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Creation of effective technologies doesn't necessarily require their understanding

ANI | Updated: Apr 02, 2019 17:54 IST

Washington D.C. [USA], Apr 2 (ANI): A team of researchers has found that the creation of effective technologies does not necessarily require an understanding of them.
The study published in the Journal Nature Human Behaviour says it is often believed that humans succeeded in producing complex tools and adapting to different environments make them more ingenious and inventive than other species.
Yet the effectiveness of traditional technologies such as bows or kayak depends on numerous parameters that remain difficult to understand and model, even for modern physicists.
Some anthropologists have consequently suggested that these technologies result not from our reasoning abilities, but from our propensity to copy other members of our group: small improvements are successively selected, leading to the emergence of technologies that are effective despite not being understood by individuals.
Researchers sought to test this theory in the laboratory. In order to do so, they recruited students to optimise a wheel travelling down on rails. Each student was given five attempts to produce the most effective configuration, before responding to a questionnaire that tested their understanding of the physical mechanisms that impact the wheel's speed.
In order to simulate the succession of human generations, researchers created chains of five individuals: each of them had access on a computer screen to the wheel's configuration and effectiveness from the final two attempts made by the preceding participant.
As the wheel increased in speed over the course of "generations," the understanding of individuals remained mediocre. In other words, there was no link between the wheel's performance and the participants' level of understanding!
Each individual produced more or less random configurations, and the combination of these individual trials and errors and of the copying of the fastest configurations proved sufficient for optimising the wheel.
In a second version of the experiment, the participants transmitted their final two attempts to the following individual, as well as a text describing their theory on the wheel's effectiveness.
The results were similar, with the wheels gaining in speed, although once again without the individuals understanding why. The transmission of false or incomplete theories could even prevent subsequent generations from developing a proper understanding of the system, in a way blinding them to a part of the problem.
“This experiment illustrates the importance of cultural processes in the emergence of complex tools, as our ability to copy other individuals enables the emergence of technologies that no single individual could have invented alone,” researchers said.
“It also encourages us to be more prudent in the interpretation of archaeological remains in terms of cognitive capacities, as these abilities are not the only driver of technological evolution,” researchers said. (ANI)