The Irony of the Projectile

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The evidence from palaeoanthropology suggests that in the past humans were about the stature they are now, with more sexual dimporphism than now, with similar or larger brains than they have now, and used technology at the same level of sophistication as many later humans. Scientists argue over the degree to which modern day language abilities, symbolic thinking, and artistic capacity was found in these earlier humans.

Where we see physical evidence suggesting morbidity or even mortality among those humans, which included “archaic Homo sapiens” and Neanderthals and their kin, we often see violence. Some have suggested that this violence is from close quarter combat between individuals, while others have suggested it is from a hands-on approach to hunting where animals were wrangled to the ground and dispatched. Among the technologies used by these early humans we see evidence for some hand held weapons but no good evidence for projectiles.

It is possible that projectiles became widespread at some point and that this changed everything. Many scientists have suggested something like this, and each of those ideas is different and relates to a different set of evidence. We know for sure that projectiles didn’t exist then later they did, and we know for sure that high degrees of physical robusticity existed, later replaced by physical gracility. Regardless of the details, there was a time when humans needed to get up close and personal to intimidate, wound, or kill each other placing themselves at risk at the same time, and later, it became possible for a smaller, less robust person to kill pretty much anyone (with skill and luck) without taking that immediate personal risk.

I’m oversimplifying here, but this would mean that the social dynamic involved in interpersonal conflict would be very different under these two different conditions. A thrown spear, or more effectively, a bow and arrow would bring more of this dynamic into the broader social context. One might not be as likely to get killed or seriously injured if one decides to plug an enemy with a well placed arrow, but the slain enemy’s family and friends have the same separation from immediate injury when they come for you later to even things up. One could think of the social dynamic of interpersonal violence as becoming more meta, and the most likely result of this is that day to day interpersonal violence would be significantly reduced. (Larger scale conflict including warfare is a different matter we’ll skip for the present discussion, but intergroup raiding is still pertinent.)

This is where the NRA comes in. The National Rifle Association’s argument is that if many people are armed with deadly projectile shooting weapons, there would be less violence because the social dynamics of violence would change. In a society of archaic Homo sapiens or Neanderthals, this argument may work very well. The available evidence for modern humans living in Western society, however, is that more guns generally means more injury, not less. What may have been a good argument during the Paleolithic does not seem to apply today. However, even though the NRA’s argument is not valid, the principle underlying it may have been a major force in the transition of Homo sapiens away from a nasty, brutish, and short-lived species to one where death is more a product of disease than damage inflicted by enemies and frenimes, a species more heavily engaged in the food quest (made harder without projectiles) and more often engaged in the more leisurely and artistic pursuits.

The irony is this: The very thing that may have shepherded the human lineage to a state where diplomacy is an option, and even a good option, has seemingly stopped us from moving forward to the next potential state of being. We are on the verge of being a peace-loving species. But we’re stuck. We’re stuck with all these damn guns and this gun loving culture.

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15 thoughts on “The Irony of the Projectile

  1. This helps explain to me why we seem to have strong instincts for revenge, even when it may seem against our best immediate interests. Greg, pardon my ignorance, but what does it mean that the social dynamic of interpersonal violence became more meta? Is it something along the lines that a 140 pound chain smoker can pick up a gun and take on Lou Ferrigno? Thanks

  2. It means that the decision process involves not just thinking about what I can do to him and visa versa, but what can his friend to to me, what can my friend do to him, will my friend get pissed at me for dragging him into this and thus not support me alter when that guy’s friend decides to use me as an example when he’s impressing those two guys over in that other village….

    In other words, the scenarios move from simple children’s book to a novel with a complex plot

    (Some of you will recognize Dunbar in there somewhere)

  3. I found this post to be an utterly sublime piece of rhetoric. Tone, rhythm, turns of phrase, reasoning, knowledge, it just… I’ve read it through several times now, and by the time I finish that last paragraph, I am all but quivering in pleasure.
    Epic post!

  4. We not only love guns but big weapons, like drones. These weapons can be potentially be deployed by my computer against someone we never see with no experience of pain as we kill our opponent. Thanks for shedding light Greg.

  5. Fascinating how projectiles may have helped us expand our social circles and helped build more complex models of thought. On Orangutang Island. I’ve observed Hamlet, the Alpha Male, charge a rival and throw an orange or rock just pass their head to distract him then run by and slap the rivals head. Too funny!!!!

  6. Weapons and conflict cost billions of dollars and millions of innocent lives. It will always be part of our society, because we are animals before we are angels. Our best hope for a future without self inflicted extermination is to reduce the amount of conflict with each other and focus on the fact that we has people are a deliberate or accidental miracle with limited resources including time and violence is a waste of most importantly life. Peace = survival, a symbiotic life.

  7. Greg:

    Some have suggested that this violence is from close quarter combat between individuals, while others have suggested it is from a hands-on approach to hunting where animals were wrangled to the ground and dispatched.

    Years ago, a spread on human evolution in National Geographic mentioned the resemblance of some Neanderthal skeletal injuries to those incurred by modern rodeo contestants. The suggestion was that like rodeo contestants, Neanderthals got thrown off big animals a lot.

  8. Exactly, that work was done by Trikaus, mainly. First he said this:

    Then he said this:

    In some ways the first paper is better. The logic behind the second paper is flawed, I think. Having N’s and contemporary modern humans be similar should not cause one to assume the original conclusion is wrong becuase you believe they must be different. Rather, it should cause one to conclude that they are similar.

  9. The NG article included an evocative artist’s conception of a group of male Neandertals trying to kill an enormous aurochs mired in a bog, up close and personal, with short stabbing spears. One guy stands aside holding his freshly broken arm, while another takes a hoof to the crotch. The auroch’s eyes glow demoniacally as it swings its head toward a third attacker. Whew! Not like shooting a deer with from a safe distance with a rifle, or even a bow and arrow.

  10. The first projectiles were probably just rocks.

    Fist sized rocks are a formidable projectile against essentially all solitary predators.

    In the open, a group of a few people with spears could protect a person throwing rocks from single predators very well. I suspect that stealing kills from solitary predators with this technique may have been a significant hunting strategy in Africa, maybe not so much elsewhere.

  11. Throwing and catching are examples of very impressive implicit physics calculations being done rapidly. I don’t mean to imply anything like actual computation, of course, but rather very good, personal examples of how evolution “solves” complicated physical problems posed by our evolutionary environments. We tend to think that when we accomplish these things, we’re doing so in some way similar to the generalized, abstracted way that we do in science. (And, yeah, in some very deep implicit sense, and within a narrow context, we are.) But we’re more likely doing so in ways similar to that seen in with genetic algorithms and such — very efficiently and accurate within a predictable, narrow domain, and well-nigh unpredictable and erroneous outside it. I’m curious about how well astronauts and such perform these kinds of tasks over time in non-earthly environments. How much plasticity and learning is there and isn’t there?

    Also, as mentioned in the post, it seems like biomechanics would have a lot to reveal about the likely evolutionary history of throwing — wouldn’t certain structural changes in the hands, arms, and shoulders be very prominent in an environment which strongly selects for throwing ability?

  12. im not a gun lover but i plan to own one or two. i wish they did not exist but they do and they always will, with increased gun control then less none criminals will have guns to protect them selves or deter those who do not care about gun control laws. it is like what they say pandora’s box is open you can not put the evil back in. what you can do is get rid of this whole mystique on guns, that make people who have them and intend to use them in a criminally violent way feel untouchable, because they know that most people are either afraid of guns or believe that guns lead to violence or attract it, so they dont allow them in there homes which makes them comparable to sheep praying that the wolves will not notice them.

  13. There’s been quite a bit of research done on what the hands and arms (and shoulder) need to be like to make stone tools, use them, throw things, throw spears, etc.

    I don’t think the work at this stage is conclusive for one main reason: I can’t personally think of an example of a research team investigating the question “what could this joint do” rather than “how do I show that this joint does what I think it does” or “how can I show that this joint does something different than the person I’m annoyed with said it did”

    … not to be too cynical, but … this is actually how the process often proceeds. Eventually methods will allow the data to become cheap and easy to get and some serious graduate students will do what needs to be done, which is to investigate all of the previously proposed hypotheses and a few new ones using a handful of different approaches, and we can then put plausible limits on the different species.

    If the required resolution turns out to be Pliocene or Miocene (i.e., if we need to know not which Homo sp could or could not do what, but rather, for earlier hominids) then we may be in trouble again as there is some confusion as to which heads go on which bodies. But that is being resolved as well.

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