Evolution of Technology (TEC 154 2014S) : Readings

Readings on Stone Tools

Sharp, L. (1952). Steel axes for stone age Australians. Human Organization, 11(1).

Washburn, S. L. (1960, September). Tools and human evolution. Scientific American.


Is the way we think about technology heavily influenced by Westernized perspectives? In other words, are we hesitant to accept notions of technology derived from non-western understandings? [Good, although it's not immediately clear how this relates to the readings. Certainly, it relates to some earlier readings in terms of questions of what "progress" means.]


How has colonization influenced technology? [Mixed. The basic question is very good, but it's missing a whole lot of implicit context. You should really begin by "setting the stage", as it were.]

In telling the importance of the stone ax as an addition to a way of life, which authors that we have read so far would argue that it is or is not a technology? Examples include what the technology is replacing, and politics (although vastly difference in this sphere. So how can you relate the other authors context of technology with the Yir Yoront? [Mixed. The question of how other authors would comment on this particular technology and Sharp's analysis of the technology is good and perhaps very good. But that's not what what you seem to be asking. The first half of the question asks simply whether something is a technology, and I'm not sure that's a question our authors really address. The second half of the question does have the comparative/analytical nature, but is phrased poorly.]

The stone axe was the basis for the Yir Yoront people's social hierarchy. Are there other examples of a specific technology(s) creating a system of social organization? [Mixed. On one hand, it could be an interesting thing to ask. On the other, we might not be able to come up with many examples. In addition,there's some sense that the Winner article suggests that technologies create or at least emphasize certain social organizations, so it feels like this could draw upon those issues more.]

After reading Sharp, I became very interested in the role natural resources have in technology. Since nature and natural resources have played a large role in technological advancements, can we consider nature a technology in itself? [Mixed. As phrased, the answer is probably "No" because we have been considering technology as something tha humans make. But it could be phrased in ways that ask about ways we adapt nature for technology.]

Sharp states, "From what has been said it should be clear how changes in overt behavior, in technology and conduct, weakened the v inherent in a reliance on nature." How does nature alter our perception on what is technologically acceptable. In other words, has nature prevented technological progress? Has it helped it? Neither? [Good.]

Sharp explains that the stone axe was an important symbol of masculinity for the Yir Yoront. Although we are getting further and further away from these stereotypes, what kind of things do we see today which symbolize masculinity and/or femininity? Sharp also explains that the stone axe symbolized the prestige of age in that younger people had to borrow these axes from their elders. Do we still see this kind of symbolism pertaining to age today? If so, how? [Mostly very good. But I'd like to see it tied a bit more to technology. "Things" is pretty vague. I also appreciate the thoughtful consideration of Sharp's points.]

A lot of the Yir Yoront’s views and/or beliefs could be seen through the use of axes. One could learn a lot about how the Yir Yoront lived just by witnessing their use of axes. Do we as a society have anything which could potentially serve this same purpose? If someone of a different culture came to America, could they learn about our views and/or beliefs by watching our interaction with a particular object? Can you think, or do you know, of any other cultures which might have something like this? [Very good. Helps us tie together the various anthropological approaches we've been considering and could lead to a fun discussion. We might also have fun discussing what technologies they might misread us by emphasizing.]

Sharp discusses how many traditions and events in the Yir Yoront group were lost because of the introduction of the steel axe, but was the tradeoff necessarily a bad thing? Seemingly powerless women and children were now able to be more productive with the more advanced steel axe. Did the steel axe single-handedly dismantle the well-defined hierarchy? [Mixed. The introductory question and the statements were interesting. The final question is probably one we can't answer.]

At the end of the article, Sharp makes the claim that a "good" missionary would introduce religion to the Yir Yoront and try to establish a new culture. I thought Sharp was going to say something along the lines of "technology isn't for everyone," so I wasn't expecting him to be a proponent of imposing technological change on a group of people. Why do you think Sharp made this recommendation? [Good]

Is technology for everyone? That is, are tools inevitably bound to find their way into the hands of every human being on the planet? [Good]

Should the missionaries just leave the Yir Yoront alone? [Fair. Somewhat tangential to our main considerations.]

Should technology be imposed, or should we just let selection take its course and let technology be acquired? [Mixed. The should technology be imposed or simply made available for acquisition make sense. The inclusion of "selection" adds a bit of confusion.]

Are there any other early societies that placed as much importance on a stone tool as the Yir Yoront people? [Fair. A question that's unlikely to generate discussion and that few people will be able to answer.]

The indiscreminate introduction of the steel axes had numerous psychological and sociological consequences on the Yir Yoront people, upsetting the balance of power within group. What are some modern examples of technology upsetting the status quo (for better or worse)? [Good.]

It seems obvious that Sharp would have been glad if the Yir Yoront people could have kept more of their culture alive. But was Sharp suggesting that the technological changing of a culture can be avoided somehow? Would their culture be better off if it remained at a stand-still? [Good. Of course, not all of your classmates agree with your assessment of Sharp's opinions.]

The Yir Yoront from Sharp’s article lived in a world they determined through the eyes of their ancestors. They wanted life and the world to be a reproduction of the past. This may seem like a ridiculous notion, but can we think of any ways our modern society might do this or have done in the ‘recent’ past? Have we had any technologies that affected us on as many personal levels as the stone axe did them? [Good.]

I need some clarification as to the assumption of males as the dominant, axe holders. Is the patriarchy so assumed that only they get the strong tools or are the tools so strong that only males should hold them? Where is the division or correlation? [Mixed. While we can't really know this, it is something we can hypothesize a bit about and may even be able to draw out of the article.]

One of the books we'll be reading this semester has the title To Engineer is Human. I don't know know anything about the content of this book, but how do we assess the veracity of this statement when we examine the arguably stable, if not harmonious, relationship the Yir Yoront had with static (unchanging) technology? How do we reconcile this with the integral roll which Washburn suggests technology played in the development of modern man? [Mixed. I worry about relying on something you haven't read yet, and your assumptions about that work based on the title. And, as in some questions above, I worry about understanding of time-scales.]

What are some of the possible archaeological findings that could lead us to understand and interpret the function of the stone tool used by the Yir Yoront? [Good. Tries to tie together modern observations with the archaeological method.]

Is there a technology of as much cultural importance to our society now as the steel axe was for the Yir Yoront culture? [Good. Could be narrowed a bit to focus on the particular ways the technology is important to that culture.]


How has technology selected for certain evolutionary features in humans, and what are these features? Is this a positive thing? [Good. Asks us to summarize the Washburn article and then reflect upon it a bit. I'd like to see deeper questions, though.]

Could they have found dynamics within the money's, as talked about in the other article, with power dynamics leading to the use/ownership of tools? Or do we suspect hunting, with tools, is just typical power dynamics from typical primate relations? [Fair. Difficult to read, and a bit vague. Who is "they"? What is "the other article", given that we've read at least six?]

Do you think that we might find the kinds of power dynamics that Sharp discusses if we look at monkeys or other primates, with power dynamics leading to the use or ownership of tools? Or do we suspect that hunting, with tools, is independent of power dynamics in typical primate relations? [Good. A revised version of the previous question.]

Can we frame the evolution of modern humans as a process of technological determinism? (MAKE MORE CONNECTIONS) Washburn says "it was the success of the simplest tools that started the whole trend of human evolution and led to the civilizations of today," portraying human mental, physical, and cultural evolution as a technologically deterministic process. In what ways is he correct and in what ways is his explanation inadequate? [Very good. It could use a bit of work on the phrasing, but I like your building on the many issues of technological determinism and your request that we reflect on his claim in multiple ways. That said, I do worry whether we can answer some parts of this question.

Washburn says that “complex and technical society evolved from the sporadic tool using of an ape” and later on states that it had a large effect on the culture of modern man. Is he trying to claim that the each of the isolated events in which a tool was created was pivotal in the basis of their culture and society? If so, which of these tools had the largest impact and what aspect of these tools made it so? [Mixed. While aspects of the question are interesting, we probably can't answer this definitely. A few "weasel words" might help. For example, "Which tools might have had a large impact?"]

Washburn focuses on sensory motor skills and the primates with higher capability for language and memory. He does not dictate which one of these led to a higher rate of success. Which of these two had a bigger impact on the creation of tools? Therefore, which one is better? [Mixed. There's a good question in here, perhaps a very good question, but the phrasing is awkward. I question the use of the word "dictate". Perhaps "indicate". And, as in the question above, some less strong language would help, such as "Which is likely to have had a greater impact, and why?"]

Washburn discusses how improved usage of stone tools and our bipedal nature, which allowed our ancestors to use them more, led to the series of natural selections that lead to our modern day human form. This highlights technology as a fundamental tool in our evolution and progression. As our technological advances progressed, so did our genetic advantage over our ancestors. Nowadays, people are talking more and more about the increase in sitting, heart-disease, and other health problems that some say stem from our increasing reliance on advancing technology; our genetic makeup becoming less important. Have we reached a point where as our technology evolves, we devolve? [Mixed. While we can probably discuss this issue, our discussions are probably going to be naive, at best, since we're talking about a relatively short time scale, probably too short for real evolution.]

What technologies or tools might we use today that shape us the way tools shaped the ape man (as Washburn suggests)? [Mixed. As in the previous question, I think we're talking about very different time scales for evolution.]

On page 69, Washburn wrote that "the protection of the group must have shifted from teeth to tools early in the evolution of the man-apes;" this adaptation is a great example of how powerful the effect of technology is on our lives and development. However, is it possible that the human race will become too dependent on tools for its own good? [Good.]

I know that the regions in the brain rarely control only one thing; so what are the other functions of the sensory-motor cortex? And how are they related to tool-making? [Fair. A question that's unlikely to generate discussion and that few, if any, students will be able to answer.]

Washburn claims that it may be possible that fine tools, fire, and complex hunting all appeared together. If this is true, what is the significance in relation to the evolution of man? Is it implied that the discovery of tools rapidly evolved the human mind to be able to practice abstract and complex thinking? [Good. Could be better if it asked us to consider alternatives (probably without listing them).]

Most of the Washburn article discusses the history of evolution and how we became super-intelligent beings with far more capabilities and achievements, but what is all of this good for? Other pre-human species survived much longer and had far less impact on the environment. [Fair. Philosophy of human existence is probably beyond the scope of this course.]

Washburn states on page 63 that "the structure of man must be the result of the change in the terms of natural selection that came with the tool-using way of life." However, is it possible that other, additional factors other than humankind's advances in technology may have also influenced this? [Fair, as stated. The answer is easy "Sure, it's possible." But could be phrased as "What other factors might have had as much of an influence?"]

What would Washburn's thoughts on the contributions of tool usage to the development of modern human physiology and society be today? Would the hypotheses he proposed have been supported or discredited? [Fair. We can't really answer this]

Washburn suggests that bipedalism, larger brains, and tool use slowed human development and called for greater maternal responsibility. How could tools and larger brains alter family relations? [Fair. Seems to be too much speculation on our part, at least in terms of the larger brains.]

Copyright (c) 2014 Samuel A. Rebelsky.

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