University College London Anthropologist Matt Pope has some interesting and clearly true things to say about how tools have shaped our evolution.
Our invention and use of technology is a defining characteristic of our species. Few other species use tools at all, and none with anywhere the complexity that humans do. The fact is though, that we are so reliant on tools, and have been for so long, that we couldn’t live without them any more. We have evolved to be what we are because of our use of technology, and now we have evolved to be reliant upon it as well.
I use the terms ‘tools’ and ‘technology’ quite loosely here, to refer to anything from clothing, to stone axes, to fire, to electric self-driving cars.
There are a couple of tools that have been especially influential in shaping the course of our evolution, and some have to do with food preparation and eating. It is only with the use of a hand axe, and fire, that we were able to eat the foods we needed to develop these massive brains we have. In evolutionary terms, you don’t get something for nothing – every adaptation comes at a cost. In return for these bigger brains, we can look at our trade off as being our smaller gut, less able to extract a lot of nutrients than a longer gut. This was no problem for our hand axe wielding ancestors, and it is no problem for us, since we can prepare and eat foods that are so dense in nutrients (that egg McMuffin doesn’t count), that we only need a short gut. We can also use fire and cooking technologies as an external stomach, doing most of the grunt work of preparing available nutrients for us, so that they are able to be absorbed into our bodies with minimal energy.
We are, however, now backed into an alleyway. Clothing is another great example of how we have used technology to enhance our biological abilities, giving ourselves in this case a second skin so we can live ‘comfortably’ in colder climates. But over the course of our evolutionary history we have now become creatures that could not live in those same environments without clothing, and could not properly sustain the kind of diet required to evolve these big brains without cooking and hand axes.
In many cases as well, we no longer have to adapt to environmental change by way of natural selection, since we can use tools and technology to adapt ourselves to our environments. If the climate gets colder, other animals have to move, or evolve thicker fur. We can just turn the heating up.
We exist in a kind of symbiosis with our tools and technology, and as designers of these tools and technology it’s good to know that we are making things for an animal that quite literally is innately adapted to not just using, but needing tools to survive.