Humans Produced Complex Technology Without Understanding It

New research shows that the complex technologies that allowed humans to thrive on the planet were a mystery to the humans that developed them.

Scientists have shown that the evolution of technology over time may have less to do with our understanding of that technology than we originally thought.

The Evolution of Technology

Human beings are one of the most adaptive species on the planet, able to exist in habitats as diverse as the Arctic to the Arabian desert. No other species is known to have accomplished this and humanity owes its success to its ability to develop technology that allows them to adapt to any environment.

RELATED: THE HISTORY AND EVOLUTION OF THE WHEEL

As technology is passed down from generation to generation, it is quickly refined to the most optimal extend possible to suit the environment, and according to new research from Arizona State University (ASU), we don’t even have to understand the science behind the technology to produce these rapid advances.

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In a paper published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour this week, ASU researchers have shown that cultural evolution of technology can produce new advances even when the individual humans involved don’t have any idea what they are doing.

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"Of course, intelligence is important for human adaptation," says Rob Boyd, ASU Origins Professor and Institute of Human Origins researcher. "But it is not enough. Our unique ability to learn from each other makes possible the cumulative cultural evolution of superb adaptations - that are at best only partially understood - and this powerful tool has allowed our species to adapt and spread."

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Testing Cultural Adaptation

Cultural Adaptation
Source: Maxime Derex

To test their theory about the accumulation of cultural adaptations leading to increasingly complex technologies that aren’t well understood by those who use them, the ASU researchers set up a new experiment wherein 70 participants were broken up into 14 groups of five.

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The researchers referred to these groups as “transmission chains”, which would serve as stand-ins for subsequent generations of human beings in a given society. The task set before them was relatively simple. Find a way to adjust four different weights on a wheel traveling down a ramp to make the wheel move faster.

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The first participant—representing the first generation to attempt to solve a problem with technology—would only have a few attempts to speed the wheel up before the second participant would take over. This second generation would also have a few attempts to get the wheel to its fastest possible speed before having to turn things over to the third participant and so on.

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Each participant would watch their predecessor generation working on a solution before being called upon to work on the problem themselves. By the time the fifth generation finished their refinements, in all groups, the wheel was moving about as fast as it possibly could down the ramp, showing how quickly cultural adaptation can accumulate a sophisticated technology to solve a given problem.

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Participants Didn’t Really Know What They Were Doing

Afterward, the researchers tested the participants on whether they had any idea why wheels with weights in different positions moved faster down the ramp. They found that the participants’ actual understanding of the physics involved in the experiment was limited and had not improved, even though they had successfully harnessed specific physical rules to speed up the wheel.

"Most participants actually produced incorrect or incomplete theories despite the relative simplicity of the physical system," said Maxime Derex, a former ASU Institute of Human Origins postdoctoral researcher and now a Marie Curie Fellow at the University of Exeter in England. "This constrained subsequent experimentation and prevented participants from discovering more efficient solutions."

This finding suggests that rather than being the product of individual genius, advanced technologies that propelled human civilization is the product of a lot of “remixing” of things that the previous generation did. This copying and alteration process accumulates over several generations to produce an evolution in technology that allows for advanced tools that used scientific and engineering principles that few if any could understand.

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