Book Review: The Artificial Ape

The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution by Timothy Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fascinating book about how using tools makes us human, and how that’s not necessarily a compliment.

The main thrust of Taylor’s argument is that we started using tools that shouldered much of the burden that we would otherwise need actual shoulders for, so the shoulders we had went a little vestigial from generations of disuse. I know that analogy sounds kind of clunky, but it’s literally what happened in the case of our 10% loss in bone density over the last few thousand years.

The perspective makes sense. Orangutans are strong enough to rip the lower jaw clean off of a crocodile, and have been observed doing it, so don’t fuck around. But that kind of power requires a lot of upkeep, at the expense of other systems. We had a common ancestor 12 million years ago. The human genetic code contains the blueprints to be that kind of jacked manimal, but instead we started throwing pointy sticks around. We didn’t need to be that strong. The strength, or lack thereof, wasn’t making that big of a dent in the gene pool anymore.

Bipedalism was our first big advantage, and we’ve been coasting on that ever since. Hands free mode let us tinker, and the clubs, spears, and baby slings (for carrying, not for throwing) let us outcompete pretty much everything else in the world at the time. Fire was our next big W, and we became so reliant on it that we lost a large portion of our intestine, which is why gorillas can get donkey brolic on nothing but nectarines and foliage while a vegan diet is a death sentence for any human outside of the 1st world. Our stomachs aren’t long enough, or multiple enough, to break down the plants into nourishment. Cooked meat was a shortcut to an unprecedented amount of easily absorbed nutrition. Why waste the biomass maintaining a massive gorilla colon for processing 40 lbs of roots and leaves a day when we’re getting everything we need in a pound of mammoth flank and a few handfuls of high-glucose berries?

What I found most interesting was the sort of fork-in-the-road that our skulls and jaws took. When you look at animals with a preposterous bite force like a gorilla (1300 PSI) or a pitbull (2000 PSI), you see the long, threatening canine incisors first. For good reason. Evolution has programmed us to steer clear of seeing those incisors pointed our way, as it often precedes getting got. In order for the canine incisors to be functional, they have to be deeply rooted into bone. A pitbull’s teeth wouldn’t be much use if they snapped off every time he clamped his big square head onto something.

But for those teeth to support that bite force, the muscles wrapping around the skull have to connect to occipital bone. That’s the big knot of bone toward the back of a dog’s skull. All the great apes have them, too, except for us. Those powerful biting muscles sort of squeeze the braincase, which requires the bone to be thicker and sturdier overall, but that’s okay. Fair trade. Most animals have much greater need for dangerous teeth than for the wasted space of extra cranial capacity.

Enter man, a scavangening omnivore who can comfortably walk a hundred miles a day, supplements his arsenal with his lethal little arts-and-crafts, and eats his prey cooked. Absolutely no need for those canine incisors anymore. No need for the muscles supporting them, either – no matter how much gristle is in the steak, it won’t compare to the 8+ hours a day spent chewing if all your food was raw. And thinner, more pliant cranial bones make for an easier escape from the birth canal.

Nature did what nature does, and as those muscles loosened as they became less necessary for survival. In conjunction with our easy nutritional intake and the burgeoning protoculture that comes from being social animals…. our brains exploded to three times their previous size, maybe? No one actually knows why that happened, but Taylor’s guess seems as good as any.

Great book. I knocked off one star because I found it dry in some parts, but that’s to be expected, the man’s an archeologist and most of them aren’t Indiana Jones. Well worth the read if you care about anything I said in this review.

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