Humans are completely dependent on technology. This dependence has increased over time, and is the result of a very long evolutionary process. Paleoanthropological evidence indicates that humans and our ancestors have been co-evolving with technology for over two million years. During this process a deeply symbiotic relationship developed: technology allowed our species to acquire more calories from more food sources, reduced the adaptive need for massive teeth, claws, and muscles, and enabled explosive encephalization. Literally food for thought!
The nature of technological evolution has many parallels with the evolution of life, which has led some academics to call technology the “seventh kingdom of life”. This newest kingdom of life can be conceptualized as branching off and co-evolving with the human form; diversifying, specializing, and becoming manifestly more complex in the process.
But are there other branches of technology? And if there are, how do they differ from the human branch?
Animalia high tech
In the 1970s, animal psychologists Thony Jones and Alan Kamil defined technology as:
the use of physical objects other than the animal’s own body or appendages as a means to extend the physical influence realized by the animal.
This is sufficient except that it does not properly identify the difference between technology and extended phenotypes (EP). An EP is a genetically selected for and expressed disposition towards the construction of a certain object (e.g., a beaver’s dam, a termite’s mound, a bird’s nest, a spider’s web). Extended phenotypes are not learned, they are preprogrammed adaptations. Technology on the other hand is produced from a mind that has acquired social information about how physical systems operate. Perhaps it was this reasoning that led Wired founder Kevin Kelly to call technology:
anything useful invented by the mind.
Ethologists have discovered several “branches of technology”. There are branches connected to our own (e.g., chimpanzees, bonobos, gorilla, orangutans) and there are branches that have convergently evolved (e.g., New Caledonian crows, Capuchin monkeys, African elephants). This indicates that technological processes had evolved more than once in the history of life.
However, the root of technological evolution seems to have a common evolutionary pressure: the acquisition of food.
In sub-Saharan Africa, chimpanzees display proficiency at modifying specific sticks in order to carefully probe for termites and ants. Off the coast of Western Australia, bottlenose dolphins use sponges to forage the ocean floor for prey that would otherwise remain inaccessible to detection via echolocation. On the tiny island of New Caledonia in the Pacific Ocean, New Caledonian crows fashion “hook tools” to acquire grubs that reside inside trees. In Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina, bearded capuchin monkeys use specialized stone tools for cracking open nuts.
These are all examples of primitive technological solutions stimulated by a food-related ecological problem. In fact, many of the technologies created by chimpanzees or bearded capuchins are similar to the first-known stone tool technologies produced by the australopithecines. Functionally these technologies are similar as well. Whereas chimpanzees fashion an object to extract insects from an otherwise inaccessible structure, the australopithecines likely used stone tools to extract marrow from the bones of scavenged animals. This could mean that an inaccessible and valuable nutritional resource stimulates sufficiently brainy species to develop the technology necessary to access it.
But all human technology is not constructed with the end goal of acquiring more food. We have also developed technology for enhanced communication, travel, safety, combat, and almost every other facet of our existence. Do any other animals construct technology for non-food related reasons?
In the early 2000s it became evident that the New Caledonian crow had a special type of intellect. Field research on these birds pushed the boundaries on what many thought non-humans were possible of accomplishing. But a team of Oxford zoologists wanted to know whether New Caledonian crows could purposefully apply a tool to an object other than food.
In order to figure this out they needed to be a little sneaky. The researchers set up a series of clear tubes, the longest of which had a tantalizing serving of pig heart at the end (apparently a New Caledonian crow delicacy). The other clear tubes had sticks of varying lengths. To acquire the pig heart the crows had to accomplish the following:
- Use a short stick to acquire an intermediate stick
- Use the intermediate stick to acquire a long stick
- Use the long stick to acquire the food reward
Although many crows failed to understand the sequential step-by-step process, a few successfully accomplished the task. This demonstrated that New Caledonian crows possessed the cognitive ability to grasp causality.
The New Caledonian crow studies are both fascinating and insightful. However, are we cheating if we consider those lab-based experiments as evidence of non-food related tool use? I admit that the crows demonstrated an example of sequential tool use, but the end goal was the same: food!
So far, the great apes have displayed the most sophisticated technological abilities in almost every meaningfully measurable way. Perhaps we should not be surprised by this considering that the great apes and their ancestors have been using technology for several million years (at least).
We know that chimpanzees and orangutans have developed entire “tool kits” that vary from population to population. These tool kits most famously include technologies used to acquire food, like chimpanzee spears, clubs, and anvils. However, both species' tool kits also include various technologies that have no food-related purpose. For example, chimpanzees have developed nasal probes (to clear their nasal passage), combs (for their hair), branch-hooks (to aid in arboreal tree climbing), and other technologies that function as seats, containers, and weapons.
Orangutans have developed equally varied and complex tool-kits that include vocal amplifiers (to contact other group members), bunk nests (to provide protection from rain), sun cover (for shade), autoerotic toys (for both male and female sexual stimulation), and much more.
The other members of the great ape family, bonobos and gorillas, have also demonstrated the capability to produce non-food related technologies. Like the chimpanzees, bonobos have technologies that function as seats, weapons, and play toys. Less is known about the gorilla tool kit, but primatologists have observed them using walking sticks to aid in river crossing and using shrubs to construct a bridge when crossing a deep swamp.
All of these observations suggest that technological complexity is something we share with our great ape family.
The human/animal divide?
Although the similarities between humans and the other great apes are striking, it is clear that the human branch of technology represents something novel. After millions of years of technological capability, our species began to drive technological evolution at a pace unparalleled throughout the rest of the animal kingdom. The entire process may have occurred as an increasingly powerful feedback loop, with technology enabling rapid encephalization, and rapid encephalization enabling the creation of more complex technology.
Today, the biggest questions facing 21st century science involve acquiring a better understanding of technological evolution. For example:
As far as we know, a species like ours has not evolved before in the history of life on Earth. What makes technological evolution so rare?
We look to the universe and have observed no evidence (yet) that anything like us exists. Has a technological evolutionary process as advanced as ours occurred elsewhere?
We are a young species and are just learning how to organize ourselves on a global scale. How can we control the technological evolutionary process to minimize potential harm/extinction?
Human produced technologies appear to evolve in an exponential fashion. Will that trend continue indefinitely in the future? If so, what are the implications for our existence?
A better understanding of technology and its relation to life must be incorporated into all future discussions of these issues. We are just starting to learn about technology’s phylogenetic distribution, evolutionary pressures, and primary functions throughout the animal kingdom. Life and its relation the seventh kingdom is more interconnected than we could have ever imagined.
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