Our Tools Have Changed Our Genes For Millions Of Years


Tools have changed our genes for millions of years. Paleo-people wouldn't have been possible without them: artificial aids preceded and enabled their bigger brains. And the slings and arrows of our evolutionary fortune weren’t entirely random. “Intelligently designed” factors have long influenced our evolution.

1. Proto-people used chipped-stone hand axes over two million years ago, probably for extracting marrow from the bones of already dead megafauna. (Fossils show tool-marks overlaid on animal bite-marks). This tool-enabled nutrition triggered a 300% increase in brain size.

2. About two million years ago, the animal bite-marks and tool-marks switch, indicating that cooperative hunting had begun.

3. Tools developed very slowly. Pear-shaped hand axes remained unchanged for “a million years.” Effective spears appeared approximately 500,000 years ago and spears and arrows around 100,000 years ago.

4. Tools enabled us to “evolve biological deficits.” They substituted for “massive teeth, claws and muscles.” Becoming smaller and weaker released resources for energy-hungry bigger brains (now 2% of our mass, consuming 20% of our energy).

5. Other species use tools—chimpanzees dig with sticks—but they can manage without them. Not so for us and our ancestors: for proto-people, no tools meant no survival.

6. “Survival of the fittest” is useless without reproduction. Proto-people had helpless, ultra-dependent offspring but devised a prehistoric artificial aid still in use today. Baby slings were likely developed 1.6 million years ago. For nomadic, furless bipeds, carrying infants was arduous and consumed as much energy as lactation (approximately 500 calories daily). Baby slings = 16% less energy.

7. Our tools created strong selective pressures favoring the mental and manual skills required to make and use them. An unavoidable part of our environment for millions of years, tools that we intelligently designed have long shaped our evolution.

Marshall McLuhan’s observation that “we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us,” is deeply biologically true.

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

Stand up against religious discrimination – even if it’s not your religion

As religious diversity increases in the United States, we must learn to channel religious identity into interfaith cooperation.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Religious diversity is the norm in American life, and that diversity is only increasing, says Eboo Patel.
  • Using the most painful moment of his life as a lesson, Eboo Patel explains why it's crucial to be positive and proactive about engaging religious identity towards interfaith cooperation.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less

Moon landing astronauts reveal they possibly infected Earth with space germs

Two Apollo 11 astronauts question NASA's planetary safety procedures.

Credit: Bettmann, Getty Images.
Surprising Science
  • Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins revealed that there were deficiencies in NASA's safety procedures following the Apollo 11 mission.
  • Moon landing astronauts were quarantined for 21 days.
  • Earth could be contaminated with lunar bacteria.
Keep reading Show less

NASA's idea for making food from thin air just became a reality — it could feed billions

Here's why you might eat greenhouse gases in the future.

Jordane Mathieu on Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • The company's protein powder, "Solein," is similar in form and taste to wheat flour.
  • Based on a concept developed by NASA, the product has wide potential as a carbon-neutral source of protein.
  • The man-made "meat" industry just got even more interesting.
Keep reading Show less

Where the evidence of fake news is really hiding

When it comes to sniffing out whether a source is credible or not, even journalists can sometimes take the wrong approach.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • We all think that we're competent consumers of news media, but the research shows that even journalists struggle with identifying fact from fiction.
  • When judging whether a piece of media is true or not, most of us focus too much on the source itself. Knowledge has a context, and it's important to look at that context when trying to validate a source.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less