ARE WE BEING HELD BACK?
Progress isn't as fast as we think it is.
It isn't as fast as it was 200 years ago, either.
And a very interesting question is "Why?"
Yes, technological breakthroughs are announced half a dozen times a year. We are quite proud of our inventiveness, and just a bit smug about how much smarter we are than our ancestors who didn't have automobiles and ballpoint pens and computers, even if we do realize that progress has to come step by step. After all, you can't invent a wagon unless you already have the wheel.
You say a wheel is a pretty simple notion? Then why did our forebears take so long to come up with it? Wheeled carts didn't appear until about 5500 years ago, and we've been Homo sapiens for perhaps as much as half a million years (and modern Homo sapiens for 100,000 years or more).
I think the answer to the question is really very simple. A line that has been used in a great many science fiction stories is that the hardest part of inventing something is knowing it can be done. Thus, if a flying saucer crashes in the backyard, you don't have to be able to take it apart to duplicate it (of course, that would help). Just knowing it existed and flew might be enough.
Is that idea just science fiction? The late, great USSR had a bit of help from spies in matching the US A-bomb, but I've seen it claimed that the biggest boost was just knowing it could be done.
And then there's Kanzi. Kanzi is a bonobo (pygmy chimpanzee). He's a pretty bright fellow for a bonobo (he caught on quickly to a kind of sign language), and one day primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and anthropologist Nick Toth, a specialist in flint-knapping, wondered if Kanzi could catch on to the idea of knocking sharp flakes off big chunks of stone and then using the flakes as tools.
Now, bonobos do not make stone tools. But when Savage-Rumbaugh and Toth sat down in front of Kanzi with a box containing food and tied with a string, whanged a couple of rocks together, made a sharp flake, used the flake to cut the string and get the goody (no detailed lessons here, just a "See? It can be done!" demo), and then reloaded and retied the box, set out a couple of rocks, and let Kanzi loose, he didn't take long to whang, flake, cut, and munch. He didn't do it quite the same way that Toth--and presumably the first pre-human flint-knappers--did, but he achieved the same result. He got better with practice, too. (See Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Roger Lewin, Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind, Wiley, 1994.)
Bonobos do not make stone tools. But they apparently can. They're smart enough, and their hands are deft enough. So why don't they?
Apparently, in all the two million years they've been around, not one of them thought of it. As soon as one did (with a bit of a prompt), he was off and running, getting better, making progress. And this, to me, is the point: Basic seminal ideas, the real breakthrough inventions, are awfully hard to come up with. Once you have one, thinking up improvements and new things to do with it is relatively easy.
"A wheel, huh?"
"Yeah! Stand it up on edge, and it rolls. See?"
"Does it fall over like that all the time?"
"Well, it's got a few bugs yet."
"Maybe if you had two of them, and a stick between....?"
"Use four, a couple of planks, and you could carry a load."
"Where do you put the seat?"
"Put it on its side, and the kids could ride it."
"Can you hook a horse to it?"
"How about a motor?"
With kibitzers like that, who needs ancient astronauts?
But seriously, I asked myself, can we draw up a list of those "basic seminal ideas, the real breakthrough inventions"? How do they space out through history? Have we really come up with more of them in recent centuries or decades?
So I started listing, with the basic criterion being that if an invention is merely a variation or new application of an earlier idea it did not make the list. I wanted those things that were hard to think of, but that, once anyone had the idea, the kibitzers could quickly put to many uses. Television is an extension of radio. The integrated circuit chip (and hence the PC) is an extension of the transistor. Microscopes and telescopes follow from eyeglass lenses. Computer programming follows from the punched cards that told Jacquard looms what pattern to weave in 1801, the automobile and the airplane from the internal combustion engine, carts and pulleys from the wheel, bread from beer (surely, somebody cooled his porridge with a slosh from the jug and let it set).
Most of the gadgets and widgets and whizbangs of which we are so proud can, I think, justly be called spinoffs from the seminal innovations. They are the inventions of kibitzers, extenders, improvers. There are more of them today partly because we have built up a huge knowledge base from which such people can work. That is, our ancestors had primitive technologies because their own knowledge base had not yet grown so large.
The seminal innovations are necessarily fewer. I came up with just fifty-five, scattered across the last 2.5 million years. Their dates, given in Table 1 as I found them in anthropology textbooks and technology timelines (such as this one), are often approximate, but for my purposes here that will do. I am more interested in broad periods than in specific years.
If you do not agree with my choices of breakthrough inventions, that's fine. Please feel free to add items--seminal innovations only, please--to and remove items from the list, fiddle with the dates, and then redo the calculations below. I don't think you will greatly change the conclusion toward which I am heading.
Stone tools are in the list three times. The Oldowan tools, which appear just when the first members of genus Homo appeared in the fossil record, represent the basic "whang, flake, cut" innovation, at least initially no more than Savage-Rumbaugh and Toth showed Kanzi. The Acheulean technique represented a leap to the concept of deliberately and gradually--chip by chip--shaping a tool to a mental template. The Levallois technique was another leap; it involved shaping a rock so that a final tap would pop loose a finished tool.
Fire is on the list twice. The first entry honors the first Homo erectus to bring a burning branch home from a forest fire and keep it alive by feeding it twigs. The second is for the fellow who figured out how to start a fire from scratch.
Agriculture is listed four times. It was apparently independently invented at least that many times, in Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and the Americas.
If you look at the dates on the list in Table 1, it certainly looks like there has been great acceleration in the pace of "seminal" innovation in the last few centuries. As summarized in Table 2, it took pea-brained Homo habilis and Homo erectus a million years to come up with a measly four nifties (that we know of, to be fair). The earliest forms of Homo sapiens produced ten in half the time. Modern Homo sapiens produced five in its first 20,000 years, twelve in the next 10,000, and two dozen in the last 2,000 years, with fifteen in just the last 200 years.
But looking at just ideas and time doesn't really get at what was going on. Consider that there have not always been as many people on the Earth as there are today. In fact, during that first million years, there were probably no more than about 200,000 of our ancestors alive at any one time. The period between 500,000 BC and 30,000 BC saw global population climb from about 1,000,000 to 3,000,000 (Table 3 uses 2,000,000 as a split-the-difference average). The next 20,000 years saw a jump to 5,000,000. By the year 0, population had reached 150,000,000. Between 1000 AD and 1800 AD, population jumped from 300,000,000 to 1 billion. By 1930, it was 2 billion. By 1973, 4 billion. Today, it is over 6 billion. While the number of innovations was climbing, so was the number of people thinking them up. So too was the number of kibitzers.
Now let's do a little arithmetic to construct Table 4. Multiply years times millions of people and divide by ideas. For pre-sapiens Homo habilis and Homo erectus, that means 1 million years times .2 million people divided by 4 great ideas gives 1 great idea per million people per 50,000 years. Not a very impressive figure. If you protest that I cheat by ignoring the period from 1,400,000 to 500,000 years ago (solely because I know no great ideas that can be attributed to that period) and insist that I count that first, four-idea period as spanning 2,000,000 years, the 50,000 becomes 100,000, still within the range we are about to define.
That range is defined by the scores for later periods. The human brain was getting larger, the species was getting smarter, technology was booming right along, and the knowledge base was getting steadily larger. But for 2.5 million years, it has stayed just as hard to think the great thoughts. I have to admit that my list of great ideas has to leave some things out and estimates of ancient populations are at best rough estimates, but to at least a first approximation, it takes a million people 20,000 to 100,000 years to come up with a truly innovative idea. And we--here, now, today, so full of pride in our accomplishments--are not on the short end of that range.
Bow your head, Dear Reader, and reflect upon that. If the truth--allowing for all the ancient great ideas I must have left out--is closer to the low end of that range, we still aren't nearly as bright as we like to think. A little humility does seem to be in order.
Now, what does all this mean? For one thing, it suggests that our increasing brain size and intelligence have had very little to do with our ability to come up with great ideas. They may have more to do with our ability to ring changes on the great ideas we've already had. That is, a big brain is a kibitzer's brain.
It also means that if a million people need 20,000 to 100,000 years to come up with a great idea, a billion people must need only 20-100 years, and six billion people must need only 3-17 years. We should thus see the next great idea (after the Internet) before 2010.
Unfortunately, we seem to be slowing down. According to Table 4, over the last 200 years, the number of years per great idea per million people has grown from 20,000 to 30,000 to 120,000.
Are we exhausting the supply of great ideas?
Are we multiplying too fast for our brains to keep up?
Or is something--or someone!--working to slow us down?