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Who would win in a fight: astronauts or cavemen?

25th February 2007 (17:16)
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Over on atbvs, AoQ has just reviewed A Hole in the World, and naturally enough the question of Astronauts v Cavemen has sparked off much discussion. Even though it’s obvious to all right-thinking people that astronauts would clearly be the winners in a fight, some misguided souls apparently disagree: so I thought I’d set out my ideas here – taking the question both literally and (probably more interestingly) as a metaphor for the series.

First, taking the question literally. Some people seem to see this as a question of brains versus physical strength, as though astronauts are all scrawny, intellectual egg-heads. But in that case, wouldn’t the question have been “scientists versus cavemen”? In reality, most astronauts have been serving or former military personnel, and all are carefully chosen and fully trained to be at the peak of physical fitness. They also benefit from a modern diet – look at ancient suits of armour in museums to see just how tiny people in the olden days were compared to us. True, the average Paleolithic hunter-gatherer would probably enjoy a high-protein diet and plenty of exercise, so would be fit and healthy compared to, say, a mediaeval peasant. Even so, I think the advantage of strength and fitness would clearly belong to the astronauts – and that’s even ignoring the fact that, as members of the armed forces, they have probably been trained in modern hand-to-hand combat techniques.

One of the terms of the argument in the episode is that the astronauts “don’t have weapons”. I’m going to assume that this means they don’t get to bring any of their technology with them to the fight, not that they’re barred from making or adapting any tools during it. (And that the same restriction applies to the cavemen). Now, I’ll concede that “primitive does not equal stupid”, and the cavemen are going to be able to plan ambushes, make use of terrain, and improvise weapons from natural materials. But so are the astronauts! And the big advantage they have is their modern education (including, in most cases, military basic training and officer command school).

In pre-literate societies, knowledge comes from experience or oral tradition, which is great as long as you’re doing the exact same things that your ancestors always did. If the environment changes or a situation crops up that’s outside your group’s communal experience – such as fighting a group of astronauts – then you’re in big trouble, because you have no precedents to base your behaviour on. But the modern people can draw on the experience of not only their own family and neighbours, but any person throughout history who’s written down their knowledge. The cavemen might have an initial advantage – for example, if the battlefield has flint nodules lying around, they may be able to fashion a handaxe from them while the astronauts are still wondering and experimenting with the different rocks to see which ones can be made into tools. But the caveman might walk straight past the yew coppice without noticing it, because he’s never heard of a bow and arrow and can’t even conceive of a weapon that can kill him from a hundred paces away… until it’s too late. Likewise, a caveman may be able to make fire by banging flint and iron pyrites together, but be unaware that you can also do it with a friction drill – the astronaut might never have used either method, but should be aware of both of them.

So the answer is that the astronauts should always win… as long as they don’t get trapped into playing the game the cavemen’s way. Which, when you think about it, is pretty much the message of Angel Season 5, which brings us neatly to the metaphorical part of the question. :)

In the episode, it seems clear that astronauts represent modernity, and cavemen the ancient powers such as Illyria. A Hole in the World shows our heroes employing all the tools of modern science and technology, from the extensive multi-million dollar W&H laboratory to their “really good” jet aircraft, to try to save Fred - but it’s all in vain. Illyria, the caveman, triumphs… and in her last bleak moment of lucidity, the dying Fred acknowledges it. “Cavemen win. Of course cavemen win.” After all her bravery and defiance throughout the episode, refusing to admit defeat, refusing to accept that there is no solution, she finally surrenders to despair. It’s a defeat not only for her, but for the whole of Team Angel.

Or is it?  Fred may be gone, but her influence, her memories – arguably, her soul (that was consumed by and thus integrated into Illyria) – achieve the impossible; they humanise an Elder God. By the end of the series they turn her, much to her own bemusement, into one of the most powerful Champions for Good on the planet. The caveman chooses to become an astronaut. She even becomes an aficionado of that most modern of electronic technological gizmos, the Playstation.

The message here is that awful things happen, but the human spirit can still triumph in the end. As I explained above, I don’t really accept that the caveman-astronaut metaphor is primarily about strength versus intelligence, or rationality versus instinct. Cavemen were just as capable of intelligent reasoning as we are (this is where I plug Hiywan’s Story as my own take on a stone age tribal culture), but they were restricted to repeating what they knew, or what their parents knew. They may not have been stupid, but they were ignorant. That’s why fifty thousand years of human history went by between the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel, while in the last hundred years we went from primitive aircraft made from canvas and plywood held together by wire and glue, to being able to buy a little electronic box for your car that communicates with a satellite spinning 12,600 miles out in space, to tell you your exact position anywhere on the Earth.

Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. It's harsh, and cruel; people like Fred can die pointless, painful deaths not because they deserve it, but because they simply got in the way. Some people just accept that, and bow their heads and shuffle along the same old paths hoping that fate won’t notice them. They’re the cavemen.

But astronauts defy the bonds of gravity and reach up to touch the heavens. They live as though the world was what it should be, to show it what it can be.

They may not always win, but being defeated isn’t a sin. Giving up is. By the end of season 5, Angel had realised that.
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Comments

Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 25th February 2007 17:54 (UTC)

Niiice. Love the metaphorical spin you put on this.

And I never understood why anyone would think a bunch of highly-trained professionals used to extreme conditions (such as driving for 36 hours wearing a diaper) wouldn't kick the collective ass of a bunch of scrawny, malnourished cavedwellers who often died of old age well before 30. But just to keep it in canon:

Examples of cavemen (-women) in the Jossverse: The shadowmen and... well, s2 Fred.

Examples of astronauts in the Jossverse: The Serenity crew.

I can buy Fred managing to hide from a spaceship. But seriously, if it came to hand-to-hand... Inara would kick her ass, not to mention Mal, Zoe or Jayne.

Was that a geeky comment? Sorry. ;-)

Posted by: Mrs Darcy (elisi)
Posted at: 26th February 2007 14:23 (UTC)
Slayer by kathyh.

In the Buffy verse, cavemen won the world from the demons. And...

Cavemen (the shadowmen) made the Slayer.

Astronauts (Maggie Walsh) made Adam.

Cavemen won.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 26th February 2007 22:50 (UTC)

Cavemen (the shadowmen) made THE Slayer.

Astronauts (Willow)* made EVERY girl who could be a Slayer, into a Slayer.

Astronauts won.


*Willow's a science geek. She loves computers. She plays with advanced robots. Even with magic, she's not content to rely on musty old traditional formulae; she creates her own new spells on the fly. She's constantly trying to learn new things and find out new information. Willow's an astronaut.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 26th February 2007 22:44 (UTC)

Thanks. I'd not considered the Firefly angle, but it does prove the point.

Still, you did overlook one other caveperson from the shows: CaveSlayer from 'Beer Bad'. (I know, most people repress the memory...). Which gives us the other Ultimate Geek Question:

Who would win in a fight, Buffy Summers or River Tam?

I think River would get in a lot more blows than Buffy; she's far more agile and has the advantage of knowing what Buffy's thinking of doing as soon as Buffy herself does. On the other hand, the Slayer can withstand a lot more blows; and if Buffy ever lands a solid super-strength punch or kick River's had it. So my money's on Buffy, but it would be a close thing. Of course, if they're allowed to use guns River wins hands down. :)

And if we're talking about Monster from the Id Buffy from 'Beer Bad', the astronaut (River) will win even more easily...

Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 27th February 2007 15:23 (UTC)

has the advantage of knowing what Buffy's thinking of doing as soon as Buffy herself does

That's not necessarily an advantage (depending on exactly how River's mind-reading powers work); Buffy - especially Caveslayer!Buffy - was never much for thinking things through; in fact, that usually just makes her doubt herself. Her strength has always been that she's ruled by her heart, her intuition. When it's clobberin' time, she doesn't think; she acts - and when in doubt, she usually starts by sticking a piece of wood through the heart of whatever she's facing. If River hesitates for a nanosecond to find out what Buffy's planning, she's spacetoast.

BUFFY: I gotta have a plan? Really? I can't just be proactive with pep?

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 27th February 2007 19:49 (UTC)

I thought about that, but I think it's already been catered for. Remember this line from 'Ariel'?

SIMON: The limbic system is what lets you do that - it's like a filter in your brain that keeps your feelings in check. They took that filter out of River. She feels everything. She can't not.

Why did they do that? I think the answer is that River isn't consciously processing the thoughts she 'hears'. It works on a much deeper level; she's receiving a broad-spectrum always-on instinctive-level picture of her opponent's brain processes. That means in a fight that she's not delaying to analyse her opponent's moves; the moment Buffy's subconscious decides to dodge left and punch with her right, River picks up that intention; and before Buffy's brain can order her motor nerves to begin moving her limbs, River's already dodging.

(It's possible that River is in fact a precog, which would make her even more dangerous in a fight; but my own interpretation is that she's just insanely good at picking up minute signals in her environment and reacting to them before anyone else has even noticed them).

Posted by: Mrs Darcy (elisi)
Posted at: 25th February 2007 17:59 (UTC)
Effulgent-FFL by andemaiar

The caveman chooses to become an astronaut.
Now that is a beautiful point.

But... we see the opposite happening too. In Angel's fight with Hamilton, Angel wins. And why? Because he is, at the most basic level, a caveman (vampire demon) and he wins when he unleases that primitive force (Spike: "I am talking about something primal. Right? Savagery. Brutal animal instinct.")- something that Angel has always scorned, even when evil:

SPIKE: Sod off! Come on. When was the last time you unleashed it? All out fight in a mob, back against the wall, nothing but fists and fangs? Don't you ever get tired of fights you know you're going to win?
ANGELUS: No. A real kill. A good kill. It takes pure artistry. Without that, we're just animals.


The fact that they've had this self-same argument for 120 years makes me very, very happy. :)

Some people just accept that, and bow their heads and shuffle along the same old paths hoping that fate won’t notice them. They’re the cavemen.
But astronauts defy the bonds of gravity and reach up to touch the heavens.

Now see this I'm not sure I agree with. I get your point, but... I can turn it on it's head.

Fred dies because the price of saving her is too great for the astronauts to pay. The caveman would not comprehend it, and would have saved her.

The atronauts weigh up risk and danger and results, and this can paraplyse them. Yes they can decide that the risk is worth it, but the cavemen will fight immediately, and without holding back.

Remember that Spike came closer to killing Buffy than Angel(us) ever did...

Posted by: Mrs Darcy (elisi)
Posted at: 25th February 2007 18:50 (UTC)
Spuffy - destroyer of worlds! by frimfra

Ok, more thoughts... see one fundamental thing is that every austronaut has a caveman inside. Wesley shooting his father? Pure caveman.

Which leads me to another thought: It's about balancing the two. I think this idea is *central* to Angel (and Spike): He's a vampire (caveman) with a soul (astronaut). The problem of course being that Angel hates what he is. We see it when he's fighting the fake swami, who tells him that he's fighting himself - and he is. He gets shaken to his core when he sees his true form in Pylea.

Now Spike always embraced that side, which is why I think he coped a lot better with the soul... and speaking of Spike, there's this:

"Love isn't brains, children, it's blood... blood screaming inside you to work its will."

Love turns even the greatest of autronauts into a caveman... just look a Wesley. Or Angel. Or Buffy...

Buffy: But I can't help thinking - isn't that where the fire comes from? Can a nice, safe relationship be that intense? I know it's nuts, but.. part of me believes that real love and passion have to go hand in hand with pain and fighting.

The fire/love parallels are so overwhelming in the Buffy verse, that (on a metaphorical level, obviously) they should definitely be taken into consideration. Fire is also dangerous of course, and we see Spike in S5 (of AtS) be extraordinarily wary of fire. (Would go into more detail, but I'm too tired.)

Anyway - metaphorically the battle is internal. It's between head and heart, reason and instinct, sense and passion etc. And the cavemen win because they have fire.

Posted by: Mrs Darcy (elisi)
Posted at: 25th February 2007 21:24 (UTC)
Spike - fighting for his soul by awmp

Last thought for the night: Spike was also a caveman who chose to become an astronaut. To use a very silly metaphor, his fire burnt his cave to the ground...

As I said, he gets very wary of fire.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 26th February 2007 23:06 (UTC)

You know, I was very condfident that you'd be one of the people replying to this post. I didn't, however, expect five separate replies... ;)

Anyway, I think you're taking the approach that cavemen are an analogy for basic raw instinct as opposed to rational thought, while I see it differently - cavemen are the people who [choose to] live in a cave, while astronauts are people who reach up to the skies. (Not that your metaphor is necessarily wrong - in fact, given the 'Beer Bad' evidence I mentioned in my reply to Foamy, I suspect Mutant Enemy would see the same metaphor. It's just not how I see cavepeople.

In Angel's fight with Hamilton, Angel wins. And why? Because he is, at the most basic level, a caveman (vampire demon) and he wins when he unleases that primitive force

Hmm. I disagree that Angel's simply releasing his primal inner demon. He doesn't flail wildly at Hamilton, much in the fashion of, oh, let's say, Spike; instead he recognises his opponent's mistake and coolly, deliberately uses his own advantage to exploit it.

True, it's symbolically important that he uses his vampire nature to win in the end; but to me that's a question of him finally accepting his full identity after a century of trying to pretend that Angelus is a totally separate person. He doesn't win because he sheds the 'false' trappings of civilisation, but because he learns to integrate both sides of his personality.

Fred dies because the price of saving her is too great for the astronauts to pay. The caveman would not comprehend it, and would have saved her.

You're saying that the cavemen would have chosen to murder hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings? I'm not thinking that's exactly a point in their favour... ;)

Recognising that people not in your own family or clan are still human and worthy of respect is one of the finer achievements of the last couple of hundred years...

Posted by: Mrs Darcy (elisi)
Posted at: 27th February 2007 10:26 (UTC)
Fred/Illyria morph by amavel_bel.

I didn't, however, expect five separate replies... ;)
Sorry 'bout that. That's what happens when RL is busy and computer time is all chopped up. And when I keep getting new thoughts! You don't mind spam, surely? *g*

while I see it differently
In which case the enitre argument becomes moot, because we're talking about different things. But I agree that if we take things the way you see them, then the astronauts win.

He doesn't flail wildly at Hamilton, much in the fashion of, oh, let's say, Spike
Careful now...

"I slew the white-haired one first."
Illyria, 'Time Bomb'

Why? Because Spike had been studying her, and was the one who might be able to defeat her in battle. Spike is a very intelligent fighter.

He doesn't win because he sheds the 'false' trappings of civilisation, but because he learns to integrate both sides of his personality.
The more I think about it, the more I'm sure that that's the answer. The cavemen/astronauts argument is a distraction. It's about integrating the two - and it's the most basic metaphor on both shows: For 7 years Buffy struggled with who she was - the girl or the slayer, because apparently they were always pulling in different directions. In the end of course she could be both. Angel for so long struggled with accepting his demon, but when he did, he won. (And this is foreshadowed all season 5!)

I'm not thinking that's exactly a point in their favour... ;)
Oh no. But that's what Buffy was willing to do in 'The Gift' (more or less).

Posted by: aycheb (aycheb)
Posted at: 25th February 2007 19:28 (UTC)

If I try and think about it literally a lot of comes back to why are they fighting at all. Cartoon cavemen are as mindlessly aggressive as Reavers, the Apache of Joss’s space western. We aren’t so convinced the native Americans were the aggressors with no moral code to hold them back these days.

Modern people can draw on the experience of not only their own family and neighbours, but any person throughout history who’s written down their knowledge.

Provided they have access to those books. Modern education relies on training people in different specialisms – no-one expects to know everything just where to look it up or who to ask. A lot depends on how diverse your astronauts backgrounds are supposed to be (it’s a measure of how Wesley has changed and not necessarily for the better that he asks first about weapons not librarys).

The caveman chooses to become an astronaut

The astronauts weigh up risk and danger and results, and this can paralyse them. Yes they can decide that the risk is worth it, but the cavemen will fight immediately, and without holding back.


The cavemen, if we use Spike’s definition, win the battle yet lose the war. Illyria has a new body but the world she knew is dust and it brings her only grief. Caveman loses but do the astronauts win? Angel’s arrives at his final strategy by doing what the ancient powers that be tell him to, following Illyria’s realpolitik tactics and absorbing the blood of the Senior Partners.

You could read the cavemen/Illyria as a metaphor for the past, the thing Angel especially but all of them to some extent (Spike included) are trying to avoid or escape by staying at W&H. Time though is a black hole to our would be astronauts, as inescapable as entropy, stronger than fire, colder than ice, outliving both passion and rationality.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 26th February 2007 23:14 (UTC)

Provided they have access to those books. Modern education relies on training people in different specialisms – no-one expects to know everything just where to look it up or who to ask.

Valid point... although it's through my reading of science fiction and fantasy books even more than any actual studies that even I have at least a theoretical knowledge of how to make fire (put one stick in a hole in the other, wind some kind of thread about it for leverage, and pull rapidly to and fro so it spins and creates friction), what a flint axe looks like and how to make it, and what ingredients go into gunpowder (although I'm not sure I'd recognise saltpetre if I saw it, at least I know roughly what it is and how it was manufactured...) I'd assume a high proportion of astronauts would have similar interests, else why volunteer for the space programme? :)

Posted by: aycheb (aycheb)
Posted at: 27th February 2007 21:35 (UTC)

To play golf on the moon?

Posted by: Mrs Darcy (elisi)
Posted at: 26th February 2007 12:28 (UTC)
Fred/Illyria morph by amavel_bel.

OK, I'll try to tackle the literate interpretation too...

That’s why fifty thousand years of human history went by between the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel, while in the last hundred years we went from primitive aircraft made from canvas and plywood held together by wire and glue, to being able to buy a little electronic box for your car that communicates with a satellite spinning 12,600 miles out in space, to tell you your exact position anywhere on the Earth.
Well... take f.ex. Michelangelo and the caveman who first thought to record his own image on the cavewall. I'd say that the latter action required a leap of imagination and genius far beyond the former.

In pre-literate societies, knowledge comes from experience or oral tradition, which is great as long as you’re doing the exact same things that your ancestors always did. If the environment changes or a situation crops up that’s outside your group’s communal experience – such as fighting a group of astronauts – then you’re in big trouble, because you have no precedents to base your behaviour on.
Now this is true, but it reminds me of a language lesson during my A-levels. The teacher said that languages always more from complex towards simplicity. Which prompted me to ask - how did they get complex in the first place? Which he couldn't answer. As you say, primitive does not equal stupid, but neither does it equal simple.

So faced with a completely new situation a caveman might be perfectly able to think outside the box. The astronaut would have history and knowledge on his side, true, but a caveman would be accustomed to use any advantage there was for his taking. For him it would be a matter of life or death every day - and when new situations came it was a case of adapt or die. And the human race excels at survival.

So the answer is that the astronauts should always win… as long as they don’t get trapped into playing the game the cavemen’s way.
The obvious RL example of that would be Vietnam... and still, I wouldn't agree that it's as cut and dry as you make out. If the battle was on a spacestatoin, the astronauts would win. If it was on the caveman's own turf, they'd win. But if the battle was somewhere foreign to both? I'd be careful where I put my bet!

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 26th February 2007 23:27 (UTC)

take f.ex. Michelangelo and the caveman who first thought to record his own image on the cavewall. I'd say that the latter action required a leap of imagination and genius far beyond the former.

Sure. But after that first cavewoman painted her picture (let's not assume it was a man... ;) )another 15,000 years went by before anybody thought to try something different. Compare that to the amount of progress even in the graphic arts we've made since Michelangelo's time. (I'm talking about technical progress, not improvements in artistic ability, obviously.)

So faced with a completely new situation a caveman might be perfectly able to think outside the box. The astronaut would have history and knowledge on his side, true, but a caveman would be accustomed to use any advantage there was for his taking. For him it would be a matter of life or death every day - and when new situations came it was a case of adapt or die.

My point is that the astronaut has a much bigger box, so he doesn't need to think outside it as much. :)

Not to mention that I suspect the typical caveman's daily life would be just as routine as our own, if not more so: less fighting sabre-tooth tigers and more picking berries, digging up roots and looking after fussing babies, every single day.

And if you don't think astronauts are ever in a situation where they have to adapt or die, just look at Apollo 13...

Posted by: Mrs Darcy (elisi)
Posted at: 27th February 2007 10:39 (UTC)
gratification by buttersideup.

Compare that to the amount of progress even in the graphic arts we've made since Michelangelo's time.
Of course - progress gathered momentum and accelerated as time went on. I think my point is that the astronauts have more knowledge, but the cavemen might be just as smart. Streetsmart rather than booksmart. :)

less fighting sabre-tooth tigers and more picking berries, digging up roots and looking after fussing babies, every single day.
I think I meant adaptability. Humans have settled everywhere from the desert to the frozen tundra, often living right on the edge of existence. Learning to use everything there for the taking, living in the most delicate of balance with their environment.

And if you don't think astronauts are ever in a situation where they have to adapt or die, just look at Apollo 13...
Ah but that's a crisis situation (sabre-tooth tiger attack) - I meant every day being a struggle survive. Inventing a new tool or discovering a different source of food could mean life or death. A desert island scenario.

Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 27th February 2007 14:46 (UTC)

But isn't the point precisely that cavemen (an incredibly broad misnomer, but we've gotta work with what Joss handed us) didn't invent new tools on a daily basis, and didn't survive? For the vast majority of human history, life expectancy has been something like 20-30 years. Flint axes looked pretty much the same for 2 million years. IIRC, technological advances beyond spears and axes didn't really come into play at all until we became agricultural - by which time we, by some sort of definition, were no longer "cavemen".

It's true that mankind on a whole is capable of incredible adaptation, we'd colonized every continent except Antarctica long before we even discovered metal, but we're not talking about tribes adapting over thousands of years here - we're talking about individuals in a stressful situation, where every second may count. And I just don't see them inventing brand new weapons at a moment's notice when faced with an astronaut; if they could, they would have done so the first time they came upon a cave bear. They will have advantages, absolutely; they will know where to set traps, how to make clubs and hand axes, how to find water in the wilderness, which berries are edible... but once the astronauts put together a bow and arrows or domesticate a horse I don't see the cavemen standing a chance.

Posted by: Mrs Darcy (elisi)
Posted at: 27th February 2007 19:22 (UTC)
Slayer by kathyh.

See all this just shows why I find this such an awkward argument when taken literally. There are too many unknowns. Where are they fighting for a start? The environment could make all the difference. To be honest I never gave the literal interpretation much thought - for me it's far more interesting as metaphor. And when it's a metaphor, my position is neatly summed up in this argument:

Kendra: Emotions are weakness, Buffy. You shouldn't entertain dem.
Buffy: Kendra, my emotions give me power. They're total assets!
Kendra: Maybe. For you. But I prefer to keep an even mind.
Buffy: Mm. I guess that explains it.
Kendra: Explains what?
Buffy: Oh, well, when we were fighting, uh, you're amazing! Your technique, it's flawless, it's, hmm, better than mine.
Kendra: I know.
Buffy: Still, I woulda kicked your butt in the end. And ya know why? No imagination.
Kendra: Really? Ya tink so?
Buffy: Oh, I know so. You're good, but power alone isn't enough. A good fighter needs to know how to improvise, to go with the flow. Uh-uh, seriously, don't get me wrong, y-you really do have potential.
Kendra: Potential? I could wipe de floor wit you right now!
Buffy: That would be anger you're feeling.
Kendra: What?
Buffy: You feel it, right? How the anger gives you fire? A Slayer needs that.

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