(Before we begin, I want to point out that this came out of a pretty awesome discussion on Allegra’s Facebook page about the recent unrest in London and, now, elsewhere.)
Okay, we’re going to do an experiment. You’re going to need a pen, a piece of scrap paper, a calculator and a stopwatch.
Right. Now, you’re going to multiply 2,504 by 872 without using anything other than your brain. No calculator, no paper, just mental arithmetic. And you’re going to time yourself. Ready..? Go! And don’t write the answer down! Remember it.
Are you done? Okay, write your time down.
Next, you’re going to multiply 5,343 by 328 and you’re going to time yourself again. This time, you’re going to use the pen and paper. Go!
Awesome. Write your time down again.
Lastly, you’re going to multiply 2,318 by 321. Use your calculator. Go!
Write your time down.
Which time is the quickest?
Mine was using the calculator and I gave up on the mental arithmetic. It’s never really been my strongest suit.
Wait, that’s wrong, isn’t it? Fuck a donkey... That’s the problem, isn’t it? If we don’t use a skill, we lose it. But I have a calculator or, failing that, easy access to information on how to do the sum correctly. So really, I don’t need to remember how to do it. If I Google ‘multiplication tables’, I’m doing the exact same data retrieval I would be if I tried to remember my school maths lessons. The information just happens to be stored outside my brain, not inside it. Just the same as writing the answer to 8 x 3 on a piece of paper while working out the whole sum--external data storage with a pen and paper instead of an Internet.
If you were taught the same way I was, when you were working things out on paper you broke the problem down into smaller problems, and wrote the answer to each smaller problem down before moving on to the next one (8 x 3, write the answer, 8 x 4, write the answer etc etc…).
When you were using the calculator, the task was even simpler–one of remembering what each of the buttons did and pressing them in the right order.
You see, human brains aren’t very good a complex problems. We don’t have much free space in our brains and, generally, can only use them to solve one simple problem at a time. What we do is use tools to break complex problems down into simpler ones. We can do 2 x 4 in our heads, but maybe not 2,504 x 872. By using our pen and paper tools, we can do 5,343 x 328, breaking the problem up and recording the stages so we only have one simple problem in our brain at a time. And by using a calculator, 2,318 x 321 can become the simplest part of a far, far more complex problem.
Now I want you to do another experiment. It’s multiplication again, I’m afraid. 7,882 by 711. But here’s the catch: You’re not allowed to mentally articulate the names of any of the numbers. Oh, and also? You’re not allowed to remember your multiplication tables.
Route learning, specific memory recall and language are all tools. They aren’t tools we’re born to use, either. Babies have to be taught how to use structured language. They have to be taught to recall specific memories on command (which they do by using language, of course). Hell, babies have to be taught how to use their own arms and legs and fingers. We have our automatic nervous system which we get for free, and everything else we have we need to learn. Nearly every other animal gets everything they’re ever going to use for free. Deer are walking after a few moments of life and no one needs to teach a fish to swim. Sure, hunting needs to be taught but nature’s a sliding scale, remember. It’s a gradual line between us and them. And you may need to teach a lion to hunt but you don’t need to teach it to roar.
Counter-intuitively, it’s because we’re born as a blank slate that we’re so successful as a species. A empty book, after all, can be filled with anything you want. Over the last one-hundred-thousand years, we’ve been developing more and more complex tools which have allowed us to tackle more and more complex problems. Language allowed us to share half-formed ideas and use the intelligence of others to finish them for us. Writing allowed us to use the intelligence of others without being limited by being in the same place at the same time as the other person. Philosophy allowed us to think about thinking, to work out ways of doing it better and guiding it. Art allowed us to talk about and develop entirely abstract ideas.
Although Neanderthals were more intelligent, stronger, had better tools and were better suited to the environment than us, we survived and they didn’t. Recent studies suggest that we beat them because we had a shared culture. They may have had better axes but we had art and mythology. Those are some awesome tools.
How could you explain to one of those primitive human beings were their species would be in one-hundred-thousand years? They simply lacked the cognitive ability to understand sky-scrapers and moon landings and the Internet.
In one-hundred-thousand years time, maybe future humans will dig up the vaults of an old bank and find the minted, metallic relics of our money-obsessed species. They’ll marvel that such a primitive example of humanity had mastered such advanced techniques as metal refinery and mass-distribution. And maybe they’ll begin to wonder if these primitives, who they’d always thought of as nascent humans, were in fact closer to themselves than they realised. We can’t imagine what they’ll be like any more than those humans painting on cave walls in France could imagine us. We simply lack the cognitive tools.
My point in all this is that it’s very popular–and easy–these days to look at our species and despair. We’re cruel, selfish, obsessed with hoarding wealth, short-sighted and stupid. But right here, right now… well, that’s not the end of anything. Our society is just a wave on the river of our evolution, a white-crested ripple that appears for a moment and then is swept away. The more we use tools, the more they adapt to suit us and the better we become at using them to solve complex problems. After one-hundred-thousand years of using language we literally can’t think like human being without it, and we’ve used it for Jung to Beethoven to computer code to mapping our own genes. In another one-hundred-thousand years the problems of today are going to seem like less-than child’s play.
I’m just saying there’s hope for the future. The last few thousand years are nothing more than the blink of humanity’s eye, so don’t look around at today and decide there’s no tomorrow. It may seem like we’re getting there slowly, but we’re getting there. And hey, we’ve still got five billion years before the sun explodes, so what’s another one-hundred-thousand?