Thursday, March 18, 2010

the assumption is...

The wide spread assumption is that man gained his intellect through the use of language. While there is direct fossil evidence of the concurrent development of tools and human intellect, the idea that language had very much to do with it is an assumption for which there is no direct evidence. Dig as deep as you like in the fossil record, there is nothing there concerning language and intellect. Do you think the successful promulgation of the assumed discursive link may have something to do with the university settings in which these notions have been put forth and discussed? If you take those whose primary capacity is discourse, gather them together, where they can discuss things among themselves, is there any reason that we might expect them to come up with ideas other than those confined to their own narrow views? Those of narrow view have long held that those who work with their hands using tools are lesser in intellect than those who work with their heads alone. And so, I make this effort to speak on behalf of craftsman, their hands, their tools.

The computer has stimulated a new view, as scholars have been forced to come to terms with tools and technologies. Ray Peas and David N. Perkins seem to have formed the cutting edge in the most recent explorations of distributed cognition. But they are not the first. Proponents of manual training knew of and promoted the connection between hands, tools and intellect well over a century ago. But I welcome the current thoughts are as follows:
"Usually we view ability, regardless of definition as the potential of a person's mind, the property of the individual. But, once we couple intelligent technologies with a person's ability, the emphasis might shift to examining the performance of the joint system. After all, the system, not the individual alone, carries out the intellectual task." --Partners in Cognition: Extending Human Intelligence with Intelligent Technologies, Salomon, Perkins and Globerson
This essentially describes the long history of man's relationships with his tools and their use. In our great universities, the tools of the tradesmen have been regarded as mindless and of little meaning. I can assure all, despite intellectual predispositions, that to use a hand plane, one of the simple tools of the woodworking trade, to artful effect, requires skill and attention that are highly dependent on mental capacity. Try it. You might like it and learn something from the experience.


  1. One of my kindergarten students asked me: "What is the most important part of the body?" I was stumped, and I later mentioned it to my fiance (a professor of Mechanical Engineering). He said that in his opinion, it is the thumb, because with it we were able to make and manipulate tools to develop our intelligence and set ourselves apart from other animals. And he hasn't read your blog... yet. :)

  2. Well, I think I would give this one to the ivory tower folks. Simply because another way of looking at it is that the intellect required for language skills is much lower than tool use. My cat is smart enough to tell me that it's tail hurts when I step on it. But my cat is not smart enough to understand the abstract concept of me pointing to an object. Cat's always think that I am drawing attention to my finger. Dogs are smarter than cats. I think because they are pack hunters they developed more sophisticated communication. A dog can understand it when you point, and understand some verbal commands ("sit", "stay", "heel"). But I have no desire to try and teach either a cat or a dog to use a tool. They simply lack the intellect. A tool requires a far greater capacity for abstract thought. Sharpening a spear to use in a hunt shows a level of planning that would be beyond most animals, even ones using tools. My kids needed to develop a fair amount of language skills before they could even come close to understanding tool use.

    Fossil evidence does support that as our species evolved we developed a greater auditory and vocal capacity. Which does indicate a genetic advantage to those who had greater capacity. It would make sense that as their communication skills improved they would develop a greater capacity for understanding abstract thought. Without the capacity for abstract thought they probably couldn't even come close to understanding tool use. Certainly tool usage is what advanced humans through the ages far further than language alone ever would have.

  3. That was a pretty sophisticated question. It would be hard for me to decide what the most important part of the body might be.

    I had heard it said that the fish would be the last to discover water, but we do know about our hands, and thumbs. So maybe there is some part of us, or perhaps the whole of us, that is yet to be discovered.

    On the matter of tool use and intelligence, I don't know whether cats or dogs are smarter, but we do know that animals of all kinds communicate with each other without having the capacity to make tools. so your point is well taken. And I'll make use of it.