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
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
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.