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.