Paleolithic Origins of Science: A Solution to Wallace’s Paradox

We all do science; as ­­we navigate the world around us from day to day we are often unconsciously using the scientific method. Most of the time we don’t see it that way, but doing science could be a key trait of the human mind. It may be that the scientific approach is what has made Homo sapiens who she is.

In school I was taught the textbook version—the scientific method arose in Western Europe with the Age of Enlightenment.  Science’s story begins on foundation of reason and logic first laid down by ancient Greeks, then abandoned for centuries until the early-moderns struck upon the experimental method to make science what we know and practice today.

But that simple story leaves out too much.

Linnean Society of London

Alfred Russel Wallace discovered, with Charles Darwin, the process of natural selection as the engine of evolution. But Wallace also described a paradox in our understanding of our own prehistory that is still with us today. He wondered how modern pre-literate people, and our own recent ancestors, had the brain size and mental capacity of scientists and philosophers of his own day. We tend to think of Paleolithic life as brutal and uncivilized. Such a world would have no place for art, scientific reasoning, or the capacity to imagine how things might play out well into the future; life was limited to satisfying basic needs and dealing with immediate threats.

Both Paul Ehrlich and Al Gore have recently invoked this view of our prehistory to assert that people are biologically ill-suited to make long term plans; that our evolutionary history has not prepared us to foresee that our actions may reshape the world deep into the future. As such, global warming presents us with a unique and unprecedented type of problem.

What actually happened is neither as simple nor as recent. Our capacity for scientific reasoning is probably hundreds of thousands of years old at the least. Over this vast stretch of time, we evolved the mental capacities out of which come cultural practices we depend on today when we do science.

Trackers as the First Scientists?

In The Origins of Science Louis Liebenberg (2013) explains how modern people who track animals are deploying a complex set of practices. To most of us city dwellers it seems mysterious and we tend to think of expert trackers as visionaries who can “read the tracks” on the landscape. But tracking is a focused empirical process. Signs of a deer or an antelope will lead an experienced tracker to construct a detailed scenario about how and when the animal passed over the terrain. Many animals track or stalk other animals and can follow them across all kinds of terrain, usually much better than we can. But when, for instance a dog follows the trail of another animal, it uses an acute sense of smell or other capacities that we humans are notoriously deficient in. Among people, the ability to imagine is used to map out the trail of an animal long after its scent has evaporated, and its physical tracks have disappeared.

Imagined Landscapes, Testing Narratives, and Science

A tracker can imagine events that may have happened but can no longer be seen. Animal signs will often be incomplete and intermittent; and tracking becomes a process of discovery. It is empirical, in that the imagined course of the animal and its physical condition will now be subject to a barrage of real world tests that can quickly destroy one hypothesis so that a new one must be proposed. The human imagination is a sophisticated piece of mental equipment with which we can critically review the past and make forecasts about the future. The entire process is akin to the formulation of a hypothesis in the textbook version of scientific procedure.

Liebenberg is a scientist who spent years learning directly from hunting/gathering people of the Kalahari and decided that their ways were a clue to the prehistoric origins of science. At the same time he saw their way of life being lost as the modern world crowds them out and fences prevent the movement of migratory animals as never before. To counter the loss, Liebenberg helped develop a database whereby Kalahari trackers now upload their observations and activities using a hand-held digital device and software designed for non-literate users. The ancient and current knowledge and expertise is being built into a “modern” science with immediate applications in biological conservation, and is being used to intercept poachers evading more conventional and costly means of law enforcement. Just when the ways of our ancestors are lost, technology can amplify prehistoric skills of following the trails of animals, something evolved over hundreds of millennia of hunting, and paradoxically, may help preserve those very animals.

Paleolithic Clues to a more Human World

At the same time, we can learn much of what makes us unique as humans, and how these rather special mental capacities have evolved over the millions years that we foraged and hunted for a living. There is much to suggest that not only science, but art, language and storytelling are all intimately tied up with our Paleolithic lifestyle.

Pleistocene hunters developed deep understanding of the ways of animals. Paleolithic art is a record of people learning the craft of tracking. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The evolution of imagination had interesting side effects; Paleolithic art and musical instruments are tangible evidence of this.

Life in the Paleolithic is not just a window to our past, but it offers glimpses of a humanity obscured in this troubled world. Our long prehistory is not a tale of easy times, yet it holds distinct clues to help us envision a different future from our present, one based on science and stewardship instead of ignorance and exploitation. Alfred Russel Wallace thought that our intellect must have been given us by a higher intelligence, but as Liebenberg explains, it simply evolved because we could not have survived without it. Now the question is, can we apply our scientific imagination to continue to survive.


About guy robinson

General Biology teacher, paleoecologist, pollen counter, tracker of mastodons and other Ice Age mammals through New York's wetlands
This entry was posted in culture, evolution, history, megafauna, paleolithic, science. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Paleolithic Origins of Science: A Solution to Wallace’s Paradox

  1. Hi Guy, I enjoyed your comments a great deal. I’m wondering if there is a way to synthesize your revisions with the old account about the discovery of science. We can merge them in this way: humans have been doing empirical observation and inference for as long as they have been tracking animals and making tools. But, what changed in Greece and the Enlightenment is the fact that we started to make the rules of these observations explicit. Science, then, was born when rules of inference were made explicit. And, once we make these rules explicit, we must hold our investigations to a higher standard and start to recognize our propensities for error (see I have no doubt that our paleolithic ancestors were doing empirical investigation, but I also think that they were making mistakes in their logic which they lacked the resources to examine (e.g., animism). Animism is likely born of the cognitive bias of projection. Of course, in coming to this synthesized view, we are compelled to recognize just how fragile our own rationality often is. Even with making the rules of inference explicit, it takes constant vigilance to make them a part of our present day thinking.

  2. guy robinson says:

    Thanks, Brian. Yes, the rules seem to appear when we start writing them down, as the Greeks and Enlightenment philosophers were doing. As you noticed, I’m drawing heavily on Liebenberg’s work, and I think he’s making the case that this rationality we have is part of our evolutionary heritage. Paleolithic people and modern trackers did and do make the kinds of errors you describe. But I think you are also saying that we still do make these kinds of errors…in which case, I agree!

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