Human Evolution and Innovation

Paleolithic tools. Photo: Roberto Sáez

Last week I was invited to give a speech in Lisbon for an enterprise forum on Innovation, as introduction to ease the topic and break ice. A challenging objective: to illustrate how we humans are continuously looking for innovation solutions, and always were since we started becoming humans. Human Evolution has always been linked to Innovation. A second challenge: to make it understandable for a non-expert and multi-country audience…

Given those premises, I articulated it in 5 big ideas:

1) The journey we have made is amazing, until reaching the capacity of innovation we currently have: we can develop projects and build things from the lowest atom level until the greatest global level – and even outside the globe. But we actually started 6 million years ago when our ancestors were ‘normal’ animals, in fact weak animals: they were eaten by predators. Eventually some of them started to use bipedalism occasionally. But yet they did not have anything special that could differentiate us from any other animals. They lived among them, they shared same resources.

2) About 3 million years ago, our ancestors the Australopithecus were regular bipedal beings, and started to build basic tools by hitting stones, in order to extract good quality food from animals.

3) The brains started to grow rapidly and humans experimented a breakthrough in their cognitive abilities about 2 million years ago, when our ancestors the Homo erectus started to build tools with more complexity and greater variety. They started to understand the environment, and hence they were able to expand and explore new territories. They adapted to the different environments they found in this path. And the evolution forces embedded all such advantages in the succeeding species.

4) About 200 K years ago our species Homo sapiens appeared in Africa and expanded quickly throughout the globe, taking advantage of their complex cognitive abilities. They probably influenced in the demise of other human species like Neandertals. We were becoming the top predators. 10 K years ago there was a new big breakthrough, the agriculture revolution: we started to control animals, to settle and create towns.

5) Only 500 years ago we triggered a scientific revolution: we did a huge jump in our knowledge of our environment, in the understanding of ourselves, in the control of everything. It is in our nature, in our human origins, to be continuously innovative, to challenge ourselves to expand our knowledge, to apply our knowledge to find new resources, new solutions.

Image: Rick Potts, Smithsonian Institution

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