Which came first: the humans or the tools?

Paul Raven @ 27-08-2010

It’s very nearly the fiftieth anniversary* of a word well-used here at Futurismic: cyborg. So what better time for an anthropologist/archaeologist to advance his theory that homo sapiens sapiens is in fact the first cyborg species, evolved more in response to the facilitations of its own technology than to the environment it inhabits? [via ScienceNotFiction]. Take it away, Timothy Taylor:

Darwin is one of my heroes, but I believe he was wrong in seeing human evolution as a result of the same processes that account for other evolution in the biological world – especially when it comes to the size of our cranium.

Darwin had to put large cranial size down to sexual selection, arguing that women found brainy men sexy. But biomechanical factors make this untenable. I call this the smart biped paradox: once you are an upright ape, all natural selection pressures should be in favour of retaining a small cranium. That’s because walking upright means having a narrower pelvis, capping babies’ head size, and a shorter digestive tract, making it harder to support big, energy-hungry brains. Clearly our big brains did evolve, but I think Darwin had the wrong mechanism. I believe it was technology. We were never fully biological entities. We are and always have been artificial apes.


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

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

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

Interesting… and could be taken as a vindication for the hand-wringing of Nick Carr et al over how teh intarwubz be makin uz dumb.

But change is neither good or bad; it just is. Should we lament this outsourcing of our intelligence (I’d prefer the word outboarding, myself, but it’s not so trendy and probably makes people think of motorboats)? Is biological intelligence necessarily more desirable (or even “right” or “good”) than our cybernetic symbiosis? Taylor, thankfully, is not advocating a return to hairshirt primitivism in response to his theory… but I’d bet good money that a whole bunch of folk will do.

[ * There’s a reason I’m aware of this anniversary, and it’s not that I’m obsessed with the etymological history of neologisms**. You’ll find out how and why I possess that nugget of knowledge in the near future. ]

[ ** Actually, I am obsessed with the etymology of neologisms. It’s like butterfly collecting for the altermodern age. ]

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2 Responses to “Which came first: the humans or the tools?”

  1. Sterling Camden says:

    “Outboarding” — I like it. That raises an interesting thought: why would we ever need implants? Perhaps we can develop more world-enhancing gadgets that don’t need to be invasive. Once someone figures out how to pipe brain waves in and out, then nothing needs to be attached to the body. Of course, I suppose that’s a different form of “invasive”.

  2. TheShiffy says:

    I can see how this becomes an argument for Primitivism, but I think it’s also useful for anyone who wanted to make an argument in favor of Transhumanism.

    I’m still skeptical of the shrinking-brain-size-means-we’re-dumber argument. At this point we can’t test the intelligence of our ancestors. In which case, how do we know that the smaller brain size isn’t an evolution analogous to computers? Ever larger computers doesn’t mean faster processing power; in the evolution of computing, the opposite is true.