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The Innovation Gene
By Kathy Hare

          Look around your house.  Now mentally take away anything that wasn't invented 100 years ago.  What's your house look like now? 

          While there was comfortable furniture, most homes were still heated by wood or coal burning stoves.  No radio, TV, DVD, computer, or any other electronic device would be cluttering up your house. 

          By 1907 the majority of American cities had electricity, but many rural areas still hadn't made it into the 20th Century.  The common 15 amp electric service found in most homes provided good lighting but not much else.  However, that wasn't a problem because most kitchens had ice boxes instead of refrigerators and irons were still heated on the stove.

          The Hoover vacuum cleaner was sold door-to-door for the first time in 1908.  As the first electric household appliance designed to decrease the workload for housewives, without killing them, it was a great success. Electric washing machines had been introduced at the turn of the century, but the combination of water and electricity without the proper shielding for the electric motor caused some shocking results that made women take a "wait and see" attitude when it came to electric appliances.           Wealthy families could afford electric refrigerators by the mid-1920s, but middle class Americans didn't get rid of their ice boxes until sometime in the 1930's.  Electric clothes dryers were invented by 1915, but it took until the 1960's before most American families discovered they couldn't live without them. 

          Now do the same exercise, taking away the items in your home not available to the public through "mass marketing" by 1960, and you would see an extraordinary number of things vanish.  We are used to constant change, and most of us expect each year to bring new inventions or improvements that will improve our lives.

          In fact many of us become upset when technology doesn't progress as fast as we think it should.  I'm impatiently waiting for an affordable 18 mega pixel digital camera that will produce the same quality photographs as my old 35mm camera.  And most of us who witnessed Armstrong's landing on the moon expected to be traveling into space by now.  Innovations occurring at a rapidly accelerated pace are considered the norm today.

          But advancements in technology are actually a new development for humans.   About 1 1/2 million years ago an ancestral human, Homo erectus, invented a hand-axe. Archeologists first found the axe at a site in Saint Acheul, France; therefore they named it the Acheulean hand-axe.  However, the same type of axe was later discovered at many sites throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia.

          After many digs archeologists made an astonishing discovery.  Homo erectus and early Homo sapiens chunked out almond-shaped Acheulean hand axes without ever finding the need to modify its design for over a million years.  The style wasn't altered from one population to the next.  It looks the same at sites on all three continents, and no attempt was made to invent an "improved" model of hand-axe over the entire time period.          

          While these early humans also had other tools, "inventiveness" didn't appear to be part of their tool kit.          So what happened?  How does a species change from being happy to plod along with the same old hand-axe to the inventive race that exists today? 

          Anthropologists have been trying to solve this riddle for years.  Some put forth the theory that a cultural taboo may have prevented people from improving the hand-axe.  But that explanation makes no sense given a time-span of a million years.

          Others say "necessity is the mother of invention," arguing the hand-axe worked and therefore didn't need to be improved.  Ok, but just because something works doesn't mean modern humans don't find the need to improve it. 

          I believe the only explanation for the long-lived Acheulean hand-axe, and its demise between 200,000 to 40,000 years ago, was a genetic mutation that I call the "innovation gene."   Maybe such a mutation gave rise to modern humans.

          Obviously, something happened.  You don't plod along for a million years and then decide to suddenly start inventing things.  A small change in an individual's amino acids could cause someone to look down at that hand-axe and say, "If I just make a few chips along this edge, this thing would work a lot better." 

          It would take a while for the genetic mutation to spread throughout the population, but this is where "survival of the fittest" comes into play.  Perhaps the gene created an advantage for the individual's offspring as they invented new and improved weapons such as spears, bows and arrows, and gun powder; culminating in modern humans' ability to annihilate the entire planet.

           Fortunately, a mutation giving some Homo sapiens an advantage over their dull neighbors could also be used to harness energy, invent agriculture, indoor plumbing, and many other conveniences.  And all of these inventions were developed within a miniscule time-period compared to the length of time the Acheulean hand-axe was considered to be the neatest tool in town.

          No one knows what the next human genetic mutation may bring.  If we are lucky, human DNA may change so we learn how to improve our surroundings and survive without killing one another.  This seems highly unlikely, but then Homo erectus didn't think his hand-axe could be improved either.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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