When I was browsing through the recent issue of Current Archaeology, I came across a review of a book, The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution by Timothy Taylor. Intrigued, I did a search for it and found this review from The Guardian, also quite good. I might consider picking up the book at some point. Here is the gist:
In the new theory, proto-human beings, through innovative technologies, created the conditions that led to a rapid spread of new mutations. In other words, we didn’t evolve a big brain (three to four times the size of a chimp’s) and then use it to develop human culture; we first departed from genetically fixed behaviour patterns, and this led to ever-increasing brain capacity and hence more innovations. The plethora of speculations as to how this happened is fascinating and will probably lead to a true understanding of the course of human evolution, but most people will want proof.
Impeccably detailed evidence is now emerging from the genomics revolution. Taylor cites one of the best attested examples of a human cultural innovation leading to genetic change: the drinking of cow’s milk. In the ancestral human condition only babies up to the age of weaning could digest milk, but tolerance to cow’s milk has spread though all populations that have practised cattle farming. Globally, this process is still incomplete and genomics has revealed that milk tolerance has evolved on several separate occasions by different genetic mechanisms.
The conclusion of the reviewer?
The new understanding of human evolution should be a massive relief to many. The anguish that Darwin caused – all purpose gone, chance and brute necessity rule – seems to be have been misplaced. There is no goal in nature, nor any God-given purpose, but human evolution has been driven by striving towards a better way of living. As they domesticated cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, horses, cats, dogs and bees, humans were simultaneously domesticating themselves. By our own efforts we made ourselves human.
The blurb from the book is this:
A breakthrough theory that tools and technology are the real drivers of human evolution
Although humans are one of the great apes, along with chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, we are remarkably different from them. Unlike our cousins who subsist on raw food, spend their days and nights outdoors, and wear a thick coat of hair, humans are entirely dependent on artificial things, such as clothing, shelter, and the use of tools, and would die in nature without them. Yet, despite our status as the weakest ape, we are the masters of this planet. Given these inherent deficits, how did humans come out on top?
In this fascinating new account of our origins, leading archaeologist Timothy Taylor proposes a new way of thinking about human evolution through our relationship with objects. Drawing on the latest fossil evidence, Taylor argues that at each step of our species’ development, humans made choices that caused us to assume greater control of our evolution. Our appropriation of objects allowed us to walk upright, lose our body hair, and grow significantly larger brains. As we push the frontiers of scientific technology, creating prosthetics, intelligent implants, and artificially modified genes, we continue a process that started in the prehistoric past, when we first began to extend our powers through objects.
Weaving together lively discussions of major discoveries of human skeletons and artifacts with a reexamination of Darwin’s theory of evolution, Taylor takes us on an exciting and challenging journey that begins to answer the fundamental question about our existence: what makes humans unique, and what does that mean for our future?