More than a decade ago, the Colombian singer Shakira had a massive hit with a song called “Hips Don’t Lie.” The premise of the song, to the extent that such a song needs a premise, is that the singer found herself so attracted to someone that she was unable to hide that attraction and it came out through the way that her body moved. This is a useful enough premise as far as a song is concerned, but do we believe her or take what she says entirely seriously? Do we assume that in a world where people lie regularly and often, that someone would be so honest in their body language that the truth could not be hidden or disguised?
I do not think that this can be taken entirely seriously, but it need not be viewed as if Shakira’s hips were incapable of lying, but rather that in this particular case her hips were not lying because the singer was consciously using them to communicate her feelings for him. Like all means of communications, body language is far from flawless. We need not go into extreme details of how such communication can be faulty, but at least a few consistent patterns of problems can be readily obvious. Communication may be unintentional, so that the body language communicates that which a person does not acknowledge or realize about themselves, thus they may not always be willing or able to admit to what their body is saying. Alternatively, the signs may not be unambiguous, so that it may not be possible for someone who is not sufficiently aware of what is being communicated to recognize it and act on it. All too often in life people try to send signals to those who are oblivious to them and miss the point completely. It is also possible that people may be communicating something to someone, but may not be communicating with everyone who picks up the signal. Some people may recognize a signal that is in fact being sent by someone to someone else and they just happen to be in the way. Even without the hips lying, their message is far from clear.
Yesterday at dinner I had a conversation about genes not lying, and the not lying aspect of genes has made genetic genealogy a particularly appealing field for the answering of historical questions about the origins of populations as well as the family history of individuals. When you get your DNA tested, it may tell you things about yourself that you had no idea about, but it can also answer deep mysteries so long as it is viewed sufficiently deeply. Earlier this evening, for example, I watched a video on the genetics of the people of Rapa Nui that showed that beneath the mixed European and native Chilean ancestry that the people of Rapa Nui have from recent admixture between the remote island’s small Polynesian population and people from their imperial overlord Chile, there existed a previous pulse of background from the northern part of South America that is shared between the Polynesians of a group of islands in Eastern Polynesia.
While such genes do not lie, it is not always obvious what exact scenario occurred. Some Polynesians could have sailed to the northern Pacific coast of South America–they certainly had the ability to do so–intermarried with a given local population and returned to Eastern Polynesia before settling the last few islands in the region. Alternatively, they could have settled certain islands and found a population of people of Central American or nearby ancestry in those islands who had themselves traveled from the mainland, and assimilated that population before settling further. Our genes can tell us that mixture occurred, and if we have enough of it, we can tell from whom and roughly when that mixture occurred, but the genes themselves do not tell us under what conditions and in what context that mixture occurred. Genes don’t lie, but like anything else, they do not give us all the information we want to have either. As with Shakira’s hips, the message given by any form of honest communication is at least potentially ambiguous.
Such examples can easily be multiplied. Oral and written histories may tell us a great deal of information about the past, and we may be right to consider them to be generally valid, but the records of the past that we have, even if they can tell us important facts that we would have a hard time knowing otherwise, seldom answer all of the questions that we have. It is immensely easy for anyone, from a small child on up, to quickly come up with questions that we simply do not have answers for. Sometimes those answers may be possible to discover even if they are not generally known, and in such case, we may find it worthwhile to investigate to gratify the curiosity of the person asking. At other times, though, sometimes the answers are not only unknown, but we may not have any ability to answer those questions because we lack the proper information to do so. Returning to the example of Rapa Nui, the island had a script called Rongorongo that contains numerous writings, but none of the people who had knowledge of that text were able to survive the crisis the island suffered in the 19th century in the face of Peruvian slave raids and a massive depopulation crisis, leaving a text that obviously wishes to communicate something but which has no one alive at present who has yet been able to decipher that text, unfortunately. There is plenty of communication in this world that we simply are unable to decipher, and solving that problem is not an easy or trivial matter.