Looking back over human history, it is easy to wonder about the ingenuity of simple but incredibly effective technologies, such as houses, boats or arches and arrows, that had such a great influence on the lives of our ancestors.
Many believe that such technologies are indicative of human superiority. However, an experimental study published in the journal Nature Human Behavior suggests that old people do not necessarily have a sophisticated understanding of how these tools worked.
In the paper, an international team of authors say that improvements in the design of certain technologies over time could have been the result of an accumulation of many, mostly small and poorly understood, modifications where successive generations did not need to have a greater understanding of the technology compared to the past to do better. This is known as the "cultural niche hypothesis", according to the researchers.
"It is often believed that people succeeded in producing complex tools and adaptation to different environments thanks to their impressive brain," Maxime Derex, of the University of Exeter and Catholic University of Lille, told Newsweek . "But the effectiveness of traditional technologies such as arches or kayaks depends on several parameters that are still difficult to understand and model, even for modern physicists."
"Therefore, some anthropologists have suggested that these technologies do not result in our reasoning, but from our propensity to copy other members of our group," she said.
To test the hypothesis that technological improvements can come over time without major individual understanding, researchers asked French university students ̵
The system consisted of a wheel with four spokes that traveled down a 1 meter long sloping track. Each speaker had a weight that could be moved to other spokes in different configurations to make the wheel faster or slower. The researchers instructed the students to try to make the wheel as fast as possible down the track using different setups.
Participants were organized into 14 chains of five – each student got five attempts on the task. Volunteers were able to "learn" from the previous individual to simulate knowledge sent down through generations, but at this stage it was not explained why a particular configuration would work better than another.
"All participants – except those in the first generation – were provided with the last two configurations and related scores of the former participant in their chain to simulate overlapping generations," the authors wrote in the study. "Participants were informed that their last two attempts would be transferred to the next participant in the chain and that their rewards depend on their own performance and on the performance of the next participant in the chain."
The researchers found that on average, each "generation" was able to speed up the wheel despite the fact that at the end of the chain, these people had no more understanding of the physics behind the improved solution than their predecessors. (The researchers tested the participants 'understanding by asking them to predict which of two wheels with different weight configurations would move down the track faster.)
"In other words, there was no connection between the wheel's performance and the participants' level of understanding "Derex said.
In a subsequent part of the experiment, the researchers gave an additional 14 chains of students the same task, but this time each individual was asked to write down an explanation of their configuration to pass on to the next individual. Much like in the first part of the experiment, each generation was able to increase the speed at which the wheel traveled at a similar rate. But, perhaps surprisingly, the understanding of the physical system hardly understood in the generations, according to the authors, despite the students being able to explain the theory to the next participant.
"Most participants actually produced wrong or incomplete theories, despite the relative simply of the physical system," the authors say.
In light of their findings, the researchers came to the conclusion that knowledge can be transmitted through the generations without "an accurate causal understanding of the system."
"Artefacts from hundreds or thousands of years ago do not necessarily indicate that their decision makers had a plan or theory of how something would work, "Derex said.
"This experiment illustrates the importance of cultural processes in the emergence of complex tools that our ability to copy other individuals enables the emergence of technologies that no individual could have invented alone," she said. "It also encourages us to be more cautious in interpreting archaeological remains in the form of cognitive abilities, as these capabilities are not the only motive for technological development."