[ExI] The Grand Arc of Humanity

Rafal Smigrodzki rafal.smigrodzki at gmail.com
Thu Dec 30 08:26:36 UTC 2021

A very, very delayed response....

On Sat, Apr 24, 2021 at 5:43 PM Stuart LaForge via extropy-chat <
extropy-chat at lists.extropy.org> wrote:

> Quoting Rafal Smigrodzki:
> > Did you ever wonder what was the specific, unique development in the
> > history of the world that set humans on our path, separate from animals
> and
> > out to reach the stars?
> I agree that the Grand Arc of humanity does seem to an improbably long
> queue of positive feedback loops. These loops became links in a causal
> chain that led to humanity's current ascendancy. Exactly which link
> set us apart from other animals is not easy to discern.
> > I don't mean all the prerequisites for humans to exist. There is a
> > combination of string landscape properties that defines the specific
> > physics that allowed inflation, hydrogen and gravity, which allowed for
> the
> > formation of stars that are necessary for humans, but stars are also
> needed
> > for chloroplasts and rhodobacteria, so this is not specific enough.
> Nuclei
> > and mitochondria were needed to create larger creatures, such as humans
> but
> > nuclei and mitochondria also created snails and trees, so again not
> > specific enough. Trees populated by snails and the like created an
> unusual
> > ecological niche, that of a tree-dwelling fast moving omnivorous creature
> > with stereoscopic vision and arms adapted to the grasping of sticks, and
> we
> > needed our vision and arms to become what we are but then lemurs, gibbons
> > and hundreds of other primate species have been around for 55 million
> > years, so these adaptations are not sufficient for an intelligent species
> > to appear, or else ruins of cities older than the Himalayas would be
> > littering the planet. The ability to use tools such as sticks and to have
> > rudimentary language also isn't sufficiently specific, since apes have
> been
> > doing these things for millions of years and were getting nowhere fast.
> >
> > But there came a day when an Australopithecine made a stick that was
> longer
> > and sharper than what the chimpanzee uses to dig for tubers and to pick
> > termite mounds. That stick could hurt if used by a creature with
> > stereoscopic vision and strong, grasping hands. That stick could be
> thrust
> > at a predator, or prey.
> If that's the case, then these Senegalese chimps have caught onto the
> "longer sharper stick" idea. They fashion spears to hunt bush-babies
> that hide in tree hollows. Curiously these spears are more often used
> by females who cannot run down their prey the way the males do due to
> being encumbered by clinging offspring. Of course, if your hypothesis
> is correct, this raises the question of why there are no chimp cities?
> https://phys.org/news/2015-04-chimps-senegal-fashion-spears.html#:~:text=To%20date%2C%20the%20chimps%20are,not%20count%20that%20as%20hunting
> .

### This is very interesting and thank you for providing this information.
As I said, I think the sharp stick was the keystone invention that set us
up for wild success but of course, there were many other prerequisites and
chimps may be missing some of them (as you mention later in your post).
Also, chimps' chances of branching out into the cognitive niche may have
been preempted by our ancestors. It's hard to work on your tool development
skills if competitors with a 3 million year head start already filled most
of the available space.


> > An Australopithecine on the ground + leopard means
> > a snack for the leopard but an Australopithecine + sharp stick + leopard
> > means a very sore leopard, possibly even a big dinner for the ape. The
> > sharp stick completely changed the equation. It propelled the
> > Australopithecine from the rank of lowly scavenger and often easy prey to
> > the level of a moderately bad-ass all-around brawler, not hardcore enough
> > to take on lions but just too tough to kill under most circumstances. It
> > changed the ape from an occasional hunter to a frequent hunter, giving
> > access to the meat and the marrow and the energy to feed a bigger brain
> > without forcing an increase in size.
> But as the Senegalese chimps demonstrate, a sharp stick, while
> necessary, is not sufficient. Australopithecus was bipedal, which
> meant it could wield the sharp stick with both hands and therefore
> significant force and even the momentum of a running start. The sharp
> stick is just a sharp stick without the improbably long queue of
> happenstance that that allowed the utility of the sharp stick to be
> maximized. The following video demonstrates my point that
> knuckle-walkers cannot effectively weaponize sticks against predators:
> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKpZUsRJWBg

### Indeed, a very good point.


> > And most importantly, this is the
> > first time in the history of the Earth that the survival and thriving of
> a
> > social, large, terrestrial animal with stereoscopic vision and
> manipulatory
> > appendages became dependent on the creation of a tool - a tool not merely
> > aiding survival, like a stone wielded by a monkey to crush nuts, but
> > actually indispensable for survival due to the incredible boost in
> > abilities it afforded the user. The sharp stick was just such an amazing
> > quantum leap that once the ape learned to use it, the ape couldn't live
> > without it and it became a hominid.
> I think what set the Australopithecine apart was not just tool-use but
> metatool-use. There really isn't a good word for the concept yet but I
> suppose metatechnology or metacrafting might work. Basically it just
> means the fashioning of tools that can then be used to create other
> tools that can then be used to create yet other tools and so forth.
> For example, while several species (both primates and birds) have been
> observed using rocks as hammers to smash open food items. But using
> rocks as hammers to knapp pieces of flint into blades that can then be
> used to sharpen sticks that can then be used to hunt prey . . . that
> seems like an exclusively hominid trick thus far. After all, what good
> using a sharp stick to bring down big prey if you are having to
> butcher it with your teeth and fingernails? They have found fossilized
> animal bones dated to 3.3 million years ago, the time of
> Australopithecus, that show cracks, groves, and abrasions consistent
> with the use of stone tools.

### You make a good point about one technology begetting another - indeed,
Australopithecines had to start that chain where each new link opens
connections to new possibilities. I would still contend that at the
beginning of that chain, or perhaps tech tree (well-known to players of
Civilization), there was the sharp stick. Working stone to make tools came

What counts as the springboard to the cognitive niche is not a specific
technology but rather the state of being dependent for survival on a
technology that can be improved. This creates a positive feedback loop
where those individuals that have the cognitive skills needed to improve
technology and learn the use of new technologies from others have
significant fitness advantage over those with merely social intelligence,
which leads to improved cognitive skills, which lead to more complex
technology becoming possible, which puts a premium on having even better
cognitive skills, etc. etc. Initially the progress is still slow, since the
evolution of individual cognition is biological but once more cognitive
skills accumulate, progress speeds up because more complexity is off-loaded
onto the technological or memetic level, where rapid non-biological
adaptation is possible. This is why the time from early Paleolithic to late
Paleolithic (the time when Neanderthals died out and humans became
seemingly very similar to us and still used only relatively simple stone
tools) was 2.5 million years but the time to Sputnik was just 35 thousand

> > So here is my opinion about when the Grand Arc of Humanity started -
> with a
> > big, sharp stick. Everything before was generic, prerequisites like size,
> > stereoscopic vision, manipulatory arms, sociality, all necessary but
> > insufficient to create something as unique as us. The sharp stick was the
> > keystone to the portal to the technological civilization that opened
> before
> > the Australopithecine - all of what followed flowed then logically from
> > that point. The need to make and use a tool prevented us from becoming
> > generic predators that survive by the tooth and claw. The sharp stick is
> an
> > external adaptation - not of the body but dependent on the learning mind
> > for its usefulness. The ability to use the sharp stick channeled our
> > evolution towards the use of more and more tools, with ever less need for
> > genetic adaptation and more cultural transmission. Apes can use fire and
> > love cooked foods but they wouldn't benefit from fire much even if they
> > could maintain it.
> How much of that is related to environmental selective effects? If one
> relocated enough chimps to a colder temperate climate, say Europe,
> then after several generations of selection, might not the survivors
> be more predatory and adept at fire use?

### I don't think that cold climate played a beneficial role in our
evolution, at least not until quite recently. Anatomically modern humans
evolved in Africa and developed a more sophisticated technological kit than
Neanderthals and Denisovans who evolved in the cold North.


> > Hominids with sharp sticks can feed the fire with meat
> > and can fend off predators while on the ground, which is why we lost the
> > adaptations to swing from tree branches and improved our ground mobility.
> > The sharp stick can also be thrown - it became the spear, and that moved
> > the hominid to the rank of serious badass, the kind you want to stay away
> > from. Access to fire gave us cooked food which reduced the amount of time
> > needed to chew from 6 hours a day to 30 minutes and it freed 25% of our
> > metabolic energy from digestion to thinking, so our brains grew because
> we
> > had the time and the energy to actually use them. Bigger brains meant
> more
> > ability to invent cultural adaptations, which meant stronger pressure for
> > bigger brains and also dramatically faster adaptability to changed
> > circumstances, which meant spreading throughout the world of different
> > climates and different food sources. Finally, the sharp stick meant we
> > could kill each other from ambush, safely, leading to the
> > self-domestication of us, H. sapiens, and extinction of the other Homo's.
> While I don't think it was a sharp stick alone that carried the day
> for humanity, I think you are not far off. I instead think it was the
> development of metatechnology embodied as stone tools that could be
> used to reliably cut and sharpen wooden sticks, butcher dead animals,
> and in the case of flint, also start fires that was the hominid killer
> app. It was likely not an accident that the stone handaxe became a
> dominant feature of hominid life for over 1.5 million years.

### We find the hand-axes while the sticks turned to dust....but back then
Man's Mighty Spear carried the day :))

> > A bunch of positive feedback loops started with this first technology and
> > in geologically no time at all propelled us to the moon and beyond.
> >
> > The Grand Arc of Humanity is now close to its end. H.sapiens will soon
> > disappear, hopefully by uploading, maybe in other ways. But it all
> started
> > with a sharp stick held by a hungry ape.
> >
> > Rafal
> Thanks for a thought provoking post, Rafal. If you beefed it up with
> some references and alternative lines of evidence and reasoning, then
> you might have the makings of popular science book on your hands. You
> write well enough that you should at least consider the possibility.
### Thank you for the encouragement. Working 359 12-hour shifts per year
does put a damper on my other activities though.

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