Humans are far from the only species that uses technology. In 1871, Charles Darwin wrote,
“It has often been said that no animal uses any tool.”
Then he merrily provided a long list of evidence to the contrary.
One of Darwin’s examples was the Asian elephant, which repels flies by waving a branch in its trunk. The elephant does not wave any branch it finds. It modifies the branch by removing side branches or shortening the stem. Sometimes it strips bark from a vine and use that instead.
This is the essential difference between tools and, say, rabbit warrens or spiders webs. Elephants make their tools by manipulating (or handling) things they seek out specifically. They do not only use things they happen to find, or only dig holes, or only restrict themselves to bodily secretions.
Branch breaking by elephants is simple compared to the technology used by birds. Birds don’t just break branches, they take twigs, grass and other materials and fashion them into homes. These homes can be very sophisticated. There is a species of thorn bird that builds nests up to two meters long and nearly half a meter wide, with four or more separate chambers—a nest condominium so strong that it can survive a fall of many meters with its eggs intact, that is lined with thorns to deter predators (hence the name, “thorn birds”) and that has well concealed viewing holes so the birds inside can see danger approaching.
The technology used by beavers is perhaps the greatest non-human technology of all. Beavers build homes called “lodges,” shape their environment by creating dams and, less well known, construct canals to help with the transport of food and building materials.
There are many other examples of animal technology, and more are being discovered every year. The more we look, the more we find.
All this technology has the same purpose: survival, or more specifically, adaptation for survival. Species use tools to help them adapt to otherwise challenging environments without having to wait for evolution to change their bodies. Technology is faster than morphology. Thorn birds, for example, are a type of bird called a passerine, or “perching bird.” Passerine nests are more complex than those of other birds and can be constructed wherever the bird chooses. This helps passerines proliferate in changing environments, most notably in the new world that emerged after the mass extinction of dinosaurs and most other species 65 million years ago. The nests contributed to the passerines’ rapid sub-division into many different species and, even though the passerines emerged much later than other birds, about half of all bird species alive today are passerines. Why can’t other birds build nests like passerines? Because passerine feet have an independently mobile rear toe, somewhat similar to a human opposable thumb, which enables the bird to grasp twigs and so build nests.
Which came first? Toe or nest?
The two developed together, with a small change in one leading to a small change in the other until all the changes added up to a large difference in both the birds’ feet and nests.
Because humans are the most radical tool users, our bodies have undergone the most radical changes because of our tools.
The prime example is the hand axe: a perfectly symmetrical teardrop of flaked, shaped flint that early humans, predecessors of homo sapiens, used as an all-purpose tool for five or more million years.
The hand axe looks like a big canine tooth: a fist-sized fang for fighting, feeding and fabricating more hand axes. The skeletons of hand axe-using humans show something interesting: over long, evolutionary time scales, they evolved smaller teeth and weaker jaws, both relative to other primates, such as gorillas, and to earlier humans. The hand-axe removed the need for big teeth and was superior to them. It could be replaced if lost of broken, sharpened when dull, and you could wield it in combat without putting your head and neck within biting range of your opponent. Smaller teeth and weaker jaws begat big biological benefits: they left space in the skull for more brain cells, and changed the weight and balance of the head so that it became easier to stand erect. Hand axes changed our bodies, and also the course of human evolution. They are the reason we became brainy bipeds.
What followed was a rapid proliferation of technology that led to us exploring, and dominating, the entire planet. Next time you hear someone complaining about “technology” being “bad,” ask them to try this thought experiment:
Imagine you are cast away, naked and without property on a wild island, and you are not capable of creating tools. Unless you can find natural shelter, naturally potable water, and food you can chew and digest with your teeth and jaw alone, you will die within days.
Next, imagine having children as well. You will need enough of all of the above to keep your children alive from pregnancy through puberty.
Then, imagine doing all these things in competition with other people and species, all trying to find natural shelter, naturally potable water, chewable, digestible food, and keep their families alive. How long could you survive? How long could the human race survive?
The answer is easy: most of us would die within a few days, and the few that remain would last only weeks or months. Without tools, the human race would become extinct within a year.
This may come as a shock to those people—nearly always wealthy, well-educated, and comfortable—who see themselves as “all natural” or “anti-technology.” Typically, their first objection to the thought experiment is that, if any of this was true, then we would not be here, because our ancestors would have died. If they could survive without tools, why can’t we? The answer to that is simple if surprising: our pre-technology ancestors were from a different species. They had big teeth, strong jaws, small brains, moved mainly on four limbs, and were covered in fur. After them came our more recent ancestors, humans but not homo sapiens, that used primitive tools that eventually changed their bodies. Those ancestors gradually evolved into us.
Our bodies are not configured to survive without the aid of technology. Without technology, we are birds without nests, beavers without dams. We cannot live without tools. We never have.
Once we became homo sapiens sapiens—not just tool-using humans but creative humans—we started developing and sharing tools and ideas as well as genes, and the symbiosis between surviving and creating intensified quickly. We jumped the rails of evolution and stopped evolving physiologically. Instead, we started adapting our technology in our lifetime, rather than waiting for our bodies to adapt in evolutionary time. We became the species that responds to environmental pressures with new tools, not new bodies. For example, when we overpopulated land near potable water, we invented bottles to transport water from distant springs, then pumps and dams and desalination, then we learned how to treat waste water and irrigate deserts. We did not reproduce less, or change our bodies to need less water. We did not evolve humps.
Our tools and are bodies are one. We do not evolve, we create. And, because we cannot adapt without creation, if we stop creating, we stop existing.