Thinking stuff up:
Anatomically modern humans emerged at some point, the current guess is 200,000 years ago but that might change maybe by a factor of two.  They looked like the rest of us.  Some say they had bigger brains than we do ourselves, although I have yet to lay hands on a citable reference.  Then nothing much happened.  Earlier humans had been making stone axes, and that went on for a long time.  When change came it came in a hurry.  This general concept is subject to challenge.  (Heather Pringle The Origins of Creativity SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN vol. 308 no. 3 March 2013 page 37 and Michael Balter Archaeologist Hammers Away at Modern Behavior SCIENCE vol. 339 no. 6120 February8, 2013 page 642)

The current thinking runs toward the notion that the first Homo sapiens were just as smart as we are.  I don’t doubt it.  I would not be in the least surprised to learn that Neanderthals were smarter.  Not only would the idea not surprise me, but the notion that we could find out is not so far fetched.  We already have figured out the genome.  If we could ever figure out what that DNA is doing (and I am not very impressed with our understanding to date) some of it might be making a superb brain. 

The thing is that, clever though our ancestors may have been before say 40 thousand years ago in Europe and 60 thousand years go in Africa, technology and art seem to have gone by fits and starts until the late Paleolithic.  Then things started changing fast.  This the experts are at some pains to explain by something other than we just somehow woke up about that time. 

Two of the explanations on offer are demographic and social.  The social one is appealing.  My niece once told me that success depends not making the right decision but being a part of the process by which the decision is made.  Of course she is preaching to the choir.  I probably respond to nine out of ten overtures from others wanting to communicate with me, and that one out of ten involves people I know very well indeed.  On the other hand I find my own efforts to reach out to people are reciprocated maybe once in ten times and that frequently involves people who have found it a jolly good thing to lend me an ear or who have some special interest I can address in a way novel to them.

One of the suggestions for human sociability was an experiment in which apes and monkeys were presented with a puzzle box and a group of children were presented with the same puzzle box.  Needless to say the human children did a lot better.  What they did was to put their heads together and tackle it as a team.  That is most endearing, but it is quite at variance with my own perception that people are almost weird in the degree to which they ignore any attempt at well meaning social input. 

But there you have it.  Something about the human brain is able to communicate with other humans.  That has enabled us to accomplish some remarkable things.

The going story about the sudden apparent increase in our ability to develop the techniques is that there was a social change or a demographic change or both.  I am skeptical of the social change.  If cooperation depends on having a modern brain, well we had that from the get go.  Indeed of the exceptions to the rule that nobody listens to anybody that I have experienced, two come from Jamaica. 

On one occasion there was a dugout canoe that needed to be lifted onto a truck.  This was in a shipyard, and there were several men standing around bemoaning the fact that they did not have the proper machinery to hoist it.  So I walked to one end and picked it up.  Immediately more than a dozen hands were on the craft and it was placed where it needed to be. 

On another occasion I was working in a radiology department and the head of the nuclear medicine department was going on vacation; would I read the scans?  Of course I would.  But within a few days the technician came around and said that water had been spilled on the floor above the scanner, had dripped though and rendered the machine unusable.  I went to inspect the machine.  Sure enough a heavy paper part had been warped so that the unit that contained the film was not light tight.  I said repairs would have to wait until the chief returned.  When he did he looked matters over and then came and told me the repair would have to await a part being sent from the US, and it would take weeks or months.  I said I didn’t think I had the authority to tamper with it, but now that he was back, maybe we could look at it together.  When we did I made a suggestion of how it might be put to rights.  He went to work and by the end of the day reported that the department was back in business.

If you ask me a developed country is one where people no longer know how to work together effectively.  I do not know how we survive. 

The demographic argument is that once human density was sufficient to allow big populations, there were more ideas in circulation and the populations were in contact so ideas could spread and instead of progress going by fits and starts it proceeded inexorably.  Really?  It took a hundred thousand years for the population to grow?  Three thousand generations?  That’s not even plausible.  A reproductive rate of 3.5 surviving children per woman would have doubled the population every 20 generations.  The planet would have been buried under a seething mass of human flesh. 

Of course the hooker is that if you have a population of randomly mating people that approaches 1,000 it will soon crash, taking any innovation with it.  That’s where all those Paleolithic innovations went; they went the way of civilizations throughout history.  The social innovation was somehow to respect differences.  Then things could happen.

There is a line of reasoning that supports this.  In Europe by 40 thousand years ago they were making musical instruments, fabulous cave paintings and figurines, things you could sell new for good money today.  Advances had been made in Africa earlier, but they looked like things you might throw out were they new.  So given a nice head start, why did not Africa outperform Europe in this regard? 

It’s because Africa is nicer.  Europe is made of peninsulas separated by mountain ranges.  There is regular rain so there is no need to travel far to seek food.  It is inherently divided.  Africa away from impenetrable jungle and fearsome desert invites the long trek.  If you don’t travel, you don’t screw up your social pool so fast and your culture survives longer and goes farther. 

One robin does not make a spring, but the second harbinger has to be taken seriously.  70 thousand years ago in Africa they learned to make glue to fasten arrowheads to the shafts.  Neanderthals had been doing that for 200 or 300 thousand years, since before there were even modern humans.  But they only did it in Europe.  So there is nothing genetic about Europeans that makes them any more special than anybody else.  Those Neanderthals left no descendants.  (The Neanderthal genes those of us from outside Africa carry apparently came from the Mid East.)  What the Neanderthals that invented glue had was European geography.

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