Offloading and evolution

I just finished reading Carl Zimmer‘s very fine book Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea; which is a great introduction to the topic and covers a lot of ground, from Darwin’s life aboard the Beagle to host-bacteria arms races (stop having antibiotics, people!) to man-caused mass extinctions to whales with legs to the invention of language.

After talking about cognitive offloading last week, and about how we’re as dumb as cavemen, I found it curious to stumble upon this text in the book:

The artifacts that [early] humans left behind speak to a profound shift in the way humans saw themselves and the world. And that shift may have given them a competitive edge. “Something happened about 50,000 years ago,” explains Klein. “It happened in Africa. These people who already looked quite modern became behaviorally modern. They developed new kinds of artifacts, new ways of hunting and gathering, that allowed them to support much larger populations.”

Researchers can only speculate for now about what brought the shift about. Some have proposed that the creative revolution was purely a matter of culture. Anatomically modern humans in Africa experienced some change – perhaps a population boom – that forced their society to cross some kind of threshold. Under these new conditions, people invented modern tools and art. “Cro-Magnons were perfectly capable of going to the moon neurologically, but they didn’t because they weren’t in a social context where the conditions were right,” says White. “There was no challenge to provoke that kind of invention.”

Whatever the reason for the appearance of modern behaviour, slightly after humans started tinkering with artifacts and tools, they spread out of Africa and replaced (or perhaps wiped out through competition or diseases) Neanderthals and Homo erectus around the world. “In an evolutionary flash, every major continent except for Antarctica was home to Homo sapiens. What had once been a minor subspecies of chimp, an exile from the forests, had taken over the world.”

(Note: If you’re thinking of buying the book, be aware that the 2006 paperback edition does not come with those lavish illustrations the Amazon reviews mention. It’s still worth it, but I can only imagine how much better the original -and sold out- 2001 edition is, since this is a subject that really benefits from images.)

About Jorge Aranda

I'm currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the SEGAL and CHISEL labs in the Department of Computer Science of the University of Victoria.
This entry was posted in Books, External cognition, XCog. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Offloading and evolution

  1. Yoni says:

    Hey Jorge,

    Your post reminded me of another book that I read a little while back, Ronald Wright’s “a short history of progress”.
    In the book he talks a lot about the evolution of man, the progression of mankind, from homo sapiens to agriculture to the atomic bomb, and he also takes it a step forward to talk about the future of the planet and mankind.
    Most importantly, he advocates the idea of a progress trap, and I think it’s an idea worth knowing.
    During 2004 he gave 5 lectures across Canada, talking about the book (one chapter in each lecture). They are called The 2004 Massey Lectures, and last time I checked they were available at the Toronto Public Library 🙂

    The book:

    The Massey Lectures:

  2. Jorge says:

    Thanks for the tip, Yoni –I’ll check out these references.

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