What do you do when you have to come down out of the trees because the climate has changed and the trees become scarce and now you’re living in a savannah environment where the grasses are tall and most other creatures, both those that want to catch and eat you and those you want to catch and eat, can run faster than you can?
Right away I’ll back off my choice of title and admit that evolving to stand erect so that you can see farther across the savannah is a form of survival of the fittest that has nothing to do with invention. But consider what happens when you can see the prey or the predator from far away, but the predator is stronger and has bigger teeth and claws than you do, and the prey is still too fast to catch easily. How do you compensate for your weaknesses?
You invent weapons for protection, and for hunting. You figure out how to use fire to scare the sabre-tooth tiger away from your cave, and incidentally to cook your food and keep warm, and you invent snares to catch small prey and throwing devices to kill prey at a distance. If you had been the biggest strongest species around, there would have been no need to invent weapons, or tools, or much in the way of strategy and tactics.
This is not to deny that necessity is also the mother of invention. Invention has two mothers. Probably more. Necessity is also the mother of evolution; when we lived in trees, it was necessary to be able to hold on to the branches, so those who survived were those who evolved to have opposable thumbs, and without opposable thumbs we would have had a much harder time inventing weapons, or much of anything else. Once supplied with an erect posture and opposable thumbs, we were able to invent work-arounds to compensate for our many weaknesses.
Farther along the human timeline, when population pressures or changing climate or just the curiosity that goes along with inventive minds drove us from the warm regions of our origin to colder, harsher environments, we figured out how to compensate for the weakness of our bodies when it came to keeping warm by wrapping ourselves in the skins of animals we’d killed, and later with woven fibers from plants. If we hadn’t compensated like this evolution might have eventually restored our ability to grow enough warm fur of our own, but then again it might not.
Of course the more we compensated for our weaknesses the stronger we became, in terms of survival. We learned to grow and breed our food, to irrigate our crops, to produce and save enough food and other resources to be able to diversify our work, so that some people didn’t have to produce their own food but could trade their crafted goods or various skills for what they needed. Some people needed physical strength for farming, hunting, protecting the resources their communities had amassed, but other people could make their living in ways that depended more on mental strength than on physical. Eventually some people could be weak in every way, but survive due to the resources of their families. Survival of the fittest wasn’t what it used to be, but neither was the environment one needed to survive in.
These days strength of one sort or another is still valued, and weakness despised, but oddly valued at the same time if it makes the despiser feel more powerful. Let’s not get into the labyrinth of gender relationships in this regard, except to note that men who seem to appear weak get the most disrespect. Women who seem to appear stronger than culturally approved get disrespect, too, and resentment, but at least in recent times they’ve been able to get away with wearing clothing similar to men’s in ways that men can’t manage the other way around.
The more complex our society gets, though, and the more important technology becomes, the more valuable inventiveness becomes, and the less necessary physical strength turns out to be. That ninety pound weakling on the beach might get sand kicked in his face by the muscular brute eyeing his girlfriend, but he may well own a tech start-up that pays him enough to buy lawyers who can flatten the muscle man. (Sorry, youngsters, for using a metaphor from old magazine ads that was already passé before you were born.) And that rich techie may well have his youthful nerdiness to thank for motivating him to study and create and compensate for his own perceived weakness. Strength gets redefined, and so does the fitness to survive.
Am I grasping at straws to handle this time’s theme of “weakness?” You bet. Just be glad you avoided my real thoughts on the subject, all of which have been focused lately on the weaknesses that come with aging. Not my own, except by unavoidable extrapolation, but those of my once strong, handsome, intelligent, and compassionate father, who, at ninety-five, is still compassionate, but needing more and more help, and feeling guilty to be needing it, however much my brothers and I assure him, truthfully, that he’s earned every bit as much help as we (mostly me, for valid reasons) can give him.
So you can see why I chose to take the long, long view of weakness as a benefit in the development of our species, rather than get up close and personal. Also, social media addiction and general procrastination have already been covered pretty well, so there’s no need for me to go there. Thank goodness.