Open Thinkering


TB871: Human gizmos and time-binding

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

Professor Michael Thomas, Professor at Birkbeck, University of London, and Director of the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, in his essay ‘Humans Apart’ talks about humans possessing five interconnected cognitive abilities, which he terms gizmos (The Open University, 2020a).

These are: tool use, language, conceptual power, a clutch, and niche building. (I’m particularly interested in the idea of the ‘clutch’)

  1. Tool Use: Humans excel in creating and using tools, facilitated by dextrous hands and opposable thumbs. Our brain supports fine motor control without needing a specific brain part for tool use, unlike other animals. The extended growth of the front part of the cortex enhances our motor functions.
  2. Language: Similar to tool use, language involves complex motor sequences for social interaction. The evolution of articulators (lips, tongue, larynx) and airflow mechanisms allows speech production. Language circuits in the brain repurpose existing circuits for motor movements and social cognition. Language enables knowledge acquisition through instruction and supports abstract thinking and sophisticated social coordination.
  3. Conceptual Power: The enlarged cortex allows humans to develop complex ideas and deep patterns of meaning in sensory and motor systems. This includes mental models, sophisticated social scripts, and meta-cognition. Enhanced internal control leads to precise modulation of thought, enabling hypothetical and counterfactual thinking.
  4. Clutch: This mechanism, located in the prefrontal cortex, allows the brain to disengage from immediate perception and engage in internally focused thought. This enables imagination, mental simulations, perspective-taking, and reflection on moral dilemmas, even while performing automatic activities.
  5. Niche Building: Combining tool use, social coordination through language, and conceptual power, humans excel in niche construction, adapting environments to suit their needs. This ability allows humans to inhabit diverse environments and modify them extensively through innovations like clothing, dwellings, and farming equipment.

Thomas goes on to say share the following timeline of human evolution, detailing the physical, brain, species, tools, and cultural developments over millions of years (The Open University, 2020b).

A chart showing the timeline of human evolution, detailing changes in physical traits, brain size, species, tools, and culture over millions of years.

Around 56 million years ago, primate precursors emerged with traits like grasping hands and feet, and forward-facing eyes, living in trees. By 25-30 million years ago, apes appeared in rainforests. Between 6-8 million years ago, the evolutionary paths of chimps, bonobos, and bipedal hominins diverged. By 4-5 million years ago, archaic humans had developed.

A significant increase in brain size occurred over the next few million years, from 600 cm³ to 1300 cm³. Despite this, there were periods with no significant changes in tool technology or cultural behaviour. For example, during the time of the Homo genus (2.5 million years ago) and the development of full bipedalism (1.5 million years ago), stone tools and large cutting tools were used, and social groups began to form.

However, significant cultural and technological advancements only occurred much later. Around 800,000 years ago, the first hearths appeared, followed by ritual defleshing of skulls and flake production routines between 150,000 and 195,000 years ago. Despite the larger brain size, there was still little evidence of symbolic behaviour or cultural variation in tool use.

The major shift happened around 100,000 years ago with the onset of symbolism and the uninterrupted accumulation of innovations. This period marked the beginning of non-utilitarian objects and material representations of numbers preceding literacy, leading to a cultural explosion around 8,000 years ago.

This reminds me of the work of Alfred Korzybski, the founder of General Semantics, who used the term ‘time-binding’ to describe the gradual accumulation and transmission of knowledge through generations, enabled by symbolic tools and cultural practices. This perhaps helps explain the exponential growth in human culture and technology despite the slow pace of biological evolution in the above timeline. Time-binding, as proposed by Korzybski, involves using various information tools to transmit knowledge and abstractions through time, allowing each generation to build upon the knowledge of the previous ones.

Throughout human history, these information tools have taken many forms, starting from basic symbols and writing to more complex systems like books and digital media. The smartphone represents the current pinnacle of this evolution, epitomising the culmination of various information technologies, integrating functionalities of numerous earlier tools into a single device. With smartphones, we can access vast amounts of information instantly, communicate globally, record and share knowledge, and utilise a multitude of applications designed to enhance cognitive functions. This capability significantly boosts our ability to time-bind, accelerating the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge across generations.

By leveraging these sophisticated information tools, humans have extended their cognitive capacities beyond the biological limits of the brain. For instance, memory cards expand a phone’s storage, just as written notes extend our memory, and search engines enhance our information retrieval capabilities. The smartphone thus serves as a prime example of how human ingenuity in developing information tools facilitates the continuous and exponential growth of cultural and technological complexity. It stands as a testament to our unique ability to transcend biological constraints through cultural and technological innovation.

Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that “we shape our tools, and thereafter, our tools shape us” aptly describes the relationship between humans and the technologies we create. In the context of Korzybski’s time-binding and Thomas’ evolutionary timeline, this concept highlights the reciprocal nature of technological and cultural development. As humans innovate and create tools to manage and transmit knowledge (e.g. the smartphone) the subsequent widespread adoption of these tools fundamentally alters human behaviour, cognition, and social structures. The smartphone, as a quintessential information tool, not only exemplifies our ability to amass and apply knowledge across generations but also reshapes how we think, learn, and interact with the world. It influences our cognitive processes, social interactions, and even the way we perceive reality, thus perpetuating a cycle of continuous cultural and technological evolution.

It’s just a shame, as I saw someone say on social media years ago, that we’ve got the world’s information at our fingertips, yet we use this device to argue with each other and share cat pictures.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *