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24 August, 2010

Review: The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution
 by Timothy Taylor

(This review first appeared in The New York Journal of Books on 23rd August, 2010.)

The Artificial Ape is a book with a plausible idea, but that is all it has. If you are looking for a convincing argument that “technology changed the course of human evolution” or even some compelling evidence, this is not the book for you. However, if you like informed speculation about humanity’s prehistoric past and you enjoy surveys and summaries of this immensely long and fascinating period, The Artificial Ape will keep you turning the pages.

Taylor is a well-known and popular archeo-anthropologist and is beginning to make himself a name for controversial speculation. His Prehistory of Sex takes us back 8 million years and The Buried Soul makes some startling claims about how widespread cannibalism and vampirism were in prehistory. The Artificial Ape follows in this tradition.

Taylor’s main contention is that tool use in early hominins was a necessary step to allow us to develop our large brains. In particular, he speculates that the invention of the baby sling must have occurred about two million years ago (although there is no actual evidence). This would have allowed a hairless ape with an upright gait—and thus a restricted pelvic gap—to give birth to increasingly immature babies, ones that could not cling to their mothers and would need to be carried, thus allowing the brain to continue to grow and develop outside the womb. As Taylor puts it, turning ourselves into artificial marsupials.

He makes much of the fact that tool use in hominins began about 2.5 million years ago, long before signs of accelerated skull-size began to be seen in the fossil record (after 2 million years ago). It is a puzzle that stone tools were being made and used before Homo ergaster and then Homo erectus began to develop their larger brains, and it is this puzzle that Taylor’s hypothesis attempts to tackle.

Taylor also points to the fact that an ape with an upright gait has a much shorter intestine than one on all fours. This means that not only meat eating but cooking may have been essential precursors to the development of bipedalism, simply because of the difficulty of finding sufficient nourishment from a vegetarian and raw meat diet with a short gut, at a time when we would have been extremely active and burning calories at a rate rarely seen in humans today.

Interestingly, recent evidence, published after the book was released, pushes the date for tool use and meat eating back to perhaps 3.4 million years—the pre-Homo days of Australipithecus afarensis. This find gives Taylor a 1.4 million year gap to explain before brain sizes begin to increase. But it does provide more time for full bipedalism to evolve after tools for butchering meat are first seen.

Given the paucity of the evidence, much of what Taylor proposes must be taken with a pinch of salt. For example, hominin skulls are quite plentiful across the last two million years, but there are only a dozen or so before that time. The graph of brain capacity against time that he presents is quite compelling but it would not need many new data points in the pre-2 million years’ range for it to look very different. More critically for the argument, there are just three hominin pelvises that have been found covering a period of almost 3.5 million years. While they approximately match the required changes in morphology for an ape specializing increasingly in bipedalism and immature neonates, it is very little to base an argument on.

So the book is disappointing in that, having made its surprising but apparently reasonable claim, it then provides scant evidence and only weak arguments in support of it. It is disappointing in other ways, too. It contains long and frequent digressions into areas of human cultural evolution that are not strongly connected to the main argument and which tend to dilute and confuse the message.

While fascinating in their own right, Taylor’s discussion of neolithic art and culture do not contribute much. Similarly, his extended discussion of why Tasmanian aborigines had apparently “regressed” to a level of tool use and a style of living not far removed from that of chimpanzees, while a very useful antidote to Victorian condemnation of and dismay at their lifestyle (which still persists in a mild form in academic circles today), does not strengthen his argument appreciably.

Some discussion as to why other hominids (the great apes) have not taken the same evolutionary path as humans, despite the strong probability that they were as proficient with tools as our distant ancestors were, would have been worthwhile. It is likely that chimpanzees have been using tools for as long as us, yet it has not led either to bipedalism or to increased brain size. The same problem arises with birds. Modern studies show extremely surprising sophistication of tool use in crows and other species of bird, yet we do not see the same evolutionary tie to tool use that Taylor suggests for ourselves. Birds have not become “artificial avians.” Why not?

And the same problem arises with dolphins, which also use tools. Bird brains also raise the interesting problem for Taylor’s hypothesis that their brains are notoriously small. Claiming that tool use (technology) enables increases in brain size, in the face of a crow’s tiny brain, begs the question as to whether the evolution of technologies and brains is causally linked at all. It would have been useful if Taylor had addressed some of these issues.

The Artificial Ape is a good read. It is full of interesting and provocative ideas and information. Yet, while it is interesting and its main idea is appealing, in the end, it fails to make its case.

11 comments:

Tim said...

Thanks for this review Graham. I wish I had pleased you better, of course, but it's a start of sorts. Just a couple of points here: what you see as the cultural and social digressions are a key part of my attempt to detach human evolution from a strict Darwinian reading - that is, the rules governing technology are non-Darwinian (in my opinion) and that is what meme theory does not work. You are right that tool use in other animals is important, but so are the differences, especially once paedomorphism becomes a major trend. Overall, I feel that I failed to make my unitary argument make sense for you. I will try harder in the next book.

graywave said...

Yeah, sorry about that, Tim. This is a book I really wanted to like because I have a great deal of sympathy with your hypothesis. You'll note, I hope, that I didn't actually disagree with anything you said. Maybe you're right that there are organisational and structural things you could do that would make the argument clearer to easily-confused reviewers like me.

The whole area of how technology "evolves" is interesting in itself. While I'd argue that human evolution is still as Darwinian as ever (even if we can manipulate our own environment, including our technologies) technology takes another path. Your book reminded me of a couple of papers from the Eighties by an IBM researcher called Jack Carroll in which he tried to develop a model for how artefacts develop through use (he hated the word 'evolve' in this context). The references are to IBM research reports but they were quite easily available at the time:

Carroll, J.M. and Campbell, R.L.. Artefacts as Psychological Theories: The Case of Human-Computer Interaction. IBM Research Report RC 13454 (#60225) 1/26/88 IBM Research Division, T.J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown Heights, NY 10598, 1988.

Carroll, J.M.. Infinite Detail and Emulation in an Ontologically Minimized HCI. IBM Research Report RC 15324 (#67108) 10/12/89 IBM Research Division, T.J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown Heights, NY 10598, 1989.

Tim said...

I will check out the Carroll stuff - new to me and I am sympathetic to the idea that 'evolve' is a dangerous word for artefacts.
To reflect slightly further, the 'digressions' into cultural developement are important (I think) to my argument about technology as an independent 'System 3'. The Tasmanians figure in that as they are many people's potential spoiler - if they are 'children of nature' then we cannot, as a species, be quite the bio-tech symbiont that I claim us to be. So I have to show how they were just as technological, albeit in a very unfamiliar mode (reverse entailment).

mr.markcowan said...

graywave
Your assertion that technology changes by Darwinian means is just that, an assertion. It's worth reminding that 'natural selection' was metaphorised from artificial selection, the focus of Darwin's first chapter of 'Origin'.

Humans create the ideas, products and processes which they choose (select) and the recent genomics advance in creating artificial cells/life takes human 'selective' power to another level.

Natural selection doesn't 'create' anything although there is an outcome from this process. The initial variations are all random mutations, unimaginable time is on the side of the evolutionary process and while human cultural change can be directed, and efficient this is not the case with Darwinian selection, which again is the illusion of design. The big question for natural science is/was to account for design and Darwin/Wallace achieved this by evolutionary theory.

Dawkins and Dennett now lecture that humans are the only/first intelligent designers on the tree of life, so the question concerning culture is how it emerges from the evolutionary process which is a different 'illusion of design' question that penetrated 19thC thought.

In the 151 years since Origin both Darwinian and neo-Darwinian approaches have all struggled in accounting for culture which has a different internal logic penetrating its operation than that of the natural system of motion. Of course facts can be cobbled together to give the illusion of a Darwinian theory of the social world but that is storytelling rather than the sophistication of provisional truths we should all be trying to define and refine. A general theory of culture would be an theory of everything for the social sciences, arts and humanities able to connect all the present partial theories into one over-arching metanarrative.

When I say partial theories I refer to Marxism, feminism, social constructionism, symbolic interactionism, etc and that would include Darwinism as well. I think Timothy Taylor's book adds something to the difference in dimension between artificial (human made) with that of natural (or the organic). If anyone is in any doubt about the power of artificial (and how this allows humans to develop their own interests as imperatives)we can reflect on trillions of artifacts, including products, processes and procedures that shape the social world of humankind to quite different directions than evolutionary ones.

Humans choose in a way that nature doesn't and in Al Gore's 'Our Choice' he informs that humans pump 90 million tonnes of pollutants into the atmosphere each and every day. Anyone arguing that such activity is 'natural' is really going out on a thin intellectual limb. Over at CERN we're trying to recreate the conditions fractions of a second after the big bang and right now I'm typing words than can be read across the world within seconds: the technomega point has arrived.

Artificial is not natural, but that doesn't mean that we can't locate mechanisms, laws and even equations to reflect cultural change. That realisation though is not a Darwinian one through the natural sciences, it will be through the social sciences driven to culture's layers of 'hypercomplexity' (E.O.Wilson). These layers are not even being investigated by dogmatic neo-Darwinians who seem motivated more in generating a plausible Darwinian theory of culture and even that has proved troublesome over the last century and a half.

The tide is changing however, and Taylor's welcome book is indicative of this.

graywave said...

Tim, I'm not sure I agree about the Tasmanians. They would only be a successful spoiler if they had *never* used the technologies you argue for as essential. The possibility that they "regressed" from that position at a later date doesn't affect the argument that, very much earlier in their history, technologies shared by other early humans were needed to enable particular changes. It could be that, with a smaller 'toolkit' they would, in time, have taken a new evolutionary path as well as a different cultural one.

graywave said...

Hi Mark, You sent me four comments but they all seemed to have the same content so I hope you don't mind that I only published one of them.

Just a couple of things. We seem to be in agreement on almost everything you say, except in a couple of places. I really don't think that artifacts 'evolve' by Darwinian (or neo-Darwinian) processes.

I find it hard to think of Darwinism, or any other scientific theory, as being of the same kind as the social 'theories' you mention (e.g. Marxism, or feminism). The failure to understand why the scientific use of the word "theory" is different from other, less rigorous uses of the word, is rife in the humanities and I hope you are not falling into that trap.

Nevertheless I agree that a process driven by 'choice' is quite different from one driven by the necessities of the physical environment. Animal and plant breeding, for example, have different dynamics to natural selection. Yet the mechanisms are fundamentally the same and a definition of 'environment' which includes a human agent making choices would make the similarity obvious (as Darwin himself points out in The Origin of Species.)

Choice as applied to artifacts is another matter altogether. Only artifacts that could, themselves, replicate imperfectly would be subject to the 'normal' rules of evolution (choice in the environment or not.) Another evolutionary model is needed to describe the changes in artifacts which are designed by intelligent agents.

Anonymous said...

Graham,
On the one hand you say that artifacts don't 'evolve', and you say the process of conscious choosers (selectors) is different but ultimately Darwinian principles still apply. I am a student/scholar of the social world and the last 151 years underlines how such a Darwinian approach have had profound problems in transferring the explanatory power that Darwinian evolutionary has in the organic to the artificial, social world of humankind, our primary source of experience.

Tim advocates ths idea of System 3 and there is enough evidence in the record from a range of subjects, ecology, sociophysics, pluralist evolutionary theory and the social sciences to substantiate this view.

As Tim highlights in the book, and from the podcast on Sept, 9th Dawkins' particulate view of cultural change 'memetics' is more statement of Universal Darwinism rather than motivated by discovery. His view of evolution is overly particulate and there is a profound difference from the replication-based approaches to evolutionary theory to understanding culture's relativty.

I think the idea of System 3 is inline with my understanding of the Universe. System 1 is cosmic inflation and expansion and this physicality is the subject of the physical sciences. System 2 is the emergence of life and the natural sciences, which includes biological and botanical evolution. System 3, the social world of humankind where we can see the propulsive, even exponential change as a consequence of mind and culure in relative concert.

Raymond Williams called culture 'the structure of feeling' while I define culture as 'the climate and meteorology of meaning' and through an understanding that the human informational range is meaning (Dan Sperber calls this our 'range of relevance') we ca sophisticate our awareness about how meaning works, the mechanisms, at least one law, and an equation that gives culture(s) a state and with multiple measures a speed.

Anonymous said...

Geneing to meaning, biology to belief, natural to culture, organic to artificial, this is the transitional phase shift we need to understand. The difference is one of dimension with culture as a system of motion acting through a body (society) different in operation from the system of motion of nature acting through a body (earth's aggregate, geology, meterology, marine, botany and biology).

For me, culture is beyond the measure of evolutionary theory but in locating the underlying mechanisms and at least one law there is a restatement of the scientific method even though in the process it wil temper Universal Darwinian (UD) pretension trying to explain the social world of humankind.

Anonymous said...

Graham,
I can't remember my password and my other posts were too long so I had to cut them down, sorry for the duplication.

I think increasingly we have to understand culture as a feel'd phenomenon like 'information weather' except the human informational range is one of meaning where we have a causative transition of such magnitude that the interests of human communication/awareness can become imperatives in themselves.

You've made the distinction elsewhere about hard and soft science but I only see 'soft' as reference to the subject matter of the social sciences, arts and humanities at the technical levels to the elusive stuff of meaning.

The ribsome reading off messenger rna is the foundation for replication, yet for humans no two minds have ever read the same book the same. Meaning's plasticity and relativity is the causal foundation for understanding culture's ebb and flow but it is at the same time laden with potential errors in interpetation.

Humans can consciously store meaning in artifacts (means) which are a subsequent medium for that meaning to be reinterpreted across time and place. Understanding how Cutural Expression (system 3) emerges and extends from Natural Evolution (system 2) process has been a challenge for all fields of science but there are a number of encouraging signs out there.

When people refer to the current political climate, moral climate or economic climate, that's more than just metaphor. It's tricky stuff.

graywave said...

Mark, I still think we're agreeing. The artifacts that Tim discusses in his book are simple technologies - stone tools, baby slings, fire, etc. - as well as a few more complex processes and techniques for creating and using them. It is true that 'System 3' can encompass the vast complexity of the whole of human culture, but I suggest that if we attempt to bite off this big a chunk, we will end up waffling in vaguaries and analogies forevermore.

To tackle the ideas in the book scientifically, we must severely limit the scope of our investigation. We need the idea of the artificial ape to give us testable hypotheses. If it cannot, it will always remain just another interesting idea.

Anonymous said...

Graham,
I think we agree on a range of these matters but where I would be totally uncompromising is the idea that we can explain the inner logic (mechanisms and law(s)) of System 3 from a diluted form of System 2. I would reject that outright. Darwin and Wallace were both naturalists and they generated the now accepted theory of evolution because in part they were not physicists, nor were they expert social scientists.

I have the last 151 years as a solid body of experience/evidence paying ongoing testimony to the trouble that system 2 (natural) adherents have had in defining and refining our understanding of culture, human artificial second nature.

Gould referred to evolutionary psychology's 'just so stories', Chomsky has also warned of 'loose Darwinism' and I think there is a tendency for cavalier metaphor in trying to Darwinise culture, memetics one case in point.

I've been working on this big chunk that we can understand as system 3 for over 14 years now and when I refer to mechanisms, at least one law and a feedback/forwarding equation that's because I'm sure I've realised that level of awareness. My problems are mostly presentational now.

As we approach the destination of understanding culture/system 3 through laws and mathematical representation, much like a main train station as we approach such a theory we can look to our right and left and see a converging of tracks indicating that we are getting closer. I see Taylor's book as one such track/thread and understanding 'the Lamarckian juggernaut' (Gould) of Cultural Expression consigns evolutionary theory to 'partial theory' status when it comes to the science of System 3.

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