human innovation

It’s generally accepted that home sapiens haven’t changed much since becoming homo sapiens. In terms of cranial volume and cortex volume, the numbers have been fairly stable for the last 10,000 years or so.

Question here.

Are we, as people in this century, smarter than the first rugged few who founded civilization?

I guess a better way to ask the question is :

If Homo Sapiens are home sapiens, why did it take so long before the first civilizatons to be established? tens of thousands of years before the first civilization.

even better way of asking;

If we were set aside a group of babies born today and let them live in an environment similar to that of our first h. sapiens ancestors, would it take them the same amount of time and generations to get to where we are today. say about ten thousand years? assuming unlimited space and time but with no external influences.

Is it intrinsic in humans to innovate?


Did innovation happen by accident, thereby tipping humans off to drive progress?

Judging by the amount of time humans spent wandering around before settling down, i’d say it’s the latter.

Well… you’d have to find them parents with a similar technological background, or else they wouldn’t be starting from the same point.

I imagine that humanity could exist at the palaoeolithic stage indefinitely; the Aurignacian culture that existed in Europe 30,000 years ago continued for maybe fifteen thousand years with little development- the indigenous australian culture has remained at a similar level for 20 thousand years;

these cultures do change to adapt to the changing environment. perhaps by developing new toolkits or by moving location,
but the development of writing and town living is not something that can be expected to happen automatically.

SF worldbuilding at

It is certainly intrinsic in humans to innovate. There doesn’t seem to be much doubt that people given a challenge will try huge numbers of ways to overcome that challenge.

The next question is how well this relates to technological advancement. The answer seems to be ‘not well at all’. There seems to be a trigger of some sort required for humans to innovate and be able to pass on those innovations. Most likely that trigger is high population density and excess resources. Without it Homo sapiens just sits still, or even go backwards.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is found amongst the Australian Aborigines. After arriving on the continent C55, 000 years ago they were again isolated, probably for C30, 000 years. The technology of Aborigines appears to have changed very little over that time period. Numerous basic inventions found elsewhere in the world were simply never reproduced in Australia. No functional footwear, no metal working, no bows. Even the ability of Aborigines to light fires prior to European contact is dubious. Despite this Aborigines retained high levels of skill in producing weapons, ropes, nets, art and other technology. Aborigines had all the basis for advancement to the next technological level, and yet their isolation caused them to miss the boat on the next great technological leaps. Exactly why is complex, but it seems to be largely related to an inability of Australia to maintain high population densities.

Even more extreme are the Tasmanian Aborigines, who lost the technology to produce clothes, indisputably lost or never gained the ability to make fire, lost the technology to produce axes with handles, lost the ability to make fine microlithic stone tools and even lost the knowledge that fish were edible… All of these technologies were lost between 10 000 and 4000 years ago and were never regained.

So here we have modern people in every sense of the word who lacked the opportunity to advance technologically. There is no reason to suppose that if we placed any other group of modern humans in the same environment with the same base technology that they would advance any faster. We really do have to assume that the same would be true of anywhere else on the planet. It appears that people don’t just advance inherently.

So why did it take so long before the first civilizations to be established? That’s a complex question. I’m going to be the first person to tell you to read ‘Guns Germs & Steel’ by Jared Diamond for a full answer. I’ll throw in the ‘The Future Eaters’ by Tim Flannery is also worthwhile.

Basically civilisations need agriculture. Agriculture requires specific conditions, including species amenable to domestication and seasonal weather patterns with one highly productive season. Flannery has suggested that it wasn’t until humans crossed into Oceania and left behind most of their diseases and predators and were faced with a glut and then collapse of unexploited food that agriculture managed to develop and then sweep back over the rest of the world to be perfected elsewhere.

Even after we have agriculture we need to spend a lot of time perfecting the technology and the breeding of the species. All this takes time.

So it’s probably not correct to say that innovation happened by accident. Innovation happened when people had the population numbers and the food to play around with innovation. Any woman on the edge of starvation who spends 4 hours working on an invention that fails to work out is not likely to survive. People realised this and didn’t waste their time and energy. Once there was time and energy to waste innovation naturally followed. The devil makes work for idle hands. Some of that work is technological innovation.

Asking this question is essentially the equivalent of asking why apes still exist if some of them evolved into humans. (Yes, yes, I know that humans didn’t evolve directly from apes, but that’s the way the question is usually phrased.)

The answer is that both evolution and cultural advances happen in individuals and small populations in response to environmental and genetic factors. Rerunning the tape of time would not produce the same results if other factors were changed.

The latest skulls found in Africa show larger than modern cranial capacity 160,000 years ago in Homo Sapiens. It’s been a lot more than a mere 10,000 years.

Some scientists argue that a critical change in our brains occurred about 30,000 years ago, but I don’t know of any truly solid evidence to back this up.

OTOH, tool use in proto-humans goes back possibly millions of years. Agriculture (which I’ve already read started in the Middle East as a response to a major climatic change there about 12,000 years ago - I’m not sure I understand that bit about Flannery) is just the latest human innovation. The possibility of innovation may be innate without meaning that it must occur everywhere in every population.

Brain size has stabilized in sapiens for at least 150k years, and remember that Neanderthals had slightly larger brains than we do, so don’t get too hung up on brain size. It’s brain organization that is the key, and it does appear that something significant in that arena happened about 60k years ago. No direct evidence, mind you, but the “sudden” appearance of new tool types and sopshisticated art is inderect evidence.

We do know prett much for sure that civilization arose at least in two places independently (and maybe more). While the various civilizations of the Middle East and Asia might have had some contact so that they can’t absolutely be considered truely indepenedent, it’s pretty clear that the MesoAmerican civilizations were independent.

I’d second Blake’s suggestion to read Guns, Germs, and Steel. It’s a great book.

Nitpick: Humans did evolve from apes, but we did not evolve from gorillas, chimpanzees, or any of the other modern (non-human) apes. Remember, we ourselves are apes.

Last time I looked at a tree of life, both the apes and the humans evolved from some common earlier ancestor (some kind of a lemur, IIRC). But the split was before either apes or humans evolved and possibly before proto-apes and proto-humans evolved. (Ape evolution has far fewer fossils to work from than human evolution does.)

Yes, we’re all Primates and humans are in the family Hominidae along with the great apes, but not in the same family as the lesser apes or monkeys or lemurs or others.

Exactly where the split took place is still unknown, AFAIK, but I don’t think it was less than 16,000,000 years ago.

Exapno Mapcase no one has any idea where agriculture was first invented but we know it has been independently established at least twice: once in the Americas and once elsewhere. We have the first evidence of it being used as the primary basis for societies in middle east/Mediterranean, but that would not have been the first use of agriculture. We can reasonably assume that humanity first went through a long period of cultivating favoured plants while relying on hunting and gathering, which was the standard for much of Asia, North America and tropical South America and parts of Africa until very recently.

The difference between human evolution and human innovation is that innovation can be passed on rapidly to unrelated individuals and within the same generation. Because of this the processes are not really equivalent.

The ‘great leap forward’ of C40, 000 ya is strongly evidenced by the simultaneous explosion in diverse art forms and technologies around this period. Prior to this no human art was known, and then suddenly there was an explosion of painting, sculpting, musical instruments, decorative clothing manufacture. Added to this we suddenly find houses, ropes the new Aurignacian toolkit and clear evidence of long range exchange of trade goods. The important thing is that there is no progression. Humans went from not having these things to having them at fully modern levels apparently overnight. There is no evident progression from isolated trading, semi-permanent structures and crude stick figures to modern forms. The simply appeared fully formed and without much room for advancement.

Whether this was due to an evolutionary change in our brains is unclear. Flannery and others have noted the correlation with the great diaspora and particularly the arrival in areas free of predators and disease and with an overabundance of food plants and prey species that had never seen a mammalian predator.

BTW, while humans and the other apes did evolve from monkey like creatures, all the direct ancestors of humans are apes. H. erectus was an ape. Australopithecines were apes, Proconsul was an ape and so on.

Humans indiputably evolved form apes.

Blake, several comments.

First, Homo erectus was not an ape. Australopithecus was not an ape. This is absolutely incorrect. None of the known human ancestors were apes.

Second, certainly there are cultural finds around the time of cro-magnon that indicate that something interesting happened then. (There are some earlier signs of cultural advancement, however. It is not true that no earlier signs of human art have been found, just nothing in the same profusion and technique. Check out this article or this one on aboriginal cave art. Of course, everything depends on what you decide to define as “art”.) I said that solid evidence of a change in the brain has not been found. You seem to agree on this. Scientists who claim this are using the cultural changes to postulate physical changes using no physical evidence.

Third, nobody knows exactly when and where agriculture started, especially if you define it as loosely as cultivating favored plants, as you do. But that is not agriculture as we know it. You say correctly that civilization requires agriculture but neglect to say that agriculture leads to civilization (and in fact is as important an innovation as any in human history). Only in the Middle East, however, do we have a continuous record of this process, and the best evidence of how immediately the changeover from a hunter-gatherer society to a sedentary farm-based society created population pressures to spread agriculture over a larger area than we do in the Middle East.

To quote Guns, Germs, and Steel:

BTW, not only have I read the book, but I’ve read much of the primary and secondary material that also went into Diamond’s research. It is an excellent popular scientific resource, but I don’t agree with him on all his conclusions or all the horses he decided to back in various scientific disputes.

Care to find a reference for that?

· diversity/systematics/tsld043.htm y_chromosome_as_a_battle_ground_.htm

There is no reason to cladistically organise humans out of the apes. We have all the common traits of the other apes. We are more genetically more similar to the ape known as the chimpanzee than that ape is to a gorilla. It takes a deliberate and taxonomically invalid effort to remove humans form the Hominoidae.

Those two finds are highly dubious. The first refers three intersecting lines and is only possibly art, as you said.
The second is due to highly suspect dating techniques. No mainstream anthropologists paleaeontologists even believe humans made it to Australia 110 000 years ago as that find would imply. It contradicts all the other evidence.

Believe it if you wish, I will continue to push the mainstream line that there is no evidence of art that old, and it will be perfectly true.

That’s not how I do define it, it is how the dictionary do define it. Who’s definition of agriculture do you use that excludes cultivation of desirable plants?

Civilisation is a bit of a dicey concept, but it is always associated with a few things such as writing, permanent structures. As such agriculture does not require civilisation. People around the world practiced agriculture while remaining nomadic and without permanant structures or writing. How exactly do you figure that agriculture requires civilisation? Are you saying that Colombian Indians with their nomadic lifestyle and sash and burn agriculture are a civilisation? It seems that one could only argue that agriculture needs civilisation of you define civilisation in that way.

The trouble is that although agriculture has been practiced in SE Asia for at least millennia as we know form writings, we have no objective evidence of these practices at all, even form a few centuries ago. The same is true for South America. That’s because these high rainfall areas and the traditional mud and wood huts don’t preserve evidence very well. An absence of evidence of agriculture outside dersert areas tells us nothing.

Ah, cladistics is a wonderful thing, but most paleontologists are not cladists. (Niles Eldridge said this two weeks ago, and I believe him.)

In the rest of the evolutionary (and taxonomic) community, humans and apes are distinguished.

I can Google too:

As for the art, the South African find was publicized everywhere as an art find. It’s not exactly kosher to say there are no early examples of art and then reject early examples because they are not fully developed art pieces. You expect a progression. That is the point.

There is a difference between working with found plants and domesticating them. That is the normal dividing line that marks the beginning of agriculture in paleontological circles.

What I said was that “agriculture leads to civilization”. It is a necessary precusor. You cannot turn it around to say the opposite. Just to emphasize the point, however, I should add that agriculture does not necessary lead to civilization. It is necessary but not sufficient. That is, in fact, part of my point about innovation working with environmental factors to create change.

As for your last paragraph, I already stated explicitly that we do not have as good records outside of the Middle East, but that we do have a continuous record there that is currently the only data we can use in our argument. I’m not sure what you think you are refuting.

I’m sure you can Google. The difference is where you get your information. So we have one TV program site saying that humans didn’t evolve from apes, a couple of education sites saying we share a common ancestor with extant apes but not saying humans are not apes, and one edu site saying referring to “humans, chimps, gorillas and other apes” and the several I listed saying that humans are apes.

Seems like all the reputable cites say that humans are either apes or descended form apes.

The fact that a TV station believes humans aren’t apes is hardly compelling. Considering that the page is also saying that there is a gorilla chimp line and a human line in contradiction to the last 15 years of evidence doesn’t give me great confidence in the researcher for the PBS page. Humans and chimps are now known to have descended on the same line and Gorillas split off the human line much earlier earlier than the chimps, exactly the opposite to what PBS claims.

Can you find a reputable reference stating that humans and Australopithecines are not apes, and more closely related to chimpanzees than chimps are to the gibbons and other apes?

It’s not because it’s not developed, it’s because the scratches could be art, or they could be scratches with no significance. My dog paws at the ground idly when bored, That doesn’t make the scratches art. My knife handle has scratches on it, that doesn’t make them art.

Care to find a reference for this.
What do you mean by ‘working with found plants’? What do you mean by domesticating plants? The people of the pacific cultivate taro. That is agriculture. The tubers are not just found, they are deliberately planted. The cultivated taro is indistinguishable from wild taro. This is still indisputably agriculture and I have yet to see and anthropologist or palaeontologist who would dispute this.

My mistake.

No it isn’t the only data. We can look at genetic differences in crops from wild relatives and conclude tha agriculture has existed in the pacific for some time. We can look at how long people have been isolated. We can look at all sorts of things and conclude that agriculture was invented at least twice.

  1. Humans are not apes and our immediate ancestors were not apes.
  2. Agriculture… started in the Middle East
  3. Art over 110, 000 years old exists.

These are the biggest points that need refuting.

Humans are apes and of course our immediate ancestors were also apes.
Agriculture may have started in the Middle East or it could have started elsewhere. There just isn’t enough evidence to conclude where it started.
There is rock with scratches on it dating to 77 000 years ago which may be art but may be a rock with scratches produced for unknown reasons. There is supposed art from Australia produced 40 000 years before people arrived. How is never explained. A dating error is widely expected.

More’s the pity ;).

  • Tamerlane

I have yet to see a part of the evolutionary or taxonomic community that distinguishes humans and apes. It would be impossible to draw an evolutionary line around gibbons and chimpanzees that did not include humans.

I would be interested in seeing that taxonmoic diagram that distinguishes humans from chimpanzees and yet lumps the chimpanzees together wiht the gibbons as apes.

Well to be fair, older taxonomies did so, with a separate Pongidae, Hylobatidae ( gibbons ), and a monotypic Hominidae.

However that really does seem to be a scheme that has increasingly been abandoned in favor of a more inclusive Hominidae, which either completely subsumes the old Pongidae, or does so to the exclusion of the Orangs, making the Pongidae monotypic.

  • Tamerlane

Just to clarify, this sentence was what I was replying to above, as the old taxonomy distinguished between “Great Apes” ( pongidae ), “Lesser Apes” or Gibbons ( Hylobatidae ), and Humans ( Hominidae ). But as noted that has mostly been discarded.

However you are absolutely correct about this. Far as I know all of the above were always considered part of the same superfamily, the Hominoidae.

  • Tamerlane

Wish I had time today to comment on this in depth, but I simply don’t.

However, Niles Eldredge (who is a cladist) in his recent book The Triumph of Evolution and the Failure of Creationism says of Australopithecus:

I’m afraid you don’t get to decide whether the South African piece is art: scientists do. And they call it art.

I’m not going to state an opinion on Alan Thorne’s controversial dating, but he did use more modern techniques than have been used before to date skeletons, and his dates for the art itself is not more than 100,000 years, but 58-75K, which is within margin of error of the earliest accepted dates of 60K. You are misreading the article.

And if you care to look there have been many other finds that are considered art, even one for Neanderthals.

And your argument on agriculture is psychologically fascinating. You say “An absence of evidence of agriculture outside dersert areas tells us nothing.” When it comes to art, however, you find the absence of evidence compelling.

Domestication of crops begins in the Middle East, as my Diamond cite shows. (His dates are actually a bit young, given more recent findings.) When we have solid evidence for an earlier start elsewhere, all legitimate scientists will accept that. Until then we must work with what is available.

Some do, some don’t. I don’t.

Aside from those finds being dubious art, a fact even the article exists, Neanderthals are not H. sapiens. If you are going to include other species why not drag in bower birds as an example of early art?

Personally I thought I made it quite clear I was talking about humans.

Because we know that art leaves traces. We have artworks form SE Asian agricltural communities dating back millenia, but no evidence of agriculture from 200 years ago. In one case an absence of evidence tels us nothing. In one case it tells us a lot.

If we are to work under your belief that an absence of evidence tells us nothing then we have to accept any nutty conspiracy theory that is based on no evidence.

No it doesn’t. It shows only what it shows :Southwest Asia has the earliest definite dates for …plant domestication". If you can not understand the dfference beween ‘the earliest evidence of domestication is found in semi-arid envronments’ and ‘domestication began in that environment’ I really can’t help you.
I would still be interested in seeing that taxonmoic diagram that distinguishes humans from chimpanzees and yet lumps the chimpanzees together wiht the gibbons as apes.

Can we see your reference for the assertion that “There is a difference between working with found plants and domesticating them. That is the normal dividing line that marks the beginning of agriculture in paleontological circles.”?