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World of Science +1: Artificial Ape Man
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Darqcyde



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PostPosted: Mon Aug 23, 2010 7:21 pm    Post subject: World of Science +1: Artificial Ape Man Reply with quote

Artificial ape man: How technology created humans

http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/2010/08/artificial-ape-man-how-technology-created-humans.html

17:06 23 August 2010 Amanda Gefter, CultureLab editor

Quote:
You begin your book The Artificial Ape by claiming that Darwin was wrong. In what way?

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.

So you are saying that technology came before humans?

The archaeological record shows chipped stone tool technologies earlier than 2.5 million years ago. That's the smoking gun. The oldest fossil specimen of the genus Homo is at most 2.2 million years old. That's a gap of more than 300,000 years - more than the total length of time that Homo sapiens has been on the planet. This suggests that earlier hominins called australopithecines were responsible for the stone tools.

Is it possible that we just don't have a genus Homo fossil, but they really were around?

Some researchers are holding out for an earlier specimen of genus Homo. I'm trying to free us to think that we had stone tools first and that those tools created a significant part of our intelligence. The tools caused the genus Homo to emerge.

How do we know the chipped stones were used as tools?

If you wanted to kill something or to defend yourself, you don't need a chipped stone tool - you can just pick up a rock and throw it. With chipped stone, something else is going on, something called "entailment": using one thing to make another. You're using some object to chip the stone into a particular shape with the intention of using it for something else. There's an operational chain - one tool entails another.

What were these tools used for?

Upright female hominins walking the savannah had a real problem: their babies couldn't cling to them the way a chimp baby could cling to its mother. Carrying an infant would have been the highest drain on energy for a hominin female - higher than lactation. So what did they do? I believe they figured out how to carry their newborns using a loop of animal tissue. Evidence of the slings hasn't survived, but in the same way that we infer lungs and organs from the bones of fossils that survive, it is from the stone tools that we can infer the bits that don't last: things made from sinew, wood, leather and grasses.

How did the slings shape our evolution?

Once you have slings to carry babies, you have broken a glass ceiling - it doesn't matter whether the infant is helpless for a day, a month or a year. You can have ever more helpless young and that, as far as I can see, is how encephalisation took place in the genus Homo. We used technology to turn ourselves into kangaroos. Our children are born more and more underdeveloped because they can continue to develop outside the womb - they become an extra-uterine fetus in the sling. This means their heads can continue to grow after birth, solving the smart biped paradox. In that sense technology comes before the ascent to Homo. Our brain expansion only really took off half a million years after the first stone tools. And they continued to develop within an increasingly technological environment.

You write in the book that this led to a "survival of the weakest". What does this mean?

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.

If you said to me, you can either have your toes cut off or your whole library destroyed, with no chance of ever accessing those works again, I'd say "take my toes" - because I can more easily compensate for that loss. Of course, you could get into a grisly argument over how much of my biology I'd give up before I'd say, "OK, take the Goethe!"

Is human technology really any different from, say, a bird's nest, a spider's web or a beaver's dam?

Some biologists argue that human culture and technology is simply an extension of biological behaviours and in that sense humans are like hermit crabs or spiders. That's an idea known as "niche adaptation". I see human technology as different because of the notion of entailment. A number of philosophers and social anthropologists have argued that the realm of artifice has its own logic - an idea that traces back to Kant's idea of the autonomy of the aesthetic realm. Philosophy, art history and paleoanthropology have to all come together for us to understand who we are.

The point is, the realm of artificial things - that is, technology - has a different generative pattern than the Darwinian pattern of descent with modification. People like to argue that you can apply Darwinian selection to, say, industrial design. That led Richard Dawkins to propose and Susan Blackmore to develop the "meme" idea - cultural analogues of genes that are not biological but they are still replicators and follow the basic logic of biological evolution.

I would argue that memes simply don't make sense. And the reason is that when you look at an artificial object like a chair, for instance, there is no central rule that defines it. There is no way to draw a definite philosophical boundary and say, here are the characteristics that are both necessary and sufficient to define a chair. The chair's meaning is linguistic and symbolic - a chair is a chair because we intend for it to be a chair and we use it in a particular way. Artificial objects are defined in terms of intention and entailment - and that makes artificial things very different from biological things.

People like Ray Kurzweil talk about an impending singularity, when technology will advance at such a rapid pace that it will become intelligent and the world will become qualitatively different. Do you agree?

I am sympathetic to Kurzweil's idea because he is saying that intelligence is becoming technological and I'm saying, that's how it's been from the start. That's what it is to be human. And in that sense, there's nothing scary in his vision of artificial intelligence. I don't see any sign of intentionality in machine intelligence now. I'm not saying it will never happen, but I think it's a lot further away than Kurzweil says.

Will computers eventually be able to develop their own computers that are even smarter than them, creating a sudden acceleration that leaves the biological behind and leaves us as a kind of pond scum while the robots take over? That scenario implies a sharp division between humans and our technology, and I don't think such a division exists. Humans are artificial apes - we are biology plus technology. We are the first creatures to exist in that nexus, not purely Darwinian entities. Kurzweil says that the technological realm cannot be reduced to the biological, so there we agree.

At the end of the book, you note that there is no "back to nature" solution to climate change. Does that mean our species was doomed from the start?

The point is, we were never fully biological entities, so there is no "nature" to go back to, for us. Wait, you might ask, what about people who "live in nature", people like the Aborigines in Tasmania? In fact, the Tasmanians used technology to adapt and survive and they might have done that for maybe another 40,000 years. The issue is that their type of technology - non-entailed - is not the way humans will survive in the final scenario. Ultimately we need major progress - because even without climate change, the sun is eventually going to blow up.

Now, you might think that's a ridiculously long time away, but that's the kind of ridiculous timescale palaeoanthropologists think about. I look back 4 million years and see our emergence and our evolution and then I look forward 4 million years because those are the timescales I'm used to. And in the long run, humans will go extinct if we can't get off this planet. The only way out, ultimately, is up. The Tasmanians didn't have the kind of technology that would lead them there, but we do.

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Timothy Taylor is an archaeologist and anthropologist at the University of Bradford, UK. His book The Artificial Ape: How technology changed the course of human evolution is published by Palgrave Macmillan this month

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Michael



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PostPosted: Mon Aug 23, 2010 11:31 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Some nice ideas in there, but also a lot of speculation and some strange thoughts in there. I kinda doubt people are getting dumber, it's never been so crucial to have brains before.
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LD!



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PostPosted: Tue Aug 24, 2010 4:08 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

It didn't seem like he was saying people are getting dumber.
He seemed more to be implying peoples basic intelligences are changing to suit a different environment.
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The Highlord



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PostPosted: Tue Aug 24, 2010 7:46 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I don't think I'd put much stock in his idea, as neat as it seems. Things like human children being helpless doesn't require a biological explanation as it already has a social one: Forming into tribes and communities allowed us to have helpless children. Furthermore, claiming that our brains are shrinking because we're outsourcing it and citing computers is a little strange to say the least.

Also Kurzweil's an idiot, so anybody sympathetic to his ideas is suspect.

Edit: Especially since brain size to intelligence is an egregiously crude method to stake a claim on.
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Michael



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PostPosted: Tue Aug 24, 2010 8:12 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Pretty thoroughly disproven by looking at the brains we know :/
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WheelsOfConfusion



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PostPosted: Tue Aug 24, 2010 4:11 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

The Highlord wrote:
Also Kurzweil's an idiot, so anybody sympathetic to his ideas is suspect.

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mouse



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PostPosted: Tue Aug 24, 2010 6:53 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

i'm not convinced by his response that somehow, it doesn't count that things like beavers and termites alter their environment, while it does that we do, on account of this whole 'entailment' thing. and the idea that we are not, and never were, "fully biological entities" - what does this mean? somehow, we are above biological laws?

basically, darwinian evolution says that the organism that is most successful, i.e., has the most surviving grandchildren, is the one whose genes will come to dominate the population. so our successful ancestors were successful because of tool use - they still became dominant by the same mechanism - they had more surviving offspring. just because it may not have been sexual selection that allowed them to dominate, doesn't mean it wasn't selection of some sort. it's still the same underlying process. our genetic material is different from our closest relatives, because a different set of characteristics were successful, and thus selected for - that's evolution.
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tinkeringIdiot



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PostPosted: Tue Aug 24, 2010 8:13 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

mouse - I think the point that he is trying to make is that the emergence of Homo Sapiens and the course of human evolution cannot be fully described using biological natural selection because of the influence of technology. Since technology itself evolves according to different mechanisms than biological systems, the evolution of our species cannot be fully understood by looking at biological factors (like cranium size, jaw strength, etc) alone. I don't think he's saying that we don't obey Darwinian evolution, so much as that we are leaving critical factors out of the equation. If our own evolution cannot be fully explained by purely biological effects, then we could be said to be not "fully biological entities." (plus that's a really good hook).

A beaver doesn't lash stones to branches to fell trees more quickly. While they do alter their environment, they do not make tools. Same with ants: they extensively alter their environments and form truly amazing social structures, but they don't make tools.

The Highlord wrote:
I don't think I'd put much stock in his idea, as neat as it seems. Things like human children being helpless doesn't require a biological explanation as it already has a social one: Forming into tribes and communities allowed us to have helpless children.


That could be a chicken-and-egg sort of dilemma: Did the need to care for helpless children for long periods of time drive the formation of stable communities or did stable communities drive the evolution of more helpless young? Can a prehistoric society of our own species even be identified without remnants of their tools? The scenario Taylor is posing is that tool use and the evolution of technology was the beginning of the evolution of our species. The start of our branch, if you will.

And your argument seeking to discount the current proposition only offers an alternative mechanism, which doesn't really decrease the plausibility of the argument in the article.
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mouse



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PostPosted: Tue Aug 24, 2010 9:09 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

eh - no.

Quote:
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.


now, the size of our cranium, ultimately, is limited by what biology can manage to supply. there can't be something like a super-intelligent mollusk, because they don't have much in the way of brains for evolution to act on. mammalian brains have the capacity to develop in highly specialized way - whether to handle lots of sensory input, or deal with things like finding one's way by sonar, or specializing in learning, so you can learn to use tools.

the _processes_ are the same - they are biological. the driving forces are something else. in the case of humans, the driving force was the ability to use tools, including using one tool to make another. to make predictions about fairly complicated outcomes, in other words. (although humans may not be as unique as we would like to think - ravens may not make much in the way of tools, but they may be able to grasp the concept of building on one activity to achieve another - which is what using one tool to make another is).

saying that fully biological effects are necessary to explain the evolution of a species rather overlooks a whole lot of things. a lot of evolution is driven by response to non-biological things, which do evolve by different mechanisms than biological systems. the evolution of lakes to wetlands to dry land, as sediment builds up in the lake bed, is "evolution" in the biological sense, nor does it follow the same pressures - does that mean that organisms around that evolving lake evolve by a different mechanism than those that live in a more constant environment, like the deep sea? how would the evolution of jaw strength in humans differ from, for example, the evolution of beak sizes in darwin's finches? both change because diet changed. true, the human diet changed because we learned to make knives and build fire and cook stuff. but biological natural selection still determines how our jaws changed. the possible directions human jaws could evolve into are limited by where human jaws started from, and the final result - the modern human jaw - is found because those with such jaws (and technology) outcompeted those without technology (but strong jaws) - because they left more offspring. that's what a selective advantage is - it's an advantage that allows you to have more surviving offspring. having children, and those children growing up to have more children, is about as biological as you can get.

i see that taylor (and you, i guess) are saying that using technology to build technology is a step other species have not (yet?) taken. but i think it's a distinction without a difference. no, you can't explain all of human evolution if you ignore the fact that humans make tools. i would posit that you can't explain, for example, antelope evolution if you don't know antelope are hunted by lions. or polar bear evolution, if you don't know polar bears live where it is really really cold (if you don't want to bring other organisms into it).

but it's still biological natural selection that determined our evolution. it was still an ability to get more surviving grandchildren. technology is the specific advantage we have - just as radar is the specific advantage bats have, and the ability to manipulate their environment by building dams is the advantage beavers have.

you know - i just noticed a basic problem in your logic:

Quote:
the evolution of our species cannot be fully understood by looking at biological factors (like cranium size, jaw strength, etc) alone


see, cranium size, jaw strength, etc - they aren't the driving factors of evolution. they are the _result_ of evolution. we have larger cranium size than apes because our use of technology allowed us to support more undeveloped infants, so they could grow their brains outside the womb. our jaw strength is less than that of other apes, because we found ways to process our food before we put it into our mouths. you are confusing cause and effect. yes, to understand why the effect is an evolutionary successful result, you _do_ have to understand the causes - whether those are "biological" or not (what would you describe as a purely biological driver of evolution?)

this has gotten really long - is it making any sense to you?
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Michael



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PostPosted: Tue Aug 24, 2010 9:43 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Not to interfere, but aren't raven's particulartly good at tool use? I don't remember the details exactly but at least one black bird is able to fashion hooks out of wire to retrieve food from long plexiglass tubes...
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PostPosted: Tue Aug 24, 2010 10:09 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

that's the one i was thinking of! and they are apparently the only bird that can solve the problem of a piece of fruit hanging on a long string - they grab the string, haul it up, put their foot on it to hold it, and repeat until they've brought the food to where they can reach it (apparently some other birds figure out they should grab the string and haul up - but if the string is too long for them to reach the fruit in one pull, they are foiled).

now to me, that shows an ability to think through several steps - which is essentially what humans do when they use one tool to make another. the difference is, humans have hands, ravens only have beaks. so they are limited by their basic (biological!) design, and we are not.
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tinkeringIdiot



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PostPosted: Tue Aug 24, 2010 10:34 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

mouse wrote:
saying that fully biological effects are necessary to explain the evolution of a species rather overlooks a whole lot of things. a lot of evolution is driven by response to non-biological things, which do evolve by different mechanisms than biological systems. the evolution of lakes to wetlands to dry land, as sediment builds up in the lake bed, is "evolution" in the biological sense, nor does it follow the same pressures - does that mean that organisms around that evolving lake evolve by a different mechanism than those that live in a more constant environment, like the deep sea?


The sedimentation of lakes into wetlands isn't a good comparison to the effects of tool use as that process is not controlled by the animals affected by the transition (except perhaps us, because we can build dams and such.)

Quote:
how would the evolution of jaw strength in humans differ from, for example, the evolution of beak sizes in darwin's finches? both change because diet changed. true, the human diet changed because we learned to make knives and build fire and cook stuff. but biological natural selection still determines how our jaws changed.


Here you've already presented the counterpoint to your argument: the driving force behind diet change for finches is what food is available in the environment while our diets changed because we learned to prepare our food differently through tool use. Yes of course the bottom line is that this ability allowed the genes of those individuals possessing of fire and sharp rocks to be passed on and influence the evolution of the species. But technology is what allowed those individuals to pass on their genes rather than physiological advantages like a bigger beak. I think you are picking apart the semantics of the argument rather than the argument itself.

Quote:
i see that taylor (and you, i guess) are saying that using technology to build technology is a step other species have not (yet?) taken


I'm not saying that and I don't think he is either. New Caledonian crows and a few other corvid species are known tool makers, not to mention chimps and other closer cousins. Studying the evolutionary progression of these species would actually be a fine place to test Taylor's hypothesis.

Quote:
see, cranium size, jaw strength, etc - they aren't the driving factors of evolution. they are the _result_ of evolution. we have larger cranium size than apes because our use of technology allowed us to support more undeveloped infants, so they could grow their brains outside the womb. our jaw strength is less than that of other apes, because we found ways to process our food before we put it into our mouths. you are confusing cause and effect. yes, to understand why the effect is an evolutionary successful result, you _do_ have to understand the causes - whether those are "biological" or not (what would you describe as a purely biological driver of evolution?)


Physiological or morphological features in terms of natural selection could be viewed as both the cause and the result: bigger beaks mean it is easier for the finch to eat the local food supply -> the genes for bigger beaks are passed on and the species tends towards larger beaks over time. In this case the large beak is the cause and the effect, so the argument becomes a bit circular. But what if the advantage is not a direct expression of our inherited genes (like stronger jaws) but a result of learned skill (like how to make a stone knife)? Now the determining factor for the passage of genes to the next generation (the actual mechanism of evolution, as you've pointed out) is decoupled from the genes themselves. This allows individuals with the best tools to pass on their genes rather than the individuals with the best genes. If tool use and, more critically, more complex tool making were genetic, then the comparison to beavers and bats would be appropriate. But it is not. That much is abundantly clear from the world around us.

To sum up, I would call an advantage derived directly from some morphological feature a "biological" driver while one derived from tool use to be a "non-biological" driver, for the purpose of this conversation.
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tinkeringIdiot



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PostPosted: Tue Aug 24, 2010 10:38 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

mouse wrote:
that's the one i was thinking of! and they are apparently the only bird that can solve the problem of a piece of fruit hanging on a long string - they grab the string, haul it up, put their foot on it to hold it, and repeat until they've brought the food to where they can reach it (apparently some other birds figure out they should grab the string and haul up - but if the string is too long for them to reach the fruit in one pull, they are foiled).

now to me, that shows an ability to think through several steps - which is essentially what humans do when they use one tool to make another. the difference is, humans have hands, ravens only have beaks. so they are limited by their basic (biological!) design, and we are not.


Sorry for the back-to-back...you posted this while I was typing.

The lack of hands doesn't limit their ability to solve the problems they need to solve as in the studies I've seen they do in fact solve the problem. What would be a more relevant development is if the physiology of the crows started to change to allow them to solve increasingly difficult puzzles. Like if they sprouted thumbs on their beaks so they could tie knots or something. (probably would be something less comical, but you get the point).

(ps: here's an article on New Caledonian crow tool use.)
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Darqcyde



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PostPosted: Wed Aug 25, 2010 12:09 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Wouldn't the biological factor that tool use measure be something along the lines of fine motor control, problem solving (with tools), as well as measuring how well a person could build their tools and quality of materials chosen?

In other words it wasn't just about using tools, it was about using better quality tools in better ways to achieve better results. Actually, it still is.

Information is also a tool.

Factoring out socio-economic factors and personality differences (which of course real life doesn't), if two people of similar attributes are given the same opportunities and goods the one who best utilizes what they are given becomes the most successful.

Two people could both graduate high school with full college scholarships. One squanders higher education opportunities, A, and the other takes advantage of them, B. It's easy from there to come up with a scenario where B has several more opportunities to achieve greater success than A.
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Darqcyde



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PostPosted: Wed Aug 25, 2010 12:14 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

btw taylor said this about Kurzweil:
Quote:
I am sympathetic to Kurzweil's idea because he is saying that intelligence is becoming technological and I'm saying, that's how it's been from the start. That's what it is to be human. And in that sense, there's nothing scary in his vision of artificial intelligence. I don't see any sign of intentionality in machine intelligence now. I'm not saying it will never happen, but I think it's a lot further away than Kurzweil says.

Will computers eventually be able to develop their own computers that are even smarter than them, creating a sudden acceleration that leaves the biological behind and leaves us as a kind of pond scum while the robots take over? That scenario implies a sharp division between humans and our technology, and I don't think such a division exists. Humans are artificial apes - we are biology plus technology. We are the first creatures to exist in that nexus, not purely Darwinian entities. Kurzweil says that the technological realm cannot be reduced to the biological, so there we agree.


As I see it, he's saying Kurzweil's point is almost moot: since technology has ALWAYS been part of the homo sapien existence we can't 'merge' with it during a singularity or other such event; it's already part of us.
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