This week’s question was asked by a friend.
QUESTION: How did we go from cavemen to people with computers and television?
The caveman is a popular character based on how early humans may have looked and behaved. They’re usually pictured as hairy creatures clothed in animal skins, armed with clubs and spears, dumb and aggressive. This view is enhanced by comic strips B.C., Alley Oop, The Far Side, and the television series, The Flintstones. The 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes described early man’s lot as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Some depictions have cavemen living at the same time as dinosaurs. There is strong evidence that dinosaurs died out about 65 million years ago. The only mammals at that time were small, furry, four-legged creatures.
We can picture early man searching for food, trying to stay warm, protecting their territory, tending to the sick and injured, learning to use tools and burying the dead. It was a full-time struggle just to stay alive.
We humans have come very far in so little time. It is hard to imagine what our daily life would be like it we were back in those caveman times. It seems that two developments allowed man to dominate the environment. The growth of the frontal lobe of the brain and the opposable thumb were instrumental in man’s long progress from cave to castle.
The frontal lobes are used for impulse control, judgment, language, memory, motor function, socialization and problem solving. The frontal lobes are responsible for planning, controlling and executing behavior. In other words, the frontal lobe is used for all the functions we ascribe to as being human.
The opposable thumb, combined with stereoscopic vision, allowed us to make and manipulate tools with great dexterity. If one is tempted to disregard the importance of an opposable thumb, try these tasks: tie shoe laces and blow up a balloon and tie it, without using the thumb.
Another key feature of man’s long march to progress is the role of a written language. Knowledge exploded when people were able to record what they learned and pass it on to the next generation. The oral tradition is very limited. Contrast the development of civilization in Europe with that of North America in the time leading up the 1500’s.
There is an element of man’s ascent that is troubling; man’s penchant for destruction of his own kind. Warfare seems to be the scourge of man. We now have unprecedented wealth, comfort, longevity, medical care and leisure time. Yet, we have trouble getting along with each other. To make things worse, we have the capability to destroy other humans on a massive scale. Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher (428 BC-348 BC), said “only the dead have seen the end of war.”
I recommend Jacob Bronowski’s classic history of humankind, The Ascent of Man. It came out in 1973 and traces the development of human society through our understanding of science. It was made into a BBC television series. Dr. Bronowski shows human development from the flint tool to geometry, agriculture to genetics, and from alchemy to the theory of relativity, showing how they all are expressions of our ability to understand and control the world around us.
Larry Scheckel is a retired Tomah High School physics teacher.