Question Time 9/16/16:

Tool making and the mythic wild-man

In my Environment and Society class today, among other topics, we discussed the development of tools by early humans during Paleolithic times. Our TA underscored that just as the human species’ numerous ‘revolutions’ (e.g. agricultural and industrial) were not singular events but gradual phenomena, the same is true with the advent of basic tools — that it took hundreds if not thousands of years for the species to conceive them.

Given modernity’s uber-accelerated rate of technological progress, it is hard to wrap one’s head around that fact. Another reason this may be surprising is the continued success of literary “wild men.” The two I daydreamed about in class were Mowgli of Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Tarzan, who both demonstrate amazing resourcefulness in their crafting of classic cave man-like tools. But given this reveal of the millennia-long emergence of tools, these characters must have cognitive abilities that were off the charts! Granted they are fictional (I imagine them based on the Disney adaptations), but I think it brings up an interesting question:

Are modern humans just smarter than we used to be?

This would explain the miraculous talents of Mowgli and Tarzan.

Or does the vast knowledge passed down through the generations underwrite our modern capacity for progress?

Of course, the second must be somewhat true: human advancement has occured and will continue due in large part to our tradition of educating our youth about our ideas, values, skills, etc. But if a baby born in 2016 was left on a deserted island, what would happen? Assuming a benevolent group of monkeys were willing to raise it, would the child develop abilities inferior to a caveman’s in the absence of human-adminstered education? Or would he instinctually grow to manipulate nature around him to gain an advantage? I’m confident there’s theories out there from anthropologists or cognitive scientists, but I just wanted to ask.