Two heads are better than one

Wed, 28 Jan 2015 | norman

"What's important to a society is how well people are communicating their ideas and how well they are cooperating, not how clever they are."—Matt Ridley, TED Global 2010

If you walked past a human from about 200,000 years ago in the street, you wouldn't notice anything particularly unusual about them. 200,000 years ago humans had light brown skin and black hair, and adults were shorter than most of us. Some of them had slightly more pronounced brows. At the time, they all lived in Africa.

150,000 years later, about 50,000 years ago, they were using very similar tools. Nothing much had changed.

But then something happened. Some scientists say that it wasn't sudden; that it happened gradually. But other scientists call it the "Upper Paleolithic Revolution".

What exactly happened?

We don't know for sure. But the result was that tools and artifacts were no longer just made of stone. They included bone, ivory and antler. Humans created art for the first time. They made spear points, and drilling tools, knife blades and engraving tools. Population boomed.

What do we think happened?

There are two main hypotheses. The first is that many different factors came together, including knowledge, skills and culture.

The other hypothesis is that a change in the brain led to the emergence of modern human language.

I wouldn't be able to say which hypothesis is more likely. But I do think that the most influential aspect of both ideas is language, because it is language—specifically our ability to discuss things that don't yet exist with each other—that results in collaborative inventions. Alice says to Bob, "Hey, what if I put my cutter on my spear?" Bob says, "Brilliant idea. But that grass is going to break. What about this vine?" Alice says, "Nice. But it's still going to wobble. I'll try to wedge it into the spear." Et voilá! The stone-tipped spear!

Two heads are better than one.

It is language that allows ideas to spread without relying entirely on demonstration. Language lets you shout instructions and coordinate teams. Language lets you devise and then implement plans. Language lets you tell stories, and relate other people's sorrows and joys.

I think it was our incorporating the hypothetical into our language that elevated us into the Upper Paleolithic.

Let us call that Step One.

We had to wait more than 40,000 years for Step Two.

By around 4,000 BCE, trade and administration got too complicated for people to remember accurately. So they came up with ways of recording stuff. First they used little clay tokens. Then they used clay tokens with markings on them. Then they did away with little tokens altogether, and just used markings ... then pictographs ... then alphabets.

In other words, Step Two was writing! Writing is amazing.

Writing outlasts the writer. We can still read some of the world's greatest literature. Today we can watch as we have grappled with our environment and our identity historically, in works like the epic of Gilgamesh, a story of friendship, tragedy, and immortality, and like Homer's Illiad and Odyssey, stories of fate, destiny, and what it means to be a human.

Writing allowed ideas to spread, and gave them some resilience against suppression. The development and progress of mathematics and philosophy would not have been possible without writing.

5,000 years later, first the Chinese and then the Europeans invented something that revolutionised writing. They invented the printing press. This was Step Three.

Printing allowed good ideas, and bad ideas, to spread faster than ever before. The Bible went viral. Suddenly people who had not gone to university could read it (and immediately people started accusing each other of reading it wrong (an accusation that still flies regularly today)). The ideas of mathematician and philosopher René Descartes went viral too. So did the ideas of John Locke, whose principles formed much of the basis of the American Constitution. So did the ideas of mathematician and physicist Isaac Newton, and scientific progress rested heavily on his discoveries for more than three centuries afterwards.

The "killer app" of the printing press was arguably the scientific journal. The scientific journal allowed people to overcome human cognitive biases, by checking and correcting each other.

Progress since then has been remarkable, not just in the sciences, like medicine, physics and technology, but economic and political progress too. Sharing ideas results in better ideas.

And then just a few decades ago, we took Step Four. We build a global network, connecting the minds of millions of strangers across the planet in a way that allows them to share thoughts in seconds, instead of the months and years that the printing press allowed; and not just the words and pictures that paper provides a medium for, but video, and conversations.

In the short time that the Internet has existed, the results have already been transformative; people are abandoning their traditional belief systems as a reult of learning how similar they are to other competing beliefs. And we are in the throes of a violent conservative, fundamentalist backlash against the apostacy of the West. But as long as people are sharing ideas, and each reaching a deeper understanding together, religious fundamentalism cannot succeed. Our beliefs and moral philosophies can only progress towards a state where human well-being and flourishing is placed higher than dogmatic adherence.

We are like a global neural network, where each human brain is like a neuron, and our phones and computers are synapses. Every follower on Twitter, every friend on Facebook, every contact on Skype, is a synaptic connection. And humanity is learning, and growing, and maturing, faster than ever before. We are making better decisions. We are caring more effectively for strangers, and living longer.

But the Internet is still new, and governments are notorious for making poor technological decisions. Just recently, British Prime Minister David Cameron came up with a real clanger; banning encryption; an idea that pushes technical ignorance into the realm of idiocy. So our amazing neural network is still vulnerable to being stunted, retarded through bad legislation.

We must not allow that to happen. Anything to reduces the effectiveness of the neural network of humanity, or slows its development and adoption, is nothing less than a crime against humanity.

Yes, bad Internet legislation is a crime against humanity, and among the greatest wrongs we can perpetrate.

We have never needed to come up with better ideas, and to make better decisions than we do now.

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