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Stargate | Daniel Jackson: Why Space Needs Archaelogists

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We all know that science fiction is beloved by geeks. Yes, a lot of people will watch more mainstream things like Star Trek and Star Wars, but do they read the books? Do they go to conventions? Do they know the name of the actors (apparently this is the true sign of geekery)? 

Science fiction is such a niche that it has created the infamous ‘sci-fi ghetto’. This is the long-lasting stigma against works of science fiction and fantasy, which saw them dismissed simply for being in those genres. Their actual content or merit didn’t matter – what did matter was that they were inferior to real works.

Oddly enough, there is also a bit of ghetto within the geek community itself. The fandoms around urban fantasy shows and harder, space-based sci-fi shows are, in most cases, strictly divided, even though I’m sure we’ll still have people studying the arts and humanities in the future. It’s a shame if you’re a geek like me – I love fantasy novels, but I also love sci-fi, and it would be nice to see someone with my interests in one. With the exception of Star Wars and its Zen space wizards, if you have a wise mentor figure in sci-fi, they come in a lab coat, whilst over in urban fantasy they’re wrapped in tweed.

Maybe this reflects the reality of geekiness – there seem to be far more geeks in the hard sciences than anywhere else, after all. Undeniably shows like Star Trek played a role in inspiring young people to pursue STEM, and the typical pop-culture stereotype of the ‘nerd’ involves an aptitude for science and maths, and a level of social dysfunction or lack of empathy that renders the humanities a cold abstraction.

Whatever the reason, being a geek who is not into\involved with the ‘usual’ hobbies or jobs can be a lonely prospect. I have found my people in many ways! But in many ways, I still haven’t. Everyone wants to see themselves in the media they consume, even if they will accept not being able to. I’ve always wanted to see someone with my interests in a science fiction universe. That shouldn’t be such a hard ask, should it?

You know, it’s not easy being a geek, especially if your eyes glaze over when people start explaining quantum computing.

See also: Science of Star Trek | How Close Are We to TNG’s Ktarian Game? by Becca Caddy

Alien vs Archaelogist

Aris Boch: “Dr. Jackson. If you don’t mind treating my wound.”
Jackson: “I’m an archaeologist.”
Aris Boch: “I know. But you’re also a doctor.”
Jackson: “Of archaeology.”

‘Deadman Switch’ – S3, Ep7.

Enter Dr. Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks), an archaeologist slap-bang in the middle of a military science fiction series. The starting conceit of Stargate SG-1 is that parasitic alien megalomaniacs are masquerading as Ancient Egyptian gods (and eventually other deities), Daniel Jackson’s value in this specific scenario is obvious. He goes on missions with his team, translates languages, and gives insight into how the various Goa’uld operate. Think about the episode ‘Fair Game’ (S3, Ep3). O’Neill is made into the Earth delegate in a treaty dispute between the Goa’uld and the Asgard. What does Daniel do? He creates a presentation for O’Neill about the three Goa’uld involved – both their current status and planets, and also the mythology and history surrounding their names (Cronus, Nirrti, and Yu).

But as the series progresses, it evolves beyond ‘decode the hieroglyphics, save the world’, Daniel Jackson isn’t just there because the Goa’uld are Egyptophiles – he’s there because his knowledge of culture, languages – and even archaeology – is necessary for the subtleties of the Stargate program.

Outside of fiction, although there are too few of them to generalize about their work, there are a number of anthropologists working in the field of SETI – the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Dr. Cameron M. Smith, who teaches human evolution and prehistory at Portland State University and author of Principles of Space Anthropology: Establishing a Science of Human Space Settlement (2019) and Archaeology: An Introduction to Human Evolution and the Origins of Civilization (2021), is one. Currently, Dr. Smith is writing a book about the Drake Equation, a 1961 thought-starter estimating the number of alien civilizations in the Milky Way.

He very kindly took time out from his epic undertaking to offer his personal insights on how these seemingly incompatible fields of study might interact: “One of my fields of research and study has been in the last 15 or so years increasingly, the origins of, of the modern mind. That is behavioral modernity, the minds of modern humans, as opposed to, let’s say, Neanderthals or other closely related species. And wow, what a change we’ve had in the last 20 or so years, there’s been radical, radical improvement in our understanding of how the mind changed through time and how it evolved, and how monitored consciousness came to be.

“Well, most SETI researchers had no idea of any of that. And for that reason, that was part of my book proposal for the Drake Equation was to say, look, people are getting evolution wrong, they’re getting civilizations wrong – which I’m qualified to talk about because I’m an archaeologist – they’re getting cognition wrong and intelligence wrong. So I said, I can help to work on the last four factors, or at least the last three factors, by clarifying them for other SETI people, and, and bringing them up to date with what they are awfully out of date on, in many cases.

“So when you see a physicist do a Drake Equation, they typically have really significant misconceptions about how evolution works, how intelligence works, and what civilizations are, why they collapse, and how long they might endure. And those are the things I’m trying to clear up.”

Though first contact scenarios are a firm favorite for sci-fi, there’s a possible role for archaeologists there too – regardless of whether they’re posing as Babylonian fertility deities or not. (And they almost certainly won’t be, by the way.)

“I think a few anthropologists who have to do with cognition and language might be involved,” says Dr. Smith. “I think whoever is brought in is going to only make progress if they are working on an evolutionary approach to what they’re doing. So there are a great many social scientists and anthropologists who are doing sort of critique type anthropology or postmodernist archaeology or anthropology where all knowledge is socially created, you’re inside a bubble, you can never get outside the bubble. I’m in a completely different world of using evolutionary principles as an explanatory guideline for what we see going on.

“I think you’re going to have to do with what [Richard] Dawkins calls Universal Darwinism; the principles of evolution probably occurred in the same way universally, just like gravitation. There’s a replication of life forms, there’s variation in those life forms, and then there’s selection upon them. Back in the 80s, [Dawkins] wrote a really great essay or book chapter called Universal Darwinism. And that convinced me that if we’re going to think about life beyond Earth, that’s a great guide.”

Dr. Smith concludes: “[Anthropologists] might have something useful to say if they’re guided by principles of evolution, and those do apply to the evolution of cognition, language, and intelligence. Archaeologists would be handy because they have a grasp of the passage of time, would be helpful if we found artifacts, of course, ancient ruins and remains of ancient life. And paleoanthropologists, or biological anthropologists, would be handy if we find traces of ancient primate-like life, although I don’t know… I’m writing the chapter right now on convergent evolution, so I can’t say whether we’re looking for primate-type life. But the point is, they have an understanding of how our genus Homo evolved. And maybe that would be helpful. Also, for, you know, for finding traces of any ancient life beyond Earth, that something like us, but, it’s a pretty big reach.”

Daniel’s lecture is interrupted by the invisible O’Neill in ‘200’ – S10, Ep6. | MGM, 2006.

See also: Stargate | Explaining the Greek Myth Behind ‘The Torment of Tantalus’ by Carin Marais

Social Science and Hard Science

Carter: “The probe indicates sustainable atmosphere. The temperature’s 78 degrees Fahrenheit, barometric pressure is normal.”
Jackson: “No obvious signs of civilization.”

‘Urgo’ – S3, Ep17.

What I always particularly loved about Daniel was his close friendship with Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping). You might argue that they would be friends anyway, given that they are the closest in age of everyone on the base (with the exception of Janet Frasier). But think about it for a minute – Sam and Daniel are completely opposite when it comes to their fields. Daniel, as already stated, is an archaeologist and a linguist. Sam is associated with the hard sciences, like astrophysics and engineering. I’m used to people looking down on the soft sciences and praising STEM, in real life and on TV. I was very worried that I’d see more of the same here, but no! Daniel and Sam work well together, get along, and never put each other down.

I think the best example of how well they gel is in ‘Thor’s Chariot’ (S2, Ep6) – Daniel and Sam need to find a way to speak to Thor directly, so they go through his gauntlet and work together to solve the puzzles. I love that whole episode so much. It really shows how the hard and soft sciences can complement each other.

Daniel touching the forbidden stone in ‘Thor’s Chariot’ – S2, Ep6. | MGM, 1998.

From Dr. Smith’s perspective though, there’s a definite cultural divide that keeps the two fields at arm’s length when it comes to SETI – although admittedly, the threat posed by the armies of tyrannical System Lords leaping through a network of wormholes armed with energy weapons does tend to focus people in a way that the real world, thankfully, hasn’t needed to.

“SETI has become much more professional in the last couple of decades,” he explains. “They really have become a world of exobiology, and they have a lot of plenty of NASA people there NASA fund some of their research. And so, they wanted to be very practical and show concrete results. And so they wanted to do regular science or the science of exobiology. And that’s really mostly done by biologists and chemists, extremophile biologists, that kind of thing. And so it doesn’t really involve anthropologists.”

In order to safeguard his professional reputation and credibility, both within his own academic field and within the strongly ‘hard science’ environment of SETI, Dr. Smith ensured his work was grounded in the universal language of science – data. His initial writing on space concerned human settlement rather than first contact: “I started out with papers in the top journals in space studies – for example, Acta Astronautica – because I wanted to show something very concrete. So I worked on the population genetics of populations going to an exoplanet on a multi-generational voyage. And I had numbers and statistics talking about genetics. SoI wanted to show that I wasn’t just going to talk in this very woolly way about what it might be like, beyond Earth.

“Once that was established, I did a couple of other papers, then I did a book called Principles of Space Anthropology. And in there, it’s, it’s basically how to maintain the biological and cultural health of human populations over multiple generations beyond the surface of Earth. And it’s not popular science, I wanted to make it a very technical book about the genetics of the individual and the population genetics and then how a culture is also an adaptive tool, and how things like language, religious belief, all these organizing principles of culture, how they will be adapted to conditions beyond Earth.”

Although still relatively underutilized, the shape of future human settlement and exploration is an emerging area of study for anthropologists and other social scientists. Although Daniel Jackson remains firmly involved in the high adventure side of the Stargate program, the next time an anthropologist stepped through the ripple it would most likely be to study the behavior of personnel at SGC’s off-world sites and aboard its ships.

This is the area that space anthropologist Savannah Mandel – currently a PhD (and MA) Candidate in Science, Technology and Society at Virginia Tech – is focused on. She tells us: “Social scientists’ expertise lies in their understanding of human culture, behavior, and practices. This can be applied in a multitude of ways. Yes, social scientists can analyze an individual’s behavior much as a psychologist would, but they can also offer analysis on group stability, social cohesion, material culture, political/religious/economic/racial/sex, and gender-related factors, as well as other value and belief systems. Social scientists offer a much deeper and holistic understanding of how human civilization might advance and evolve in space.

“Methodologically there’s a massive advantage to having a social scientist – or at least someone versed in social science methods – on a space mission. What I mean by this is that social scientists are often trained in ethnographic methods, where one conducts research on culture from within the culture itself. This type of research often fills in the gaps between statistical and quantitative understandings of behavior and the actual social context and rationale of what’s happening.”

See also: Stargate | SG-1’s Rules for the Perfect Sci-Fi Show by Kayleigh Dray

Seeing is Believing

Carter: “In order to preserve our past Catherine has to meet you years from now.”
Jackson: “So we go in disguise. Pretend to be… foreigners.”
O’Neill: “How are you going to do that? “
Jackson: “Well, I speak 23 different languages. Pick one.”

‘1969’ – S1, Ep21.

Daniel Jackson showed me myself in a sci-fi setting. He may not be entirely unique – I’m sure there are others like him out there – but he is the most prominent. Everyone knows him, even if only from James Spader’s performance in the movie. He shows us that the soft sciences or social sciences have their place in sci-fi, especially when that sci-fi involves new civilizations and worlds. You don’t just need physicists and engineers; you need linguists, anthropologists, and occasionally even archaeologists. You need people who know how people act, and you need to know what came before you.

Let’s be clear. I love sci-fi. But Stargate SG-1 will always be especially dear to my heart because Daniel Jackson is part of it. Science fiction doesn’t need to be solely focused on science – we can have some history and archaeology in there too!  We don’t bite!

Ultimately, Stargate SG1 (and the others) is about a military expedition exploring the galaxy. I’m sure it would have been very entertaining even without Daniel! But the character adds so much more to the story and creates so much depth. It would truly have been very different if he had been left on Abydon with Shar’e. Daniel is one among many in an ensemble cast, but he casts a long shadow. His return in the two-part episode ‘Children of the Gods’ (S1, Ep1-2) was a major plot point after all. Daniel’s skills and knowledge are indispensable. He does have a fairly major Russian-related misstep in the episode ‘1969’ (S2, Ep21), it’s true. But then he goes on to impersonate a German scientist well enough to fool the people he is talking to, and who can deny the utter badass nature of telling O’Neill to pick a language, and then pulling it off? His knowledge and skills are what bring them through many encounters relatively unscathed. How often would the team’s misadventures have proven fatal if it weren’t for Daniel’s language abilities and wide-ranging general knowledge?

Really, it’s Daniel’s insistence on his theories that sets the entire story up. The poor guy was laughed out of archaeology for his ideas about aliens using pyramids as landing pads, but in Stargate at least, it turned out to be true. He figured out the chevrons to dial the Stargate, he figured out the hieroglyphics on Abydon, and the rest is history. Thank goodness for Catherine Langford. If not for her, Daniel would still be a laughing stock, and we would never have taken our place as the fifth race.

I will always love Daniel Jackson for what he brought to science fiction, but I hope he won’t be alone. I hope to see other sci-fi media involving soft sciences through my life. Spare a thought for us, the poor humanities geeks!  Give us some representation among all the badass space colonels out there. 


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