Monday, April 9, 2012

Tools, people and elephants

In the past, one of the things that has been cited as setting humans above the other animals is our ability to make tools. I think it's more accurate to say, rather, that we have a tool. Before you get the wrong idea, let me clarify that: we have, in fact, two tools. Highly sensitive and versatile tools. Tools we can use to make music, write poetry, design buildings and many other things. One of the most important functions of these tools is to make other tools, so you could call them meta-tools.

Of course, other animals have tools as well, but most of them are not as versatile. Contrast, for instant, an elephant. This is another animal with a highly versatile tool and a similarly large brain. How is it that humans got so much farther and became so much more dominant than elephants? Unfortunately, the elephant has only one such tool and although it is prehensile, it only has two digits instead of five. Because a human has two tools, it can use one tool to hold the object being worked on, say a piece of flint for an arrowhead, and the other tool to hold an object to work in the other object, say a strong, hard piece of rock to chip the arrowhead into shape. The extra digits on human tools serve a similar purpose, whereas the bare minimum would be only two opposable digits, as on the elephant's tool.

People argue about what, among the locus of traits--high intelligence, tool-making, language, walking upright--that supposedly distinguish us from the other animals, came first and what drove the changes? I would argue that our sensitive hands not only preceded the other traits, they are what drove them. Because we have these highly sensitive tools on our upper bodies, better to walk upright so they are not damaged. Their use requires high intelligence, but more importantly, instruction from an early age, which requires language.

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