Two Legs, Thing Using and Talking: The Origins of the Creative Engineering Mind
Professor F.T. Evans
School of Engineering, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK
Abstract: Instead of seeing technology as outside ourselves, it is argued that it is an innate human function and the main driving force in human evolution. Opportunistic 'thing using', long before stone tools appeared, was the likeliest cause of bipedalism. It also forced brain development and the emergence of creativity. The neural basis for this creative technical activity later provided the brain functions on which language could develop. This simple unifying hypothesis has interesting implications for the way that we see technology in history, and for determinist theories of the future. It also bears on the way engineers are trained, and more important, the human faculties which need to be fostered in children.
Keywords: Bipedalism; Creativity; Language origins; Palaeontology; Technology; Tool using;
The important thing is not what you know, but what you know about what you know.''
This paper explores our ideas about the nature of technology. It is a word with broad uses and we usually understand it from the context where it was used - there is no single precise definition. It sometimes means the advanced products of industrial society - Space Shuttles, computers, great bridges and so on. Often there is a hint of some overall process or force shaping human life. Formerly there were resounding phrases about the great forces of nature being used for the benefit of mankind - now critical voices are pointing out dangers to the environment.2 However, all these uses of the word treat technology as if it were a 'thing', out there, not a part of us. By contrast, it will be approached here as an inherent part of human behaviour. Kayaks and flint axes have been just as much a form of technology as Space Shuttles and computers are today, or clipper ships and stage coaches were a century ago. What happened in evolution to give us the sort of mind that designs these things?
These questions will be approached under three sections. First, there will be a short consideration of how we interpret events in technology. Some historians see it as a process determined by social and economic need. Others stress the inventive role of scientists and engineers. These technical issues which interest academic historians are important because they influence our view of the world. Two points are particularly important to the issues explored in this paper. Are we justified in thinking that mankind invented technology? What part does creativity play in all this?
In the second section of the paper, the question of creativity leads into a consideration of ideas about human origins. Is there any connection between creativity and technology on the one hand, and on the other hand, key characteristics of humanity - bipedalism, tool-using and language? Finally, the third section - what significance do these ideas have for our thinking on technology or its place in human life?
2. History, Creativity - and Did We Invent Technology?
As an academic subject, the history of technology has been a slow developer. The political, economic and social branches of history have been studied for many decades and more recently the history of science has became a full discipline. Technology, on the other hand, usually gets treated as an element of other areas, as part of economic history where it touches industry or transport, or as part of military history when the development of weapons like tanks is concerned. At all events, it has been a subordinate theme - a background to events. In a lot of cases this is perfectly valid. If one is investigating the origins of the medieval English Parliament or the religious disputes of the sixteenth century, then technology played a negligible role. It seems to me, however, that in other areas of history technology itself was a decisive factor.
Take the familiar example of the fight between David and Goliath. The defeat of the heavily armed giant by a young shepherd boy is usually interpreted theologically as intervention by the deity on David's behalf. It can be seen a different way. Goliath wore bronze armour and carried a shield and spear - the weapons of a professional warrior. David, on the other hand, merely had a sling - which presumably he practised with while tending the sheep. It is not commonly realised nowadays that such a sling, which whirls the stone in a wide circle before releasing it, had an effective range of 200 yards.3 We could therefore suggest that David had the superior, long range weapon - Goliath's spear could not kill at 200 yards - and therefore that the best explanation of his victory is the technological one.
Questions of perspective and interpretation are not just academic. They affect our whole way of seeing and doing things. We have to remember that we never perceive the world directly. We only know our sense perceptions and ideas about it. My dog, for instance, has a very different map of the world from mine, based on his superior sense of smell. He is aware of things which I cannot perceive, and this leads him to behave differently. Our behaviour is not governed by our direct perceptions, but by
fig. 1. 'Rabbits'.
the meaning we attribute to them. Professor R L Gregory puts it that our brain constructs the world by the way it processes our perceptions. As an example look at Fig. 1 a rough sketch of two rabbits.
Now look at it again, expecting to see two pelicans waiting for a fish. This ambiguous drawing is well known, but it illustrated the point very well, that our expectations and ideas shape the world that we see.4 At a more complex level, this is also true of the way in which we approach technology. It has such a profound influence on human activity that we must understand its function in our lives as well as we can. In this paper, we will be raiding a number of different academic territories - psychology, anthropology and archaeology, as well as parts of engineering and history - to synthesise a broader way of seeing technology.
Putting things simply, historians usually approach science and technology in one or other of two ways. The first way, the 'internalist', focuses on the content of technology and science. In this approach, the historian concentrates on the way that some piece of engineering or scientific work has been done. It may be the building of a famous bridge, or the development of a series of ships or steam engines. The approach may consider scientific theories, and investigate the way that physicists and engineers arrived at the ideas of thermodynamics or the behaviour of beams. In general, this internalist approach concentrates on describing the technical process itself.
The other approach takes things from a human science standpoint, and tries to explain events as a social phenomenon. Probably the best known work in this genre is T. S. Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This is a general description of what happens in a process of radical scientific change, when scientists exchange one mental model or 'paradigm' for another. Kuhn's interest is not in the truth or falsehood of either paradigm, but in the social interactions which accompany the shift - the period of doubt and crisis, the formation of hostile schools of thought taking radical, conservative and intermediate stances. Incidentally, the differences between the schools of internalist and externalist historians of science have led to bitter disputes - which themselves clearly illustrate the Kuhn hypothesis!
In general, then, the history of technology has been approached through its context or its content, but I would now like to suggest a third approach and look for the origins of engineering as a function of the human mind.
It seems to me that there are three levels at which technology can be approached in history. At the first level, i.e. context, it does not matter how something works. We do not need a detailed understanding of printing or steam locomotives to recognise the enormous effect that the press had on the diffusion of knowledge during the Renaissance, or railways' transformation of economic activity in the 19th century. At this level, the externalist one, we can see technology in its historical context and examine, for instance, the forces which tried to resist or to encourage change. A typical question of this kind might be about whether canal owners or landed gentry tried to hinder the building of a new piece of railway to protect their own interests.
At the second level, however, the technology itself has to be understood in order to understand events. In the 1830's the railways were challenging the canals' dominance in transport, but themselves were challenged in turn by steam carriages running on the ordinary roads. It is easy to understand how desirable such road carriages appeared, for they could use the roads just as cars and lorries do today. If we ask ourselves why railways were successful, yet steam carriages were not, we have to look at the technology. We need some idea of the engineering difficulties which steam road carriages faced.
In 1830 it was much easier to put steam onto rails than on roads. An iron railway has a hard smooth surface capable of carrying almost any weight, and a steam locomotive could haul fifty or more waggons. The railway locomotive did not need steering gear or a differential to help it round corners, and the rails were strong enough to carry a heavy high-pressure boiler. By contrast, the road steamers were hard to steer, carried only light loads, had intractable transmission problems, and their boilers blew up regularly because they had to be so lightly constructed.5 The engineer of 1830 was simply not able to build a truly satisfactory steam carriage. The point of this example is that we need to look at the state of the technology to understand why things turned out as they did. It is 'an argument for studying the content or internal side of things.
The third level of understanding the history of technology concerns the creative moment when something new is coming into being. It is hard to pin down this fleeting instant between non-existence and the existence of an idea. Our brains cannot un-think a successful solution, or imagine how messy and uncertain the problem looked before the Eureka event. Inventions are like the pictures used to explain Gestalt theory. It is very hard to see them; but once seen, they are hard to forget. It takes a little time to see the cow in this picture (see Fig. 2), but once we have seen it, it leaps into view every time we look. Unless we can unthink our knowledge of an invention, we cannot grasp the doubts and difficulties which beset the mind of the inventor - or understand the creative moment.
Fig. 2. Dallenbach Cow.
Failing to understand the creative moment of key inventions also makes it harder to see how they change the future course of history. The 'externalist' approach to history tends to minimise the role of inventors, by suggesting that new technologies come into existence through the workings of broad social forces. This may be true of some invention; there will always be a market for a better can-opener or more efficient light bulb. Yet I find it hard to imagine a broad social force inventing anything of a more original nature. What specifically was the social pressure for the zip-fastener or 'cats eye' road-markings before their invention took place? When one examines cases like the Newcomen steam engine, Stephenson's Rocket or the Wright Brothers' Flyer, one finds that these individual inventors were years ahead of their competitors, and that things might have taken a different path without them.6
It is well to remember that even where there is a need, it does not make an invention predictable or inevitable. By 1700, Britain was struggling with the problem that as coal mines were dug deeper, it became harder to pump out the water flooding them. This situation did not make Thomas Newcomen's invention of the atmospheric steam engine inescapable or its success inevitable. One cannot say much with certainty about things that did not happen, but I know of no other inventor or machine at the time who had any prospect of succeeding if Newcomen had failed. As for changing the future, Newcomen was the most influential inventor in history. James Watt is more famous, but he started off with a Newcomen engine to repair, and decided to improve on it; Richard Trevithick, the pioneer of steam railways and high-pressure portable engines, started off initially trying to get round Watt's patents. The first internal combustion engines used the basic layout of steam engines. Even today, a motor car engine has the same organs as the Newcbmen engine - piston and cylinder, inlet valves and timing, a means of transmitting the power to do work.7
Newcomen's engine was an outstanding example of an invention which was both creative and therefore unpredictable; and it changed the future so much that it has become hard to 'unthink'.
For a contemporary example, we could take the microprocessor. Who, in the early 1950's, imagined such a minute but powerful device? Nobody foresaw its industrial and administrative impact, or the way that it would put computing power into the ordinary home. Science fiction stories of the 50's would describe the captain of a space ship about to make the jump to light speed - and taking out his slide rule to make the calculations. The microprocessor was unexpected and it profoundly changed the future.
This is not an argument for believing in technological determinism. On the contrary, I think that the unpredictability of new technology gives a powerful reason for thinking that the future is undetermined. It only seems determined to the kind of mind which does not appreciate the originality and unknowable consequences of new ideas.
It is hard to ask the right questions when we think we already know the answers to the wrong ones. Externalists and internalists both assume that technology came into being by an act of human will. They assume that technology was established to meet basic human needs such as food, warmth, shelter, defence, or transport.
But perhaps we are begging a big question here. Was there ever such an intentional establishment of technology? The argument resembles the 17th century idea that the origins of government could be explained by assuming that men in the primitive natural state made some kind of Social Contract and decided to establish the state.8 Of course this 'Original Contract' of the old political theorists was nonsense. Perhaps its is equally unreasonable to assume that in some way, at some time, technology was deliberately invented. Let us seek a different approach to our engineering origins, and look for different roots of technical inventiveness. Of course, we cannot ignore the social context or the engineering content of what mankind has built, but we must now try to get at the human behaviour and motivation which underlie them.
3. Innate Technology - An Alternative Hypothesis
What if technology is not learned, but innate - a primary activity in the most fundamental sense? I began to reach this conclusion after many years of looking at history from the wrong end.9 For a long time, I taught my students about Henry Maudslay (1771-1831) and his wonderful screw cutting lathe.10 I used to explain how the precision of his machines led the way towards interchangeable parts, mass production, and to building skill into the machine instead of the worker. In other words, Maudslay created some of the key elements of modern industrial production. Then it at last struck me that Maudslay made his lathe, with its accurate lead screw, by hand; and I began to see him as what he was, one of the great eighteenth century craftsman. The remarkable thing about Maudslay could not be the future - he never saw it - but how he made himself the watershed between the hand-craftsmanship of the past and the machines which began to replace it. Then I began to wonder about his clever hands and the brain that controlled them - what made human beings capable of such craftsmanship? And thence I wandered into palaeontology, human
origins and the psychology of perception. What had happened in our evolution to make us inventors and craftsmen?
The quest to understand human origins has always been lively, especially now with new insights from genetics and fresh fossil evidence. Our urgent curiosity - for what question is more interesting? - leads us into speculation. The dialogue crosses many disciplines, with voices from palaeontology, microbiology, evolutionary biology, climatology and many others. Despite the efforts and some remarkable field discoveries, we have to admit that little is certain as yet.11 We do not even know what hand-axes were used for. Davidson and Noble think that they may only be the cores left over after the desired tools had been flaked off them. Calvin thinks that they may have been a sort of thrown frisbee weapon. If there is no agreement about the commonest artefact, which had a production run of over a million years, then we are indeed groping and guessing.12 Data exists; there is simply little agreement about what it means. The present paper uses published findings from these other disciplines to suggest a single mechanism by which key human characteristics might have emerged. The argument will focus on the cause of bipedalism and its relationship to thing using, suggesting how these may be related to creativity and the origins of language. At least the hypothesis is simple, and it seems to fit the facts.13
For the moment, let us consider only the minimalist viewpoint on what makes us human. True, full humanity is music and art, delight at the beauty of the world, poetry and the joy of intellectual exploration. But the simplest characteristics of humanity are that we are bipeds, tool-users, and have language. Language and tool-using set us apart from the rest of creation, and most authorities think bipedalism put us on that path. Some apes have the seeds of these talents but comparative studies only emphasise how far ahead humans have moved in tool-using and communication. Even so, it is hard to look chimpanzees in the face when we know how tantalisingly close they come to our attainments. What happened to make us human?
I think most of us have been asking the wrong questions. We are not in the situation of someone who has seen the last page of a detective story, and then knows what all the clues mean as he reads the book from the beginning. After all, the author constructed the plot and the clues with foreknowledge of what the end would be. People in history, and hominids in prehistory, did not know what the end of the story would be. Of course the past led to the present; but we shall not necessarily find the present in the past. A chicken does not look like an egg. It will be even harder to imagine the minds of long extinct creatures.
The question, 'Where did Maudslay get those hands and the brain that drove them?' can only be answered by saying that we evolved that way. My dog Paddy is very intelligent but it is unimaginable that he will ever make a lathe or build a bridge. His brain is just not organised to behave like this. From early childhood, human beings enjoy using their hands or building towers from wooden blocks. If we are to discuss how this character evolved, perhaps we should begin by imagining the time scale.
Imagine that a millimetre represents a year. Then the invention of writing is perhaps six meters away; so on this scale all true history - meaning what is written -stretches back only the length of a living room. For the first stone tools, we have to go back 2 kilometres to early hominids who made them. From modern man, Homo Sapiens, the ancestral line runs back, through Neanderthal and Homo Erectus, to Homo Habilis - a tool user with a brain only a third the size of ours. He was making primitive stone chopper tools 2,000,000 years ago. That alone is enough to suggest that tool-using is not just learnt, but part of our evolutionary make up.
But we should go back further. Everybody who has tried to chip a flint nodule into a useful tool knows that it is one of the most bloodyminded and fractious materials in creation. It is impossible to believe that stone chopper tools, primitive as they seem, were the beginning. Only a creature which already knew the use of tools - whether of horn, bone or wood - would be able to make them from stone. If there is any doubt of this, let the readers try to make a cutting edge from a pebble. They will learn painfully how much is required in the way of visualisation and two-handed co-ordination! Artefacts made from biological materials like wood or bone are unlikely to survive or be recognised from such a remote past - but 'Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence'. If there were stone tools two million years ago, then we can infer that there were other tools for a long time before that. Even though no earlier non-stone artefacts have been identified, we should leave our minds open to the important possibility that things were being used and keep hoping for evidence.
Yet how far back should one go in the search for regular tool-using? Regular tool users need their hands free to use and carry things, so they have to be bipedal. 'Lucy' was a biped with an ape sized brain, 3.7 m.y.a.; so she could conceivably have used tools. Before Lucy, there is practically no hominid fossil evidence. The most remote starting point could be the separation of the hominid line from the apes. Comparative studies of DNA agree that the last common ancestor to chimp and man lived about 5 m.y.a. Chimps are able to use things that come to hand, but they are only occasional bipeds. Given our genetic closeness, splitting of the chimpanzee / hominid line presents a promising point at which to look for what makes humans more human.
4. Two Legs - Some Theories Considered
This seems to be the silly season for speculative theories about the cause of bipedalism, judging from the frequency with which they have been appearing recently. They all have to fit the scene which Yves Coppens describes so well - the drying of the Western side of the Great Rift Valley in Southern Africa: and the fact that chimpanzee remains are concentrated to the west of the Rift; and hominid remains to the east.14 Apart from that, we have informed guess work.
An hypothesis favoured by many has been Man the Mighty Hunter - the first hominid who stayed in the plains when the forests receded, and went upright to run faster, and to see prey or dangers far off. But can we seriously believe that some newly jumped-up biped had any significant speed advantage over the predators of the savannah? Walking on two legs is mechanically difficult and requires major changes in the configuration of the bones and muscular actions used for locomotion. The vertebrae have to become load bearing. According to Lovejoy, 'Lucy' must have come at the end of a long evolution towards two leggedness.15 It seems improbable in the first stages of the changeover that a new biped would have been faster than a quadruped.16 Human babies strive to stand upright, but revert to crawling when they are in a hurry. Scavenging, a less flattering image of our earlier selves, is open to similar objections. Hyenas and dogs are good scavengers without abandoning four leggedness. Scavenging is at best a partial explanation.
If it was not speed, then what was the advantage of the new posture? Dean Falk seems to suggest that bipedalism was produced by the need to keep the brain cool.17 She describes physical adaptations such as cooling holes in the cranium and more exposed pathways for blood leaving the brain, and suggests that the cooling was enhanced by going upright. Better cooling would be needed by a creature which used its brain more, especially when that brain grew larger. By the square-cube law, the surface to volume ratio becomes less favourable for cooling as the brain grows bigger. While one can see that a larger brain needed new cooling mechanisms, it is begging the question to argue that this was a cause of bipedalism. Surely the question which needs to be asked is what new activity had led to greater brain activity and the need for cooling? Other large bipeds, like ostriches and kangaroos, are certainly not noted for their brain-power - so what were the proto-hominids up to?
Another recent idea, from Nina Jablonski and George Chaplin,18 is that Savannah dwelling apes stood upright as a display of aggression. Surely this again is a very thin cause for such a difficult bodily transformation. Chimpanzees run social lives, stylised aggression and all, without undergoing the discomforts of becoming bipedal.
The idea of bipedalism being an adaptation to the dry Savannah is challenged by a watery hypothesis - the Aquatic Ape who may have taken to the water, wading and losing his hair in the process. Elaine Morgan suggests that this could have taken place in the Rift Valley when it was an inland sea.19 The wader's buoyancy in water would doubtless make uprightness easier. This hypothesis can also account for the high position of the breasts of the human female, and would explain a human nose which impedes the entry of water. Her argument that the detailed development of the human embryo suggests a return to the water is persuasive. Unlike any other primate, it even has a coating of wax (vernix caseosa) at birth.20 Like other mammals which have returned to the sea, humans can control their breathing - a prerequisite of speech. The 'aquatic ape' could certainly have enjoyed a rich protein diet from shell fish and the long-chain molecules in fish oils would favour the growth of nervous tissue.
The Morgan hypothesis has the essential quality which others lack; it suggests a unique and major change of behaviour as the impulse towards bipedalism. Yet though the aquatic ape is an attractive hypothesis, it does not account for the use of tools or language. Unless the salt deposits of the Rift Valley yield up real evidence, Morgan's marine ape must remain no more than an attractive idea.
5. Two Legs - An Alternative Suggestion
These different hypotheses all depend on a two stage process to explain, first, why some apes became biped and then, second, that their hands were free for tool using to develop. But are two hypotheses necessary in the first place?
Let us consider a simpler possibility. Suppose instead that bipedalism arose because the first hominids were using their hands, which became too useful to waste on knuckle walking. Suppose that they were holding useful things. The proposition 'upright because of tools' is simpler than 'some reason for upright; and then some reason for tools.' After all, our close relatives the chimpanzees are capable of using
a range of tools, like stones to crack nuts, straws to winkle out termites, and sticks to reach things. There is no fatal improbability in the idea that the first upright steps and frequent hand-use began when the new hominid line started about 5 m.y.a. I have pointed out the difficulty of working flint, and that it seems most likely that only a creature which is already using things will have the motor skills to work stone.
Deliberately made stone tools, then, belong to a much later time. Many simpler things, however, can be used to great effect. Plain pebbles can crack nuts and sea-shells, or can be thrown as missiles. A dead animal offered, apart from its meat: shoulder blades to dig with; a bladder to carry water; hard, pointed horns; gut; a jawbone studded with teeth... and so on. Above all, it is necessary to imagine what power there was in a stick. It can scrape and dig, revealing new food sources like roots and bulbs; for primates have nails not claws, so they are poorly fitted for digging. The stick can extend the reach and knock down fruit and nuts. As a club it is an energy storing weapon - other animals can only store energy by charging at high speed. Furthermore, like throwing stones or using a hammer, a club requires accurate prediction of its curved path. There is no time for feed-back corrections, and Calvin considers that this required more advanced neural capacities.21 And lastly, it might have made walking easier for a learner-biped just as it does for an ageing one.
We are not suggesting a craftsman tool-maker, an earlier claimant to be homo faber, but a rough opportunist; homo bricoleur or thing user.22 He did not even need an opposable thumb. The opposable thumb is important for the precision grip in delicate operations, but the power grip is enough for grasping sticks and stones. In any case, how would an opposable thumb have come about unless it had been favoured with success? An essential feature to grasp about evolution is that a new feature does not appear before it is used. The feature only improves because it is already being used successfully. This truth is encapsulated in the saying that 'Birds do not fly because they have wings. Birds have wings because they fly.'
Primate origins left other important legacies besides the useful hand. Our brachiating branch of the primate line had acquired a particularly useful arm socket. Apes, unlike monkeys, swing beneath branches and have a much wider arm movement -handy for a prospective tool user. You can scratch behind your other ear; monkeys can't. Life in the trees also called for good binocular vision, our highly developed judgement of distance is based on a number of mental processes, not just stereoscopy; it is affected by the familiar size of things, overlapping, even colour.23 Primates in trees needed this three dimensional mental power to recognise things every which way up. In fact, our brains are very good at rotating things mentally to compare them.24 Even more important, the further up the primate line one looks, the more we find a tendency to learning, imitation and inventiveness.
6. The Thing Using Mind
Putting all these things together, we picture a creature with the potential for seeing things in three dimensions, and eventually imagining things it wanted to make. It was a creature which could adapt, not by physical evolution, but by changing its function through what it held in its hands. People turn into a different animal by picking up a hammer, a spade or a pen. In general, other animals only achieve this by physical specialisation. Aardvarks and badgers have powerful claws for digging; hoofed animals run fast and far, but they are condemned to grass eating by their single purpose feet. The first thing-user, however, has changed the rules radically, and replaced physical adaptation by changing its behaviour and adopting proto-tools. Perhaps this was the most strategically important step in the whole of evolution, at least comparable to the evolution of the eye or the backbone.
Maybe we see shadows of all this in the games that make us happy. We like swinging sticks, whether we call them golf clubs or baseball bats; we like intriguing shapes, like droodles; we like games involving positional awareness, like chess and draughts. Our thing user only had an ape-brain to direct its new behaviour, but the subsequent development of that brain was driven by tool using and what might be called inventive activity. If this were the case then man did not invent technology: technology invented man.
Consider what inventive behaviour needs. Some of its more obvious features are: a need for abstraction in looking at things from a new point of view; a three dimensional thought which I will call Spatial Logic; an ability to form patterns, including original and creative ones. Take these one by one.
Thing using has important psychological implications. We can suppose that thing user had a primate brain, well capable of three dimensional perception. But in the new behaviour things were no longer perceived in the same way as they were in a state of nature. A dog perceives a stone as a mere object. Thing using demands a different kind of perception. Thing user has to think abstractly - if it wants to crack a shell, it is the hardness and heaviness and shape of the stone that make the brain see it as a hammer. Swinging a stick involves its stiffness, hardness, length and weight; also a second order effect, that the end of the stick travels further and faster than the arm swinging it. Using things - stones, sticks, bones - implies a process of abstraction; because we are using the thing's qualities as we perceive them, and these are not the same as its original identity in nature.
The other day I was standing in a muddy ditch at Wortley Top Forge, and I wanted to clean earth off a stone; I glanced round, and found a root - straight and strong enough to scrape with. My mind had abstracted qualities - straightness and hardness - which were unrelated to root, the part of a tree that sits under the ground. This mental act took place without words - readers will know what it feels like to look round the garden shed for a piece of scrap material that will do the job.
There is also an intentionality that selects and shapes our perceptions. If I pick up a stone to use it as a hammer, it has become a hammer in my mind first. A stone becomes a hammer not only because I abstract the qualities of hardness, heaviness and shape which fits my hand, but because I want to hit something. A stick becomes different things in the mind according to desire: digger, pointer, walking aid, club -it is our perception, not the stick that changes. Thing user also has to make a mental pattern, akin to a gestalt perception, of what it wants to do. This is a creature which has taken a new path, replacing physical specialisation by the behavioural opportunism of an omnivore in novel conditions. This was the crucial step thing user took in separating from the apes. Physical evolution continued, but not towards physical specialisation for a particular niche and diet. Instead it was adapting brain and body to respond to problems by what might be called proto-technical means.
The insights of gestalt psychology and work like R.L.Gregory's on perception show how powerfully the brain processes the inputs from our eyes to give meaningful vision.25 When one is looking for cepe mushrooms in a French wood, they are difficult to see at first, but an experienced French person can recognise them in an uncanny way. Interpreters of aerial photographs develop similar skills. We are a pattern making animal. However, with invention we are not only dealing with the perception of the outside world, but a further stage, the creation of new patterns.
We not only perceive things in three dimensions; we can also imagine new things. Our brain can rotate objects mentally, literally turning things over in the mind, to see whether two things seen from different angles are identical.26 Technical creativity requires this kind of spatial imagination, and Brooke Hindle points out that many inventors - from Brunelleschi and Leonardo da Vinci in the Italian Renaissance to Robert Fulton and Samuel Morse, in the 19th century - were also artists.27 This is an attractive idea but it does not stand up so well in the case of England, a country short on artists but strong in engineers. Maudslay, Nasmyth, Watt, Whitworth, Clement and Parsons had splendid spatial imaginations but no artistic training. Nasmyth attached particular importance to Euclidean geometry, though admittedly artists like Brunelleschi were the first to formalise it into the rules of geometrical perspective in painting. Whether the spatial imagination is manifested in fine art, geometry or engineering, it seems likely that it owed a lot to the early hominid mind looking at a thing, and dealing with it as a spatial abstraction. Geometry, painting and invention cannot grow in minds that are not predisposed to abstract spatial thought.
Another feature associated with spatial logic is the awareness of how materials behave. Most people are not conscious of how much they know about materials. We know, without ever verbalising the thought, that we cannot push a piece of string. Your brain can instantly call up the different sensations of breaking a match-stick, and the more brittle unyielding way a stick of chalk snaps. Children can be observed learning these things about materials before they learn to talk - adults call it fiddling.28
Our sense of forces is also highly developed. We easily apply the right force to cracking a walnut, tightening a tiny screw, or smashing a big stone with a sledgehammer. Adolescents know how to close a door quietly, and also how to make a statement by slamming it. As Petroski says, "We are all engineers of sorts, for we have all the principles of machines and structures in our bones... We calculate the paths of our arms and our legs with the computer of our brain, and we catch basketballs and footballs with more dependability than the most advanced weapons systems intercept missiles."291 am not suggesting that we are born with the knowledge, but that our brains are organised to learn it very quickly. The word logic is used to imply that our wordless conceptions form a conclusion just as necessarily as the steps of Aristotelian logic do. Let the readers try a simple mental experiment, by visualising a tent pole and guy ropes. Do they see that three guy ropes will keep a tent pole upright? - you wiggle it in your head and feel that it will stand. We already have the phrase 'To see with the mind's eye.' We need another one, 'To feel with the mind's hand.'
Creativity comes when we apply our abstractions and spatial logic in a new situation. If the kitchen door keeps blowing open and a woman puts down a brick to keep it shut, then she has been creative; for bricks exist to build houses with, not shut doors. Creativity is not verbalised, not voluntary, but something which we do spontaneously. It is important to remember that all human minds are creative in this sense, and that individuals like Watt and Faraday are more gifted but not essentially different from the rest of us.
There is no explanation yet of what happens when a new idea comes. At first sight it seems paradoxical to imagine a neurological algorithm for producing new ideas. It contradicts the idea that creativity is unpredictable. Yet, logically, we have to consider that, when a creature adopts variable techniques or innovation as its adaptive strategy, presumably a genetically based capacity for creative thought must be a part of its equipment. If there were innate neural algorithms for creativity, then I suspect that they would include the capacities to abstract, see patterns, and apply metaphors from one field to another.30
D. A. Schon in his work on invention saw the transfer of metaphor as a principal root of invention - that we take a concept from one field and apply it in another31. This can happen at a very concrete level - the Inuits use a seal paw to scratch the ice near a hole, to simulate the sound of a seal and allay the fears of their prey. It is easy to think of many other examples of human beings copying or using the behaviour of an animal.
Thing using and craftsmanship are not the same thing. In much later times craftsmen come to the fore - the masons, goldsmiths or cabinet makers who set the style of a civilisation. Thing using is cruder and more opportunistic. We all know people who do not blush to use a sharp wood chisel as a screw-driver and I have watched with horror an antique pistol butt being used as a hammer. I meet a lot of Exploratory inventors from other countries, and I am struck by the way they will adapt things, say in a DIY shop or a workshop store, to their own purposes, well away from the original function of the thing. They bore holes in plastic plates to make wheels and use empty ball-pens to make Cartesian divers that bob up and down in a bottle of water. These are people who have never met each other before, yet their behaviour is similar. Homo Sapiens as craftsman comes later - we begin with homo thing user, and he is still around. His competitive habitat is the Egg Race.
Of course creativity is influenced by culture and circumstances or individual ability. New situations seem to trigger it - one only has to consider how the coming of railways called forth a flood of creative new bridge structures after 1830;32 or how nearly all the modern machine tools appeared in a few decades after 1800.33 Perhaps there are mechanisms in the brain by which new situations, new problems, new dangers switch on our creativity. But equally, culture (including education) can also inhibit creativity. Scholars are generally agreed that the mandarin system in China saw that innovation could destabilise society, so it put a stop to it. There is a story that a sheep in Wales learned that it could pass a cattle grid by lying down and rolling across. The whole flock was quickly slaughtered before this undesirable behaviour could be passed on to other sheep.
If this view of the origins of technology and creativity is correct, then we did not invent technology. Technology invented us. Its true nature is not the assembly of objects built by mankind, or the collected knowledge of all the fields of engineering. It is an element of human nature like sex and the drive to eat. Thus we see it not as something invented by society to clothe, feed and shelter us; but rather a stream that runs back to our emergence as a species. There was no sudden beginning of technology any more than there was a founding of society by some Original Compact - there, again like our chimpanzee cousins, we were a social animal and evolved ways of getting along together.
Thing user is necessarily creative. In adapting to new niches or challenges, he has replaced physical change by technical response. Dawkins says that evolution is blind;34 we must add that technology is mind. Sometimes writers speak loosely of the evolution of technology35 but technology is not an entity which can evolve. Artefacts do not reproduce themselves, or pass on favourable mutations. It is easy to slip into thinking like that when we look at the development of the aeroplane, from the Wright Flier to Concorde, or the line leading from ENIAC to the Personal Computer. But we are really speaking of the results of our creative thinking, for technology is exclusively a product of the brain's inventiveness. This universal human creativity is the force that takes a raw material or an existing invention, and changes or reapplies it.
Language is the other great defining characteristic of humanity, along with the bipedalism and tool using which I have already suggested are linked. What if language and thing using are linked as well? Once more, for this argument, a minimalist view of language is enough for our purposes. We must pass by the fascinating discussion about whether we can trace the existing tongues of mankind back to an original language,36 since we are concerned with what happened before language existed. Let Chomsky's basic ideas serve for a rough working definition of language and then try to see how our 'thing user' might acquire such a thing.
1. Language is universal. Chomsky points out how easily young human children learn language. They learn not only to separate strings of phonemes into words, but they discover the rules of syntax as well. The child finds out for itself that nouns and verbs work in different ways. They quickly arrive at a competence in dealing with deep structures which are hard to express in simple rules. In Chomsky's own example, quite a young child will turn 'The man who is tall is in the room' into the question form 'Is the man who is tall in the room?' This transformation needs structural understanding, not mechanical rules, to move the second 'is' to the beginning of the sentence. 'Chomsky maintains that it is only by assuming that the child is born with a knowledge of the highly restrictive principles of universal grammar, and the predisposition to make use of them in analysing the utterances he hears about him, that we can make any sense of the process of language-learning.'37
2. If language is universal and the brain is not a 'general purposes' machine but specifically endowed with universal grammar, can this lead to any hypothesis about the earlier functions of this form of thought?
Arguments for a common grammar set up neurally in the brain are often based on complex linguistic structures, like transformations and markers.38 Perhaps we should look at simpler structures in considering language origins. One can reasonably suppose that simple statements preceded complex subordinate clauses. All human languages have verbs and nouns, and have statements with the general form subject + verb + object.39 Individual languages have varying devices for expressing this. In English the word order tells us whether the man or the dog is biting or bitten; in inflected languages like Russian and Latin, the word endings tell us which is subject or object. Despite the variety, the underlying grammar is the same and -as Chomsky puts it - a Martian would think that we all speak the same language. After all, though it may seem the obvious one to us, is it the only basic structure a language might adopt? Human beings can learn other human languages and can think in them. But could there be languages we are not adapted to think in?40
3. Human beings use language creatively. Chomsky points out that even young children use language creatively, in the sense that they form meaningful, correct sentences which they have never heard before. Every day we make new sentences out of our grammar and vocabulary. Indeed, these can generate an infinite number of different statements.41
If this is a fair account of Chomsky, then language closely resembles the 'thing using' thought discussed earlier. I suggest that the mental machinery for producing language does not originate in communication, but in the mental faculties which accompanied the evolution of the thing using brain. (Perhaps there was a preliminary period of gesture). Now let us compare the characteristics which Chomsky gives for language with the those needed by the thing using brain.
I have tried to show that the 'thing user' has to abstract, and that the concepts in this abstract thinking can exist in non-verbal form. But words are labels we apply to concepts we have abstracted. When we grope for a word, we are seeing that the thought must exist before the word. The propensity for 'thing using' is universal among humans. So, says Chomsky, is language. Another feature common to tool use and language is creativeness - the ability to apply the abstractions, shapes, forces and materials, in new contexts. Lastly, I suggest, the syntax of Chomsky's universal grammar is closely parallel to wordless thing using thought. Subject (somebody / something) + verb (action / what a tool does / operation) and perhaps object (the thing that is operated on, changed or made).
This argument is left at the simplest level, that the subject-verb-object seems like the thought of a simple 'thing user'. R. Wallace explored a similar idea, relating areas in the brain known to support language with adjacent areas that provide our ability to map territory. He suggests that there is a link here with the brain's ability to provide markers, and to embed clauses in complex statements.42 It seems to me that Wallace is considering linguistic forms that would appear later in language development. It is easier to believe that language was originally grafted onto simpler structures. Then, once the process started, it could spread to all the accessible functions of the brain. Such spreading of the language activity through the brain may have taken place over a long period. Thing using, being parallel to the simplest grammatical forms, seems a likely place to start.
There are good evolutionary precedents for this proposed transformation of organs, from one function to another. The mammals' air-breathing lung evolved from the swim bladder of fish. Fish fins have ended up as human arms and hands, and bats' wings started off the same way too.
Other clues point the same way. The neural motor areas for speech lie next to the right hand's zone, and we gesture with that hand when we talk - that is we use it for communication as well as for manipulation. Right-handed musicians can finger with their left hand, but they find it much harder to conduct with the wrong hand, suggesting that the right hand is the instrument of the individual's conceptions and intentions.43 A possible process has been suggested by which this kind of parallel neurological equipment might evolve. J. M. Allman and J. H. Kaas have suggested that cortical areas can replicate themselves, and that the new areas can assume new functions while the original area continues to perform its initial task.44
Chimpanzees use simple tools, but their voice organs do not let them talk. They can however be taught to communicate by sign language, but this happens under artificial conditions, not in the wild. It therefore seems most unlikely that this brain function, supporting the unspoken language, could have evolved for communication. But it could derive from the thing using which they share with ourselves. If so, it supports the suggestion that the brain functions used in human language did not originate for communication, but in thing using.
Is 'thing using' being forced to explain too many things here? In nature, a mono-functional behaviour often leads to multiple adaptations. Because it flies, the bird has evolved feathers, light cellular bones, as well as an aerodynamic shape and a 'retractable undercarriage'. The ocean environment led to similarly extensive changes in dolphins and whales. Limbs became fins or flippers; the skin, the shape, the breathing, the diet - all changed as they adapted from being land to sea mammals. In the case of human evolution, attention focuses more on brain function and behaviour than on physical form; but the similar principle can apply, that simple causes led to multiple complex results.
Stick using games and perception jokes like droodles have already been mentioned. More speculatively, one might consider the possibility that the origins of magic lie in the link between thing using and language in the brain. Magic is universal among primitive and not so primitive peoples - pronouncing the right incantations makes things happen. In many cultures, names for things and people have a far deeper significance than mere labels for communicating ideas and become taboo words. Might this be an atavistic extension of the thing user's thought processes into the later age of verbal consciousness? If words were descended from tools and their use, this could explain the urge to use words themselves to make things happen. Speculating further, if the likeliest early tool was the stick, then at a deep level of displacement we have the prototype magic wand.
In formal logic - from Aristotle to Descartes and Hegel - we certainly see language being used as a tool, a making of conclusions by means of words alone. If we compare them, language logic is a weaker implement than spatial logic. Aristotle's logic tells us nothing new that was not already implicit in the premises; as for Hegel's logic -his dialectic led to anything he wanted us to believe. This is not to say that Hegel had no perceptive insights; but one can jettison all the paraphernalia of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis - and the insights remain. By contrast, a good house-builder senses wordlessly where a beam is needed to strengthen an opening in a wall, or which wall bears loads. What he does is effective as well as logical - which is more than can be claimed for most verbal arguments. Fortunately for word users, arguments do not usually collapse with the same disastrous consequences as defective buildings.
8. Some Implications of the Thing Using Mind
Let us summarise the main features of thing using and Spatial Logic before looking at some implications these have for the way we think about engineering and other broader issues.
There is still not much more than 'a table top of fossils' so the hominid story between five and two million years ago remains sketchy and speculative. The 'thing using' hypothesis is simple but it seems to fit the data we have at present from the disciplines investigating human origins.45 It explains bipedalism more simply, by deriving it simply from to need to liberate hands for thing using. The new activity required the brain to work more. The substantial part of the modern human brain which is dedicated to the hands supports the suggestion that brain enlargement was substantially driven by technology.46 Surely creativity was a necessary part of the new mental activity. Finally, thing using thought could have set up the neurological mechanisms in the brain upon which language might graft.47
Even if the early 'thing using' hypothesis should turn out false, the following 2 million years of tool using certainly coincided with a massive growth of the brain. This fact, that the human brain has roughly tripled in size since the first known stone tools appeared, does suggest that the brain is particularly adapted to support technical activity. Tool using is as universal as language, sex and eating - and nobody would suggest that those are not genetically based.
The hypothesis also raises a question about the initial impetus towards the new activity. Evolution is good at explaining why something that already exists gets better - why flyers become better flyers, lions become better predators, and zebras get better at running away from lions. But this does not tell us what triggers off the initial direction of specialisation in the first place. What set ancestral badgers off digging and fleas biting? These are the creative moments of evolution if it is true that specialised organs follow behaviour. It is not enough to point to a new niche as the sufficient cause of new behaviour. The response to that new niche could have taken many other forms. Among wild variety of plant and animal adaptation, one sees many which are unique in the sense of being unusual, but they are not unique in the sense of being the only possible solution.
In technology, likewise, the quasi-evolutionary stages of improvement in steam engines, battleships, computers or ploughs can be followed easily. But the initial creative moment is elusive - the one we cannot 'unthink'. Obviously the new initiative solved a problem - but why that solution and not some other? Equally, in evolution, it is easier to follow the stages of new 'hardware' and we skip the question about the origin of the behaviour that led to it.
Such questions remain useful whether thing using appeared 2,000,000 or 5,000,000 years ago. The new perspective of seeing technology as an innate propensity changes our view of yet more questions. Cultural or economic forces remain important in studying technology, but perhaps the innatist ideas linked with thing using could lead to new insights. It will be a truer image if we see human technology as having a dual nature, both cultural and innate. It is partly cultural, different if the individual grows up in France, Japan or Polynesia; and partly innate, a non-verbal and creative element of being human.
Numerous other species perform quasi-technical activities, like birds and insects building nests or beavers constructing dams. Tailor birds really do sew leaves; hermit crabs really make little houses for themselves. It is not quite safe to say that, in the animal kingdom, the specific and unvarying character of such activity shows that it is instinctual rather than inventive. Termites use new materials like plastics in their nests; blue tits have learned to peck through aluminium milk bottle tops. All one can say is, yes, it is true, but human beings have made invention a habitual technique, whereas the other species do it occasionally.
Technology is not just our western technology. We must not be misled by the huge thrust which science, mathematics and social organisation have given to western invention, into thinking that this is the only viable way by which human beings adapt to their habitat. Concern for the environment is making western technology's long-term direction seem more doubtful - even worrying - and there may be something to learn from other cultures which have achieved a sustainable balance over long ages. In any case, it will always be worth remembering that inventiveness and 'thing using' are not special to any culture but a part of human nature.
The dual nature, both innate and cultural, explains why it is found in every human culture, and is a prime means by which the group survives in its environment. Questions about the emergence of different cultures, the races, the languages and how much of this was the work of Homo Sapiens Sapiens, come later than the conjectural 'thing using' of Lucy's ancestor. It is illuminating to go round a good museum of ethnology, in London, Paris or Cambridge, or the great Pitt Rivers in Oxford, to see the ingenuity and flavour of other cultures, and the mysterious sense of their style persisting through time.
It seems to me that we can look at things made before the great expansion of western technology, and tell where they were made, but not when. Looking at a 20th century artefact, we can say when it was made, but not where. Every part of Asia had its own fighting knives, and one immediately recognises yataghans, Cossack shashkas, Indonesian kris or Japanese swords though they might have been made at any time over the last thousand years. A four thousand year old Chinese bronze looks Chinese even today. But now, design has converged and it is not the place of origin but the date we recognise. There is no mistaking the sit of a 1950's motor car, or the look of a 60's TV or refrigerator - but they could have been made anywhere. Design - or rather technique - has largely become international. France is more retentive of its culture than most nations, but shall we ever see another 2CV? Today's little Peugeots and Renaults, even the Citroens, look like Fiestas and Metros. As manufacturing grows more competitive, with too many cars being made, it will be interesting to see where designs converge or diverge, perhaps showing parallels to evolution.
Our culture is powerful but we find things in other cultures which we could never think of ourselves. The Inuits, formerly called Eskimos, based their whole technology on materials from the seals and other creatures they hunted, for they had little stone or wood. A modern engineer marvels at their boats (bones and seal skin), or fishing tools, or powerful bows backed with sinew, or the way they make anoraks from walrus gut. This ingenuity is to be found in every culture that has not been debased.48 In our own culture, we have lost a great deal. There are not four people left in Sheffield - that great home of cutlery - who can hand forge a blade. Populations in western countries can become de-skilled in one generation. Craftsmen and engineers used to know a hundred different timbers and where best to use them; but my modern engineering students cannot tell me which wood to use for tool handles. They do not know that ash is shock resistant, or that oak splits easily, but elm doesn't (that's why we use it for the seats of Windsor chairs - they do not split when the pegs are driven in).49 A whole folk knowledge has been lost. Human culture is fluid and unpredictable and we should wonder what will happen to it as craftsmanship atrophies.
Supposing that all this is right - that we have evolved as tool users, with a brain adapted to learning forces and materials through our hands, and capable of three-dimensional thought. Suppose, too, that this development of the brain is linked to our creativity, and that language does not control, but merely reflects the deeper levels of thought. You have only to reflect a moment to see how far technology has diminished our skills. Artisans have become mere assemblers of factory made elements - this is true of car-makers, plumbers, electricians, and printers. This article can be set for printing from my floppy disk, and my computer replaces typesetting skills learnt formerly by long apprenticeship. In the 1960's, my first publisher, warned me that it would cost a guinea to alter a single comma in the proofs.
These are the logical consequences of those first steps. Technology or technique is liberating us from physical necessity in the same way that thing using freed us from physical specialisation.50 Technology is a form of liberation. It has freed us from many kinds of drudgery, like washing dishes and cleaning dirty fire-grates. Writing freed our memories; transport has freed us from our legs. Yet it is not a simple matter. Computers free the brain from a lot of boring tasks: but virtual reality frees it from reality - which may not turn out to be so good. These are questions that we should face now. Evolution shows clearly that 'If you want to keep it, use it!' Otherwise you lose it, as with the atrophying of the ostrich's wings or the human appendix. What if technology is freeing humanity from skills and aptitudes that we should retain, that make us essentially human? One can imagine culture having a long term evolutionary effect without descending into the heresy of Lamarckism.
It is interesting to speculate for a moment about the way the culture shapes our own engineering. If there was ever a language of spatial logic, then it was Euclidean geometry. The West's continuous technological rise coincided with Geometry's rediscovery in the mini-Renaissance of the 12th century. It still astonishes many people that such an apparently abstract deductive system fits the world so well, describing levers, elliptical orbits, the six-sidedness of honeycomb alveoles, or gears. Explaining trusses in structures, one shows that triangles are rigid - can not wriggle to another shape - but that a four sided figure is not rigid. Old time engineers would often produce an answer by geometry rather than calculation, getting a square root for instance by drawing a construction based on a semicircle. This spatial way of doing mathematics suits some people better than the maths based on numbers and algebra. In my experience, students studying the aesthetics of design are often happier thinking spatially than with numerical symbols. They find Galileo's geometrical demonstrations easier to follow than the algebraic sort of explanation.
Yet are even geometry and drawing on paper a constraint on our thought? Do we limit ourselves to the design of things which we can geometrise and make on our geometrical machines? Could the engineers we train in modern methods design the
Fig. 3. Tripod stool.
Indian folding tripod (see Fig. 3) which is carved from one piece of wood? My own attempts to copy it showed me that the shapes are very subtle -1 fabricated one from dowel and square section wood, and it just lay flat. Only then did I appreciate the sinuous curves and angles of the original. It exists, so it must be rational, yet I suspect that our methods of design cannot produce it. Perhaps our way of reasoning sets limits on our thought which we are not aware of.
This interest in the nature of three dimensional thinking led me to construct a solid version of Escher's Impossible Staircase (see Fig. 4). It was a deliberate attempt to explore the difference between thinking in two and three dimensions. I found it impossible to imagine a 3D form by distorting the flat image on the paper. I tried to imagine the paper folding over to give horizontal steps, for instance, and could not do it. With the rules of perspective we can reduce three dimensions to two. However, it does not work the other way. We cannot make a unique three dimensional form from a two dimensional image - there is an infinity of possibilities (though not all probable ones.) The problem is compounded, of course, if the two dimensional source is irrational like the Escher. When I finally persuaded my brain to work effectively, I can only describe the sensation as clicking from two dimensions to three. Perhaps we do not think enough about the difference between perceiving in three dimensions, and thinking in them; perhaps we do too much on two dimensional paper.
Designing the model gave me an interesting insight into one of the problems of teaching creativity. Creativity has many parameters. One of them is to do something new with what one has already got - a straightforward application of design skills. But a deeper creativity is to do something that one cannot do with the standard skills, to find new ways to do something. These are the things that might usually be described as impossible.
Fig 4. Impossible staircase based on the drawing by M.C. Escher. Photo: Peter Fisher.
It is important to recognise that there are different forms of impossibility. One sort of impossible is set by the limits of nature. It really does seem impossible thermodynamically to get more energy out of a system than it contains, so engineers are very suspicious of any claims to perpetual motion. But another sort of 'impossible' depends on other constraints, the ones we impose on ourselves in a system that wedefine. We make arbitrary rules that define some things as impossible. It is impossible to built a ship that floats or a 'plane that flies using Meccano - but that is a characteristic of that construction system, not a law of nature. Creativity depends partly on recognising what is considered impossible because of the real laws of nature and what is thought impossible because of an arbitrary system or assumption. Here again, is the importance of, not just knowing, but knowing about what we know.
Much of our thinking is two dimensional, and seldom gets beyond the three dimensional level of a side, elevation and plan drawing. There are not many three dimensional mechanisms - most, like Watt's linkage, are plane solutions. The differential, like the one in the ancient Chinese South-facing Chariot, is a beautiful exception. The idea did not appear in the West until the nineteenth century. Yet it cannot be described in words. Let any reader who does not know the differential's motions ask an engineer how it works. It cannot even be sketched without imagining the paper rotating end over end.
The builders of Gothic cathedral vaults were also high order three dimensional thinkers but I do not think that they could make drawings of their vaulting. The French military engineer Vauban was another able 3D thinker. In all his works the shapes and dimensions of the bastions, tenailles, demilunes and outworks vary. Briangon, in the broken country of the French Alps, is perhaps the masterpiece - it is hard to depict even though it exists - in three dimensions. What was it like to think it out in three dimensions from a standing start? Among engines, I would nominate the little known Bishopp engine for its three dimensionality. Its inward facing truncated cones and swashing disc take some people a long time to figure out.51
How can this three dimensional thinking be taught, when we do so much on paper? It seems to be an intuitive rather than analytical process. Do we, perhaps, limit our thinking to what we can analyse? It is, of course, easier to teach what we can analyse.52 Without wishing to provoke engineers, I wonder whether any of them have failed to follow up an idea because they could not see what equations to use to design it theoretically? (Newton had to invent the calculus to describe his intuition about gravity and the orbits of satellites - but plainly the intuition had come to him first.) Maybe we should see things differently and start, not from the equations, but from a mental picture.
We have to remember that whether we describe a thing in words or numbers, our description is not the same as the thing itself. Whatever my analytical or intuitive ideas are about an arch, they are not the same as that arch and miss some truth about the 'real thing'. This was brought home to me when I built a model beam out of dozens of small rectangles of plywood, held together by rubber cords running through it. It formed a beam when its ends rested on two bricks, and it bent when a weight was put on the middle. I only intended the model to show that bending, and I could have written a computer programme to show it happening on the screen. But then I put the weight nearly at the end of the beam, and instead of bending, the blocks slipped past each other. This is another kind of failure known as shear. If I had not put shear into the computer programme, it would not have shown me that effect. In other words, my conceptual model would not have been as good as the physical model.
Fig. 5. Wobbly Arch. The faces of the blocks are curved so the arch wobbles to a different equilibrium when the weight is added. In both cases, the thrust of the arch runs where the blocks touch.
Of course analytical methods are important and valuable. But we should remember that sometimes we assume that a thing cannot be done because we cannot calculate it first. Perhaps, sometimes, we should do the thing by trial and error and then tackle the analysis. It is, after all, possible to make things before the analytical techniques for designing them exist. This picture of a 'wobbly arch' is an example (see Fig. 5).53 The blocks forming the arch are curved, so that it rolls to different shapes as varying loads are placed upon it. A big concrete version has been built for children to walk over it - but it was designed empirically from models. So far as I know, no theoretical method exists at present for designing the shapes of the blocks.
Perhaps we could take this bow shape as a philosophical model of the problem (see Fig. 6). If we shoot an arrow with it, it becomes a beam and a stored energy problem. Use it to rotate a shaft, and it becomes a fire maker - the problem will be defined in terms of pressures and friction. Now make it a flint tipped drill and the dimensions of cutting speeds and angles take over. Add a bridge and sounding box and it becomes ancestral to the plucked and bowed musical instruments like zithers and violins. This time, you will measure the tension and length of the string and the frequency of vibration. Stand it another way, and it explains the principle of the bow-string girder. Plainly, those different ideas about the function of the bow precede any mathematical analysis.
Phenomena like these are the units or coinage of our spatial logic. They are the sort of things we shuffle in our minds when we are mulling over a design problem.54 Equations and the optimisation of designs come later. When we invent, we think with these building blocks and they exist as concepts before we apply numbers to them.
Perhaps this is where the new Hands-on exploratories have something to offer the budding engineer. Our civilisation is becoming poorer in some respects: in tactile experience; in three dimensional perception and thought; in direct experience of shapes, materials, forces and other phenomena. What sensations does a child in a block of flats, spending its time before a television set, get to satisfy the inputs which our brain has evolved to need?
Children are escaping into the world of their computers. Instead of reacting with the physical environment, they play 'Civilisation' or the shoot-'em-up game 'Doom'. As virtual reality develops, the new artificial environment is offering false perceptions to a brain which has evolved to let us cope with reality. Our brain's accuracy of perception and understanding has been essential to our survival. It is true that simulation devices are of great value in training pilots and giving preliminary practice for all sorts of difficult tasks. But now computers can offer a harlot's reality information without responsibility. Where is the philosophy to let us understand that gigabits alone will never make the qualitative change from information to understanding? Civilisation has always brought a contradiction between the artificial and the natural, and if the civilisation breaks down then the natural wins - it is possible to see Jean Jacques Rousseau and the ancien regime in France in that light. Perhaps 'hands on' learning may help to restore a healthier sense of reality. The exploratories, by offering direct experience, real phenomena in an atmosphere of play, may turn out to be even more valuable than their founders hoped, in supplying a sense of phenomena and richness of experience, to counteract the electronic Babel.55 We have all seen Tom and Jerry films where Tom walks over a cliff and does not start falling until he understands his predicament. Virtual reality games like Doom take us even further into an environment of false reality. Uncorrected errors augment misunderstanding, like the rumours which breed panic. Too much exposure to uncheckable electronic false reality could have analogous effects. The errors in cybernetic terms would take the form of positive feed-back.
This paper has suggested that technology has to be understood as an innate human faculty as well as the cultural phenomenon which we commonly see. Even creativity, though logically seen as unpredictable, may be an unconscious process preprogrammed into the brain and necessary to a creature which came to rely on behavioural adaptation rather than physical. This is a complex phenomenon, but a key characteristic appears to be the capacity to think in three dimensions, about materials and forces. This process is logical although it is not verbal or symbolic.
Engineering is little understood outside the members of the profession, and many English people confuse it with science. Certainly, it is not as effectively popularised as science. Perhaps the non-verbal thinking which has been described above explains why engineers are notoriously bad communicators. It is just not possible to represent the Spitfire, the Volkswagen Beetle, or the Forth rail bridge adequately in words. Yet I would maintain that these classics, and also their lesser brethren like clothes props, door bolts or sash windows, are as logical as any proposition in Aristotelian or Boolean form. One could go further, and say that some of the concepts in engineering are as beautiful and original as great poems or pictures. This is seldom recognised in Britain, and this is a sad misperception. For our culture has not made technology a part of itself.
The history of technology is more visual and tactile than most other sorts of history and you cannot do it without getting your hands dirty, getting a feel for things. Yet if the thinking of the engineer is as creative as literature or art, we should be asking ourselves why technology has not entered our general culture -why the average person knows the names of Beethoven, Van Gogh and Shakespeare, but not Newcomen, Parsons or Maudslay. Engineering could be one of the great liberal educations. For me, trained as I was in history and languages, finding out how Watt's engine worked, and how Robert Stephenson thought out the Britannia Bridge, was like coming upon the treasures of Aladdin's Cave. Engineering is too good for engineers - too few of them appreciate the richness of their subject.
If we see engineering as a natural function, not just an activity created by the needs of our own particular society, then we have an opportunity to explore its links with our biological origins and with other cultures. This point of view may also help us to build a better chain of learning for children, a gentler transition from their first toys to more mature mathematical and theoretical competence.
I have talked a great deal about evolution, but I think we must always remember that it is humanity's thought, not technology itself, which evolves. Evolution is blind: technology is mind - but my argument also implies that it may be the nonverbal subconscious mind. How can we give that non-verbal quality a fair chance in our educational system that is so dominated by written examinations? How can we give the true value to three dimensional creative thought in an educational and economic system that chiefly rewards symbol users? In biological terms it is tempting to think of the accountants and other symbol users in industry as having moved up the food chain like carnivores, leaving the engineers - creators - as herbivores to be lived off.
Here is our human mind which perceives and responds to the environment - so we have the externalists' context; and it designs things creatively - so we have the internalists' content. But most important, our heritage from the Prehistoric Engineer is creative invention which cannot be predicted, so that the future is free and undetermined. Perhaps Artificial Intelligence will one day replicate these functions, but until that possibility becomes more than philosophical speculation, it is the human mind's creativity that stands between us and extinction.
I am indebted to many colleagues and students over the years for ideas and criticism, both in Britain and France. I would particularly like to thank my wife Linda, Professor Max Hammerton of Newcastle, Professor Richard Gregory of Bristol, Dr James Stangroom (inventor), Marion Haywood, and my late uncles Douglas and Walter Jones, both inventor engineers.
'Advice to the author from the Librarian of the Seeley Historical Library, Cambridge, in 1959.
2Samuel C. Forman (1995), The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, Souvenir Press, pp. 18-19, gives some of these definitions.
3Manfred Korfman, (October 1973), The Sling as a Weapon, Scientific American, vol. 229 pages 34-42.
"Hanson, N. R. (1958). Patterns of Discovery, Cambridge University Press, 14.
'Evans, F.T., (January 1981): Roads, Railways and Canals: Technical Choices in 19* Century Britain.
Technology and Culture, Vol. 22, pp. 26-34.
6W, Kingston, (1977), The Creative process in Human Progress, John Calder. Kingston offers valuable insights into the relationship between creative thinking and the process of innovation.
'Alan Smith, Engines Moved by Fire and Water, Transactions of the Newcomen Society. Vol. 66,1994 -1995,
ppl-25. A useful account of the work done by others, notably Denis Papin, on early steam power.
8Hobbes, T. Leviathan; John Locke, Treatises on Government; 3. J. Rousseau, Social Contract.
'I was guilty of whiggery as described in Professor Herbert Butterfield's book The Whig Interpretation of History (Cambridge University Press, 1931). The book criticises the tendency to judge past events from a later standpoint. In his words, 'What is discussed is the tendency of many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.' page v.
10Evans, F. T. 'The Maudslay Touch'. Transactions of the Newcomen Society. Vol. 66, 1994-1995, pp. 53-174.
"Roger Lewin: Bones of Contention. Penguin 1989
12Ingold, T., (1993), 'Tools, Techniques and Technology' in Tools, Language and Cognition in Human Evolution, ed. K. R. Gibson and T. Ingold, Cambridge, pp 337-338.
13For a general background to the topic of tools and language Lewin and Gibson and Ingold (vide supra) give a valuable picture. An older but impressive work is A. Leroi Gourhan Le Geste et La Parole (1964), translated as Gesture and Speech, M.I.T. Press 1993. Another seminal work is the short Man the Toolmaker by Kenneth Oakey, London 1972.
"Yves Coppens. (1994 May). East Side Story: The Origin of Humankind. Scientific American, vol. 270, no.5: 62-69.
15Lovejoy, C. Owen. (1988 Nov.) Evolution of Human Walking, Scientific American, vol. 259, (5). ""Leakey R. and Lewin R. (1992): Origins Reconsidered, Little, Brown and Co., p. 90-91. offer an opposing view, that a bipedal chimp was faster.
17Dean Falk (1993). Sex Differences in visuospatial skills. In Tools, Language and Cognition in Human Evolution, ed K.R.Gibson and T Ingold. Cambridge University Press. See also the BBC Horizon programme, Hothead, 1994.
"Jablonski, N. G. and Chaplin, G. (1994 Jan.): Avant les Premiers Pas: 1'origine de la bipedie, La Recherche, vol. 25, no. 261.
"Elaine Morgan. (1994). The Descent of the Child, Souvenir Press, London, pp!56-168 offers the most recent summary of the hypothesis. 20ibid. 38.
21Calvin, W. H. (1994 Oct.). The Emergence of Intelligence, Scientific American, vol. 271, no 4: pp 78-83. 22The irregular term thing using has been adopted because it is more direct than 'opportunistic tool using" and perhaps it will convey more of the importance of the activity. Alternatively homo opportunus may be more suitable, with its connotations of 'advantageous' and serviceable'. 23Gregory R. L. (1976). Eye and Brain, 2nd ed. pp. 50-59
24Cooper L. A. and Shepherd R. N. (1984 Dec.). Turning Something Over in the Mind, Scientific American, vol.251 no 6: 114-121. 25R. L. Gregory: op. cit. 26Cooper and Shepherd 1984, loc. cit.
"Brooke Hindle (1981) Emulation and Invention. New York University Press. Also see Eugene S. Ferguson: (1993) Engineering and the Mind's Eye. MIT Press, pp.41-59.
28K. Connolly and M. Dalgleish. 1989. The Emergence of a Tool-Using Skill in Infancy. Developmental Psychology, vol. 25, no. 6: 894-912.
29Henry Petroski (1985), To Engineer is Human, Macmillan, page 11.
30Calvin. 1994. He also makes the valuable point that trying out things mentally, comparing possible outcomes, has evolutionary value: he quotes Popper, that this permits our hypotheses to die in our stead. 31Schon D. A., (1967). Invention and the Evolution of Ideas. Tavistock Publications. 32Hopkins H. J., (1970): Span of Bridges, David and Charles. 33L. T. C. Roll (1965) Tools for the Job. Batsford. 34R. Dawkins. (1988). The Blind Watchmaker, Penguin Books, London. 35G. Barsalla, G. (1988). The Evolution of Technology, Cambridge, uses this metaphor. 36Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza: (1991 Nov.) Genes, Peoples and Languages. Scientific American pp. 72-78. 37J. Lyons, Chomsky, Fotana, 3rd edition, 1991. 38Jackendoff, R. (1993). Patterns in the Mind. Harvester, pp. 66-82.
39The universality of this basic linguistic form is described by Steven Pinker (1994), The language Instinct, William Morrow, pp. 232-237.
'"'It will be interesting, if the language of dolphins and whales is cracked, to see whether they have the same basic syntactical structures as human languages; if they do, then the thing using hypothesis is weakened. I am indebted to my wife for this, and many other suggestions. 4IJ. Lyon, op. cit. pp. 24-25.
42R. Wallace (1989). Cognitive Mapping and the Origin of Language and Mind, Current Anthropology, Vol. 30, no. 4, 518-526. Ron. Wallace offers a different scenario to explain the development of language. He suggests that the breakaway hominids found themselves in the new drier environment and that scavenging was accompanied by a return to sites where stone tools were used for butchering. Thus their spatial sense became more highly developed and this was located neurologically in the hippocampus. He goes on to suggest that there are strong analogies between the mental processes involved in this mental processing of spatial problems and the Chomskian deep-structure processes such as tracing (inserting a place-holder when a linguistic transformation is made) and embedding, where a sentence is built up from subordinate clauses. Wallace's suggestion relates to complicated language structures like the ability to transform a sentence from active to passive. The idea of thing using thought and the subject-verb-object structure is analogous, but plainly relates to a more basic level of language formation. Furthermore, thing using refers to activities before the use of stone.
43Oldfield, R. C., (1969). Handedness in Musicians. British Journal of Psychology. 90,91-9. Quoted by K. A. Flowers in article 'Handedness', Companion to the Mind, ed. R. L. Gregory, Oxford. 1987. '"Allman, J. M. (1987) in article 'Evolution of Brain in Primates', Companion to the Mind, ed. Gregory, Oxford.
45This outline hypothesis does not aim to give a complete review of recent work in the field of human origins.For that, the collection of articles in Tools Language and Cognition in Human Evolution (see note 13), forms a good introductory sample. It contains useful accounts of many of the approaches to the dialogue on human origins, including tool-using and language in chimps and monkeys and the growth of cognition and skills inhuman infants. As a stimulating introduction to the state of linguistics and the idea of a wired in grammar, the reader may find Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, Morrow 1994, or Ray Jackendoff, Patterns in the Mind, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993. Nowhere, however, so far as I am aware, is the idea put forward explicitlythat 'thing using', distinguished from the much later stone-tool making, may be the primary activity leading to bipedalism, brain growth and the neural basis which would later accommodate language.
46The high proportion of the motor areas of the brain devoted to the hands is clearly illustrated by the well known homunculus diagram. See A. Leroi Gourhan Le Geste et La Parole (1964) (vol. 1 page 120), or page 82 in the English translation, Gesture and Speech, MIT Press 1993.
47 Allan Walker & Pat Shipman (1996). The Wisdom of Bones. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. The authors argue strongly that the Nariokotome boy fossil (homo erectus) could not speak; and they point out that Cavalli Sforza's arguments suggest that even Neanderthal lacked language. If speech came about so late, the importance of tool using in mental development becomes even clearer, pp 210-223.
48C Daryl Forde (1934): Habitat, Economy and Society. Methuen.
49Evans, F. T. (1982), 'Wood since the Industrial Revolution: a strategic Retreat?', History of Technology, Vol. 7, pp. 37-55.
50English is imprecise in its ability to state exactly when we are talking about applied scientific knowledge (technology?), its systematic application (technique?), the experience of a craftsman (skill?). See Ingold, p.
433 'Tool-use, sociality and Intelligence', in Gibson and Ingold supra. Also see Jacques Ellul (1964), The Technological Society for a philosophical view of the stifling of creativity by technique.
"Cyclopaedia of Useful Arts and Manufactures, ed. C. Tomlinson. Plate 'Bishopp's Rotary Steam Engine or Disc Engine, (circa 1853.)
52Eugene S. Ferguson (1992): Engineering and the Mind's Eye. MIT Press. Ferguson argues that good engineering is a matter of intuition and non-verbal thinking.
53The model is based on H.C.Fleeming Jenkin' s work. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th edition, 4,1876: article 'Bridges' 308.
54Yao Tsu Li, D G Jansson, E G Cravalho (1981). Technological Innovation in Education and Industry. Van Nostrand.
"Evans, F. T. (1987), 'Designing and Making exhibits', in Stephen Pizzey, ed. Interactive Science and Technology Centres, Science Projects Publishing, pp. 182-188
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