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a weather report

Posted under Miscellanea at . Last updated 2017-02-11 23:13.
Tags:climate, psychology

I have just had a rather disturbing thought about the weather, or its function in human communication.

What if the reason why people blither on meaninglessly about the weather is not, as I had generally assumed, a sort of mutual grooming by which they indicate that they are high enough in each others’ regard that they’re willing to coexist, and even communicate meaningfully when there is something worth saying?

I noted earlier that the grass is growing again outside, and so at some point in the next few weeks it will need a trim. And I mentioned it. I think that’s possibly useful information rather than empty chat . . . but there’s a similarity here, isn’t there? Only I’m talking about the season rather than the weather.

What then, if the actual reason for weathery chitchat is that our ancestors really had to be aware of, not only the weather, but the seasons. Obviously they did, and obviously that’s why later generations built megalithic calendars. But what if, in the pre-megalithic past, the best guide we had to the seasons was consensus, based primarily on expressions of views about the weather? A sort of wisdom-of-crowds for planning seasonal activities. I expect an argument could be presented for the adaptive potential of that behaviour. I’m not sure how strong it would be. But even if it’s only slightly adaptive, it could be useful — so, is blithering endlessly about the weather a product of a now mostly-redundant but hitherto adaptive evolved trait in humans? Partly co-opted as a social lubricant?

That’s the disturbing thought. There’s a reason for it? I mean, one we can approve of? And, if it is a deep trait, the implication is that it could be something we’re stuck with, except on the evolutionary timescale. The prospect of having to listen to people witter on about wind, rain, and nice or dreich days, for the rest of my life, fills me with renewed dread.

Howwwwever. Possibly there’s an upside. It is, after all, important that people should start taking climate — rather than weather — seriously. Might there be a way of co-opting the trait again so that instead of mostly commenting on today’s weather, and where we might once have commented on the advancing seasons, people instead comment on and think about larger scales? Could we set in motion a default conversation about CO2 levels and annual average temperatures, rather than rain hail and shine? About the extent of permafrost and icecap melt, or sea levels?

The answer seems to be: Doubtful. Because they’re not things that can be immediately observed. People talk about weather they can directly experience. In fact, people talk about weather they think other people will agree about whether they’ve really experienced anything or not.

Still, there might be a way into it. People would talk about things they’re aware of. So if there were readouts of the latest CO2 figures, average sea-level figures, daily estimated permafrost methane releases, visible everywhere we currently see clocks . . . ? Or even if these were included in the weather report. It would give us something to talk about. And it would be something meaningful. Even I might break my silence more often.

Or, if we’re not going to do that, what are we going to do?

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by electropict on 2017-02-11 00:00

Perhaps this idea could be testable on the basis that in places where it’s cloudy most of the time and you can’t see the stars, a locally adapted population would tend to chat about the weather in a higher proportion than in a comparable area with mostly clear skies, where a locally adapted group would would tend to talk about the stars more. You’d need to correct somehow for the effect of not having anything to say about repetitive sunny days, though.

If valid, this doesn’t necessarily explain megaliths built on the Atlantic seaboard of Scotland and Ireland . . . although if the climate was warmer in the megalith-building period, it may also have been clearer at times. Enough to make astronomy more practical than it is now, at least . . . (Speaking as one whose experience of significant astronomical occasions at megalithic monuments has mostly been cloudy and wet.) That said, it calls into question what period such a behavioural adaption would need to have occurred over to be a measurable trait — if we assume that talk about stars became less significant around the time that astronomy became less viable due to cloudier climate, and if we date that to around the time the megalith-building ceased (but I can think of other causes for that), has there been enough time for the development of a renewed trait of chatting about weather? Possibly yes in these areas, because that’s over a hundred generations, and would have come after only a similar period of presumptive clear skies; but possibly no because of the spread in the last hundred generations of other calendrical methods.

Whether anyone would like to do such research or how you would design the study is another issue. (wink emoticon)


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