Evolution and Tools

Finding stone tools isn’t remarkable. Folks have been making, and occasionally losing, tools for a long time.

Scientists think folks upgraded their tech to deal with a changing climate. Or maybe someone else who had done so moved in.

That started me thinking about how we deal with change. Or try to ignore it:

Living in a Post-Esarhaddon World

(“Map of the Square and Stationary Earth … the Bible Map of the World.”)

Zealots in Christendom’s ‘don’t confuse me with facts’ fringe leave a regrettable impression. Letting that upset me, and ranting about it, is an option.

I prefer saying why I don’t see a problem with accepting what we’ve learned over the last few millennia.

I’m a Christian. I take my faith seriously.

I also think learning about this astonishing universe is a good idea.

I take the Bible seriously, including 1 Samuel 2:8, Job 9:6 and Psalms 150:1. The Bible’s poetic imagery is based partly on Mesopotamian cosmology.

I can appreciate the imagery without believing that Earth is flat.

Realizing that folks in Mesopotamia didn’t know everything back when Esarhaddon rebuilt Babylon — doesn’t shake my faith.

I’m pretty sure we don’t have all the answers today.

But we have learned a bit over the last few millennia. Uncovering many new questions in the process. (November 3, 2017; September 22, 2017)

Maybe there’s a ‘Bible-based’ high school geography text with warnings against globes and suchlike blasphemous things.

If so, I haven’t heard of it.

On the other hand, I do occasionally run into someone who denounces evolution something fierce. Or says that Ussher must be right.

What they believe is clear enough. Why they believe it, not so much. (March 9, 2018; February 9, 2018)

Pursuing Truth

I’m a Christian and a Catholic. Some Bible-thumpers might say that’s impossible, and that’s another topic.

Being a Catholic, I see faith as a willing and conscious decision to embrace all of God’s truth. All truth, including what we can see in this universe. I think God created everything, so studying God’s work makes sense. (Genesis 1:131; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 142155, 325349)

Faith and science both pursue truth. Not the same facets, but they should work together. (Catechism, 31, 159, 1849)

Reading and studying the Bible is a vital part of my faith. (Catechism, 101133)

But it’s not ‘just the Bible, God, and me.’ I’ve got help, lots of it. Including wisdom accumulated over millennia. (Catechism, 74100)

Believing that the first of us made a really bad decision is part of my faith. I figure Genesis 3 describes a real event in figurative language. (Catechism, 390)

I think humanity is made “in the image of God.” We’re matter and spirit, body and soul. Each of us is a person — a someone, not a something. We’re made from the stuff of this world and filled with God’s ‘breath.’ (Genesis 1:2627, 2:7; Catechism, 355, 357, 362368)

I’m also quite sure Adam and Eve aren’t German. (September 23, 2016)

“Truth Will be Truth”

I think Leo XIII and Benjamin Franklin had the right idea:

“…truth cannot contradict truth….”
(“Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893))

“…Truth will be Truth tho’ it sometimes prove mortifying and distasteful.”
(Benjamin Franklin (1725))

Being offended at something we’ve learned is possible. But I don’t see a point in trying to ignore truth, even if it’s something we didn’t know before the 1860s.

I suspect that punctured pride accounts for some ‘religious’ objections to evolution. (March 9, 2018)

Imagining that evolution didn’t happen, or that we’ve never changed, may have been easier in the mid-1800s. Much of what we knew about life’s long story in Darwin’s day came from studying fossils.

We’re still studying fossils, and recently added genetic analysis to our toolkit.

Trapped in Amber

(From Brocken Inaglory, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

Quite a few things are “fossils.” It’s a name for evidence that a critter was around. Sometimes we find the whole critter. Sometimes what’s left are footprints, fossilized leaves, insects caught in amber and DNA bits. They’re all “fossils.”

Insects and humans can both blunder into tree sap, rather often leading to a sticky death for the smaller critters.

Humans? I don’t know how much sap it would take to trap and engulf one of us. Even if someone did perish that way, not all sap becomes amber.1

Tools in 300,000 BC (Before Costco)

(From Human Origins Program, Smithsonian; via BBC News; used w/o permission.)
((l to r) Hand axes, obsidian sharps and colour pigments discovered at the site
(BBC News))

Changing environment influenced human evolution
Mary Halton, BBC News (March 15, 2018)

Humans may have developed advanced social behaviours and trade 100,000 years earlier than previously thought….

“…The results come from an archaeological site in Kenya’s rift valley. ‘Over one million years of time’ is represented at the site, according to Rick Potts from the Smithsonian Institution, who was involved in the studies.

“There are also signs of developments in toolmaking technologies.

“Environmental change may have been a key influence in this evolution of early Homo sapiens in the region of the Olorgesailie dig site….”

Folks have been living in or near Olorgesailie for at least the 1,200,000 years or so. These days it’s mainly an archaeological site near the road from Nairobi to Lake Magadi. Our tech and social structures have changed since then, along with the area’s climate.

We don’t know all that much about social structures back then, but our tech had been changing long before the Olorgasailie tools were lost or discarded.

The oldest stone tools found so far are about 3,300,000 years old. The Olorgasailie hand axes were improvements on the older tech. Obsidian tools were a step up from those. I could find more durable metal tech at Costco or the local hardware store.

But in 1982 someone pointed out that obsidian scalpels are sharper and do less damage than their metal counterparts. Doctors still use metal scalpels for surgery on humans. But some use obsidian blades for surgery on research animals.2

That may change as word gets around that surgery on lab rats is done with superior tech. But it’ll probably take time. As I keep saying, we do learn. Slowly.

The scientists found and studied Acheulean hand axes made from roughly 600,000 to 500,000 years back at Olorgesailie. Other tools were about 300,000 years old.

They used argon-argon and uranium-thorium decay rates to get those ages.

Radiometric dating is fairly new. Its first published use was in 1907. We’ve learned a lot since then, including some of humanity’s long story.3

Obsidian Upgrade

Older general-purpose hand axes had been replaced by spearheads after that 200,000 year gap. Folks had several sorts, probably for different purposes.

About 98% of the older tools were made from local rock. The sort available no more than 5 kilometers away.

Many of the newer tools were obsidian.

We don’t know where they were made. Wherever it was, the toolmakers didn’t get obsidian near Olorgesailie.

The closest obsidian sources are 25 to 95 kilometers away. That’s 15.5 to 59 miles.

If the transition happened abruptly, someone most likely fretted at the new tech. I think human nature hasn’t changed much over the last 23 or so centuries. Including how at least some folks view change.

Plato had Socrates warning against a newfangled technology in his “Phaedrus” dialog. Some Greeks were apparently seeing advantages to a new information storage and retrieval technology — writing. Others saw the tech’s dark side.

Plato had Socrates warn that folks who started reading and writing would have information in greater quantity. That’s not bad by itself, Socrates said.

The problem was that quality would plummet. Folks who didn’t bother with memorizing vast tracts of verbiage would not attain in-depth knowledge. They “…will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing….” (“Phaedrus,” Plato (ca.360))

I see his point. Quite a bit of my knowledge came from reading, not hearing. I probably don’t have the in-depth appreciation I’d get from memorizing an epic poem. But I know about quite a bit, and can look up details as needed.

Ironically, I doubt we’d know much about Plato or Socrates today — if Plato and others hadn’t recorded their thoughts in writing.

Shopping in Another Town

Traveling 25 to 95 kilometers, 15.5 to 59 miles, to get a new tool or materials isn’t convenient these days.

But Americans, at least, routinely travel that far. Either on a daily commute, or going to a larger town for specialty goods.

What’s ‘near’ and ‘far’ depends partly on how easy traveling is.

I grew up in the Red River Valley of the North, between North Dakota and Minnesota. I still think of 15 or 16 miles as ‘just down the road’ and 59 miles as ‘an hour away.’

But the Valley is some of the flattest land on Earth. We’ve got motorized vehicles and paved roads between towns.

Walking 15 or 16 miles over rough country is quite possible. But it’s not a pleasant stroll. Somebody would have to have a good reason for making that sort of round trip. Collecting high-grade material for tools would be a good reason.

Or maybe folks living near those obsidian deposits made tools on site. They’d almost certainly use some themselves. But making extras and trading them with obsidian-poor folks to get something not available locally makes sense. (June 16, 2017)

Scientists figure folks using the obsidian tools lived in groups of about 20 to 25. I’m pretty sure they didn’t see that as “advanced social behaviours.” Primates, including humans, are social critters. Groups that size aren’t exceptional. (March 19, 2017)

My guess is that the scientists see getting obsidian from a remote source, or trading for it, as “advanced.” I’ve read their abstracts, but don’t have rights to the papers themselves. Another reason I like ‘open source’ research.

Climate Changes

(From Robert A. Rohde, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Climate change after the dinosaurs.)

65,000,000 years is a long time, compared to a human lifespan. Compared to Earth’s age, it’s not so long: 65,000,000/4,540 ,000,000, or about 1.4%.

Earth’s climate has never been “stable” in the “unchanging” sense. Not on a geologic scale. There have, however, been times when one deca-millennium was very much like the last. This is not one of those times.

We’ve started reconstructing climate and atmosphere changes, partly from analysis of Antarctic ice cores and deep-sea sediments. (January 20, 2017)

Changes from 500,000 to 300,000 years back would given folks good reasons for developing new tech and re-thinking traditional habits.

Maybe some of them worried about depending on imported material and tools. Or worried about differences between animals they hunted and the magnificent prey in old tales.

Or simply missed the good old days when hand axes were big, heavy, and not very sharp. Ah, for the days of yore when people were strong and brave!

Most, I strongly suspect, started using the new tech because it made life easier. Or, during particularly awkward climate changes, possible.

Enjoying a Warm Spell

(From Dansgaard, Matthew W. Schmidt, Jennifer E. Hertzberg; via The Nature Education Knowledge Project; used w/o permission.)
(Earth’s climate over the most recent 80,000 years. Most recent is at the left this time.)

“GISP” and “SMOW” looked like “crisp” and “snow” to me. We’ve near the end of winter here in central Minnesota, and have been experiencing quite a bit of both.

In this case GISP is short for Greenland Ice Sheet Project II. SMOW stands for Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water. D-O events are Dansgaard-Oeschger events.

Dansgaard-Oeschger event is a new name for 25 fast climate changes during the ‘last glacial period,’ from about 110,000 to 11,700 years ago. That, in turn, is the most recent cold spell of the Quaternary glaciation: the current ice age.

I haven’t seen headlines about the “next ice age” for some time. Global warming was the grim specter haunting our future for a while, now it’s climate change.

Anyway, “next ice age” was a misnomer. The last I checked, most scientists think we’re in an interglacial: a warm spell between glacial periods.4

New Tech

(From Tomruen, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere over the most recent 800,000 years. Most recent is at the right.)

I think assuming that global temperature swings went with those changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide make sense. So does thinking that other aspects of Earth’s climate changed, not just temperature.

That’s more than just an assumption. We’ve found fossils of different sorts of animals and plants living at in the same spot at different times. Including Olorgesailie.

Land around today’s Olorgesailie is arid. It’s been that way before. It’s also been a lake:

“…Researchers discovered the existence of the paleolake by looking at the sediment layers in the basin. The thick layers of white sediment at Olorgesailie are made up of the silica skeletons of diatoms, a type of algae that grow in lakes. The species of diatoms have been identified, and the different combinations of diatom species correspond to different water depths, salinity, and alkalinity (pH value). This allowed our team to reconstruct lake level, salinity and pH for numerous intervals in the Olorgesailie sequence….”
(Smithsonian National Museum of National History)

What I called the obsidian upgrade happened when folks living near Olorgesailie couldn’t hunt animals or gather plants their ancestors had known. Climate had changed. So had the plants and animals. Folks had options: develop new skills and tech, move, or stop eating.

Maybe they moved, hoping they’d find familiar critters elsewhere. If they did, someone else moved into the area.

Scientists have found remains of only one hominin near Olorgesailie so far, so it’s hard to say what sort of folks they were. Whoever they were, they likely enough hunted there but lived elsewhere.

“Hominin” is what scientists started calling the particular sort of ape we are. There’s still discussion about exactly what is and isn’t a hominin.

Some scientists say it means us, our ancestors, and chimps. By that definition, hominins have been around for about 6,300,000,000 years. Others say it’s just us, and not chimps. That puts the earliest hominins about 4,000,000,000 years back.

Being offended at the very idea that humans are apes is an option.

But not a sensible one. My opinion. We’ve known that God made us from the stuff of this world for a very long time. What’s changed in the last century or so is what we know about the stuff God used.

I agree with Pope Leo XIII and Ben Franklin. Truth is truth. Accepting it makes sense.

Using Tools

Humans use tools. But using tools isn’t a human monopoly. Neither is intelligence. Considering folklore about cunning foxes, that shouldn’t have been a surprise.

Studying animal cognition isn’t easy, partly because non-human animals aren’t human.

That may help explain why some early animal intelligence showed that primates, particularly apes, are really smart. Other animals, apparently, not so much.

Wiring in all primate brains, including mine, follows pretty much the same basic pattern. Small wonder humans can tell how other primates perceive the world and respond to it.

Trying to tell how an octopus thinks is challenging, since cephalopod neural architecture is — different.

At least some of the critters use tools and learn through classical/Pavlovian conditioning. Maybe by observing, too: ‘monkey see, monkey do.’

Some scientists say octopus observational learning doesn’t happen. I’d have to learn more about the research to have an informed opinion.

Observational learning by an octopus may not have been well-verified. I suspect, maybe unfairly, that ‘it can’t be so’ opinions may be from scientists whose opinions are more ‘human’ than ‘scientific.’

Scientists can be as reasonable, or not, as anyone else. Priestly’s position on phlogiston made sense at first. Keeping it, despite contrary evidence, didn’t. (March 24, 2018)

Acknowledging that chimps use tools didn’t come easily after Jane Goodall got to know chimps and watch them.

My guess is that at least some earlier observations of chimps in their natural habitat was unintentionally skewed. Chimps aren’t particularly stupid, or unobservant. They’d have been wary when a human started watching them.

Some scientists say they’ve seen primates making tools. Other animals, too. That’s a step up from using something as a tool. Other scientists say what the primates are doing isn’t quite tool-making. Or isn’t like the tool-making humans do.5

I think there’s something to the ‘not quite like humans’ point.

Using my teeth to sharpen a stick is making a tool. But it’s not quite the same as using a grinder to turn a metal rod into a screwdriver tip. Or making a specialty screwdriver tip to get at recalcitrant hardware that won’t accept command line instructions.

Opportunities for Admiration

I think we are significantly different from other creatures on this planet.

But we’re not all that different physically. There’s even something much like a hippocampus in other primates.

That discovery ended the Great Hippocampus Debate. (July 15, 2016)

I think it’s interesting and probably significant that we’ve only found ArhGAP11B and our version of SRGAP2 in humans, neanderthals, and denisovans. But not chimps or other critters. So far. (January 13, 2017; September 23, 2016)

I could try very hard to believe that we’re utterly different, completely separate from all other creatures on Earth.

I could even decide that we shouldn’t have bodies. Or that having bodies is a design flaw. That doesn’t make sense. Not to me. (January 14, 2018)

I’d much rather use the brain God gave me for appreciating God’s world. Seeing scientific discoveries as opportunities for admiration of God’s work is a good idea. (Catechism, 282289, 341)

Ignoring what’s real, or trying to imagine this wonder-filled universe follows my rules seems silly. At best. Besides, I’ve looked in a mirror. Every time I do, I see the same ‘rational animal’ looking back. (March 9, 2018; February 3, 2017; November 18, 2016)

Prometheus and Genesis

(From WiNG, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

Again, I think we’re not just the same as every other critter on Earth. Our tools and how we make them are extraordinary. But even our tool-making may be more a matter of degree, not difference.

Controlled fires may be a uniquely-human tech: one we’ve been using for at least a million years. It’s no more or less ‘safe’ than any other tech, so using human intelligence is important. (August 11, 2017; February 10, 2017)

‘Theft of fire’ stories aren’t uniquely Western. But I’m most familiar with the Prometheus account. A collection of Greek myths includes a pretty close match to the Genesis 2 creation story:

“…Prometheus moulded men out of water and earth and gave them also fire….”
(Apollodorus, The Library, Book 1, 1.7.1; via The Theoi Classical Texts Library)

We’re pretty sure the collection is two millennia old, give or take a century or so. Apollodorus may not be the editor, and that’s yet another topic.

Both accounts say we were formed from the stuff of this world. The Apollodorus account says Prometheus gave us fire. That’s not how Genesis describes us and our abilities.

Genesis 2:19 says that God showed Earth’s critters to the first of us “…to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each living creature was then its name.” (July 23, 2017)

That doesn’t strike me as divine derision of human intelligence.

On the other hand, after we made a very bad decision, God upgraded our improvised fig-leaf wardrobe with leather clothing.

I did a little checking, and sure enough: fig leaves could be sewn together to make loincloths. My guess is that they’d be breezy at best, and none too durable.

Under the circumstances, leather outfits made much more sense. Oddly enough, I’ve never seen Genesis 3:73:21 used as ‘Biblical’ proof that Christians must wear nothing but leather. That might appeal to bikers.

Fire almost certainly wasn’t the first ‘human’ technology. My guess is that stone tools weren’t, either. But fire made survival easier. Particularly outside humanity’s homeland.

When that happened depends partly on how ‘human’ gets defined. Folks looking more-or-less like us couldn’t have left humanity’s homeland until quite recently. On a geologic scale.

Our model didn’t show up until about 300,000 years back. (June 16, 2017)

When my ancestors headed out, they met descendants of earlier waves.

That’s why I almost certainly have some neanderthal ancestors. Being offended at the idea is an option. Not a reasonable one, though. Neither, I think, was one of my forbear’s opinion of another. The kids got married anyway. (January 13, 2017)

Some folks insist that we couldn’t have gone anywhere until a few days after the autumnal equinox in 4004 BC. That doesn’t make sense to me. (November 3, 2017; March 10, 2017)

I think the post-Enlightenment ‘science and technology will solve all our problems’ attitude didn’t make sense either. Today’s angst isn’t an improvement. (May 26, 2017)


Making science and new technology the core of my whole life would be a bad idea. The same goes for art, health, family, money or anything else that’s not God. They’re not basically bad. But my top priority should be God. (Catechism, 1723, 1852, 21122114)

Since I think God makes everything, I see no problem with noticing God’s universe. If I do it right, I can learn a little about God in the process. That’s not a new idea.

Seeking truth doesn’t mean choosing either science or religion. It’s science and religion.

“…if methodical investigation within every branch of learning is carried out in a genuinely scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, it never truly conflicts with faith, for earthly matters and the concerns of faith derive from the same God. … we cannot but deplore certain habits of mind, which are sometimes found too among Christians, which do not sufficiently attend to the rightful independence of science and which, from the arguments and controversies they spark, lead many minds to conclude that faith and science are mutually opposed….”
(“Gaudium et Spes,” Pope Bl. Paul VI (December 7, 1965) [emphasis mine])

“Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air…. They all answer you, ‘Here we are, look; we’re beautiful.’…
“…So in this way they arrived at a knowledge of the god who made things, through the things which he made.”
(Sermon 241, St. Augustine of Hippo (ca. 411))

Paying attention and learning isn’t the problem. Trouble starts when we stop at what we can see and touch. Wisdom 13:119 and Romans 1:1921 talk about folks who studied this world’s good things, but didn’t notice their creator.

The good news is that God doesn’t expect Godlike omniscience from us. On the other hand, God is no fool. Claiming ignorance when I knew what the score was would be a very, very bad idea. (Catechism, 1859)

I plan on talking about knowledge and ignorance, responsibility and guilt. But not today. (Catechism, 17901794, 18601864)


Folks had objections to lightning rods in Ben Franklin’s day. Some, but not all, had religious motives.

There’s a bit of a story about that, involving a French researcher and the royal court. And that’s yet again another topic, for another day.

Some folks still get conniptions over new tech. My guess is that it’s human nature. For some of us.

Maybe a few folks still have religious qualms about lightning rods. But not many, I think. Franklin’s invention being over 250 years old probably helps. (October 16, 2016)

Faith-based fear wasn’t the only reason some folks in 18th century Europe had for tearing installed rods down. Or balking at putting them up in the first place. Most of us on both sides of the Atlantic have long since accepted them.

Vaccines are another matter. I’m not sure why. (July 21, 2017)

Acceptance of human curiosity and skill is no virtue for me. I like learning about this astounding universe, and see new tech as possibly-useful: not a threat.

That’s something I didn’t have to change after becoming a Catholic.

We’re told that technology, like science, is part of being human. We can use our growing knowledge and tools to help ourselves and each other. Or we can use them to cause harm. (Catechism, 1723, 22922296, 24932499)

That applies to old and new tech. Our tools don’t use us. How we use them is our choice.

“…the two-way interactivity of the Internet is blurring the old distinction between those who communicate and those who receive what is communicated….

“…The technology is new, but the idea is not…..”
(“The Church and Internet” Pontifical Council for Social Communications (February 22, 2002))

More, mostly why I think noticing this world and learning our story makes sense:

1 Learning life’s long story:

2 Early technology:

3 Newly-found pages of our story:

4 Ice age:

5 Using tools, with and without hands:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Evolution and Tools

  1. irishbrigid says:

    Number agreement: “Our tools and how we make them is extraordinary.”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

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