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CulturePrintCritical dictionary


António Fernando Cascais

The human species is the fruit of evolution by natural selection, just as described by Charles Darwin, although persistently refuted by creationism. Of the only two Sapiens species known to have existed, the Homo sapiens neanderthalensis and the Homo sapiens sapiens, only the latter currently survives. Hominization is regarded today as a process of successive but interdependent "freeings". It reveals that becoming human is a process which still and always continues. Having started by a bio-evolution, hominization led to an anthropo-evolution, and finally to a techno-evolution. Rather than excluding each other, these claim and integrate each other.  

Keywords: material culture; hand; technique; tool

 That the human species is the fruit of an evolution by natural selection is, since Charles Darwin, an unquestionable scientific fact, although persistently challenged by creationism. However, the way evolution was - and continues to be - carried out, has been the object of some scientific controversy, as new fields of scientific research develop and cover previously unexplored areas. In fact, the general law of the evolution of species by natural selection was established by Darwin, but the intimate mechanisms of that evolution - in populations and in the individuals that form them - only became clear when the synthesis between Darwinian evolutionism and the laws that govern heredity (initially studied by Gregor Mendel) was made. This synthesis was only possible with the emergence of molecular biology, with the conception of the chain model of desoxyribonucleic acid by James Watson and Francis Crick, and, in a definite way, with the field of immunogenetics, in which Jean Dausset had a seminal role, and from which, in turn, emerge the current cutting-edge researches in the field of psychoneuroimmunogenetics.  The biological evolution which led to the Homo sapiens sapiens species we currently are, was - is - a long process which still and always continues. The links of that chain are established today, but the one that marks the decisive and irreversible transition between the hominid species and present man is still the object of search and controversy. The other question still without an answer concerns the relationship there might have been between the first sapiens sapiens and the last representatives of the Homo sapiens neanderthalensis - or Neanderthal men - who, having evolved independently, confirmedly had the chance to meet. Nevertheless, it is not known whether the former eliminated the latter, speeding up their extinction, or if they merged with and assimilated them. Anyhow, it is an undeniable fact that these were the only two sapiens who ever existed on the face of the Earth.   Hominization is regarded today as a process of successive but interdependent "freeings" which followed the attainment of the permanent erect position, but which began much earlier than the very process of hominization, ever since, from inferior animals to superior mammals, one witnesses the progressive inversion of the proportions between the genetic conditioning and the conditioning resulting from learning, followed by the appearance of the possibility to choose between simple operations. Palaeoanthropological data allow us to believe that the freeing of the hand will have occurred since the Australanthropos, at the end of the Tertiary period, and that it comes with a concomitant lithic industry which would not stop developing. The progressive attainment of erect march allows the freeing of the upper limbs from locomotion and, in turn, the freeing of the mouth from the prehensile function, in a series of anatomic changes which culminates with the so-called "Cro-Magnon Man", the primitive representative of the only Sapiens species currently present in the whole globe.   This is, on the whole, the freeing from an important part of the zoological links which, at brain level, are expressed by the replacement of the motor territories by association zones which, instead of guiding the brain towards an increasingly evolved anatomic and technical specialization, as happens with other species, opened to man unlimited possibilities of generalization. The human brain thus became super-specialized in generalization and prepared for almost all possible actions. In turn, the manual tool emerged as the instrument which freed man from the genetic constraints that link the organic animal tool to the zoological species. The freeing of the tool might be the most flagrant material fact but, as Leroi-Gourhan says, the fundamental fact is actually the freeing of language, which allows to place the memory of Humankind outside the body, in the social organism. The withdrawal expressed in the separation of the tool from the hand, and of the word from the object, is the same expressed in the distancing of society from the zoological group. It was in this way that technology began to free itself from the zoological realities and from the process of biological evolution, i.e. still when, in the anthropoids, the first artificial tool was created. The difference between human societies and animal societies would therefore lie in the fact that in the latter the genetic inscription of behaviors is imperiously dominant - which forces the individual to possess the total heritage of collective knowledge and forces society to evolve at the rhythm of the palaeontological drift - whereas in the transition to human societies, the bond between species and memory - whose preservation and transmission are ensured by language - is broken.   According to Leroi-Gourhan, Humankind's technical behavior is expressed at three levels: the specific level, the socio-technical level, and the individual level. The specific level is subjected to the excessively slow rhythm of the general evolution of species, and Humankind's technological intelligence is connected to the level of evolution of his nervous system and to the genetic determination of individual capabilities. At socio-technical level, human intelligence creates - at the margin of individuals and specific ties - a collective organism with amazingly fast evolutionary properties, which ends up becoming just as imperative for the individual as the zoological subjection that makes him be born Homo sapiens. Finally, the individual level of technological behavior shows us that the human species also presents a unique character, since the brain apparatus grants the individual the possibility to confront situations translated into symbols, allowing him to symbolically emancipate from the ties at once genetic and socio-technical.  The culmination of the musculoskeletal transformations in the change of the relative positions of the pharynx and larynx, as compared to the other species of primates (and of which there are still traces in human babies who maintain, like them, the reflex of breathing and swallowing at the same time, unlike adults), is at the origin of the fully developed phonatory system which is the essential biological condition for the attainment of human language. In turn, from the evolutionary point of view, this means that memory, which preserves the skills necessary for survival, moved definitely from the memory of the species which each individual carries in his genetic code - i.e. from a merely biological support - to collective memory, ensured by the relationships of individuals within their social group, with a symbolic support. The existence of this memory is archaeologically confirmed by an increasingly sophisticated material culture and by the clear evidences of the practice of ritual inhumation (funeral ceremonies necessarily associated with beliefs, and hence based on a fully developed symbolic system, i.e. a primitive form of religion), at least since the Neanderthals.  It can and must then be said that an anthropo-evolution follows the bio-evolution. In fact, Leroi-Gourhan explains that, since the Homo sapiens, evolution witnesses an increasingly marked separation between the development of bodily changes - which remained on the scale of geological time - and the development of changes in tools, connected to the rhythm of the successive generations. For the survival of the species, an accommodation became necessary - one that not only concerned technical habits, but that, in each mutation, implied the reformulation of the laws governing the grouping of individuals, which can only be made through symbolicity. However, if it can be said that this anthropo-evolution is governed by human language, the truth is that the only traces of its fossil phases are, besides skeleton traces, the remains of technical activities. This leads us to conclude that, in the anthropological phase of evolution, language and technology are inextricable and show close solidarity towards each other, which implies they mutually condition one another, without one being able to be considered as the exclusive and unilateral determinant of the other. They are not two typically human facts, but two aspects of a same hominization phenomenon. The traces of technology must therefore be seen as witnessing - and unique at that until the emergence of writing - the existence of languages that gradually distance themselves from animal languages, or zoolanguages, to become human language. From this it must also be concluded that the interwoven oppositions between nature, culture and technology, and namely the mutual exclusion between nature and culture, make it difficult to situate technology in relation to each one of them.   Bio-evolution thus opened the path for an anthropo-evolution in which the human species became capable of resorting to natural phenomena themselves as means for the transformation of nature, both outside the human body and inside it while nature. The example of the use of natural motivity - starting with animal motivity, going through the aeolian and hydraulic, and ending with the motivity of modern machines - shows how the human species frees the motivity of its body, transforming it in the very process, which thus ends up being a simultaneously biological and technological process. It is in this sense that technological means cannot be considered as mere extensions or prostheses of the human body, of its senses, of its organs or of its functions. Although they are also so (the metal which externalizes the hand, the vapor which externalizes the muscle, etc., until the computer which replaces with undeniable advantage the intellectual capacity of calculus), technological means deeply transform the body while medium of the individual's self-perception and of his relationship with others, with the world. Technology thus replaces the physiological body as an external organism which, in return, is inscribed in it and incorporated by it. Leroi-Gourhan even states, in this respect, that it is as if humanity changed a little of species each time it simultaneously changes tools and institutions.   If the process of hominization is inscribed, step by step, in the body of the individuals who form the populations of the species, nowadays it seems, however, that it is becoming obsolete, maintaing the archaic needs that were the motor of all its ascension, when it has already been projected onto bio- and info- technological externalizations in whose system the individual increasingly plays the role of a specialized cell and, even so, not always. As if human "of flesh and bone" were in the process of permanently becoming an authentic living fossil, motionless in the historical scale, perfectly adapted to the time when the mammoth triumphed, but already outdated in the time when his muscles propelled the triremes, as Leroi-Gourhan says. That obsoleteness is, nevertheless, illusory to a considerable extent, and the cyborg, android and robotic replicas of the human body owe more to science-fiction than to the course of actual, contemporary technoscientific possibilities.  The omnipresence of technology in the contemporary world, with the possibilities of widespread transformation of natural phenomena and of the environment, of manipulation of the human body and construction of ways of life, raised evolution to a new stage which Gilbert Hottois called techno-evolution. Attentive to Leroi-Gourhan's teaching, Hottois does not oppose techno-evolution to bio-evolution and anthropo-evolution, which is the same as saying technology to biology and culture. In fact, the species we are is - in tension but in an integrated way - biological, symbolical and technological, without any of them being able to be regarded henceforth as an absolute guarantee of the humanity of the humans we are - or rather, that we make ourselves today, just as the generations which preceded us always made themselves. The process of becoming human did not have to wait for the age of modern technology to be confronted, in a decisive way, with the danger of inhumanity, i.e. of being always about to fall in undesirable and inhuman possibilities, in the pursuit of the possibilities of being human (with ethnic groups, genders, ways of life, languages and cultures, belonging to historical times and geographical spaces, etc.). We were not always what we are today, and we should be sure that the change which brought us here is something that continues. There was never a natural, cultural and technological humanity, since always and forever remaining identical to itself, being able to be preserved unchangeable forever, even if we can only broadly speculate about the characteristic features of what may become a post-humanity. In this sense, to question the future of the Humankind we are implies opening up to possibilities of making ourselves that are at once biological, symbolical and technological, without one being able to unilaterally impose itself on the others, or hinder them in the contribution of each to integration with the others. 


Hottois, Gilbert - O paradigma bioético. Lisboa: Edições Salamandra, 1992 

Leroi-Gourhan, André - O gesto e a palavra, 1 - Técnica e linguagem. Lisboa: Edições 70, 1990

Leroi-Gourhan, André - O gesto e a palavra, 2 - Memória e ritmos. Lisboa: Edições 70, 1990

Leroi-Gourhan, André - Evolução e técnicas, 1 - O homem e a matéria. Lisboa: Edições 70, 1984

Leroi-Gourhan, André - Evolução e técnicas, 2 - O meio e as técnicas. Lisboa: Edições 70, 1984

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