Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 16:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we ask a chicken-and-egg question. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Does the human mind drive our technology, or does our technology drive the human mind? When we talk about our technology we normally sound as though we believe ourselves to be in control. But when we look at recent discoveries of cultural anthropologists, we find something quite different to be true.

The anthropologist who wants to know if a particular ape skull should be called "human" looks around it for evidence of serious tool-making. If he finds that evidence, he calls the animal "human." There's a strong view that we shouldn't call humans homo sapiens, or "man-the-wise," but rather homo technologicus, or "man-the-user-of-technology."

But there's more to it than that. We find that the physiological development of the opposed thumb, and the ability to free the hand by assuming a squatting position, came just before tool-making. But then we find that the earliest tool-making was still done by beasts whose skulls didn't accommodate much brain. The thinking abilities of the beast took a great leap forward only after it once had tools.

What the anthropologists tell us is that technology has driven our brains. Our expanded physical capabilities made technology -- extended tool-making -- inevitable. They tell us that technology has expanded our minds and fed itself.

That state of affairs goes on today. Who on this planet would be bright enough to invent a microcomputer! Who in fact did invent the microcomputer? The answer is that nobody did. In a very real sense it invented itself. At each point in its evolution the machine revealed more and more of its potential to us. At each stage it exposed one more step that this or that person recognized and leaped to complete.

You see, our heritage is twofold. We have a genetic heritage, and we have a cultural heritage, and both of them shape us. Technology, the study of making things, is a key part of our cultural heritage. The tools, implements, and machines around us enfold us and instruct us from birth. The "engines of our ingenuity" teach us just as surely as a professor or a book does.

So the existential fun of engineering arises out of an interaction between our own inventiveness and the technology that surrounds and drives our thinking.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

This episode has been considerably revised as Episode 1410

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H. Lienhard.