Tag Archives: human

Telling stories: the evolution of fiction

Why do we humans have such an obsession with making up, telling and listening to stories? A chap called Brian Boyd, writing at Axess Magazine, attempts to piece together the reasons that we have evolved – and maintained – this unique form of social behaviour [via BigThink]:

Fiction takes minds that first evolved to deal with the here and now away from the here and now. Ape minds grew in order to deal with complex social relations, and human minds developed still further as we became ultrasocial. Our minds are most finely tuned for understanding agents, that is, any creatures who can act: animal, human, and by extension, monsters, gods and spirits.

In ancient environments, the agents we evolved to track were other animals as well as people, and even in modern urban environments children have a compulsive desire to learn the names of animals and to play with or make up or listen to stories about animals. Our minds want to and easily can track and differentiate agents, since other agents, human or not, offer the most complex, volatile and high-stake information we regularly encounter. We carry that motivation and capacity into pretend play and story.


As psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley remarks, fiction works as a social simulator, allowing us to stretch our scope beyond the actual to the possible or the impossible. We need not be confined to the given, but can turn actuality around within the much larger space of possibility to explain how things are or to see how they could have been or might be. By building on our sociality, pretend play and fiction extend our imaginations, taking us from the here and now along tracks we can easily follow even offline because they are the fresh tracks of agents.

So next time someone asks you why you’re wasting your time reading a book, you know what to tell ’em. 😉

At the risk of playing the “OMG EssEff is Special!” card, might science fiction be considered a further evolution (or maybe just a fork) of that basic storytelling impulse – not so much a refinement, but a specific extension of its utility suited to the changing needs of human societies? Is that, perhaps, why it only really arrived on the scene at a point in our social history when the idea of tomorrow’s world differing to today’s in radical ways was starting to become commonplace*?

[ * For the purpose of this argument, I’m pegging the dawn of sf to coincide roughly with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; many critics – not least the good Professor Adam Roberts, late of this parish and others – have argued that the attitudes and imaginative leaps that characterise sf can be found in earlier texts, but that’s a debate to be had when there’s time, beer and barstools to spare. And of course, we’ll need to thrash out a definition of sf that we can all agree on before we start… ]

Which came first: the humans or the tools?

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. ]

Is manned space flight a waste of money?

Sending humans into space is an admirable civilisational goal, but is the expense of nation-state funded projects justifiable? Britain’s Astronomer Royal Martin Rees would argue that it’s not:

“The moon landings were an important impetus to technology but you have to ask the question, what is the case for sending people back into space?” said Rees. “I think that the practical case gets weaker and weaker with every advance in robotics and miniaturisation. It’s hard to see any particular reason or purpose in going back to the moon or indeed sending people into space at all.


Speaking to Cambridge Ideas, Rees remained enthusiastic about manned space travel, but thought it would be rather different in style from what we have seen before.

“I hope indeed that some people now living will walk on Mars, but I think they will do this with the same motive as those who climb Everest or the pioneer explorers,” he said.

“I think the future for manned space exploration will be a cut-price, high-risk programme – perhaps even partly privately funded – which would be an adventure, more than anything practical,” he said.

Not everyone agrees, of course – including the Obama administration, China, India and the European Space Agency. But I think Rees has a point, in that nation-states aren’t going to provide the main thrust of such projects in the long run, at least not in the West; they’re too risk-averse to pull it off within budget. Commerce will be the driving force, if there is one… as suggested in Jason Stoddard’s Winning Mars, perhaps.

Fab another little piece of my heart now, baby: 3D printing human organs

The idea of printing replacement biological tissue and organs has been around for a while – we mentioned the development the pressure-assisted spinning system back in 2007, in fact – but it looks like it’s finally reached the point where people think they can make a profit from it on a commercial scale. Via io9, The Economist tells us about Organovo and their US$200,000-a-pop commercially-available bio-printer:

To start with, only simple tissues, such as skin, muscle and short stretches of blood vessels, will be made, says Keith Murphy, Organovo’s chief executive, and these will be for research purposes. Mr Murphy says, however, that the company expects that within five years, once clinical trials are complete, the printers will produce blood vessels for use as grafts in bypass surgery. With more research it should be possible to produce bigger, more complex body parts. Because the machines have the ability to make branched tubes, the technology could, for example, be used to create the networks of blood vessels needed to sustain larger printed organs, like kidneys, livers and hearts.

I can’t wait to see what uses the street will find for this technology once it gets cheaper…

… no, scratch that. I think maybe I can wait after all.

The Tender Mash-up

Since I chose to write about things made of metal skins and electrical guts in November, and then about warm-blooded carbon-based life in December, I couldn’t resist a combination. I call it the tender mash-up because the fusion of man and machine might result in an emotional being with a huge leap forward in physical capacity. The popular television and movie characters Robocop and The Six Million Dollar Man may be coming close to reality. Continue reading The Tender Mash-up