Ever since I read Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time", this phrase has been echoing in my head. How typical of me. I read a book describing the history and possible future of our understanding of the laws which govern our universe, and what do I take from it? Two things, and two things only:

  1. The completely trippy concept that black holes, aren't black at all and moreover are slowly "evaporating" at the quantum level (put that in your pipe and smoke it!)
  2. the amusing anecdote used to open book.

Various internet sources suggest a wide range of details, but the point of the story remains the same. Here's my version of it:

A well known scientist has just finished a public lecture on cosmology, describing how the Earth orbits the Sun, the Moon orbits the Earth, and even the sun itself orbits around the galactic center along with billions of other stars which constitute our galaxy. At the end of the lecture an old woman in the back stands up and says, "What you've told us is rubbish! I happen to know the world is a flat plate resting on the back of four gigantic elephants!"

"And what do the elephants stand on?" says the scientist, thinking to foil her.

She crows back, "Why, on the back of an even larger turtle, of course!"

"And what does the turtle stand on?" he continues, sure he has her now.

"On the back of another turtle!"

"And what does that turtle stand on?" asks the scientist, now growing exasperated.

"It's no use, young man," the old woman replies brightly, "it's turtles all the way down!"

Hawking uses a shorter version to open his book. He assumes the concept of a flat earth supported by turtles will seem amusing and absurd to everyone who reads it. This allows him to ask how they know it's absurd and then spend the rest of the book answering that question (and others).

It stuck with me, however, for an entirely different reason - because Hawking's assumption is wrong. I know people who believe the devil put dinosaur bones in the ground to test our faith. I know other people who are quite vocal about the "hoax of carbon dating". I'm afraid to ask, but I'm sure I even know a few people who agree with the old woman about the turtles. Given the current political climate of bioterrorism and nuclear saber-rattling, apparently some of the people in power agree with her, too.

Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Bantam Books, 1998)
"Turtles all the way down", http://andstuff.org/TurtlesAllTheWayDown (2003-Dec-22)

The turtle anecdote has a special meaning to anthropologists. Clifford Geertz uses one version of the story to illustrate a point about both culture and anthropology in his classic essay on thick description. He writes,

There is an Indian story--at least I heard it as an Indian story --about an Englishman who, having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, asked (perhaps he was an ethnographer; it is the way they behave), what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle? "Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down. (Geertz 1973)

The idea here is that culture is the turtles. When the anthropologist tries to explain a particular belief or value or practice, what she does is reveal a turtle--another belief or value or practice. Beneath that second turtle is third belief or value or practice, and then another, ad infinitum. This isn't to say that interpreting a bit of culture is futile. Indeed, Geertz believes that such interpretation is the heart of the anthropological enterprise. However, the task will never be complete, and an ethnographer will never be able to capture all the meanings involved in a particular bit of culture. Instead, the best she can hope to do is to understand as much as she can about the various ways that belief or value or practice fits into its many contexts. Culture constantly references and builds upon culture.

Most cultural anthropologists (at least in the US) are familiar with this essay, and many have since said or written "turtles all the way down" to express what is now an article of dogma among much of the profession. While an anthropologist can certainly find an important and more or less accurate interpretation of what a bit of culture means, that interpretation will never be complete. There is always room for reinterpretation, argument, and more turtles.

The importance of the turtles to contemporary anthropology is evident in the suspicion of many cultural anthropologists toward sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, cruder forms of economic determinism, and other mechanistic explanations for bits of culture. Simply put, these modes of explanation tend to invoke one and only one turtle, not leaving any room for subsequent reptiles.

Geertz, Clifford
1973 "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture." In The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Naturally, Terry Pratchett's Discworld universe has made use of this saying. Great A'tuin, of course, doesn't need to stand on anything, seeing as he (or possibly she) is swimming through space, and not standing on anything at all.

In The Science of Discworld the co-authors (Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, doncha know - terrific scientific writers) are discussing the origin-of-time dismissal answer of saying, "it's always been there, it doesn't need explaining!" Here's how the refutation works:

Take the phrase, "It's turtles all the way down." Sounds silly, doesn't it? Not something a right-minded person like you would think, oh argument dismisser.

Now, if you don't mind, please be so good as to replace the word 'turtles' with 'time', and 'down' with 'back'.

It's time all the way back, hmm? Did you not just express the opinion that such sentiments were silly? Well, I did, but you weren't in any real hurry to disagree, were you?

That's what I thought. Run along and play, little dismisser of arguments, while we astrophysicists have fun with our special theories.

And, lo and behold, the time-all-the-way-back theoriser hangs their head in shame and departs. Which is silly, really, because when you start to play with theories about the origin of the space-time continuum, infinite time is a possibility. So is an infinite pile of turtles, for all we know. Some of those special theories get rather strange.

Naturally, in the end, the age of time is left as a question mark. The point is made that, even if time is standing on an infinite pile of more time, it still needs explaining. You ain't getting out of it that easy.

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