SHORT: PAY ATTENTION TO THE CREEPS IN UNCANNY VALLEY

Back in the 4th or 5th century BC Hanno the Navigator discovered a strange and terrifying race of people.

The Carthaginian Empire was looking to colonize northern Africa and in the 4th or 5th century BCE, sent Hanno with a fleet of 60 ships to explore and establish settlements in the region. Over the course of the exploration, Hanno met a variety of indigenous people with varied receptions. Seven colonies were established.

Toward the end of Hanno’s exploration, an island was discovered with what have been described as “hirsute and savage people.”  The natives were extremely violent. Attempts to establish trade failed. Attempts to capture the men failed. Three women were captured but became so violent that they were killed. In a bizarre twist, the women were skinned and their remains displayed in the Temple of Juno back home where they remained for a few centuries until Carthage fell to the Romans in 146 BC.

Hanno gave these incredibly strong people a name meaning “wild and hairy people”, the Greek word for which is gorillai.

Uncanny Valley is the term used to describe the relationship between the degree of an object’s resemblance to a human and the emotional response to that object. The idea suggests that humanoid objects which appear mostly, but not exactly like real human beings, create feelings of eeriness, unease, and revulsion in observers. In other words, it’s basically a human likeness but something is off.

This is why clowns creep us out, even before Stephen King. Last fall I took my grandsons to see a clown. He was nice, and funny. All the time he was performing coin tricks with Drake and then dressing Brendan up in balloons, I noticed I repeatedly told myself that inside this person-like-thing-but-not-quite, there was indeed a human. The clown didn’t match my idea of a person and I was on edge in spite of the fun (as well as some of the kids too I noticed).

So when Hanno came to the gorillas, having never seen one on a field trip to the zoo or on Animal Planet, it’s easy to understand the explorer thought they had discovered some very wild, violent and hairy individuals here in spite of what had to be a strong feeling of Uncanny Valley. Yes, they were different but all of the peoples thus far were different. Most importantly, all the human basics were there. The logic and rationale of a right appearance-ish overcame intuition, which is our instinct.

And that’s how Uncanny Valley works: it’s that irrational nudge that tells you something is wrong and not always able to put your finger on it. It could be harmless: You look different. Did you get a haircut? Or something more concerning: That loner in the basement cubicle at work keeps asking me to go fishing. My wife can tell is a woman is pregnant in the first few weeks, before they even show. She can also tell when I’ve raided her stash of chocolate by my guilty behavior. It’s an animal instinct that most of us have learned to ignore.

Imagine for a moment you are a coastal gorilla peaceably eating your leaves when unexpectedly one day a ship arrives with gorilla-like beings, but something is off with these skinny, pale and almost completely hairless gorillas. You have a strong feeling of Uncanny Valley and for good reason. They are attacked and three of their own are taken away. When that happens to humans, it’s called an “alien abduction.”

Trust your “instincts.” When something seems off, chase down the “why.” Don’t get carried away.

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