New Humanist magazine has a very interesting article from Professor Timothy Taylor on the co-evolution of technology and humanity. Taylor argues that the first inventions of our hominid ancestors were strokes of outrageous luck at a time when our brains were no bigger than those of other apes. Rather, slings for carrying babies and flinging stones, followed by the first chipped stone tools, came first, and only then did our brain size begin to rocket.
Although we are, by most physical measures, far inferior to our great ape cousins, we are the earth’s dominant species. Where lions, crocs, sharks and chimps have powerful puncturing teeth, bears and eagles have claws, and ants have formic acid, we have guns, knives, rockets, poison gas, land-mines, grenades – a virtually endless list, not of natural attributes, but of artificial creations that far exceed our competitors’ natural strengths. These lethal inventions are predicated on our intelligence, the usual story of which involves competition, the accumulated advantages of smartness, and the extinction of the weak. Yet we are the weak, and without technology cannot be strong. So the standard evolutionary tale of us becoming brainier by degrees until we were able to make stuff cannot be true. The alternative, that things came first, evolving us, seems counter-intuitive. But it fits the evidence.