Table of Contents
Part III: Establishing a Paleolithic
Are Intelligent People Inventive?
I KNEW A MAN
who had a small summer cottage with a kind of kitchenette occupying
one corner of it. The sink was set in a counter. From the sink
to the corner wall, there was about eighteen inches of counter
space, perhaps a little less. On the other side of the sink,
there was a total of about five feet of counter space. When the
dishes had to be done, it invariably happened that in clearing
the table everything was piled beside the sink on the five foot
section. Consequently, when the dishes were washed, they were
always put to drain on the tiny little eighteen-inch section.
The suffering (?) male was therefore forced to stand between
the lady of the house, who was washing the dishes, and the wall
in a space which barely allowed enough room to turn around, let
alone dry a large plate or a pitcher or some such thing. After
enduring this for probably a couple of years, it was suggested
quite casually that it might be better to pile the dirty dishes
on the eighteen-inch section so that the drier could do his duty
in the wide open spaces on the other side -- where he always
put the clean dishes in any case. It was quite amazing how much
more pleasant it made the whole burdensome operation! One day,
when he tried to explain this little programme change to a friend,
the friend expressed only incredulity that it could have taken
two perfectly intelligent people so long to make such a simple
"discovery." They were two intelligent people, but
it still took two whole years. . . . Whereby hangs a moral.
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The moral is that all too frequently
the most obvious solutions to the simplest of problems stare
us in the face, but we quite fail to observe them. After one
has the solution, it tends to appear very obvious indeed. Before
one has the solution, it is far from obvious. My own experience
in a research laboratory has strongly confirmed in my mind the
fact that most of us see things pretty much as they are and have
little or no power to envision possibilities which are not foreshadowed
in the immediate present. We all tend to be great
critics of what is, and
a few are able to act as improvers, but the man who can produce
genuine innovations is rare.
The very simplicity of many important
new developments, once a technology has reached a point which
allows the making of them, tends to deceive us almost wholly
into supposing that there is really nothing to them. As a child
I used to be tremendously impressed with the engineering achievement
which lay behind the construction of what we used to call a Pacific
type locomotive. Later on, when I learned that Hero of Alexandria
had proposed a steam engine of sorts (working on a steam jet
principle) to hoist fuel into the tower of the Pharos Lighthouse
at Alexandria in Egypt, (2) around 120 B.C., I was not at all impressed. But
history shows that it was Hero's steam engine which, 17 centuries
later, inspired Branca to devise similarly steam-driven toys.
As Elliot Smith remarked, (3) "in the course of time Worcester, Savery, Papin,
Newcomen, and Watt as the outcome of a century's intensive research
devised a practical steam engine that was of economic value."
I had seen an illustration of Hero's steam engine and it was
unimpressive: it was far too simple. But in point of fact the
Pacific locomotive was, strictly speaking, a "child"
of Hero's steam engine.
It is very tempting to hold that
the improver is more intelligent than the originator, especially
if -- as usually happens -- the improvement introduces the element
of complication. The complication as a rule has the effect of
impressing us because it is beyond our immediate comprehension.
The original simple invention we can understand at once and hence
we unthinkingly suppose that the originator thought it up "at
once," i.e., the moment the need presented itself. The improver
so complicates, and thus conceals, the prime element of novelty
by the addition of dials, knobs, and switches, which perform
functions that we no longer perceive directly, that we imagine
much greater intelligence is required by the latter. Much greater
knowledge may be required -- but not much greater intelligence.
Here is where the confusion arises. It is obvious that as we
grow older we accumulate knowledge but there is evidence that
intelligence per se does not increase much after adolescence
is reached. It appears to do so because judgment is improved
(hopefully) as a result of experience, so that we expect a man
to be wiser and more mature in his judgments than a youth is.
But it has yet to be established that this involves any increase
2. Hero, Clive Bell, Civilization, Pelican
Series, 1947, p.63.
3. Smith, Sir G. Elliot, In the Beginning, Thinker's Library,
2nd edition., 1946, p.2.
is rather like a potential: wisdom and knowledge build upon intelligence
but do not, probably, determine it. Thus while we stand on the
shoulders, technically speaking, of our predecessors, we cannot
seriously look upon ourselves as more intelligent than they.
For we have to remember that the day will come when others who
follow will stand upon our shoulders, and to them our technology
may appear to be primitive indeed. And so it will be by comparison,
undoubtedly. But we do not judge ourselves on that account to
lack intelligence. We have therefore to be very careful to distinguish
between the growth of knowledge and an increase in intelligence.
But we must go one step further
than this and learn from history the fully documented but little
recognized fact that the power of invention belongs to a very
few. These very few are people with a peculiar mental bent. They
are very often difficult to get on with and may even be positively
anti-social. In some respects, they may have only an ordinary
intelligence. They just seem to be able quickly to see solutions
which are entirely new in conception. Their anti-social behaviour
often stems from the fact that their own society, far from being
enthusiastic about their inventions, tends to be either hostile
towards them or -- which is worse -- quite indifferent. Until
very recent times we have not on the whole been enamoured with
novelty as we often suppose, although the influence of a century
of evolutionary philosophy has certainly broken down our resistance
to change by allowing our thinking to become dominated by the
idea that change in itself is progress, thus making a virtue
out of novelty. (4)
When we have thrust upon us an advertisement stating that something
is "new, New, NEW," what is really meant is "changed,
Changed, CHANGED," and what we almost inevitably interpret
it to mean is "better, Better, BETTER." Again, it is
necessary to underscore the fact that neither resistance to change
nor enthusiasm for it are necessarily an index of the level of
intelligence. The zeitgeist of the times can so envelope
us without our knowing it that we may accept change as a good
thing, whether it is or not. By contrast, as we shall show, primitive
people may refuse change whether it is good or not.
And then there is the matter of
"need." Necessity is in a sense the mother of invention,
but history shows that millions of intelligent people can get
along without something which later proves to be a necessity.
Indeed, Lord Raglan defined the civilizing process as being "the
progressive conversion of luxuries into necessities." This
4. Shepard, W., "Our Indigenous Shangri-La,"
Scientific Monthly, Feb., 1946, p.163.
profoundly true observation.
But necessity itself does not enable the majority of people to
see how the need can be satisfied. This tends to be left to a
comparatively small number of individuals, and as a rule their
solutions or provisions are, at first, essentially simple in
conception. And when they are observed by the rest of us they
frequently seem self-evident. The inventor naturally must have
intelligence to father his invention, or in rare cases, to recognize
the invention he has hit upon accidentally. People often make
discoveries but do not recognize their discoveries for what they
are. And this, again, is no indication of their intelligence
or lack of it: it is just that they lack a certain peculiar turn
We may safely conclude, therefore,
that where there does not appear a need for improvement, improvement
is not likely to come, and so long as an existing invention or
development serves the purpose for which it was made, it may
remain for centuries with little or no elaboration. Indeed, elaboration
is not always improvement. Tylor reported that when native people
in the tropics first received modern rifles, they found them
quite unsuitable for that environment. (5) At that time, cartridges became so damp as to be
useless, so the natives then rebuilt their equipment into a flint-lock
firing system, carrying their powder in horns where they could
keep it dry. Similarly, metal tools, especially copper ones,
are better than flint tools in some circumstances but native
people soon found that for shaving hair off, the cutting edge
of a flint is far superior and more readily renewed. (6) A modern example is the
use of a piece of broken glass in the very finest microtomes
for cutting sections of muscle tissue 100 to 200 angstrom units
in thickness for electron microscope examination. (7) The usual steel blade is
not sharp enough. Recent experience has shown that flint weapons
can be unexpectedly effective. Whole houses of simple design
have been built with them and whole carcasses have been butchered
with comparative ease and in a remarkably short time using nothing
but flint tools, some of them believed to be thousands of years
The Australian aborigines who had
been accustomed to stone spearheads, did not take readily to
metal ones since they are not as
5. Tylor, E. B., Anthropology, Hill
and Co., New York, 1904, pp.14ff.
6. Razors: one such flint razor was found recently in a late
Bronze Age interment in Wiltshire, England, which had been used
to shave off the eyebrows of the mourners (See Man, Oct.,
7. Huxley, H. E., "The Contraction of Muscle," Scientific
American, Nov., 1958, p.72.
8. Custance, A. C., "Stone Tools and Woodworking,"
Science, vol.160, 1968, p.100, 101. This brief article
provides a very useful summary of the present evidence.
easily worked. Consequently,
when the Australian government ran telephone lines across some
of their territories, the natives took to knocking down the glass
or porcelain insulators out of which, by a technique familiar
to them, they were able to make very beautiful spearheads. (9) The government found this
so distressing that they came to terms with the natives and agreed
to leave at the foot of every pole a certain number of extra
insulators on the understanding that the natives would not knock
them down from the poles any more.
Thus, in these three cases, conservatism
was not because of lack of intelligence but resulted from experience.
The continued use of flint-lock guns, of stone razors, and of
glass or glass-like weapon heads, was simply because the more
advanced substitutes were not suitable. As a matter of fact,
it could be said that, in the circumstances, the behaviour of
the users was perhaps more intelligent than ours would have been
with our tremendous urge always to change to something different
and more "modern."
This is not to imply that primitive
people automatically refused innovations. The revival of Zuni
pottery by Maria Marinez is a case where one individual began
something new and persuaded her own people to support her. (10) There are a number of
recent cases where individual native people have undertaken to
introduce entirely new things into their own culture. We are
apt to suppose that these natives would never have thought of
departing from traditional ways and introducing new elements
into their own culture if the inventive White Man had not provided
the stimulus in the first place. But as we have demonstrated
at some length and over a very wide range of items, it has not
been the Indo-Europeans who were the originators of a large part
of our technological heritage but the non-Indo-European peoples,
the people of Africa, the American Indians, the natives of South
America, the Mongols generally (especially the Chinese), and
many others. Yet these same people are apt to be thought of,
and indeed are on the whole, highly conservative and resistant
to change. To this extent, they are like Early Man apparently,
who may have been equally inventive therefore.
Thus it may fairly safely be said,
and the point needs underscoring heavily because it is so easily
forgotten, that intelligence is
9. The Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto, Canada)
has several beautiful specimens of recently worked glass weapons
in the "Pacific Gallery."
10. Zuni pottery: described by A. Goldenweiser, Anthropology,
Crofts, New York, 1945, pp.199ff. There are other excellent
examples from the Solomon Islands given by J. M. Mello, in a
paper titled, "Primitive Man: Neolithic Man," Transactions
of the Victoria Institute, London, vol.30, 1896, p.292; also
R. Linton, Study of Man, Appleton, New York, 1936, p.313.
11. "The Technology of the Hamitic People", Part IV
in Noah's Three Sons, vol.1 in The Doorway Papers Series.
not necessarily to be
equated with inventiveness, the majority of intelligent people
never inventing anything. This is the first important fact to
bear in mind. And there is a second equally important fact that
needs underscoring: that the complexity of a device or technique
is, per se, no measure of the intelligence required to
develop it. As a matter of fact, it is quite generally agreed
that the essence of genius is simplicity of design. This applies
to much creative activity. It applies in music, in art, in architecture,
in engineering, in literature, perhaps in most things. What could
be simpler than the basic theme of Beethoven's "Moonlight
Sonata," or some of the profound observations put into the
mouths of Shakespeare's characters, or such a formula as E =
And having said all this, it may
be asked, What has it to do with the subject of this essay? My
purpose has been to underscore the fact that when we look back
into prehistoric times, we should not be deceived by the simplicity
of their cultural possessions into supposing that they were any
less intelligent than we are today. Where we do have their artifacts,
we almost always find that they were designed not merely with
utility in mind, but also with a marked sense of formal beauty
and symmetry. Many of them are as much works of art as any of
the highly engraved revolvers and rifles of more recent times.
And, of course, their powers of observation, at least among those
who were artists in the community, were equal to the best artists
of today. Moreover, the Portuguese and other early traders, when
they first met their counterparts among native Africans and elsewhere,
were both surprised and, to be truthful, chagrined to discover
that the natives were a match for them in business acumen. (12)
We conclude, therefore, that if
we follow the strictly scientific principle of being guided in
our estimates regarding events in the past which we cannot know
directly, by observing the evidence of the present which we can
observe directly, we must conclude that as soon as true man
appeared on the scene he was probably no different from ourselves
in intelligence and the potential for the development of culture.
He was, in fact, intelligent enough to know that the simple necessities
of life were best obtained by simple devices, the needless elaboration
of which was not in the interests of survival until a sufficient
mastery of the environment had been achieved and a large enough
population was present to allow for specialization in the arts
and, with specialization, leisure. Archaeology shows that as
soon as this occurred, civilization developed with extraordinary
rapidity, thus demonstrating that the capability was there once
the total situation
12. Davidson, Basil, African Kingdoms, Time Inc., New
York, 1966, p.102.
permitted it to find
expression. Man had not become suddenly more intelligent with
the appearance of the early high cultures of the Middle East:
it was merely that his potential was being realized.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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