We love to share – it’s what makes us human
One area of research revolves around the idea that human cognition and shared purpose may have caused or fueled the divergence of the human species from other primates. How was the human species, which clearly shares its origins with the other primates, able to evolve at a much faster rate than the others? Researchers began by looking at other living primates for clues. Observation of chimpanzees, for example, has revealed that they utilize natural resources, found in their immediate surroundings, in order to complete relatively simple tasks. They are known to use hooks and sticks to extend their reach, wood and stone hammers for crushing different fruits and nuts, and even thin branches to pick termites out from under tree bark. However, there seems to be a limit to what chimpanzees are capable of using their simple tools. Baby chimps imitate their parents’ use of tools when for searching for food, but the task itself never seems to evolve past the simple crushing of fruits, etc. These apparently simple technological advancements reach a certain kind of saturation and never seem to evolve from generation to generation, unlike within the hominid species — from Homo Habilis to Homo-Sapiens Sapiens. The reason, according to the researcher Tomasello, is the lack of what he terms the “Ratchet Effect”.
Homo Habilis is considered to have been the first toolmaker. His relatively large brain and unique physical characteristics–like smaller teeth–suggest that not only was his diet different than those of the other primates, but that he also had a superior intelligence. However, Ambrose points out, since evidence does indicate that other primates were also able to produce Oldowan artifacts, our analysis of the Habilis’ individuality in this respect remains disputable. Although experimenters have attempted to train other primates such as chimps and bonobos in Oldowan technology use, findings show that physical limitations prevent them from reproducing similar tools. There is a vast difference between the way humans and chimps use their hands in tool making.
When shifting our attention to these early hominid tools, we find an interesting turn in the story of human evolution. These findings raise an interesting question: if we have evidence that other primates were able to utilize Oldowan technologies, why didn’t their tools evolve to the level of the early Hominid’s tools? Why didn’t other primates reach farther, to the cutting tools, etc. that would have helped them access higher quality food sources, which in turn would have nourished physical and brain development? The theory of the “Ratchet Effect”, or the idea of collaboration and shared purpose, may offer a reasonable explanation.
In 1999, Michael Tomasello used the ratchet metaphor to explain the evolution of human culture. For Tomasello, human technology and culture are cumulative in character. Once a certain invention has been discovered, i.e. the first Oldowan tool, knowledge of its use can be transferred from one individual to another by means of imitation (similar to how chimpanzees share information) until a whole population acquires a new trait. Although the pace of advancement in technology and social interaction was very slow from between 2.5 million and 300,000 years ago, from around 300,000 years ago the “pace quickens exponentially” , hinting that changes in the forms of hominid tools were driven by the development of language and some sort of understanding of the environment and social structures.
Humans have both a need and a motivation to share common goals. Intentional action and shared intentionality produce uniquely human activities such as the creation of technology. The accumulation of technological modifications over the course of generations culminates in cultural revolution. Language is a tool or a technology that was collectively developed by way of shareability and social interaction. It was able to develop into the complex system it is today in part because the human species evolved into one that required language and communication to survive. As the members of a clan or early hominid colony needed to learn more and more complex actions, mimetic learning was no longer sufficient. A new and more potent way of passing on knowledge was necessary, and this may have led to the invention of instructional methods and later to language. Language as a communication technology of a very specific type and with a very specific functionality allows for communication across existing gaps between its users. Humans use language to describe and interpret experiences together, and in that way are able to build upon past experiences in order to create new ones. The rise of the social network—a new development in the evolution of communication and collaborative culture — provides a modern example of this phenomenon.
Social networks as a new direction in the evolution of collaborative culture, much more complex than what humans were used to already, revolutionized our lives early in the 21st century. Since the birth of the first social networks in the late 1990’s, their number and influence have skyrocketed. Today, Facebook is nearing the 1-billion-users mark. The rapid expansion and success of the social network, in all its forms (Youtube, twitter, facebook, etc.), exemplify the human need to constantly share experiences. Cultural symbols, photos, status updates, video clips and recordings are all shared openly online, making for a universal virtual experience. This is not dissimilar to what might have been a shared experience in a small community of early Hominids or primates millions of years ago.
Information technology is now regarded as a collaborative tool. Online communities, just like ancient and primate communities, leverage their own potential to share knowledge and expertise within themselves . The rise of the shared social experience via communication technology has led to profound changes in the social, political, economic and cultural orders. The idea of shareability has gained additional importance in the era of the information network. Sharing is a pivotal aspect of the social network. People surfing the internet encounter endless quantities of information, some of which is deemed “sharable” by the user. This is how one piece of information (video clip, news article, picture, etc.) is shared within virtual communities or circle of friends. Without it, the evolution of what Manuel Castells labeled informationalism would not have been possible. The success of the social network is solely dependent of the idea of shareability, it is what has helped us evolve as a species through the ages. The possibility to transfer knowledge, first by means of emulation, then by mimicking, through teaching and now through language and information networks only shows the vast effects of this idea. With the rise in the amount of information available for us today, it is interesting to see when ‘much’ will be ‘too much’, and how will we be able to manage and process and the effects of the amount of information we as humans are exposed to.