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February 13, 2012 6:28 AM   Subscribe

How many tool 'generations' has there been since hominids began toolmaking?

If we took the most sophisticated tools we have (such as nanotechnology), we could identify a range of tools slightly less sophisticated that we would need in order to build them. In turn, there would be yet another 'generation' of tools needed to built those tools, and so on. The process would repeat until we eventually arrived at the hands, brain and eyes of humans.

But just how many such 'generations' would it take? Has anybody written about this or worked out a model of tool 'generations'?

I'm not really looking for technological 'stages' in history, but more the layers of tools which lie between the human body and our most sophisticated tools. I hope this makes sense, but I acknowledge that it may be poorly defined.
posted by Jehan to Technology (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
The more things change...
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 6:31 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am a former archaeologist specializing in Middle Paleolithic stone tool technology, but I am not your former archaeologist specializing in Middle Paleolithic stone tool technology.

There are a couple of points to consider here. First, our knowledge of prehistoric stone tools is woefully incomplete, and there's nothing to make us think that our understanding will increase as time goes on. So we have physical pieces of flint and obsidian. We don't know if the state in which we find them is a starting point, a desired end point, at some point in their useful life, or discarded after their useful life is complete. We don't know what each one was used for, if it was even used at all and wasn't detritus. Yes, we have some good research that gives us some idea of how to answer some of these questions, but there are no conclusions. That's the place we are with our understanding of stone tool technology: we don't even have solid answers to the most basic questions. Not to mention that we only have snapshots in time from sites occupied for a day or thousands of years (but daily? Annually? Every few hundred years? Every few thousand years?) hundreds of miles apart. So there's really no, literally NO, way to even get at a notion of technological generations in prehistory, even if such a concept were valid. Which it isn't.

Second, it sounds like you're describing what's broadly "unilineal cultural evolution." Back in the 1800s and early 1900s, anthropologists were all about this idea that cultures developed in one direction, along one line, from primitive to modern (something like tribes > bands > chiefdoms > states) with, of course, Western Civilization as the teleological endpoint of all this. At some point, this idea was rightfully rejected. Cultures are just different, not more or less advanced. And so it is with tools, which are really just physical culture (and that's why most archaeology in the US is taught in Anthropology departments).

Technological advances happen in multiple locations and at multiple times (e.g. agriculture). Technology is lost (c.f. the Dark Ages, but only in Europe, not elsewhere! Also see other civilizations that collapsed, like the Aztecs). Similar technologies are created in separate instances from vastly different prior conditions. Similar prior conditions lead to vastly different advances. It's a nasty, tangled web leading to emergent phenomena. There just isn't a straight line from stone tools to nanobots.

Third, keep in mind that lots of other animals also use tools. Principally primates, but there's a growing body of evidence for other non-primates as well (crows, dolphins, etc). The inferences that comes from this are: 1. tools use isn't just a human trait, but it's innately human in the sense that humans have been using tools since before they were human, and 2. animals have been using tools for as long as they had the ability to realize there was something that they could manipulate.

So, while it's tempting to view technology as layers, it's not so simple, and really we shouldn't be thinking about tool use as something apart from our bodies and humanity. Sure, we weren't born with our fingers attached to keyboards, but using a keyboard is just as innate, even if it's learned, to an intelligent animal as is using a grindstone, a flint knife, or running.
posted by The Michael The at 7:29 AM on February 13, 2012 [7 favorites]


Do you mean that if you have a group of humans who know all about tools and how to make them, from the most simple to the most complex, how many generations do you need to go through.

So, Generation 1: Things that can be made by a human (or groups of humans) with no tools:
Fire, Stone axes

Generation 2: Things which can be made using Fire and Stone Axes.....
and so on.

I mean, as opposed to groups of humans learning how to do these things.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 7:42 AM on February 13, 2012


Do you mean that if you have a group of humans who know all about tools and how to make them, from the most simple to the most complex, how many generations do you need to go through.

I think that may be simplest. I realize that my question has both a current and historical perspective, which confuses the matter. If the historical perspective is impossible to even approach, than the current one will have to do.

So let's pretend that we're starting today's civilization afresh, aiming to make nanotechnology (or whatever the most sophisticated tool is that you can conceive). But the toolmakers have all the requisite knowledge, they only have to work their way slowly up to the end point. There's no need to go through stages just because that's what actually happened, they can reach as far as they want in one 'generation', so long as it's reasonable possible.
posted by Jehan at 7:49 AM on February 13, 2012


So let's pretend that we're starting today's civilization afresh, aiming to make nanotechnology (or whatever the most sophisticated tool is that you can conceive). But the toolmakers have all the requisite knowledge, they only have to work their way slowly up to the end point. There's no need to go through stages just because that's what actually happened, they can reach as far as they want in one 'generation', so long as it's reasonable possible.

Then the "generations" are arbitrary and the number of them is meaningless.
posted by The Michael The at 7:53 AM on February 13, 2012


Then the "generations" are arbitrary and the number of them is meaningless.

The number of generations of humans may be arbitrary or meaningless in the proposed thought experiment. The question is about the number of generations of tools.

whatever makes a wheel -> wheel -> ? -> computer -> warp drive.

Five generations.
posted by stuart_s at 8:03 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's all about the lathe.
posted by Leon at 8:08 AM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, let's define a few rules. You say it should be from the most sophisticated tools, so lets use the Space Shuttle. The next problem we'll get is differences between tools. Cups are easy to make from clay and are still used today, so components of the shuttle could be the same or the exact opposite. Consider computer memory. Anyway, for the sake of the argument we'll stick with the main object, the Space Shuttle, rather than component parts as such. So what we are looking for is human guided movement, basically. First draft, US-centric (Russia and China would be different), and I'm sure I'm missing some things here, but...

1. Space Shuttle
2. Apollo Applications Program
3. Apollo program
4. Project Gemini
5. Project Mercury
6. X-planes
7. Jet aircraft
8. Propeller Aircraft
9. Gliders
10. Airships
11. Balloons

From there we'd probably need to move to manned movement:

12. Railroad
13. Carriages
14. Carts and Wagons
15. Sailing ships
16. Oars/Pole boats like the Pesse Canoe

After, or rather prior, to that last one (8040 BCE - 7510 BCE), it gets difficult. Wheels hadn't been invented and riding animals weren't domesticated until a few thousand years later, though cows were domesticated so it was possible I guess:

17. Riding cows

If you had willing participant(s):

18. Litter like travel
19. Piggyback

And then we're at:

20. Walking/Running/Swimming/etc.
posted by jwells at 8:26 AM on February 13, 2012


But you don't need a balloon to make a rocket engine, that's more in the "learning about flight" category.

If you were all, "right, guys we're on a desert island and we want a rocket engine", you'd need
(assuming perfect engineering knowledge)

1: Simple Digging Tools, (Can probably make these out of sticks to start with

Then you go dig up some ore (although do you need to build prospecting tools? [clearly I am not a professional uh.. metal mining... guy])

2: Smelting. You could probably knock up a simple earth oven, but you would want to use that oven to make bricks to make a better oven, and eventually you'd need to upgrade to a blast furnace so we've still got a long way to go.

3: We probably now have some pretty crappy metal, but we can now build metal tools! Spades and picks and get ourselves more ore and build a better forge.

At some point we're going to need to refine copper, draw wire and build a windmill or a turbine of some sort, because we'll need aluminium, and that needs electricity.

I don't think these generations are arbitrary, because you can't make refined aluminium without electricity and you can't make electricity without wire of some sort, which means metal smelting. Although I think things do speed up later on, because each set of tools opens up a much wider amount of things you can then make.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 9:15 AM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island.

The characters there are stranded on an island and have to have to retrace the technological path of development to the level of about mid-19th century - they make tools, fire bricks, smelt metal (iirc), make nitroglycerine to use as explosive, make their own matches, eventually make a sailing ship. As Verne points out, unlike the story of Crusoe, they do not get to salvage anything from a ship (their air balloon crashes down), so they have to make everything from zero; they only have a few personal possessions like pocket knives, a few matches, they find the remains of the balloon at some point and can use its cloth. As the balloon was going down, they had to throw out nearly all of their supplies overboard to keep it up as long as they could.

It seemed like Verne tried to be scientifically and technologically accurate but I don't know how accurate or realistic is the book in this regard.
posted by rainy at 10:18 AM on February 13, 2012


This question started out as arbitrary and I think just got less answerable with the followup.

"But the toolmakers have all the requisite knowledge"

Assuming this and they can transfer 100% that knowledge to the next generation, we could get there very very quickly. 100 years or so. Maybe half that. For example the ancient Romans could have invented the steam engine but didn't. If you know the end point you can get there with great speed. No one in the past has known where it was going.

How many people are involved? If there are essentially unlimited people who can work in parallel on stuff it will go much much faster. If you have a bare planet with 100 people it will take several centuries because it will be hard for any one person to be a single domain expert and they'll spend too much of their time just staying alive.

You might want to look at something like the Global Village Construction Set where they' are putting a lot of thought into creating 50 basic machines that it takes to make modern civilization.

Once you have metallurgy and working forge you're more than half the way there.
posted by Ookseer at 2:45 PM on February 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


What would it take to build a toaster from scratch? Perhaps not the most illuminating answer possible, but certainly one way of looking at the problem of reinventing the state of the art from first principles.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 8:40 PM on February 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Somewhat related.
posted by univac at 12:12 AM on February 14, 2012


It seemed like Jehan was talking about generations of tools rather than generations of people though.

"Once you have metallurgy and working forge you're more than half the way there."
I think you're right about this. It means that there can't be that many generations of tools needed to go from rocks to space shuttles. Less than 10?
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 2:15 AM on February 14, 2012


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