Assuming that you believe in evolution (which I do), then the way most folks think about things is that sometime around 1.8 million years ago, for one reason or another, our ancient ancestors started to become more intelligent, which allowed us to start creating tools.
Furthermore, as our intelligence increased, we continued to make more and more complex tools. This is certainly the way in which things were presented to me as I meandered (some might say “blundered”) my way through the British educational system.
But maybe things didn’t occur in quite this way. In his book The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution, leading archaeologist Timothy Taylor proposes an alternative way of thinking about human evolution through our relationship with objects – specifically that it was our first use of primitive tools (or use of found objects in the earliest days) that conveyed significant advantages that spurred us to develop increased intelligence, which allowed us to develop more sophisticated tools, which drove further increases in intelligence, and so it went.
As it says in the book: “Our appropriation of objects and use of tools allowed us to walk upright, lose our body hair, and grow significantly larger brains. As we push the frontiers of scientific technology, creating prosthetics, intelligent implants, and artificially modified genes, we continue a process that started in the prehistoric past, when we first began to extend our powers through objects.”
I think Timothy makes some very compelling points. I also think he has an easy-going writing style that makes for an enjoyable read. The only problem I have is that it seemed to take us a long way to get where we were going. More specifically, it seemed to me that we kept on covering the same ground and that the same arguments (well, discussion points) were made over and over again with minor embellishments. Having said all of this, The Artificial Ape is well worth reading and I am sure that I shall return to re-read it in the future.
Maybe I’m just getting older and grumpier – or maybe my attention span is diminishing with age – but many of my negative points above also apply to a somewhat related book called Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham.
As presented in this book, the idea is that our evolution into modern humans began 1.8 million years ago when our forebears tamed fire and began cooking. Starting with Homo erectus (who should perhaps be renamed Homo gastronomicus), the use of fire drove anatomical and physiological changes that made us adapted to eating cooked food the way cows are adapted to eating grass. By making food more digestible and easier to extract energy from, Richard argues that cooking allowed our ancient ancestor’s guts to shrink, thereby freeing up calories to fuel their expanding brains.
In many ways Catching Fire and The Artificial Ape are two sides of the same coin – the books and ideas complement each other. Once again, the author makes many compelling points. My problem with Catching Fire is that same as for The Artificial Ape; that is, we kept on covering the same ground and that the same points were made over and over again with minor embellishments.
The Vision Revolution
Writing the above reminded me of another tome I read recently – The Vision Revolution: How the Latest Research Overturns Everything We Thought We Knew About Human Vision. In this book, prominent neuroscientist and vision expert, Mark Changizi, addresses four areas of human vision and provides explanations for why we have those particular abilities: (1) Why do we see in color? (2) Why do our eyes face forward? (3) Why do we see illusions? And (4) Why does reading come so naturally to us?
I have to say that there are some amazing things in this book and that it is well worth the read, but once again it seemed to take a long time to get where we were going.
Don’t be discouraged…
On re-reading the above, I realize that it sounds like I’m moaning and groaning a lot, but this is just my knee-jerk reaction. None of my negative comments should dissuade you in any way from reading any or all of these books, each of which provides a wealth of “stuff” to think about and changes the way in which we see things (no pun intended).
Your Inner Fish
While we’re here, maybe I should mention a book I really, REALLY enjoyed, which was Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin
This little scamp tells the story of our evolution by tracing the organs in the human body back hundreds of millions of years, long before the first creatures walked the earth. In addition to being skilled in paleontology and anatomy, Neil has an insatiable curiosity, tremendous enthusiasm, and a rare ability to write everything down in an interesting way. I loved every part of this book and absolutely recommend it as an amazing read.
Last but not least, I just took delivery of a new book that I cannot wait to read. The little rascal of which I speak is Brain Bugs: How the Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives by Dan Buonomano. Since I have not yet read this myself, I will simply provide the official “bumph” from Amazon, which reads as follows:
With its trillions of connections, the human brain is more beautiful and complex than anything we could ever build, but it's far from perfect. Our memory is unreliable; we can't multiply large sums in our heads; advertising manipulates our judgment; we tend to distrust people who are different from us; supernatural beliefs and superstitions are hard to shake; we prefer instant gratification to long-term gain; and what we presume to be rational decisions are often anything but. Drawing on striking examples and fascinating studies, neuroscientist Dean Buonomano illuminates the causes and consequences of these "bugs" in terms of the brain's innermost workings and their evolutionary purposes. He then goes one step further, examining how our brains function – and malfunction – in the digital, predator-free, information-saturated, special effects-addled world that we have built for ourselves. Along the way, Brain Bugs gives us the tools to hone our cognitive strengths while recognizing our inherent weaknesses.
If you are looking for a good book to read, then may I be so bold as to point you in the direction of some of my other reviews as follows:
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