Today, a madonna makes tools. 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.
Neurobiologist William Calvin
wonders if women were among the prehistoric
technologists. He does some inspired detective work
to find out. He begins with mothers and babies.
The parent/child bond is powerful. House cats who
know that climb in your lap to purr. Outdoor cats
don't. Cats who live with humans learn to mimic
babies. They lay a powerful claim to our affections.
Nestling near the heart awakens a bond.
The heart's in the center of the chest, but the left
ventricle pulses loudest. A baby is happier on its
mother's left arm, where it takes the greatest
comfort from her beating heart.
Maybe that's why most of us are right-handed. A
mother survived with a child on her left arm if she
could protect herself with the right. Calvin gives us
the term, "The Throwing Madonna." That's the mother
who can throw a stone at a jackal while she holds her
Now what has this to do with technology? Calvin
points out that for right-handedness to have much
Darwinian value, prehistoric mothers had to be deeply
involved in the manual skills of survival. They had
to be hunters, tool-makers, and tool users.
We can't go and look at cavemen, but we can look at
advanced apes. Sure enough, hunting is shared among
male and female apes.
So what about invention? Here's a case history:
Primate biologists have studied Japanese macaque
monkeys. In one test, the scientists scattered grain
in the sand along a seashore. The monkeys needed to
get at the grain.
One female monkey made a remarkable mental leap. She
was trying to separate grain from sand. In
frustration, she flung a handful into the sea. The
sand sank. Grain floated back to her.
In no time, she'd formalized the procedure. The young
apes were quickest to copy her. Some adult males
never caught on.
Calvin goes further. African chimpanzees shape sticks
to catch termites in anthills for supper. Females are
far more creative and persistent at this technology.
The same is true in selecting tools and inventing
methods for cracking nuts. Why?
He offers a compelling hypothesis. Maybe it's because
the female of the species spends more time with the
young. And the young teach creative freedom of the
mind to the old.
Much of this is speculative, but it all has the ring
of truth in my ears. Calvin's imagery of "The
Throwing Madonna" convincingly ties the bond between
mother and child to the creative process. And we are
reminded: It is in relinquishing the security of
adulthood -- that we regain the creative muse.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds