Did Humans Make Tools, or Did Tools Make Humans?

By Kyle Munkittrick | August 26, 2010 9:10 am

A human hand holding a piece of technology in the earliest of betas.

Is our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, the first cyborg species? Gizmodo/New Scientist has a fascinating article up about how humans evolved as a result of technology. Timothy Taylor, an anthropologist and archaeologist at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom, submits a theory I am very inclined to believe: that humans evolved from tool-using proto-human primates. This evolutionary path resulted in a “survival of the weakest,” which Taylor explains:

Technology allows us to accumulate biological deficits: we lost our sharp fingernails because we had cutting tools, we lost our heavy jaw musculature thanks to stone tools. These changes reduced our basic aggression, increased manual dexterity and made males and females more similar. Biological deficits continue today. For example, modern human eyesight is on average worse than that of humans 10,000 years ago.

Unlike other animals, we don’t adapt to environments – we adapt environments to us. We just passed a point where more people on the planet live in cities than not. We are extended through our technology. We now know that Neanderthals were symbolic thinkers, probably made art, had exquisite tools and bigger brains. Does that mean they were smarter?

Evidence shows that over the last 30,000 years there has been an overall decrease in brain size and the trend seems to be continuing. That’s because we can outsource our intelligence. I don’t need to remember as much as a Neanderthal because I have a computer. I don’t need such a dangerous and expensive-to-maintain biology any more. I would argue that humans are going to continue to get less biologically intelligent.

Taylor is not alone in his belief that technology of some kind came before Homo sapiens. Richard Wrangham’s book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, argues that the human-making tech was fire and cooked food. Easier to digest and less likely to cause disease, cooked food allowed for a smaller digestive tract to provide the immense amounts of energy required by our bigger brains. Both Taylor and Wrangham could be correct. In fact, many various technologies may have combined over time to allow and influence our evolutionary path.

Both Wrangham and Taylor’s findings support  the thesis that humans are, paradoxical as it may seem, technological by nature. As I stated last year in my IEET post “We Have Always Been Transhuman“:

What is so staggering about this revelation is that it means humans are not the product of evolution the way other primates are in that humans, should [Taylor and] Wrangham’s theory hold, are the evolutionary result of technological pressure and selection on a species. Erectus evolved from habilus due to technology and, concurrently, sapiens evolved as a species maximized to use technology. So, if technology is natural, and we (Homo sapiens sapiens) are a natural product of technology, then whither the boundary between the two? Is it us?

In other words, to be human is to be cybernetic. Humans are a species born of technology. Whoa.

Image “A biface (stone knife) found in Dordogne, France.” via Wikipedia

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology
MORE ABOUT: cooking, evolution, tool use

Comments (22)

  1. kirk

    It’s curious that 28 years after publication of Dawkin’s “The Extended Phenotype” this conjecture is considered a “revelation”. Survey of the art FAIL.

  2. @Kirk: Not quite. The argument Taylor and Wrangham are making is not that human tool-use is genetically imbedded, the way Dawkins did with the extended phenotype, but that the extended phenotype itself existed before the genus “Homo.” Taylor and Wrangham’s theories require the extended phenotype to be able to not only evolve itself (as Dawkins argues), but to influence and shape the evolution of a whole new genus.

    Because pre-humans had a tool-using extended phenotype, the human genus evolved in reaction to selective pressures involving the best usage of that very phenotype.

  3. George Buciu

    This is not really a new theory. Ronald Wright, in his book “A Short History of Progress,” argues that proto-humans came to be through regular evolution but the modern human came to be by evolving through culture (which includes everything from fire to tools to writing and so on). Thus, moderns humans are really an interesting result of their own making. Even before that, Richard Dawkins… oh look at the post above as well. lol

  4. SpaceManSpiff

    There was also a great book called “Making Silent Stones Speak” published by two archeologists in the 90′s advancing more or less the same theory (that our technology has shaped our evolution and vice versa) and which focused on an analysis of the stone tools used by proto-human hominids. I found it very persuasive: great to see the general idea seems to be getting some more traction in the conceptual marketplace.

  5. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Superficially for a layman, these ideas are up there in The Water Ape head-in-the cloud territory. It’s too much cart-before-the-horse to mention it all, but some of it is: Taylor invoking philosophy, Taylor invoking Kurzweil (who recently showed that he knows diddledy squat about brain and development) and his unsubstantiated techno-woo, Taylor not mentioning the hot area of gene-cultural evolution which subsumes technological development, et cetera.

    I guess Kyle Munkittrick’s comment on the extended phenotype not being a co-evolutionary scenario over traits but over species (!?) also belongs there; kirk is likely correct. I haven’t read Dawkins, but it would be curious if he meant an extended phenotype to be a macroevolutionary mechanism instead of precisely a phenotype/genotype mechanism. So add the extended phenotype to gene-cultural evolution among the not-new ideas here.

    More in detail, AFAIU some anthropologists ponder if the real defining character of the Homo lineage isn’t brain, technology or bipedalism but goes way back with the tooth/jaw arrangement. That would have started with our socializing ourselves to the extent that sexual dimorphism was depressed, as shown by our incisors. If so, aggression repression started way before tool use. The gene-cultural context rears its head again.

    The “selection for energy” brain hypotheses are still up in the air too.

    I’m more interested in Taylor’s extra-ordinary claims.

    - Shorter intestines from bipedalism? (The original Australophitecine reconstructions had a chimp-like trunk body. IIRC people hypothesize shorter intestines from better food, starting with scavenging carcasses but also hunting – so technology!)

    - Lost sharp fingernails (and those teeth again!) from tools? (So what about chimp nails? And some think _we_ have retained the generic hominid hand; nails should go with that, no?)

    - Modern human eyesight is on average worse than that of humans 10,000 years ago? (How does he know that? Modern human eyesight is btw pretty darn impressive compared to other extant apes, I take it.)

    Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. I wonder if and what he got?

  6. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Erectus evolved from habilus

    Perhaps, but it’s not an open-and-shut case, they may be more like cousins. [Oh, look, Wikipedia agrees. Then it must be true! :-D ]

    But I think you meant H. habilis.

  7. VIP

    We now know who the last link is between early man, neanderthal and homo sapiens, it’s us today. That’s why we write and read articles such as the one above.

  8. MartyM

    The idea that technology and cooking are shrinking our brains, worsening our eyesight, making us weaker, etc. seems to play into the terrible creationist argument that original sin is devolving us. Are we devolving? Is it the same thing? Has human biology peaked?

    Regarding:

    “Evidence shows that over the last 30,000 years there has been an overall decrease in brain size and the trend seems to be continuing. That’s because we can outsource our intelligence. I don’t need to remember as much as a Neanderthal because I have a computer.”

    Don’t you think we have myriads more information and social structures to know and remember now than humans did 30,000 years ago? Even if we rely on print and computers to hold information for us, don’t we actually know more regarding how to use these complicated tools (let alone to make them), and how to interact with each other in this advanced technological and political society?

  9. SpaceManSpiff

    @MartyM — I would argue that terms like “devolving” are meaningless, as is the the idea that human biology could have a “peak” — on what scale could such a peak be measured? The idea of evolution as progress towards some goal is meaningless — evolution just means change. Selection pressures mean that those changes persist which are best adapted to the environment. The only measure of success Darwinian evolution cares about is reproductive success. Sometimes this can mean evolution favors becoming less sophisticated, e.g. in the way a parasite can lose the ability to live independently of its host. It’s a simpler organism than its ancestors, but its adaption to its environment provides higher reproductive success. I would say that even accepting the concept of devolution as something real is playing into the creationist argument, which seeks to place humanity at the pinnacle of all creation. I agree Taylor is a too facile at times, but I’ve seen more sober arguments which also suggest that it’s true that we can not think of humans beings as separate from their technologies.

  10. Georg

    This kind of “news”
    is as superfluous as liquid helium. Man “made” by this or that,
    is nonsense in two aspects_
    1st- which kind of bones were “men” or “pre-men” changed
    often in the past, and will change in future.
    2nd- the “technology” which made mankind, was invented by those
    pre-men, therefore they should be entitled men.
    3rd goto 1st

    Georg

  11. MartyM

    @SpaceManSpiff – of course, evolution has no goal, but if there was such a thing as a scale from which to measure biological cresting, that wouldn’t mean there was a goal implied. Things such as strength, brain capacity, eye sight acuity, etc. could even follow some evolutionary sine curve (or some other function smooth or discontinuous) as mutations and adaptation occur. Honestly, I’ve rejected the creationist idea of devolving a while ago, but this post just made me think of it.

    Thanks for the response.
    Cheers.

  12. Vincent Archer

    > Are we devolving? Is it the same thing? Has human biology peaked?

    Define “peaked”. In Evolutionary framework, there’s no such thing as “peaked” – organism fits themselves to their environment. If the environment changes, the fitness changes, and the “peak” would no longer be a peak. Similarly, the term devolving is meaningless.

    We still evolve. It’s just that our environment now includes culture and technology. Dawkins treat this as an extended phenotype (i.e. a part of us that extends outside of us), I think of it as a part of the environment.

    A good example came recently from a survey about certain genes. The proportion of gene variants leading to young children diabetes is apparently growing. Some of those genes have secondary benefits. Normally, in a pre-XX century, this would still be bad: if you have too many wrong genes, you get diabetes, you die before reaching reproductive age. Unfit, selected against. But, for the last few generations, in a number of countries, we have a different environment, one in which the diabetes is detected and managed. As a result, since the environment lets us take advantage of the secondary effects, without having the primary problem, we’re starting to evolve in that direction.

  13. Grat post,i will recommend it to my friends.

  14. It’s a fair point that this article may be lacking evidence, and others may have suggested these things before, but it’s still a well written article. Some of the commenters above really demonstrate why we need articles like this. I’m not a scientist, but a highly educated professional, in other words I’m not stupid, but I’m also a stay at home parent juggling several things even as I read and write at times like these. Short, thought-provoking articles are a great stimuli – I don’t swallow everything word for word but it’s better than reading Richard Dawkins biased boring drivel (sorry if you don’t agree with me there but the God Delusion is the only book I actually threw on a bonfire). Some of the commenters above miss the point and get lost down the rabbit hole of their own pretentiousness – sounding so boring and getting lost in a rambling of conflicting scientific theory. It’s just a perspective and a thought-provoking one at that. I liked the read and it has been tweeted and retweeted often so obviously so do others. Thanks for writing it.

  15. Brian Too

    I’ve long thought that humanity was going to take control of our evolution. As we gain knowledge of how we are constructed, assembled, and what possibilities exist for us, our technology will become the driving factors of our evolution. Not the existence of predators, scarcity of food and other resources, environment, and so forth (externalities).

    This article makes me think that, far from being a future possibility, technological based evolution is already happening. In fact it’s ancient and far predates the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, and all of science. Thought provoking indeed.

  16. Kyle Munkittrick

    @MartyM & @SpaceManSpiff: Thank you for proving internet comment threads can contain a reasoned debate. I solute you!

    @Booperkit & Brian Too: Thanks! If I get you thinking, I’ve succeeded.

    also: HI REDDIT – SEND ME YOUR THOUGHTS

  17. Pat

    A long time fan of “make it once, and make it right” club, it doesn’t take superior knowledge to know that if mankind spins its wheels redoing what could have been done well in the first place, mankind would make more progress, not less; in theory, it would provide more prosperity, not less. Obviously, such a progressive political position would ordinarily be a popular one for humans, as well as a profitable one.

    If mankind is dumb enough to get in its own way to recycle profits for cash flow rather than to commit himself to progress, why should mankind have any faith in mankind, much less the flawed God who may have devised such a plan.

    If flaws occurred in manufacturing of rockets at the rate they occur in products to be sold, including autos that rely upon safety and efficiency, mankind would not yet be to the moon, nor would it be safe to go there.

    Human responsibility for each other ordinarily requires a plan, and that plan must be all inclusive, or it becomes a discriminatory plan, meant to serve the few, not the many. But in safety and efficiency, all men are equal in that those traits are generally not divisible for haves and have nots. Logical consequence suggests that mankind rises together or spins itself into oblivion and extinction. That is is a choice of humans, and governments alike is obvious.

    That the choice for success through progress and prosperity hasn’t been yet made by humans is one of the most determinate aspects of their frailty, and their flaw, whether developed by evolution, or by God.

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  19. Olybob

    I thoought that Lamarckism died with Lamarck or maybe it’s just now being passed along.

  20. Pat

    To say that mankind is little more than monkeys with tools would not be so far off base. How well those tools are used is generally the measure of excellence in mankind, along with the ability to create them, or improve them.

    What the tools are used for determines the morality of humans, and whether they are used for progress, or destruction, used for all, or simply hoarded for self enrichment.

    Mankind living without purpose reduces mankind to an extinguishable species because of, and in anticipation of the consequences that follow. Dignity can derive from few perceptions of excellence that follows that purpose like the tail mankind lost along the way. It is meant to be the invisible appendage it is.

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