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.