The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution

October 21, 2010

What is it that makes humans different? The Artificial Ape seeks to answer this question by showing how technology, which originated as far back as 2.6 million years ago with the Australopithecines, increasingly provided a protective cocoon insulating humans from the vagaries of natural selection through "de-evolution" that led to the "survival of the weakest".

Thanks to such "artificial selection", humans domesticated themselves to such an extent that, starting some 40,000 years ago, our anatomy has become more fragile and our brain has reduced in size. Paradoxically, Timothy Taylor sees technology appearing before brain expansion occurred - which is perhaps a step too far, as it is commonly accepted that size is not everything, in that the rewiring of neural pathways (which did not always go hand in hand with brain expansion) may be of equal importance.

Similarly, the idea that, rather than stone tools, the invention of a harness for carrying infants was crucial remains speculative, not least because the evidence for the existence of such devices relies on comparatively recent examples. Having said this, it is an interesting proposal that such an appliance, which Taylor thinks may have pre-dated tool use, served as a critical tipping point that encouraged helpless paedomorphism (retention of juvenile characteristics in adults).

Taylor's book is also full of fascinating asides, often supplemented with remarkable and sometimes amusing personal experiences, which should appeal to both the specialist and non-specialist reader. The sections on the ancient Tasmanians are particularly illuminating and show how their "primitive" culture may have been a logical response to prevailing environmental conditions and not self-defeating as has been commonly supposed. The remarks on cannibalism are well chosen, in that this aspect of behaviour during human prehistory often seems to have been downplayed, although the activity was not always as functionally motivated as Taylor suggests. Another commendable feature relates to demonstrating how archaeology can be relevant to understanding issues concerning modern technology, the environment and prospects for the future.

The upshot of Taylor's thesis must surely be that, sometime in the not-too-distant future, our brains will undergo such a reduction that this will adversely affect intellect to the extent that we will no longer be able to understand the very technology we have created - although Taylor seems to take a more optimistic view of the eventual outcome by proposing that technology may potentially provide a let-out where intelligence will continue to exist in the space where humans and machines interact. Yet although humans may have become insulated from "nature red in tooth and claw", and despite our specialness and interdependence with technology, this may be a temporary interlude, as we may, in the medium to long term, continue to be subject to the overarching influence of Darwinian evolution as are all the other creatures in nature.

Although the premise on which this book is based is enthralling, it follows a long line of publications that, in order to make the point, tend to overemphasise the main argument when the picture is almost always more complex. For example, technology arose in tandem with a whole range of different factors, such as language, that may have been just as important.

This book nevertheless provides an alternative perspective on the timing and unfolding of events in relation to the point at which humans diverged from an ape-like ancestor, and it provides added support to the view that the abilities of our earliest forebears may have been seriously underestimated. All told, Taylor provides a provocative and stimulating read and, in challenging orthodox assumptions, raises as many questions as the book answers.

The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution

By Timothy Taylor. Palgrave Macmillan, 256pp, £17.99. ISBN 9780230617636. Published 2 September 2010

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