11 September 2010

No escape from technology

Filed under: books, evolution, Kurzweil, UKH+ — David Wood @ 1:51 am

We can never escape the bio-technological nexus and get “back to nature” – because we have never lived in nature.

That sentence, from the final chapter of Timothy Taylor’s “The Artificial Ape: How technology changed the course of human evolution“, sums up one of my key takeaways from this fine book.

It’s a book that’s not afraid to criticise giants.  Aspects of Charles Darwin’s thinking are examined and found wanting.  Modern day technology visionary Ray Kurzweil also comes under criticism:

The claims of Ray Kurzweil (that we are approaching a critical moment when biology will be overtaken by artificial constructs) … lack a critical historical – and prehistoric – perspective…

Kurzweil argues that the age of machines is upon us …  and that technology is reaching a point where it can innovate itself, producing ever more complex forms of artificial intelligence.  My argument in this book is that, scary or not, none of this is new.  Not only have we invented technology, from the stone tools to the wheeled wagon, from spectacles to genetic engineering, but that technology, within a framework of some 2 to 3 million years, has, physically and mentally, made us.

Taylor’s book portrays the emergence of humanity as a grand puzzle.  From a narrow evolutionary perspective, humans should not have come into existence.  Our heads are too large. In many cases, they’re too large to pass through the narrow gap in their mother’s pelvis.  Theory suggests, and fossils confirm, that the prehistoric change from walking on all fours to walking upright had the effect of narrowing this gap in the pelvis.  The resulting evolutionary pressures should have resulted in smaller brains.  Yet, after several eons, the brain, instead, became larger and larger.

That’s just the start of the paradox.  The human baby is astonishingly vulnerable.  Worse, it makes its mother increasingly vulnerable too.  How could “survival of the fittest” select this ridiculously unfit outcome?

Of course, a larger brain has survival upsides as well as survival downsides.  It enables greater sociality, and the creation of sophisticated tools, including weapons.  But Taylor marshalls evidence that suggests that the first use of tools by pre-humans long pre-dated the growth in head size.  This leads to the suggestion that two tools, in particular, played vital roles in enabling the emergence of the larger brain:

  • The invention of a slings, made from fur, that enabled mothers to carry their infants hands-free
  • The invention of cooking, with fire, that made it easier for nourishment to be quickly obtained from food.

To briefly elaborate the second point: walking upright means the digestive gut becomes compressed.  It becomes shorter.  There’s less time for nourishment to be extracted from food.  Moreover, a larger head increases the requirements for fast delivery of nourishment.  Again, from a narrow evolutionary point of view, the emergence of big-brained humans makes little sense.  But cooking comes to the rescue.  Cooking, along with the child-carrying sling, are two examples of technology that enable the emergence of humans.

The resulting creatures – us – are weaker in a pure biological sense that our evolutionary forebears.  Without our technological aides, we would fare poorly in any contest of survival with other apes.  It is only the combination of technology-plus-nature that makes us stronger.

We’re used to thinking that the development of tools took place in parallel with increasing pre-human intelligence.  Taylor’s argument is that, in a significant way, the former preceded the latter.  Without the technology, the pre-human brain could not expand.

The book uses this kind of thinking to address various other puzzles:

  • For example, the technology-impoverished natives from the tip of South America that Darwin met on his voyage of discovery on the Beagle, had eyesight that was far better than even the keenest eyed sailor on the ship.  Technological progress went hand-in-hand with a weakening of biological power.
  • Taylor considers the case of the aborigines of Tasmania, who were technologically backward compared to those of mainland Australia: they lacked all clothing, and apparently could not make fire for themselves.  The archeological record indicates that the Tasmanian aborigines actually lost the use of various technologies over the course of several millenia.  Taylor reaches a different conclusion from popular writer Jared Diamond, who seems to take it for granted that this loss of technology made the aborigines weaker.  Taylor suggests that, in many ways, these aborigines became stronger and fitter, in their given environment, as they abandoned their clothing and their fishing tools.

There are many other examples – but I’ll leave it to you to read the book to find out more.  The book also has some fascinating examples of ancient tools.

I think that Taylor’s modifications of Darwin’s ideas are probably right.  What of his modifications of Kurzweil’s ideas?  Is the technological spurt of the present day really “nothing new”?  Well, yes and no.  I believe Kurzweil is correct to point out that the kinds of changes that are likely to be enabled by technology in the relatively near future – perhaps in the lifetime of many people who are already alive – are qualitatively different from anything that has gone before:

  • Technology might extend our lifespans, not just by a percentage, but by orders of magnitude (perhaps indefinitely)
  • Technology might create artificial intelligences that are orders of magnitude more powerful than any intelligence that has existed on this planet so far.

As I’ve already mentioned in my previous blogpost – which I wrote before starting to read Taylor’s book – Timothy Taylor is the guest speaker at the September meeting of the UK chapter of Humanity+.  People who attend will have the chance to hear more details of these provocative theories, and to query them direct with the author.  There will also be an opportunity to purchase signed copies of his book.  I hope to see some of you there!

I’ll give the last words to Dr Taylor:

Technology, especially the baby-carrying sling, allowed us to push back our biological limits, trading in our physical strength for an increasingly retained infantile early helplessness that allowed our brains to expand, forming themselves under increasingly complex artificial conditions…  In terms of brain growth, the high-water mark was passed some 40,000 years ago.  The pressure on that organ has been off ever since we started outsourcing intelligence in the form of external symbolic storage.  That is now so sophisticated through the new world information networking systems that what will emerge in future may no longer be controlled by our own volition…

[Technology] could also destroy our planet.  But there is no back-to-nature solution.  There never has been for the artificial ape.


  1. It is pleasing to see the traditional anthropocentric mindsets at last beginning to crumble. This work of Timothy Taylor’s in many ways parallels the evolutionary theme of my own work “Unusual Perspectives”, and also (presented more succinctly) in my latest book “The Goldilocks Effect, which is awaiting publication.
    An important component of this way of thinking is the realization that the imagination that our species is the medium in which technology evolves. It is more appropriate to say that technology drives us rather than that we drive technology. That our explosive encephalization was a result of primary, secondary and, in particular, tertiary tool use. Probably greatly accelerated by the high level of intra-species conflict so evident in our species.
    It is the extrapolation of this evolutionary process which, with the supporting evidence drawn from chemistry, as well as the quite obvious “work in progress” that points unequivocally to the internet as the basis for the next phase of nature’s machinery.
    This phase transition corresponding to the ineptly named “Singularity”. While Kurtzveil and other transhumanists have helped carry the torch for the very obvious exponentionality of technological change, they, even now, are still oblivious as to the direction of its vector.
    “Unusual Perspectives” digital edition is available for free download from the eponymous website. “The Goldilocks Effect” which some will find an easier read, will be available soon

    Comment by Peter Kinnon — 11 September 2010 @ 3:32 am

    • Hi Peter,

      I expect you might like the theme of Kevin Kelly’s forthcoming new book “What technology wants“, which I’ve just heard about, and which sounds intriguing.

      Comment by David Wood — 15 September 2010 @ 5:40 pm

  2. Thanks for bringing that to my attention David.

    It will go on my “must read” list, which, in accordance with the evolutionary model which I am promoting, is growing very rapidly as examples of this way of thinking are suddenly breaking out all over.

    Comment by Peter Kinnon — 17 September 2010 @ 3:42 am

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