Science

Did They Check for Monoliths?

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Today's dose of revisionist prehistory:

Paleoanthropologists once considered making tools to be one of the defining characteristics of being human–along with a big brain, language, and upright walking. But they had to rethink the concept of "man the toolmaker" in recent decades as they spotted wild chimpanzees pounding

george

nuts open with stone hammers, fishing for termites and ants with sticks, and extracting honey with brushes made of sticks. Skeptics countered that tool-wielding chimpanzees were just imitating humans living in the same forests.

A new study bolsters the idea that chimps came up with the tools themselves. Researchers working in Africa's Côte D'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) have discovered stone hammers made 4300 years ago that appear to be the handiwork of chimpanzees, not humans. The ancient age of the tools shows that they were made by chimpanzees because "we know this was happening when no farmers were around–it predates farming in the area by 2000 years," says lead author Julio Mercader, a Paleolithic archaeologist at the University of Calgary in Canada.

[Via Thoreau. But see Jim Henley's dissent.]

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  1. toolmaking has never been an important defining characteristic of humans, any more than the opposable thumb was. it’s language.. syntax etc. that makes us superior to the dumb beasts (dumb meaning non-linguistic)

  2. Toolmaking indeed. Robert’s Rules of Order is what distinguishes enlightened species from lesser beasts.

  3. Show me a monkey who makes whisky, then I’ll be impressed!

  4. Wine, Will. Anyone can make whiskey.

  5. Humans were pretty much losers until writing came along. Speech was good, of course, but writing allowed for the mass accumulation of knowledge. You don’t see the chimps writing, do you? Without writing, we’d still think lightning was God’s way of yelling at us.

  6. Human beings become less and less unique all the time. We aren’t in a unique solar system, we aren’t in a unique galaxy, tool use isn’t unique to us, our biological development wasn’t unique, etc.

  7. Human beings become less and less unique all the time. We aren’t in a unique solar system, we aren’t in a unique galaxy, tool use isn’t unique to us, our biological development wasn’t unique, etc.

    I wonder if we are the only animal that knows this. 🙂

  8. Stevo Darkly,

    Given the very plausible notion that intelligent life has evolved on other planets in this vast universe I doubt it.

  9. Did They Check for Obelisks?

    Don’t you mean “monolith” (from 2001), and not “obelisk?”

    Or is the obelisk another pop-culture reference I’m not familiar with?

  10. The Real Bill…you mean it isn’t?

  11. You don’t see the chimps writing, do you?

    What about National Review?

  12. I’ve always called that thing from the cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Presence” an “obelisk.”

  13. Ethan…or The Nation or Time or Newsweek or NYT I could go on & on but I won’t…

  14. The Real Bill nailed it – literacy is the key to rational thought and almost all modern human achievement.

    There seems to be something that fundamentally links the ability to read and write with rational thought.

    Having dealt with illiterate people (one-on-one and in mobs) in several other countries, the kind of thought processes they engage in (or don’t, as the case may be) absolutely shocked and amazed me. Rational discussion and calm examination of known facts seems to have no place whatsoever in their decision-making processes.

    Noam Chomsky, in his role as a brilliant linguist (not his more famous role of ludicrous political commentator) could probably offer a pretty good explanation for this phenomenon.

  15. You don’t see the chimps writing, do you?

    Where do you think this blog gets its commenters?

    (I keed, I keed. You guys is the greatest. Thanks for correcting me on obelisk/monolith, N.I.; that’s what I get for blogging at midnight.)

  16. Thanks for correcting me on obelisk/monolith

    You’re such a poser Jesse

  17. Chimps wrting and leaving comments? Chimps? I’m a bonobo, you unsophisticated animal.

  18. Lamar,

    Yeah, chimps are pretty violent, whereas bonobos release their urges sexually. Make love not war! 😉

  19. we’d still think lightning was God’s way of yelling at us.

    Pat Robertson still does.

  20. If a mutation leads chimps to a higher order of intelligence–one where speech and writing are added to the chimp repertoire, say–then how long before we start shooting them? I mean, I love chimps and bonobos as much as the next guy, but we can’t allow this world to become some sort of planet of the apes. No sirree.

  21. I think Chomsky had put it something like this: the species specific trait of humans is language. Here, I don’t mean communication (as every animal has some form of communication) but a knowledge of, and ability to use in an endlessly creative way, a rule governed system for organizing thoughts.

  22. Nipped Chimpsky – I think you’re right about Chomsky’s take on it. I think it may also have something to do with the way the “rule-governed system” contributes to “organizing thoughts” so much so that it practically “programs” literate people to have an entire different, far more logical and useful perspective toward the world, than non-literate people.

    Sadly becoming literate seems to have a varying degree of effectiveness in encouraging rational thought in humans – even literacy doesn’t seem to help some folks…

  23. Rob,
    The only problem with your argument is that some non-literate cultures have some of the most complex grammars in the world. I think you’re right that something about the development of a writing system can be linked to rational thought processes such as planning ahead and developing creative inventions. But whether a people have developed a writing system or not is a separate issue from the rule governed system of language that is species specific to all human groups, literate or not.

  24. I would say it isn’t language, it’s written language. Even if only a tiny minority is literate, having a written language permits limitless cultural and intellectual evolution.

    With oral history, everything has to be relearned every generation. Also, one flu season can wipe out all the coopers and then everyone’s fucked because everything has to be shipped in bags.

  25. Chimps have nothing on the greatest intelligence Earth has to offer: chess playing computers.

  26. I remain unimpressed. Contact me when chimps and bonobos use slingshots to throw feces.

  27. Show me a monkey who makes whisky, then I’ll be impressed!

    There is an island really close to England, Scotland and Wales that is full of them. They even assembled the Titanic with extensive human supervision.

    Wine, Will. Anyone can make whiskey.

    Those are on the other side of the English Channel, in a land sometimes referred to as the West Coast of Germany.

  28. Having a written language has certainly allowed human beings to do achieve extraordinary things that they wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. But if the question is ‘what is the *defining* characteristic of human beings’ it cannot be having a written language. Otherwise, what you are saying is that oral cultures are not human cultures.

  29. It’s an honor just to be linked to!

  30. One could put 1,000 monkeys with typewriters in a room for thousands of years, and eventually they would come up with Shakespeare. Put 1,000 humans in a room and all you’ll get is a damn Lee Goldberg ripoff.

  31. Put 10 monkeys in a room with typewriters for 30 minutes, and you get half the comments on our global warming, abortion, race relations, Iraq war and left vs. right threads.

  32. NC – While I think you may have a valid point about the complex grammar, I still think there’s something about being able to comprehend meaning from completely abstract written symbols that seems to me (from my entirely anecdotal personal experience in various countries with very low to nearly-nonexistent literacy levels) that the ability to read and write seems to be essential to rational thought.

  33. Put 10 monkeys in a room with typewriters for 30 minutes, and you get half the comments on our global warming, abortion, race relations, Iraq war and left vs. right threads.

    DailyKos, 10 monkeys, 8 minutes.
    LGF, 2 monkeys, 1 minute.

  34. I would say it isn’t language, it’s written language. Even if only a tiny minority is literate, having a written language permits limitless cultural and intellectual evolution.

    No, language is enough. There is a big difference between the ability to communicate and language, because one can be achieved by simple programming (i.e. instinct) whereas language is the conveying of ideas. You need to be rational in order to have ideas, just to begin with.

  35. Rob,
    I think I’m in partial agreement with you but a few points need clarifying:

    How are you defining ‘rational’?

    Secondly, which countries are those you’ve been in? The dominant ethnic group in all countries I’ve been in was basically literate, if not well-educated (in a western sense). It’s only been with the tribals that I’ve mainly encountered complete illiterates. But I would say that in some cultures (Cambodian, Thai, Kansasian, etc.) while the majority of the people could read and write at a basic level they didn’t necessarily lean towards rational thought in the sense of valueing things like planning ahead, or making or deciphering reasoned based arguments (come to think of it, even outside of Kansas this latter value/ability is probably true of the majority of Americans). So, I think the two may be more of a partial correlation than one causes the other. Perhaps, having a written language is influential to rational thought but a culture can have a written language and still be mainly non-rational in emphasis, among the majority of the people anyway.

    But if the question is ‘what is one defining characteristic of homo sapiens’ then I don’t think the answer can be ‘having a written language’ as writing systems didn’t first begin until about 6,000 years ago and oral cultures are still with us today. To conclude this way we’d have to say that it was only 6,000 years ago that we became human beings and that oral cultures are subhuman

  36. ” I don’t believe chimpanzees can do any such thing. I think they get the tools from – Iran.”

    No, they didn’t get them from Iran, they got them from Space Aliens. The same space aliens that built the pyramids, kidnapped Elvis, killed Anna Nicole Smith and caused the Boston Red Sox to win the World Series in 2004.

  37. I would say it isn’t language, it’s written language. Even if only a tiny minority is literate, having a written language permits limitless cultural and intellectual evolution.

    For a very different opinion on the value of literacy, check out Plato’s Phaedrus:

    it will create
    forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their
    memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not
    remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid
    not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth,
    but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and
    will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will
    generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of
    wisdom without the reality.

    It sounds a bit like he’s descibing the blogosphere, but he’s actually describing written language.

  38. I think I’m already bored with Plato’s company. What a silly sweeping statement. He might be right that there is much drivel that is read and written but nevertheless, a writing system’s value as a tool for advanced thought is incalculable.

  39. As Ayn Rand might say, “Plato was a Red.” If you do not get the joke click on the URL I linked to my handle.

  40. “Secondly, which countries are those you’ve been in?” – n.c.

    Haiti, Honduras, Ecuador, the truly bad bits of Mexico… Thailand and many of the really crappy third-world port cities of Asia.

    “No, language is enough. There is a big difference between the ability to communicate and language, because one can be achieved by simple programming (i.e. instinct) whereas language is the conveying of ideas.” – Gamito

    That just hasn’t been my experience. All of the countries I’ve listed have language, but when most of the people can’t read or write, you get far more irrational thought than you do in countries where the literacy rate is (comparatively) sky-high.

    “You need to be rational in order to have ideas, just to begin with.” – Gamito

    Not true at all. The ability to have ideas is a separate pre-cursor to rational thought, but they aren’t the same thing. Plenty of people have lots of irrational ideas (thunder means the Sky God is angry, volcanic eruptions happen because we haven’t sacrificed enough virgins, etc. just to mine two examles from one vein of bizarrely irrational ideas.)

    “while the majority of the people could read and write at a basic level they didn’t necessarily lean towards rational thought in the sense of valueing things like planning ahead, or making or deciphering reasoned based arguments” – n.c.

    In my experience, literacy does seem to be the primary requirement for all of those things, tho. Just because there are lots of literate people with the capability (due to literacy) doesn’t meant that they exercise that capability (tragically).

    “So, I think the two may be more of a partial correlation than one causes the other.” – n.c.

    Perhaps, but in my experience it seems that literacy is a pre-cursor for rational thought, much like the capability to have ideas is a pre-cursor requirement to having rational ideas.

    “Perhaps, having a written language is influential to rational thought but a culture can have a written language and still be mainly non-rational in emphasis, among the majority of the people anyway.” – N.C.

    My line of thinking exactly!

    “if the question is ‘what is one defining characteristic of homo sapiens’ then I don’t think the answer can be ‘having a written language’ as writing systems didn’t first begin until about 6,000 years ago and oral cultures are still with us today.” – N.C.

    I agree totally. But I also tend to think that pre-literate corresponds with pre-rational, for the reasons I’ve discussed above. Obviously, I’m no expert in this field, it’s simply something I’ve observed in a wide variety of impoverished nations with a high illiteracy rate.

    “To conclude this way we’d have to say that it was only 6,000 years ago that we became human beings and that oral cultures are subhuman” – N.C.

    I don’t think that rational thought is a defining characteristic of being human, or that non-literate cultures are subhuman. But certainly I think that there was a water-shed moment in human development, and that we could perhaps look at pre-literate cultures as pre-rational. I wouldn’t believe that would make pre-literate humans them any less human, tho, any more than whether a dog has learned to play fetch makes the dog “sub-canine.”

    I have to say that this is one of the more fascinating discussions I’ve had on this thread, and I hope that my failure to think through the hypothesis that my anecdotal evidence has encouraged me to consider isn’t holding the discussion back.

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