This post is concerned with a single idea: perhaps extremely early weapon use was a major driver in the evolution of the human form. Aquatic Ape Theory and others propose explanations for the evolution of upright posture and bipedal locomotion, but it occurs to me that armed combat must have played a significant role as well. Ape species routinely brandish tree limbs and other tools in order to defend their territories from predators and rivals, requiring them to stand on two legs and grasp the weapon with both “hands.”
I cannot claim to have come up with this idea, which Joseph Campbell strongly hints at in his Mythos series. In an extremely interesting discussion of ape behavior Campbell explains that the raison d’etra of the male ape is to protect a field in which his troupe will be safe to live and procreate. He must protect them against predators and rival ape groups, as well as fight against rival males within his own group for reproductive rights. Campbell shows the following picture and asks the viewer to pay special attention to the animal’s legs.
This picture shows a chimp brandishing a weapon and unwittingly displaying perhaps a precursor to the horse stance and umbrella block.
The hypothesis that hunting with spears and such tools drove the evolution of human bipedalism was hinted at by Darwin and found later adherents like Raymond Dart, who published a paper called “The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man” in 1953. Elaine Morgan, however, concludes that “while some of Dart’s ideas were vindicated, the predatory thesis has not stood the test of time.” Morgan, who favors the Aquatic Ape Theory, thinks that bipedalism emerged first, before complex tool use, hunting, language, etc. Her reasoning is very strong, but she does not mention the fact that many ape species brandish weapons with both hands and charge a rival on two feet briefly during dominance displays or actual fights. This fact is significant for the idea that I here propose because just a slight little advantage in wielding a stick amounts to an enormous advantage in the amount of force and intimidation an ape can apply. Surely, tool use, specifically blunt objects and projectiles, must have contributed to many features of human morphology, from opposable thumbs to bipedal locomotion. Plenty of articles, such as this one, marshal evidence in support of this claim.
Though supporting papers and evidence were easy to come by, none seemed to mention the angle I wanted to explore: sexual selection. The idea is that swinging a club around and banging loudly against rocks makes for one impressive sexual display and any advantage in doing so furthermore adds to the damage one ape could deal to a rival. Therefore, my theory differs in that it is not direct selection that drove the changes in morphology. Apes don’t hunt with weapons and there is a big chasm to jump between throwing a rock and being able to hunt using projectiles. Being able to swing a branch at a rival slightly better, by contrast, would amount to a huge advantage in an activity already practiced by apes and which already contributes to the pressures of sexual selection. Stymied in my search for direct support for this idea, I decided to contact a leading expert in the field of human evolution and morphology, Dan Lieberman of Harvard. The good professor was gracious enough to respond with the following:
You ask a good question, and your line of thinking was actually first articulated clearly by Darwin in 1871. The answer is probably yes: selection for making and using tools probably has been a major force in human evolution and accounts for changes in our hands, arms, even shoulders. Several writers have tackled this in the academic literature, and if you wait a year or so, I will address this idea to some extent in a popular book I am currently trying to finish on the past, present and future of the human body.
Encouraged, I decided to extend my idea into more speculative realms. If grasping and wielding a club or spear actually drove the evolution of various features of the human form, then doing so would feel natural and almost magical. Certainly the use of tools must have driven changes to our brain, such as increasing the scope and effectiveness of our place cells and grid cells, allowing us to treat external objects as extensions of our own bodies as well as judge the distance and position of external objects we wanted to intercept with a projectile. With changes in our muscles and bones came changes in our brain, which prompts the following question: is this evolutionary tale detectable on the psychological level? I am not suggesting some archetype exists or some animal instinct that urges young children to play-fight with makeshift swords. What I am suggesting is that the very structure of the body would make such play naturally pleasurable, however the child stumbled upon the activity. Similarly, little kids love climbing everything, especially trees. I doubt that we have a “monkey-see, monkey-climb” instinct that impels all young children to climb trees, but our bodies just happen to be pretty good at climbing, with the result that such an activity is fun when stumbled upon. I can remember a sense of freedom, power, and safety resulting from my early sojourns in the treetops. But this hardly compared to the feeling of fashioning, grasping, and wielding makeshift weapons and tools. This felt more than right; it felt like every straight branch was the sword of destiny, imbued with immense and magical power.
What a strange situation this would be if true: the use of tools changed the hands that made them such that later generations would be “built for” such tools, even if none were around to be used. The form of those tools would exist as a strange attractor, secretly coded into the morphological changes made to the primate physique. The combative movements used with these tools would also exist in potentia, as strange attractors coded in the form of the body, ready to be experienced both as power-source beckoning to be used in the future and ancestral spirit or essence mysteriously permeating into the present from the past. Perhaps the old Japanese notion of the sword as the soul is not so far off the mark. We generally think of the “essence” of something as its “purpose” or what the object was “made for.” If the above account of human evolution and morphology is correct, then it would seem the essence of the human being is that of the warrior-hunter and indeed the sword is his true soul. If this intrigues you at all, you might be as surprised as I was at the prevalence of myths and legends involving swords, as well as their frequent connection to pride and social status. Are we living not on the planet of the naked-apes, but instead, the planet of the Samurai?