Today, a madonna makes tools. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Neurobiologist William Calvin wonders if women were among
the prehistoric technologists. He does some inspired detective
work to find out. He begins with mothers and babies.
The parent/child bond is powerful. House cats who know that
climb in your lap to purr. Outdoor cats don't. Cats who live
with humans learn to mimic babies. They lay a powerful claim to
our affections. Nestling near the heart awakens a bond.
The heart's in the center of the chest, but the left ventricle
pulses loudest. A baby is happier on its mother's left arm,
where it takes the greatest comfort from her beating heart.
Maybe that's why most of us are right-handed. A mother survived
with a child on her left arm if she could protect herself
with the right. Calvin gives us the term, "The Throwing Madonna."
That's the mother who can throw a stone at a jackal while she
holds her child.
Now what has this to do with technology? Calvin points out
that for right-handedness to have much Darwinian value, prehistoric
mothers had to be deeply involved in the manual skills of
survival. They had to be hunters, tool-makers, and tool users.
We can't go and look at cavemen, but we can look at advanced
apes. Sure enough, hunting is shared among male and female apes.
So what about invention? Here's a case history: Primate
biologists have studied Japanese macaque monkeys. In one test,
the scientists scattered grain in the sand along a seashore. The
monkeys needed to get at the grain.
One female monkey made a remarkable mental leap. She was
trying to separate grain from sand. In frustration, she flung a
handful into the sea. The sand sank. Grain floated back to her.
In no time, she'd formalized the procedure. The young apes
were quickest to copy her. Some adult males never caught on.
Calvin goes further. African chimpanzees shape sticks to
catch termites in anthills for supper. Females are far more
creative and persistent at this technology. The same is true in
selecting tools and inventing methods for cracking nuts. Why?
He offers a compelling hypothesis. Maybe it's because the
female of the species spends more time with the young. And the
young teach creative freedom of the mind to the old.
Much of this is speculative, but it all has the ring of
truth in my ears. Calvin's imagery of "The Throwing Madonna"
convincingly ties the bond between mother and child to the creative
process. And we are reminded: It is in relinquishing the
security of adulthood -- that we regain the creative muse.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're
interested in the way inventive minds work.