RE: invention of writing vs. tools (was: Evolution's Imperative)

Cummins (
Mon, 29 Mar 1999 12:22:25 -0600

> []On Behalf Of Ami Chopine
> What do you think of Glenn Morton's post on recent news on fossil man?

I didn't see it. I'll try to look it up in the archive.

> Writing is one of those genious ideas. By that, I see an idea
> and it is obvious, right in front of your face..why didn't you think of it
> yourself? Looking back, since writing is such an obviously advantageous
> tool, we imagine that people invented it relatively quickly.

Actually, it seems simple to invent writing, and history shows that I'm
right. Consider, you live in a cave community and never saw writing. You
have a club that you don't want to get mixed up with other people's clubs,
so you put a mark on it. That's writing. You're going on a hike and some
of your friends are going to catch up. So they know where you went, at
points where the path divides, you place a marker. That's writing. You had
a great day hunting and you want to remember it, so you paint a picture of
events. You get tired of all the complex drawings so you start substituting
symbols. And, so on.

Now, look at history. There are a number of written languages which appear
to have developed independently of each other (e.g. French vs. Chinese). A
number of independent and mature written languages appeared roughly 5000
years ago where before there is nothing. There isn't a history of these
languages developing, possibly because they developed so fast that there
wasn't much time for them to create their own historical record. A number
of them appeared at the same time, a sign that it is easy for a culture to
develop writing.

> But it hadn't been invented least not as we know it
> today. If they
> wanted to record who their leaders were, they kept it in their oral
> histories. Societies with oral histories have individuals who's
> role is to
> keep that is a very esteemed position in the community and is
> taken very seriously. They are chosen for their memory and spend years
> under training. Of course it isn't as accurate as written
> histories, but it
> was a system in use for a long time. It worked well enough. Why fix what
> isn't broken?

I'm not aware of any societies who kept oral histories. There have been
some societies (Africans, American Indians) who didn't have writing, but
they also had a very poor knowledge of their own history and they knew it.
In their savage societies, there wasn't any real effort to keep accurate
oral histories -- if they had tried, they would have quickly developed
BTW, both Africans and American Indians did leave some history in the form
of art and symbolic paintings.

> Cummins:
> They would want to send word, without depending on a messenger's memory.
> Again, they had no idea whatsoever that there was a better way.

Saying of a human being "they had no idea whatsoever that there was a better
way" is not more persuasive when talking about writing than if you were
talking about a human who couldn't get the idea to pick up a stick and knock
down some fruit that he can't reach. And, I rarely have those moments of
thinking "why didn't I think of that." Usually, I think "I wouldn't have
done that because I wouldn't have expected to work. For example, the guy
who started is a billionaire. Why didn't I think of selling
stuff on the internet? Because I couldn't imagine making much money doing
it. And, guess what, the guy who started isn't making any money
selling books either, he's making money off of all the mindless investors.
Someday someone will get rich by pairing contact lenses and eye glasses
together to make x4 binoculars -- great to use at football games. But, will
I say "Why didn't I think of that?" Nope.

> They did not know about writing. How could they want to put
> their language
> in writing if the idea had not even been thought of. It is a
> basic idea to
> us, but no human on earth had ever written a thing.

There is almost no such thing as an invention that wasn't long thought of
before by countless people. Before the first plane ever flew, millions of
people over thousands of years had already thought about some contraption
that would make it possible for man to fly. But, they lacked the resources
to do it (e.g. knowledge of aerodynamics; strong, low-mass materials; gas
engine). Man flew when all these resources came together, nothing to do
with someone getting the idea.

> Writing is a very sophisticated task. It involves being able to associate
> sets of symbols with real objects. The first "writing" was probably just
> tallying marks. Tallying would only have started after things
> needed to be
> counted, and the information kept. Like larger herds. It would only have
> appeared after agriculture was invented, as someone already said. I don't
> see any reason for it before agriculture that oral histories
> could not have filled the need for.

You don't see non-agricultural societies using tallying marks for counting
days, debts, or accomplishments, etc.? Necessity is the mother of
invention. Anyone with a need or desire to keep track of something is going
to use at least tallying marks.

> Any semblance of civilization was out of the necessity to
> cooperate for survival, with no other motives. They probably didn't even
> have a formal leader...just an alpha male type.

History, and any known culture, has shown that formal leadership is
universal among humans.
So, what is your suggestion of the alpha-male based on?