Famously, humans as a species are named for our perceived wisdom: Homo sapiens, wise man. However, in general study of the evolution of distinctively human cognition has tended to focus first and foremost on intelligence, and while the distinction between the two remains a little opaque, it is a significant one. The Oxford English Dictionary defines intelligence as “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills,” while wisdom is defined as “the quality of having experience, knowledge and good judgment…the body of knowledge and experience that develops within a specified society or period.” More succinctly, perhaps, a poster on reddit.com recently suggested the distinction was best characterized with an example: “intelligence is being able to clone a dinosaur, wisdom is stopping and asking ‘hey, is this really a good idea?’” While wisdom requires and is predicated on intelligence, it is intelligence tempered by experience; the application of that intelligence is based on a deep and rich understanding of the world in which one lives. In this chapter, I explore how the concept of human intelligence can be re-framed as human wisdom in the study of human evolution.
In particular, I will focus on the contrast between human technological intelligence and human social wisdom. Traditionally, estimates of hominin intelligence and its evolution have been related to ideas about the development of technological capabilities: witness the fascinating insight into broader cultural narratives of human evolution offered by the many variations on those all-too-familiar cartoons of the march of human evolution. Empty-handed monkeys on the left progress through shambling caveman carrying early stone tools; fully modern humans exit on the right, burdened with examples of complex technologies such as computers, mobile phones, and gaming handsets and consoles, as well as well-made spears and guns (to list just a few examples picked randomly from an internet search). Technological complexity here becomes a visual shorthand for the evolution of intelligence and cognitive prowess, highlighted by a recent rash of versions in which the anatomically developed humans morph into robots or prosthetically enhanced “posthumans.” This new set of variations clearly reflect a burgeoning (though far from recently hatched) concern over the potential for the entanglement of human biological and technological evolution to change the very nature of our species. Likewise, the famous 2001: A Space Odyssey evolutionary segue shot (a makeshift bone tool flung by an early hominin undergoing a dramatic leap forward in technological intelligence morphing seamlessly into a space station) similarly appeals to a perception that human evolution is synonymous with technological evolution. Multiple other examples immediately spring to mind to demonstrate that the linking of physiological and technological evolution is pervasive in contemporary thought.
Less obviously—but equally pervasive— is that this picture of the steady progress of the human intellect and technological skill is part of a much broader narrative of human origins which links stages of technological change firmly to human socio-cultural development, and that is derived from the social evolutionist schemes of the nineteenth century. For example, in the influential scheme of Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–81), “savagery” is synonymous not only with fire, bow, and pottery technology but also with hunting and gathering; “barbarism,” in contrast, co-occurs with metalworking as well as agricultural technologies and farming; while the pinnacle of human achievement, “civilization,” comes with the technologies of industrialization and of the alphabet and writing.
Such social evolutionist schemes, while formally repudiated by contemporary archeologists and anthropologists, were fundamental in the development of the very earliest chronological and conceptual frameworks for studying the past and have long since passed into the lay cultural narrative about human evolution. As a result, they inevitably retain a hold, however slight, on the ways paleoanthropologists and archeologists view the long duration of human evolution. The study of technology (stone tools, pottery, metalwork, and so forth) remains one of the most significant specialist areas in archeology. This is not in itself problematic: stone tools are a major class of evidence for early hominin behavior (being one of the few traces of hominin activity to survive such long time-depths) and technology—and material culture more generally—do play a hugely significant role in human lifeways both past and present. Indeed, it could be argued that other disciplines do not pay enough attention to the kind of information that can be gleaned from studying technology. The danger comes when the alluringly oversimplified, linear schemes of technological development lurking in broader cultural narratives about human “progress” are allowed to shape the understandings of human evolution we claim are entirely objective and scientific.
How Unique is Technology?
In recent decades, increasingly detailed and rich primatology has established that the use of, and even reliance on, technology is not a uniquely human trait. It is only relatively recently that human origins researchers have challenged the privileged status of the genus Homo as the only hominin toolmakers. Many other primates are now known to use tools in a variety of ways and settings. Most notably, our closest great ape relative, the chimpanzee, makes extensive use of stone and organic tools; to a slightly lesser extent, orang-utans and gorillas have also been documented using tools. Other primate species much more distantly related to us are also skilled tool-users, particularly capuchin monkeys and macaques. Indeed, a variety of other non-primate and even non-mammalian species have now also been documented using tools: elephants use tools from branches to paintbrushes; dolphins use sponges to cover sensitive noses while foraging in sharp coral; sea otters use rocks to crack open shellfish; octopuses use shells; a variety of bird species, most notably New Caledonian crows, use twigs to “fish” insects from trees; even some fish use tools.
Early responses to these revelations that tool use is not unique to the human lineage tended to focus on “policing the boundaries,” which meant integrating this new evidence without allowing it to challenge the doctrine of human exceptionalism by simply refining the definitions that continued to categorize humans as Homo technologicus. First, it was suggested that perhaps tool use in other species was genetically “hard-wired,” rather than learned and culturally transmitted, as among humans. (We now know that this is not, in fact, the case.) Perhaps, then, tool use in these species was incidental, rather than habitual (i.e., it was an added extra, but not something that was a fundamental part of non-human primate lifeways). However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue this for chimpanzees, orang-utans, and even for the much more distantly related capuchins. Perhaps, then, the Rubicon between non-human and human tool use lay in the manufacture of tools, rather than the use of natural objects as tools? Closer inspection, however, has undermined this distinction too: primates and indeed some other species such as New Caledonian crows put in the work necessary to modify raw materials before use.
The most recent distinction drawn between human and non-human tool use was that, among extant species, only humans practice deliberate production of sharp stone flakes in the wild. Chimpanzees like Kanzi are clearly perfectly capable of percussive flaking in captivity, but in the wild the breaking of stones is rare and apparently accidental, occurring during use. However, even this suspiciously fine distinction has now fallen, with capuchin monkeys from Serra da Capovara National Park in Brazil having been documented practicing deliberate percussive flaking of stones. Furthermore, such inter-species similarities would seem to apply not only to tool manufacture but also to tool use, with other species habitually using tools to access cryptic foodstuffs and even, on occasion, hunting with tools. It does seem clear that even very early hominins expended considerably more energy on finding favored materials than other primates and that they may have been more skilled at exploiting those raw materials for sharp edges. Overall, however, advances in ethnoprimatology have significantly undermined arguments for human exceptionalism based on our technological prowess. Such an argument may seem disingenuous. After all, I am currently sitting on a chair at a desk, using a computer to write this chapter, surrounded by a plethora of books, papers, empty soda cans, phones, photos, security cards, a range of variably kitsch souvenirs, several different types of coffee-maker and a host of other items. Even as it is possible to gently mock the boundary-policing enacted by many paleoanthropologists, it is also abundantly clear that modern humans’ (and certainly profligate westerners’) enormous reliance on technology and material culture more generally is markedly greater than that of other species. The tension between the fact that, on one hand, there clearly is something distinct and interesting about human technology, and that, on the other hand, it is incredibly difficult, when comparing human tool use with those of other tool-using species, to specify precisely what that difference is, suggests that perhaps we need to reconsider what it is about human tool behaviors that is unique.
Alternatives to the Technological Model of Human Wisdom: The Social Brain Hypothesis
More recently, the search for clear definitions of the dividing line between humans and non-humans has shifted away from technology to focus instead on sociality. Many now argue that the distinctive elements of human nature relate primarily to the complexity of our social worlds, rather than to technology per se. All primates, especially great apes, have very complex social lives. They engage in individualized interactions, are able to comprehend the nature of specific relationships between themselves and others as well as between others, remember the histories of those interactions and relationships, and navigate complex social hierarchies. However, the scale of these interactions in both space and time is an order of magnitude more restricted than the social worlds of modern humans.
The close relationship between primates’ brain size (specifically, the size of their neocortices) and the size of the social group in which they live has been used to suggest that brain size and social group size are closely related to one another evolutionarily, perhaps because of the increased cognitive demands of living in larger groups. The “Social Brain Hypothesis” (SBH) argues that increasing group sizes may have occurred in response to some other selective pressure—for example, predation pressure, or for the benefits of cooperative foraging—but indirectly selected for larger brains: as numbers of individuals in a social group increase in a linear fashion, the number of potential dyadic relationships any individual can engage in increases exponentially, and tracking this explosion takes an increasing amount of brainpower. Increasing brain size is one solution, but of course larger, more energetically expensive brains are subject to significant negative selection pressure. The answer to this problem was for individuals’ social networks to become increasingly hierarchical: relatively small numbers of other individuals are the focus of frequent, more intimate and valuable interactions, while an increasingly larger proportion of other individuals in the group are interacted with less frequently and intimately. The allies, coalitions, and cliques at the smaller, more intense levels of this hierarchical social network seem to help offset some of the social stresses of living with increasing numbers of other individuals—as well as the increased potential of intra-species competition. This allowed individuals to enjoy the benefits of living in larger groups, while interactions with socially “distant” members of more fragmented social networks posed other cognitive challenges that imposed further selective pressures on brain evolution.
Hence, the SBH (and other “social” hypotheses for brain expansion/human evolution more generally) emphasize the fundamentally social selective context for brain evolution. Proponents argue that, as a result, not only does primate social life demonstrate intelligence, but complex social lives are a major selective pressure driving the evolution of intelligence—and further, that complex social lives actually shape the nature of that intelligence. In short, human intelligence is fundamentally social in nature, resulting evolutionarily in peculiarly social forms of intelligence such as the Theory of Mind (arguably unique to humans). The wisdom of Homo sapiens, in this reading, is a wisdom fundamentally shaped by our sociality. The SBH is not universally accepted, but the demonstrably strong correlation of neocortex with group size provides strong evidence in its support. According to this correlation, Homo sapiens should have a group size of ~150. And indeed, many analyses of both traditional and modern western societies suggest that this figure is a significant one, describing at least one significant level of human social grouping that can be observed widely across different cultures and even among “post-geographic” samples such as social media networks, providing further support for the SBH.
Technology and Social Wisdom
However, in many of these analyses—especially those looking at contemporary western samples —it is also clear that there are grouping levels above the famous (or perhaps infamous) “Dunbar’s number” of ~150 individuals. If social group size is constrained by neocortex size, then how are larger-scale groupings maintained? I would argue that the unique relationship between humans and technology (and material culture more generally) offers one potential explanation: the social basis of cognition not only structures how we think about relationships with conspecifics, but also how we engage with other things—objects, material culture, and technology (my focus in this chapter), along with other animals and perhaps even places and landscapes. Sociality, in short, is promiscuous and has come to provide the basis for how humans think about and engage in all kinds of interactions, not simply those between themselves and other humans.
This insight has significant implications for how we think about human evolution. As noted above, much of the traditional narrative about hominin technological evolution comes from a long tradition of research that has historically mainly been focused on tool manufacture and typology, an approach firmly rooted in a thinly disguised and ultimately sterile culture-historical/social-evolutionist perspective. Only over the last few decades has the focus broadened to take into account questions about broader technological practices and the incorporation of technologies into human lifeways. Dobres, for example, has argued for the reconsideration of “technology” as “techné,” which is more focused on the embodied “performance” of the everyday activities that constitute lifeways and personhood. Concepts such as the chaîne opératoire and object biography emphasize flexible, creative, problem-solving technologies embedded within wider behaviors such as mobility, subsistence practices, and interaction that among humans are inherently social. This reframing arguably represents a shift from connaissances—knowledge—to savoir-faire, or know-how. Here “technology” is viewed not as instantiated solely in objects themselves, but as a particular structure of knowledge and skill communicated between people primarily through fundamentally social practical and oral traditions. Following the definitions sketched above, we might see this as moving from a perspective focused on technical intelligence towards one considering instead socio-technological wisdom, which recognizes the “embeddedness” of technological practice in social interaction and a fundamentally social lived experience.
Such a viewpoint does not, however, relegate things themselves to the background. In modern human societies, material culture plays an extremely important role in social relationships. Primates, relying almost entirely on grooming to form and sustain social relationships, are thus restricted in the number of relationships they can enjoy—only two individuals can groom one another at any given time, and only a limited number of other individuals can be groomed in twenty-four hours, while still also leaving time for eating and sleeping. Dunbar has suggested that the incorporation of vocal forms of communication into social interactions was selected for, at least in part, in order to overcome this constraint: directing communications at multiple individuals at once allows individuals to “service” more relationships in the same amount of time. However, there are limits to just how loudly any individual can speak, and hence how large even networks supported by vocalization can grow. The incorporation of material culture into relationships relaxes these constraints still further. Material culture is separable from the people with whom it is associated (e.g., its maker, owner, gifter) and is also divisible, so that multiple fragments of the same whole can be circulated over potentially global scales. Furthermore, material culture is persistent. While obviously the length of time an object can survive depends on its raw materials, objects made of some materials (e.g., stone; bone; metal; pottery) can potentially survive over inter-generational timescales. Thus the mnemonic and metaphoric associations objects have with their originators/places/occasions of origin, and with brother and sister objects comprised of other fragments of the same whole, can hold over much greater time-depths than grooming, vocalizations, or unaided memories of those activities. Acting as souvenirs or aides-memoires, objects can “presence” other people, times, events, and places days, months, years, or even generations after their origination, thus scaffolding the scaling-up of social networks beyond the immediate physiological reach of any one individual.
Promiscuous Social Wisdom and Material Things
However, in arguing for the significance of the role played by material culture in human social networks, I am not arguing that objects are simply passive transmitters of social information. Rather, objects become part of social networks by being profoundly social “beings” in and of themselves. If the SBH is correct in arguing that human social intelligence—our social wisdom—is fundamentally refined and honed for intra-species interaction, this promiscuous social wisdom does not stop at the “boundaries” of the species. Other-than-human entities may also become fully incorporated into human social networks in a way that makes us unique.
Objects offer very fertile ground for a wisdom that is fundamentally social and by default establishes mutual relationships as the basis for engagement. Like other humans, objects demonstrate complex lifecycles: from the locating of raw materials, through initial manufacture, use, reworking, curation, exchange, trade, gift or sale, inheritance, abandonment, destruction and mourning, each stage is indivisibly entangled with human activity, life-stages, and interaction. The classic anthropological example of material social networking is, of course, the Kula ring, in which objects become both the mechanism and embodiment of social networks, linking people together and in the process acquiring rich histories, or biographies, that affect the future relationships they go on to instantiate. Perhaps a fuller example is supplied by Gosden and Marshall’s discussion of a Fijian necklace made of sperm whale teeth and strung on coconut fiber. Gosden and Marshall show how this object’s history extends back to traditional Fijian systems of social exchange in which transactions and exchanges between people that circulated specific objects were incorporated into their personal histories (and indeed their very materiality). In the rapidly expanding social networks of the nineteenth century, the necklace transacted beyond Fiji and moved into new systems of ritualized exchange and gifting in the British Empire, continuing to exercise its agency even after its admission to the Pitt Rivers Museum, for example via a cameo in a novel by P.D. James. As Gosden and Marshall argue, the specificity and richness of objects’ histories, and the extent to which those histories are bound up with those of humans, mean that they are not so much provenances or histories but biographies, a distinction that makes this kind of object an obvious analogy for a person in its own right.
Is it any wonder, then, that many objects assume a personhood comparable with that of humans, becoming cherished possessions or otherwise taking on “lives of their own?” Woe betide the holidaying parent who forgets a child’s prized soft toys; social media often seems to be full of photos of lost soft toys seeking their owners, or posted by the parents of bereft children begging to be reunited with their lost friends. Parenting forums regularly host threads in which parents confess to having spent hours searching for such lost “best friends;” tucking up dolls and soft toys in bed, worried they might be cold or uncomfortable; and a host of other behaviors that from a “rational” perspective seem ridiculous because directed at inanimate objects. Small children hold dolls’ tea parties, care for baby dolls, and comment on the happiness and wellbeing of their plush friends. Even some “bigger children” have been known to get “something in their eye” at the end of the Toy Story saga, in which toys take on distinct personas and personhoods and, over the course of multiple films, become iconic characters.
Soft toys and dolls may seem like easy targets for such an argument, being often deliberately designed as “persons” specifically in order to appeal to human social instincts. However, there is a stark contrast between human children and chimpanzee infants here. Despite some intriguing anecdotal reports of chimpanzees curating and “caring” for dolls, or hugging soft toys, such items are generally viewed with indifference. One might also argue that adults engaging in such behaviors are humoring their children to keep the peace. However, deliberately anthropomorphic or designed “persons” are not the only items incorporated into social networks; nor are such material engagements restricted to small children or even their parents, and incorporating objects into social networks in this way does not necessarily involve “anthropomorphizing” them. I do not impute any kind of humanity to the necklace my partner gave me near the beginning of our relationship—nor, in fact, do I explicitly impute any personhood to it—but it has agency, defined here as “action or intervention producing a particular effect,” per the Oxford English Dictionary. It gives me a sense of being positioned within a particular set of social relationships and almost certainly, consciously or not, affects my behavior in some circumstances. Certainly, its loss would affect me significantly, but not monetarily, as it is by no means an expensive piece of jewelry.
More generally, while social anthropology has perhaps not traditionally been very interested in material culture per se, a “material turn” in recent years across a range of disciplines has focused attention on human engagement with material culture not just in traditional societies but also among contemporary westerners. This overturns any simplistic conception that totemism and fetishism are common among traditional societies, while among westerners some items merely have “sentimental value.” All manner of the incorporation of material things into social networks is encompassed: mantelpiece arrangements, betel bags, shrouds, spindles, drums and bottles, mobile phones, laptops, collections of plastic ducks, and Happy Meal plastic kitsch. No episode of Antiques Roadshow is complete without a family saga and a dramatic struggle between commerce and sentiment/obligation: objects as familial obligation and as markers of memory. Meanwhile, attaching even fictitious social narratives to mass-market commodities increases their perceived “value” several thousandfold.
Moreover, work in other disciplines, most notably psychology, does seem to support the argument that for humans—but arguably not for other animals—objects acquire agency and become entangled in human interactions. The controversial “endowment effect” describes the phenomenon whereby once an object has become the “property” of someone (even just moments beforehand), they value it more highly than another identical object that is not “theirs.” The endowment effect is often explained as a simple by-product of loss aversion (i.e., primarily a product of economic self-interest and game theory). Others have questioned its existence and ascribe these findings to biases introduced in laboratory, as opposed to real-world, experiments. However, the effect has also been demonstrated in human children, arguably less attuned to the harsh truths of economics (and has also been shown to be affected by cultural norms) undermining any explanation of it as sheer economic self-interest, and supporting arguments for a “mere ownership” effect. It seems that “simply owning an object can activate an automatic association between the object and the self.”
The implication is that personhood is both contagious, rubbing off on objects in one’s possession (would you drink from “Hitler’s cup?”), and sticky, persisting as association with those objects. Such a hypothesis clearly bears comparison with Mauss’ famous concept of the “spirit of the gift” based on his study of the hau of Maori gifts. Mauss suggested that in many societies gifted items are ultimately “inalienable” (i.e., they cannot be fully detached from the giver, but carry something of that person’s personality with them). As Mauss details, this has significant implications for the receiver’s future actions and for the relationship between giver and receiver. Intriguingly, while the endowment effect has been demonstrated in other great apes and in capuchin monkeys, among these species the effect is only demonstrated for food, and does not appear to translate to objects; it thus might be more easily explained by loss-aversion or economic-rationalist approaches.
The contagiousness or stickiness of personhood, and thus the incorporation of material objects into social networks, would therefore seem to be a uniquely derived phenomenon among humans. If so, perhaps this “entanglement” of people and things is at the heart of the uniquely human technologies that surround us today. It is also worth noting that although in this chapter I focus almost exclusively on material objects, many other forms of entity may also be drawn into human social networks. The most obvious examples are of course other animals: even more obviously than for material objects, non-human animals share many traits with humans, including capacities for agency and interaction as well as (at least perceived) emotional engagement with humans. Whether as prey, predator, competition, pest, parasite, commensal, or pet, other animals continue to play important roles in human social networks. Such a perspective has, however, been less prevalent in the human origins literature, despite offering considerable potential. The selective advantages of being able to amass a rich understanding of the other species sharing one’s ecosystem are clear, and certainly among modern human groups today, the nature of that knowledge appears to be fundamentally social, derived from ongoing interactions with actors often perceived explicitly as other forms of “person.”
Likewise, another form of “entity” commonly found entangled in the social networks of traditional modern human social networks are landscapes, especially natural “features” and historical sites. Foregrounded by the events, interactions, and activities which occur there, such places, like material objects (and indeed like humans) acquire histories or biographies themselves, rather than being defined solely by their physical features or geographical location. It is notable that they are often conceptualized as inhabited by (or perhaps more accurately as materializing or presencing) more “traditional” entities in the form of spirits. “Place,” then, is distinguished from “space” not solely by virtue of its role as the intersection point of trajectories of different entities but also because this, by its very nature, positions the place as a node in human social networks in its own right.
What are the implications of such a viewpoint for human evolution research? Elsewhere I have sketched out a rough prehistory of hominin and human material engagement from the very earliest stone tools through to the adoption by some groups of sedentary and ultimately agricultural lifeways, arguing that the gradual incorporation of things into social networks was a mechanism allowing the expansion of human social worlds towards the globalized contemporary reality of today. I argue that human origins research needs to be reframed to allow consideration of prehistoric material culture as more than the sum of its parts, the techniques used to make and use it, and even the activities for which it was used. Archeologists working in other periods have no qualms about following anthropologists in ascribing social value and significance to such objects; Paleolithic archeologists are missing a trick in not routinely doing so. Not only do we have much to learn about early hominin lifeways and how they changed over the course of evolution in the hominin lineage by viewing Paleolithic archeology in this way, but we also have a unique and valuable opportunity to investigate the very basis of this uniquely human promiscuous social wisdom, by which—paradoxically—it is our interactions with other-than-human entities that makes us Homo sapiens.
Thanks are due to the organizers and other participants of the conference Human Distinctiveness: Wisdom’s Deep Evolution for a series of very stimulating talks and discussions. The ideas discussed here were first developed during the British Academy Centenary Project From Lucy to Language: The Archaeology of the Social Brain.
FIONA COWARD is a Senior Lecturer in Archaeological Sciences at Bournemouth University. She earned her B.A. (Hons) in Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Cambridge, M.A. in Osteoarchaeology, and Ph.D. in Palaeolithic Archaeology from the University of Southampton. Her research focuses on how and why humans were able to scale up their social lives from the very small social groups we lived in for much of our prehistory to the global social networks which characterize people’s lives today.
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