Invisible Tools: Family

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We love to complain about family.  It takes years of therapy to get over the phobias our parents gave us.  If we survive, then we have to endure crazy sister during holidays, or the demands of the wild brother complicating our lives in other ways.  Finally, if we’re lucky, we have to help the parents deal with their old age.

No wonder so many jettison the concept entirely and stay away.

It’s a wonder anyone wants to be in a family at all.  What in the world is the family good for in the first place?

First place.  Where did the first family come from?

We discussed how animals invented childhood some time ago.  That childhood improved everyone’s chances of survival.  It must have worked quite well for humans, because we have the longest “childhood” of all animals.

For all animals with a childhood, their family exists for as long as the children are home.  Yes, the children can be birds, and the home can be a nest.

The problem for these families is that they cease to exist the moment the children leave home.  When the chicks leave the nest, the family no longer exists.

Humans have the only families that exist beyond the weaning of the children.  Some families even have parents of parents living with them.  This is certainly an achievement few other species have met.

And that’s the greatest advantage of the family, the human family, sharing knowledge gathered by previous generations.  Wisdom accumulated through hard experience saves the younger members a lot of time.  They make better choices, the family does better, the children have more children, and the family thrives through the ages.

For millennia, that is how the family worked.  Then something happened.  We figured out how to transfer knowledge in a more structured format during the Renaissance.  Then we became wealthy enough so that even grand parents preferred to live on their own than with their children and grand children, usually in warmer climates.

Today’s civilized family is a poor imitation of what the family used to be.  Regardless of what is best for the individuals, the family itself has suffered.  As a society, we should think about how we treat the family and how it can work for all of us to better advantage.

We should also think about what the family may look like if we ever take our species to the moon.  After all, do we need families in space?  Do we need them any more here?

We do.  And the next installment explains why.

 

 

Invisible Tools: Childhood

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Long long ago, on a planet very far away in time, animals popped out of their eggs all ready to combat the environment so that they could grow up and make their own eggs.

That planet was Earth, and even today there are many animals who pop out of their eggs knowing exactly what they have to do to survive.  Turtles are a great example.  Mom is long gone when they scramble from their leathery egg onto the sand, looking for the welcoming ocean.  The chances of them getting there are slim, but that’s how the turtle plays the game.  Mom and Dad turtle are nowhere to be seen.

Somewhere along the line, that changed.  A stray cosmic ray, or the crazy thing we call sex mixed up the DNA so that Mom and Dad took an interest in their tiny replacements.  The replacements hung around for a while after hatching, got bigger and smarter, and then left the nest when they were ready.

Bad news for Mom and Dad, they had more work after the eggs hatched.  Ugh.

Good news for Mom and Dad, they could have fewer eggs to start with.  I guess that’s mostly good news for Mom.

The other good news for both Mom and Dad is that their offspring had much better chances of surviving long enough to have more offspring.  That means grandkids.  Or grand-eggs, I’m not sure.

The whole idea of an egg needing extra time to grow outside of the egg is gestation outside of its normal place.  I’m calling it external gestation.  We usually call it childhood, especially if it’s for childs.

A sort of generational arms race happens.  The child knows Mom and Dad are going to protect it after getting out of the egg, so it starts taking longer to grow outside of the egg.  That’s why normal primate babies take a year or so to wean off Mom, while human babies take much longer.

Modern human babies now require years of “childhood.”  I know of some that are still going through their childhood.  They live in their parent’s basement and have even celebrated 40 birthdays.

The point is that childhood is a tool.  It’s a way for the species to be better prepared for the future.  It’s better for the parents, because they don’t need to make as many kids.  It’s better for the kids, because they get helped out a lot early on when it counts the most.

So the next time you see some kids having fun, don’t be jealous that you have to toil away at the daily grind.  Appreciate the fact that they are using a tool so that their lives, and even yours, will be better tomorrow.

Now get to work.

 

 

Invisible Tools: Soul Mates

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There’s a special nerdy name for a soul mate; pair bonding.

The idea is that two organisms get together and stick together through thick and thin.

It’s very romantic to think of souls intertwining.

 

Since I can’t touch the whole soul thing, I’m going to focus on the pair bond.  It’s easier to find because, well, two beings get together and stay together.

We romanticize about it in people.  In fact, it’s the number one entertainment motif.  Two young wannabe lovers overcome obstacles and become a couple.

Notice I’m not focusing on any genders here.  That doesn’t matter unless you want offspring.  And that’s not on today’s menu.

The whole idea of having a mate for life, however, is a great idea, a great tool.

Yes, pair bonding is a tool.  Way back when, even before there were dinosaurs, something happened in something’s DNA to make it want to have a partner.  Not just any partner, but a partner that stayed around a long time.

By the way, a lifelong pair bound partner is NOT the same as a sexual partner.  Someone you meet for a moment to collect or contribute DNA doesn’t count.

This is a partner with capital P.  A partner who worries where you are when you don’t come back to the nest on time.  A partner who shares food with you when it’s particularly tasty.  A partner who hunts and gathers for you when you can’t do it for yourself.

We know people didn’t invent the concept because dinosaurs had nests that may have required warming, and that may mean they had pair bonds.  We know for sure many birds pair bond, and birds are little dinosaurs.

So, given that birds do it, and people do it, where did it come from?

Either birds and people figured it out on their own, which is very likely, or there was an ancestor animal that figured it out, and the DNA code for pair bonding surfaces every now and then.

Either way, it means that you have eyes to watch your back, and to watch over you while you sleep.  You can hunt and gather over twice as much territory, and that means better chances of having kids.

So, hurray for the pair bond!  Next time you need something to toast, try reminding everyone that pair bonding is an unappreciated tool.  Then you can go back to work on that momentary meeting you went mixing for in the first place.

 

Invisible Tools: Sex

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There’s no getting around this one, because it’s the elephant in the room.  Maybe two elephants.

Back in the first post, a tool was defined as something that makes our lives easier.

Back in the old days, and I’m talking very very old days when the Earth was young, our great-grandma was known as Primordial Goo.

As far as PG was concerned, stray cosmic rays were sufficient to help nudge her nascent DNA into new ecological niches.  She was in no hurry, and the Earth wasn’t changing all that much.  And that was all well and good for billions of years.

But the time came when the environment changed faster.  And if PG didn’t keep up, there was a good chance she would miss out on the good stuff.

So, along comes a crazy cosmic ray and BANG!, two different beings of the same type get together and swap some DNA.  Each partner gives up half.  Two halves make a whole.  And in this case, it’s a whole new organism that’s a LOT different than either parent.

A new tool was born.  This tool is called sex.  Every time two beings get together and swap DNA to make a new being, it’s called sex.  Stop giggling, because this is biology.  It has nothing to do with the exercise bits.

The problem with sex is that it makes new beings slowly.  If you want to take over the world, like PG did long ago, then you go in for cloning.  Some species use it today, and some species can switch between the two.

But if your environment is changing fairly fast, then sex is the way to go.  Every new being you make is a lot different than the parents.  And some of those differences are going to be good for survival.  Some won’t, and those kids won’t make it.  If you’re a feeling being, shed a tear, appreciate their sacrifice, and move on.

So, the next time you’re thinking about sex, and I know you will, think about it as a tool for your species.  Reflect on our ancestor, the PG, and go back to what you were doing.

We’re going to need all the help we can get.

 

Invisible Tools: Not Machines

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Are you a tool?

Of course not.  You’re a living being.

It used to be that your average egghead thought only humans could use tools.

Then Jane Goodall watched chimps use tools to find food.

So then they thought only humans could teach other humans how to use tools.

And Jane watched chimps teach their babies how to use tools.

Since those eye-opening moments in science, the eggheads have learned that a LOT of animals use tools, and a lot of those teach others how to use them.

I keep harping on the eggheads because anyone who has kept animals long enough may have observed the same behaviors.  You can probably even find a video of a dog learning from a bird or a cat.  The idea that humans are super special is history.

In general, a tool is something that helps living beings get what we want.  We typically think of tools as being our homes, phones, hammers and nails.  Tools that have a physical character have a special name, machines.

But a tool doesn’t have to be made out of anything.  A tool does not have to exist in any form except as an idea and energy.  And that’s what we’re talking about today.

Language is a tool.  If you write it down using an alphabet it takes on a physical aspect, and it becomes a machine with a special name, writing.

This series on invisible tools is going to touch on behaviors we use to make our lives easier, helping us to get what we want.  There are lots of behaviors we take for granted that we use as tools, but never think of them as such.

The reason it becomes important to think about “tools” in general, whether they are invisible behaviors or manifest machines, is that we can appreciate them more and realize that we should be using them.

Many times I have seen someone use a hammer incorrectly.  It’s bad for the hammer, it makes that person’s job harder, but worst of all, it’s dangerous to that person and anyone standing nearby.  Some people don’t even think of using the right tool for the job.  They may not even know that it’s a tool.

So, here’s cheers for tools.  Let’s appreciate them, and make our lives better.