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on 18 November 2010
Timothy Taylor has written a most thought provoking book following on from and in line with the recent publication by Richard Wrangham: Catching Fire how cooking made us human. The central thesis is that the evolution of humans has been dominated by the ability to adopt technology which compared to other species amounts to an artificial selection. Through technology the laws of nature are supplanted by the will of humans. He develops the concept that we did not evolve to use technology because of our superior intelligence but it was technology itself that was the evolutionary pull which we responded to and adapted by evolving our intelligence. This pull selected out the trend/evolution to higher intelligence.
Examples are given which the author concludes launched humans on the technology/evolutionary line some 2.6 Million years ago. These include the making of hunting implements and cooking to become more efficient in the use of food which resulted in more energy becoming available to support the evolution of larger more intelligent brains. In addition, he highlights the less appreciated technology developed to support immature infants by adapting energy efficient means for carrying them such as slings and rucksacks. While the discovery of stone implements which define the technology developed for hunting; arrow heads, axes and implements for cleaving and slicing carcasses, the technology of carry infants would not have been preserved i.e. archeologically invisible.
An illustration on how dependant we are on technology is succinctly given by how far we have lost direct contact with the raw source of our food which is termed "visceral insulation." Getting back to nature is not an option for us as we have never lived with nature.
A common theme of the book is how humans evolved the large head in response to the technology pull. Since ever increasing brains could not pass through the restricted size of the pelvis of the erect posture humans, human brains had to mature outside the womb. Through technology, humans developed the means to support immature infants and effectively became artificial marsupials.
Taylor stresses that technology is as least as critical to us as our soft tissues and that we are formed not by raw nature, but by the continually emerging world of technology and that artificial intelligence is human intelligence. We have to face our destiny as the first non-biologically evolving species.
The book is very thought provoking in that if any one of us spent some time musing on how our lives are so dependent on technology our artificiality becomes immediately evident. Hence there is lots of scope to reconsider the more linear Darwinian thinking of survival of the fittest since through adapting technology we became less fit. For example the bone structures of early humanoids are much more robust than those of today.
Taylor gives a number of convincing examples of his central thesis but one was left with wanting more evidence to push home such thought provoking themes. If anything the author digresses somewhat both philosophically and through narrating his personal experiences. This tends to hinder the reader from evolving his or her summery of the main message. Never the less one is sure that many other works will follow on from this ground breaking account of the artificial ape.
On further reflection I feel that it may not have been intelligence that was brought by technology but curiosity- how to make things better. Maybe a book could be written about the evolution of curiosity which although not absent in other species is a key driver in homo sapiens.
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on 29 November 2015
This book pretends to be academic and informed - at least I get that impression by the prominent 'PhD' qualification advertised alongside the author. Its subject matter is basically the way we live and that of the series of Homo species before us. This subject is ecology, and it is immediately obvious that the author has no experience of humans living in remote societies without - until 50 years ago - electricity, money or wheeled vehicles. He would have found their lives to contradict his repeated claim of how weak our bodies have become. Nope, not in the far back of beyond they haven't. I've seen a team of men run down a fully-grown wild yak. And babies are not dumped on the ground in remote places in order for their mothers to work but kept in contact with the mother's body in a sling, When the baby reaches 3 -4 years it can carry a baby on its back, and ride a horse bareback, and tell good wild food from poisonous. And what about tribes in the Amazon or New Guinea - they survived without the 20th century until forcibly brought into contact with our world.

He says that human bodies have become more 'gracile'; slender, shorter, thin-boned since the stone ages. That depends. In the Sahara a slender people was replaced by a tall, stocky, race about 8000 years ago. In the Himalaya, there are Sherpas who tend to be small and short but also Kampas - people of the district of Kam in Tibet, who are noticeably tall.

He cites computers playing chess as their having great (artificial) intelligence. Nope - that's merely a greater amount of active memory and holding a lot more than 7 items in your 'head' at once. Human thinkers can not only remember a lot on demand but their brains below the surface keep stirring all the stuff they know and relating unconnected bits to each other in such a way that it pops up unconsciously as intuition, or poetry, or quantum physics. Computers can't do this. Stuff that computers do is actually very simple. From virtual reality to flying a plane, you can drill down to the bottom in a few steps. And that's the bottom - nowhere further to explore.
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on 5 July 2012
This book presents the hypothesis that tools had and have critical impacts on the evolution of humanity: "instead of our becoming intelligent enough to invent things, the things actually allowed us to evolve into intelligent human beings (page 57)," going even further to claim that "Technology is at least as critical to our identity as out soft tissues" (page 189). Going beyond accepted theories of genetic and cultural coevolution, the author proposed revisions of Darwin's theories so as to recognize tools into a main shaper of the human species, with technology having a dynamics of its own, up to claiming that "Things rule us" (page 160).
He makes a strong case about the crucial importance of tools in shaping human evolution. Indeed, we might do well to stop using the term genetic-cultural coevolution and think instead in terms of genetic-cultural synergetic interaction. But there are two main missing links in his argumentation. First of all, the book does not present any reasonable conjectures on the processes producing the results he describes. Thus, on the critical example of infant-carrying slings he says that they were "an essential tool" (page 122) because of the need to carry infants for long distances "So the pressure to make this huge...It becomes conceivable that the first bestoke and standardized stone tools...were made in order to obtain the materials for... the simple fabrication process for basic slings" (page 123). Maybe this is conceivable, but "being conceivable" is a far cry from "being likely" even if we accept abduction as a reasonable logic of discovery.
The second missing link concerns the mental bases of advanced technologies, which are not a continuation of stone-age technologies but depend on science and its philosophical underpinnings. In other words, the author neglects non-material dimensions of culture which became critical both for the shapes of human societies and their impacts on evolution and for the advancements of technologies and their impacts on culture and humanity. Therefore, it is hard to avoid the impression that too large a dose of materialistic determinism hides in parts of the author's approach.
For sure the author ignores the real possibility that the future-impacting powers of emerging technologies outrun the mental capacities of humanity to control these powers and prevent the demise of the human species as a result of misuses of technologies. In other words, the likelihood of increasingly dangerous gaps between the evolution of tools and the evolution of human intelligence, including both moral and cognitive capacities, is not taken up in the book. Instead the mood of the book is unwarrantedly optimistic about the future of humanity ignoring dismal scenarios that may result from the very views on the role of tools in human evolution which he proposes. Thus, the possible need to impose limitations on the invention and uses of technologies seems to be beyond the books horizons.
Professor Yehezkel Dror
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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on 15 June 2011
The headline in this book arrives six pages before the end: it is the theory that the invention of the baby-carrying sling allowed humans to evolve from woodland apes two million years ago. The sling would have solved the problem of how a bipedal species with a narrow pelvis and constricted birth canal could dramatically increase its brain size. The solution was to allow the infants to be born prematurely when the head was just small enough to pass but too big to support itself unaided. For the parent to remain productive while raising an infant, technology was needed to carry it - an artificial marsupial pouch. Ever since then, says the author, humans have been completely dependent on technology to the point where it "has taken a leading role in evolution" (p 194) by separating us from our environment.

The author sees Tasmania as a test case for his theory. According to previous accounts, the aboriginal inhabitants lost their technology after they were cut off from mainland Australia by rising sea levels. The explanation for this has been that skills were forgotten because the Tasmanians did not have enough neighbours to refresh them. The author sees this as a challenge because if our minds evolved to invent technology, why could we not reinvent it? He argues very persuasively that the Tasmanians remained totally dependent on technology, that reports of their backsliding were exaggerated, and that a reduced toolkit was sensible and comparable to that of other groups in analogous situations. His evidence does not seem to me to undermine the theory that larger populations are more technologically innovative, in fact it enriches it. The Tasmanians had ideas that might have helped some mainlanders too.

The book has copious and detailed descriptions of archaeological finds to justify the argument that we have long been dependent on technology. Whether the author succeeds in showing that our use of technology amounts to `artificial selection' displacing `natural selection' (p. 28), that `survival of the fittest' does not apply to humans and that `Darwin was fundamentally wrong about evolution's causes' (p. 7) depends on his definition of terms. His sample definition of `fitness' (p. 28) as `the ability to adapt to one's environment' is quite original. He could have made a better case for technology causing artificial selection by pointing out that stone weapons made it possible for the weaklings to regularly cull any would-be alpha males. This would explain the disappearance of violent ape dominance behaviour from our species.

The author makes it clear that his book aims to answer the key question of `how' humans managed to increase brain size (the baby sling), not `why' (p. 29). He briefly mentions some explanations of `why'. The `standard answer' (social organisation) he dismisses as a theory that the larger brain `made us more similar to what we were to become' (p. 69). He is surprised that our brain has grown so big, given that it now far outranks the competition (p. 189). If a cheetah were to improve its speed as much as we have improved our brain, says Taylor, it would be capable of 200 miles an hour when the top speed of its prey is only 50. He does not examine whether we faced greater challenges than today in our period of brain evolution that might have justified its expansion. He mentions another theory: that the size increase was driven by technological warfare. This is in line with his final conclusion: `technology, within a framework of 2 to 3 million years, has, physically and mentally, made us. We long ago began adapting our minds and bodies to a hidden agenda. The result is a new, symbiont form of life - one that breaks all the rules' (p. 198). This sounds like the epidemiological theory of culture that holds that we've been `taken over' by it, except that technology would have begun the takeover ten times as long ago.
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on 11 May 2011
This book argues convincingly that the invention of tools allowed humans to develop in the way they did, so that an increasingly weak creature came to dominate the earth. We cannot survive without our technology, and it may be that we never could. The more we use tools, the more our abilities diminish, and the more reliant upon them we become.
Sound incredible? You will not be disappointed in finding out how and why because this book is packed with amazing insights and amusing tales. I particularly enjoyed The 7000 calory lunch!
Extremely thought provoking and highly recommended.
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on 22 August 2015
As described. Good delivery time. Interesting and thought provoking read
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on 18 May 2013
Taylor argues that it was the technology that defined humans and challenges the Darwinian notion by suggesting humanity is the 'survival of the weakest'. Clever, funny, and very accessible.
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on 19 November 2015
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