Waking Up in Time

Hands - Levers for the Mind


All tools and engines on earth are only extensions of man’s limbs and senses.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Homo sapiens’capacity for speech and conceptual thinking may have enabled us to learn from each other’s experience, to study the Universe, to plan our futures and to become aware of our own existence, but these developments alone do not account for the many changes in our lifestyle that so distinguish us from all other animals. There is another feature of the human being that is essential to our prolific creativity -- the human thumb.

Chimpanzees, gorillas and several other creatures have thumbs, but only the human thumb can rotate completely about its base, and is “fully opposable”, meaning that it can touch, and be in put direct opposition to, each finger. This unique feature allows us to grasp objects of varying shapes and sizes, manipulate them, and perform delicate operations. It transforms the human hand into one of the most elegant and versatile biological organs ever evolved.

Combine this beautiful evolutionary development with an ability to reason and make choices, and you have a creature that can mold the clay of Mother Earth into a variety of tools.

Tools themselves are not new to Nature -- apes, for example, will use stones as hammers, and so will some birds. Human beings, however, endowed both with remarkable hands and with flourishing minds, became the most proficient and prolific tool-users on the planet. We moved from pots and hammers to boats, plows, wheels, mills, drills, engines, planes, computers, and robots.

Through our hands, our ideas could manifest and take shape. We could invent new forms, and change the world in ways that no other creature could. This newfound power to influence our own future, constituted the second important platform on which human cultural evolution was built. From it came all manner of inventions, and an explosion of novelty unprecedented in the history of life on Earth -- and all in the blink of an evolutionary eye.


Amplification of the Thumb

One of our earliest inventions was agriculture. We began to irrigate the land, plant seeds and store the harvest. Guaranteed a more reliable source of food, we were that much freer from the caprices of Nature. We could ensure against floods or droughts, settle in one place, and build permanent shelters.

We discovered that through selective breeding we could create new varieties of plants and animals. This enabled us to accelerate evolution, and to direct its course. In just a few thousand years we had produced hundreds of different cereals from just a few simple grasses, and a thousand different breeds of dog, plus many varieties of fruits, vegetables, horses, cattle and sheep.

About the same time we made another important discovery: the making of fire. All life’s energy comes from the fire of the sun. Plants capture this energy through photosynthesis, and pass it on down the food chain to animals. This provides the energy we require to walk, talk, and plant the crops that catch the sunlight. By burning wood, we created another means of liberating the energy stored up by plants. We could warm ourselves when the sun was down; we could survive cooler winters; move into new territories. Cooking food expanded our diets. Smelting metals allowing us to make more sturdy tools.

Several thousand years later came the wheel, creating both a revolution in transport and a wealth of new technology. The potter’s wheel, the water-wheel, the windmill, the spinning-wheel, the pulley, and almost every piece of machinery humanity has ever invented, are dependent on the properties of the wheel.

The Industrial Revolution integrated the efficiency of the wheel with the energy of fire. Steam-power replaced animal power and led to factories and increased production. Rail transport speeded communication, and made resources and products more easily available. Steel led to revolutions in engineering. Pumps facilitated the mining of coal and minerals. And the mechanization of farming relieved many of the need to work on the land.

Here again positive feedback was at work. New discoveries led to new machinery and equipment -- and these to other new discoveries. Efficient pumps paved the way for hydraulic power, giving us the ability to apply great pressure and move heavy loads. Precision engineering increased the reliability of scientific apparatus. As we understood more about the structure of matter we were able to create new materials with new properties -- alloys, ceramics, plastics. These could be used to create yet better machine components, more efficient manufacturing processes and yet more new products.

Electricity brought energy directly to the doors of factories and households across the country, providing an easy source of light and heat. It was the power for a whole new generation of motors; large motors that enhanced the performance of industry, and smaller ones that led to a wide range of labor-saving machinery, from drills, washing-machines, and vacuum cleaners, to food-mixers and electric toothbrushes.

In the arena of transport, steamships gathered resources from the four corners of the planet; the internal combustion engine made personal transport an affordable commodity; and the airplane compressed travel times from weeks to hours.

Everything was accelerating: travel, communication, energy consumption, production, social development. We were creating more and more change with less and less human effort.

Moreover, the rate of innovation was itself accelerating. In the early days of civilization major breakthroughs were few and far between. Buckminster Fuller, the architect and inventor of the geodesic dome, estimated that about five thousand years ago a significant invention occurred every two hundred years or so. By AD 0 there was one every fifty years. By AD 1000 the time had shortened to thirty years, and in the Renaissance dropped sharply to around three years. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution it was down to a significant invention every six months; and a hundred years later, every three months. By the middle of the twentieth century the time had shortened further, and humanity was creating major breakthroughs at the rate of one per month.

Some of our innovations are truly awe-inspiring; others may justify concern and anxiety. Yet, magnificent or fearful as it may be, all our technology is, in essence, the amplification of the potential inherent in the human hand -- guided by the human mind.

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Date created: 3-Oct-03