into the UV spectrum, have 2-5 times the receptor density of humans, and (in the right eye) many have the ability to 'see' magnetic fields, which helps them migrate.
Apparently a lot of bird species can perceive light polarization, too... so I guess don't take your budgie to watch 3D movies with you.
They apparently also have a flicker threshold of 100Hz, which suddenly makes me feel very bad about all the fluorescent lights we used with our pet birds when I was a kid. Dang, now I just feel bad. I was a bad bird owner and didn't even realize it.

Anyway... when you compare humans to the potential range of other critters on earth, we really just have better vision than insects, cave-dwellers, and some other mammals. It's no wonder most of them look at us like we're crazy and blind all the time.
Aug. 10th, 2013 07:23 pm (UTC)
Actually, many insects see even more colors than birds, especially the pollinators. They have five receptors for colors.

Then there's mantis shrimp...

Imagine having telephoto, microscopic, polarized vision, in two independantly-aimed clusters of compound eyes, with an unholy *sixteen* color receptors, dipping into UV, Infra-red, and just plain awesome.
Aug. 9th, 2013 04:42 pm (UTC)
I love this. Also am made sad/intregued by the human/sierks cultural interactions, and problems of one spieces dealing with another that finds it cute. Will you be developing that tumblr post into a comic post? I hope so!

(I hope I am not being rude commenting on you tumblr over here, but I don't have one of those still... And completely off topic but I hope you finish a world without heroes.)
Aug. 9th, 2013 07:48 pm (UTC)
A conversation I've had, on & off over the years, with a number of different SF writers has been alternate senses. What senses might an alien species have without which it would feel crippled, but we do not have, or have in a non-essential form. Also, how those senses would inform their languages. For example, we use "see" to reference understanding &/or clarity as well as to express how one of our most important senses works. Similar comments could be made about "feel." But for us, something smelled has a negative connotation.

Someday I need to write down a list of possible alternate senses & see what kind of alien it would make. I taste myself feeling curious about which senses the readers here would find "alien" or "alternate" or "Wish we had that one."

Edited at 2013-08-09 07:49 pm (UTC)
Aug. 9th, 2013 10:53 pm (UTC)
I highly recommend Alison Sinclair's Darkborn trilogy: fantasy rather than science fiction, but in it half of humanity is born with sonar instead of sight.
Aug. 9th, 2013 10:12 pm (UTC)
You bet this human likes her Theobromine! Dark or milk - cold or hot - I love that nectar. Mmmmmm
Aug. 10th, 2013 06:10 am (UTC)
I love the thought and detail you've put into your world. It's just fantastic to read little snippets like this :)
Aug. 10th, 2013 10:11 am (UTC)
I had to ask a friend what theobromine is. :-) You forgot to mention, some people claim eating chocolate gives them orgasms.

In my Traipah stories, the people of Traipah can metabolize alcohol without a problem. But give them caffeine, and they get drunk.

On some planets in the Young Wizard series, chocolate is an illegal drug.
Aug. 10th, 2013 02:46 pm (UTC)
I was involved in a scifi LARP where theobromine was lethal in large quantities, yet also addictive, to a major member species of the galactic community. One of the subplots was therefore an attempt to push through a ban on chocolate, which was deliberately set up to sound like arguments about tobacco.
Aug. 10th, 2013 06:36 pm (UTC)
Anyway (got interrupted by real life for a bit, sorry), love this entry, and especially the skepticism of the last sentence.
Aug. 13th, 2013 01:58 am (UTC)
This is a REALLY good post! Bravo!
Aug. 18th, 2013 07:21 am (UTC)
I love xenoanthropology notes.
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )