We sapients do something called cultural ratcheting. It’s when we learn something from others, and build on it. Apparently, not even our closest primate cousins do this. Yes, they can use sticks as tools to draw ants from their mounds, or use rocks to break open some hard-shelled food, but they don’t go on to develop increasingly sophisticated tools. We do.
In fact, we can build off of one another’s knowledge to such a degree, that there is no end to the things that no individual is capable of building. The computer mouse is beyond any one of us. Creating the plastic shell, alone, requires a factory and a supply chain stretching around the world.
If I was born this morning, and from this day on endeavored to build a car from scratch, I would probably not get very close to my aim even after a lifetime. I might start with the notion of creating metal, and for that, I have a notion of gathering iron ore, creating a fire hot enough to extract the iron, and working it from there.
Our sum knowledge has built up century after century. The medicine taught at hospitals, engineering, physics, mathematics, literature; all built up over time. We stand on the backs of giants. It’s also grown, perhaps, at an exponential rate. It’s said that the sum of invention of the last century outpaced that of the entire history of the world combined.
In art, too, artists build upon the achievements of their predecessors. Walking about a museum, though, you might come to the conclusion that the path has not been as straight as an arrow. Instead, the Coptic Egyptians created some of the most elegant portraits in the history of humanity – then a thousand years later, while artful, the medieval artist created more crude portrayals.
The Asmat artists evolve slowly. Their woodcarvings, considered by some to be the penultimate achievements of carved wood art in the world, undergo small changes generation from generation. If these changes are the result of cultural ratcheting, it’s possible that an artist several centuries later will be building her parent’s work – but may not remember the meaning of the achievements.
Along this line of thinking, perhaps humans are hard-wired to labor away at aspects of their work without understanding why. Perhaps, like dreams of dreams of dreams, we don’t know the origins, but only deeply sense their proper place. Perhaps this our destiny – to never quite know why we know what we know.