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The Artificial Ape: a book for the technological beast in all of us

Was the baby sling the first invention? British archaeologist Timothy Taylor thinks so.

It was a typical day in the life of a technology blogger. I had a choice of writing about Vancouver police tweets, a UBC prof who’s launched a nationwide campaign to get sex ads off of Craigslist, a study about videogames and learning, another study about videogames and violence, a third study about wifi and radiation, a news release about a local game company that won an award. There were probably a few more news items I could write about, but that was more than enough. For various reasons, I didn’t write about any of those topics for my Megabytes column, but I began to wonder why it seems sometimes that every news item involves technology to some extent.

The answer was simple. Everything does involve technology. And there's a very good reason for that. As Timothy Taylor, author of The Artificial Ape, reminds us, we are technological creatures.

Technology is more than just iPhones, Twitter, Facebook and Google. It is books, clothing, roads, automobiles, vaccines, factory farms, furniture, nail clippers, boxes, lamps and sewing machines. Humans have been using -- and used by technology -- since before we were even human. Furthermore, according to Taylor, the first “technological” inventor was probably a woman, and her invention not a weapon but a baby sling, devised about 2 million years ago when our ancestors were not very distinguishable from our chimpanzee cousins.

And that baby sling set us on the long road to intelligence and civilization, Taylor says.

The Artificial Ape is a great read, well written. engaging and provocative.

It’s also a humbling read. If I ever catch myself feeling smug about how clever I am for downloading the latest cool app or tweeting a hot new link before anyone else does, all I have to do is think about those unimaginably distant ancestors who -- while dodging predators and competing with other apes for scarce resources -- discovered how to store energy by cooking and how to increase their foraging distance by improvising an animal pelt into a baby carrier. They were the clever ones, not me.

But if the baby sling was the first invention, why do we only hear about flints and arrow heads? Two reasons, Taylor says. First, most history -- and archaeology -- is still written by men and technology dealing with food and nurturing, despite their vital importance to our survival as individuals and as a species, tends to be discounted. Second, baby slings were made of organic materials, which decayed, while axeheads and flints were made of more durable materials, and thus survived.

I always assumed that humans evolved intelligence and then used their expanded brain power to invent things, but Taylor argues that it couldn't have happened that way. For various reasons including with the respective sizes of the human pelvis and an infant's head, our prolonged defencelessness as infants, the immense amount of energy needed by our brains and other factors, technology had to come first. The technology gave us the breathing space to survive in a cruel world and to become smarter. Which led to more technology which led to more intelligence, and so on.

As Taylor writes, “The critical moment had passed over 2 million years previously, when we first became technological and technology -- in particular in the form of the baby-carrying sling and of cooking -- allowed for the production of underdeveloped, small-headed babies through narrow pelvic canals, and their extraordinary extra-uterine development in a protected, high-protein environment, when their brains could grow massively after birth.”

Taylor's argument is both exhilarating and depressing at the same time. It's exhilarating because it shows how we have survived and adapted to diversity for an unimaginably long time -- thousands of generations. It's depressing because as he bluntly points out, we can't solve our current environmental crisis by "going back to nature." We never were in nature, he says. Even before we were humans, we were the "artificial ape." 

Like it or not, technology is part of us, and we will have to use it if we want to get out of our present mess.

The Artificial Ape is published by Macmillan and is available at the Vancouver Public Library. It’s also for sale at most bookstores, either in person or online.

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