Of Stone Tools and Sustainability

In some of my earlier blog posts I began to toy with the idea of exploring a parallel or an affinity between music and ethics. It’s not that music makes us ethical or – as Plato supposed – that certain kind of music might draw people toward virtue or toward vice. It is rather that ethical perception and action may draw from modes of human cognition other than those caught up in language.

What this means in practice is that some values – some of what draws attention and motivates action – cannot adequately be expressed in words, and that ethical action may have more in common with musical improvisation than with dispassionate logical reasoning or legal judgment.

Over the past few years, I have started in earnest researching and writing about “the music of ethical action”, as I sometimes call it. It turns out to be quite the rabbit-hole to have fallen down!

My research has recently drawn me into the orbit of cognitive archaeologists, those who examine the tangible remains of long-past hominin societies to draw inferences about how they experienced and – eventually – thought about their world. One subject of lively debate is the relationship between language and music: How did they develop? Did they emerge sequentially or in parallel? If they emerged sequentially, which came first?

I’ll likely take up some of these questions, by and by. For now, though, I’d like to work through something that struck me when reading an especially rich work of cognitive archaeology: Gary Tomlinson, A Million Years of Music: The Emergence of Human Modernity.

One detail from Tomlinson’s account of a paleolithic social form caught at my attention. In fact, this one detail and its implications left me reeling, and the process of working through it subtly changed my entire outlook on the world.

Here it is: archaeologists call the Acheulean industry of stone-tool production was a hominin culture that endured for around a million years, until about 300,000 years ago. There is evidence of this industry across Africa, Asia, and Europe, and it is associated with several hominin species, including Homo erectus, H. ergaster, and H. heidelbergensis.

(Note that ‘hominin’ is the current taxonomic term to refer to Homo sapiens and our forebear species, but excluding the great apes. In evolutionary terms, this dates back to the divergence of our lineage from that of chimpanzees. Several hominin species are associated with Acheulean industry Homo erectusH. ergaster, and H. heidelbergensis; evidence of Acheulean industry has been found widely across Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Let me say that again for emphasis: the Acheulean industry was a human way of life that carried on, largely unchanged, for one million years.

What is the secret to the long endurance of this culture? Did our hominin forebears possess some special wisdom? 

Well, according to Tomlinson and others, quite the opposite: not only did they not possess wisdom, they likely had little of what we would call ‘thinking’. Their modes of cognition were a more immediate kind of responsiveness to one another in “copresence”, involving mimesis and “entrainment” (whereby they could – and and we still can – fall into a shared rhythm), perhaps some “gesture-calls” constituting a “protodiscourse”. There is no evidence of symbol-use, or any kind of thinking-at-a-distance that would be required for planning or for social hierarchy. It is likely they did not yet have a theory of mind, whereby we see others as beings with experiences and intentions of their own.

Acheulean culture endured because it worked, and because it could be handed down reliably through entrainment and practice in copresence, one to another. However – and this is why Tomlinson goes so far back in seeking the roots of music-making – this industry already involves some cognitive capacities that would much later be “recruited” into language, music, religion, and other aspects of the more “recent” 20,000 years of culture. 

How did hominins get from there to here? Tomlinson regards human culture as a kind of coevolutionary system that is no longer bound to biological adaptation; it is self-organizing, spinning itself up over millennia. Sometime around 250,000 years ago, which includes H. neanderthalensis, new stone tool-making industries emerged that suggest a degree of thinking-at-a-distance and planning. Sometime after that, there is evidence for symbol use and religious ritual, which requires a sense of the transcendent, a kind of abstract thought that would have been lost on those in Acheulean cultures.

Suffice it to say that the self-organizing of human culture has accelerated markedly, though not without setbacks. At least as far as creation of new tools goes, the whole thing now seems to be working at a fever pitch, and perhaps more detached than ever from the underlying natural systems on which survival ultimately depends.

My concern is that our minds as they have developed – in this coevolutionary self-organization – may have led us into a trap: we have thought and planned and talked and dreamed ourselves into all manner of wicked problems, but all our thinking and talking and planning and dreaming may not be adequate to getting us back out of them again.

Take the big-ticket problem of sustainability, for example. Acheulean culture was sustainable, in some sense, for such a very long period because its practitioners could not and did not have to think their way into it; they made stone tools because they could, in part because they were able to walk upright with their hands free, in part because they were social animals who could imitate others and catch the rhythm of their movements.

What remains to be seen is whether and for how long we can achieve a sustainable way of living in the world through deliberate thinking and planning, when our minds may be uniquely ill-suited to the task!

Reference: Tomlinson, Gary. 2015. A Million Years of Music: The Emergence of Human Modernity. New York: Zone Books.

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