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The book jacket for Chip Colwell's "So Much Stuff: How Humans Discovered Tools, Invented Meaning, and Made More of Everything."

University of Chicago Press

The word “stuff” derives from the Old French word estoffe—“quilted material, furniture, provisions”—and was in use in English by the 15th century to refer to “substance or matter of an unspecified kind.” It also came to mean “goods or possessions generally, movable property” (quotes courtesy of an etymology app on my smartphone).

George Carlin played with these shades of meaning in a brilliant comic routine on his album A Place for My Stuff (1981) and in his stand-up act. It merits noting that “stuff” took on a moral connotation by the 1550s: the sense of “what a person is ‘made of.’” Carlin’s bit is a satirical take on consumer society by someone who doesn’t pretend to stand outside it. The stuff we are made of, he implies, is stuff itself.

Carlin’s observations have a way of echoing in the memory—for example, when it comes time to pay for a storage unit full of things you are demonstrably able to live without.

Chip Colwell, an archaeologist and former museum curator, shows the same ambivalence in the opening and closing pages of So Much Stuff: How Humans Discovered Tools, Invented Meaning, and Made More of Everything (University of Chicago Press). Homo sapiens has the distinction of fabricating more kinds and quantities of stuff than it even knows what to do with; the prospect of catastrophic consequences for doing so looms large in Colwell’s narrative of our transformation “from naked ape to nonstop shopper” across three million years of evolution.

Taking the very long view here means treating contemporary human proclivities as spinning off from animal behaviors that were originally advantageous for survival in environments in which our genus was at many disadvantages. We are prone to thinking of tool use as the distinctly human response to the struggle for survival, but in fact we have no monopoly: Colwell defines tool use as “an animal exerting control over an object to physically alter another object, or to mediate information between the tool user and their environment”; he cites a study from 2010 that found more than 400 varieties of such behavior across species ranging from insects to mammals, with 60 percent of these behaviors beings means of getting access to food.

The archaeological record shows our very distant ancestor Australopithecus using stone tools to scrape meat from animal bones some 3.3 million years ago, while Homo erectus, “an intelligent and durable ancestral human species living from about 1.9 million to 110,000 years ago,” developed the ax. Such innovations differed in complexity but not in kind from the use by chimpanzees of twigs to extract nutritious snacks from a termite mound. The author stresses that such tools were doubtless “invented”—and then forgotten—repeatedly, in different places, across very long periods of time. But a “biocultural dynamic” emerged.

Slicing meat made it easier to digest, with obvious benefits to the proto-human brain, including better memory—making it possible to recall the usefulness of stones, or even to improve upon them. And families able to transmit tool-making skills had a definite survival advantage and were in a position to recognize and preserve an improvement in technique.

Over many thousands of generations, a feedback loop emerged: humans made tools, and vice versa. Colwell makes a broadly similar argument about our meaning-making capabilities—that they developed from our animal nature. The latter point seems far from clinched. Could it be that chimps gazing at a waterfall for a long time are having an aesthetic or spiritual experience of sorts? Perhaps! But it might just be evidence that the urge to anthropomorphize our primate cousins is almost irresistible.

In any event, the book’s structure takes up tool-making first, followed by a section on meaning-making—although their respective histories are overlapping, not sequential. Some of Homo Australopithecus’s stone axes from a million years ago that appear much more skillfully crafted than others show no signs of use. While not exactly sculptures, they may have been valued for something besides utility. And a mussel shell from the same period shows a set of zigzag, vaguely runelike markings. Colwell quotes a neuroscientist’s comment: “Regardless of intent, the very process of rendering a geometric form would seem to indicate the workings of a mind no longer tethered solely to the here and now, but capable of a uniquely abstract form of conscious ‘wandering.’”

The zigzag appears to have been a prototypical design element for early artists. They have been found in cave paintings from 70,000 years ago in South Africa and engraved on stones in a temple structure in Turkey dated to 9000 B.C.E. It seems that meaning-bearing objects, like prehistoric tools, were invented again and again by separate groupings over long periods.

The author comes close to suggesting that aesthetic and religious phenomena are two sides of the same creative impulse—that the impact of an especially powerful image or object might have inspired feelings that found expression in beliefs about the supernatural. Tools extended human capacities beyond the limits of the body. Expressive or meaningful objects did likewise to the inner environment of human consciousness.

After Colwell’s engaging account of scattered developments over huge stretches of time, much of it drawing on archaeological finds, the third panel in his triptych covers much more familiar territory—the world as reshaped by capitalism and industrial production, with everything that happens doing so at a manic pace. Most of the timeline is from the last five centuries, and the last two in particular.

To recapitulate in terms of the earlier sections, the expansion and flexibility of humankind’s tool kit (including agricultural practices as well as writing and money) following the last ice age created what would have seemed like unimaginable abundance to Homo sapiens’s precursors. That it looks otherwise to us now is a product of the changes that came with mass production using nonhuman sources of energy. The incredible levels of productivity we see now were initially fettered in part by inadequate means of transporting and delivering the goods produced. And as those problems were solved, the limits of consumer appetite became another obstacle. But ingenuity prevailed: advertising, planned obsolescence and the boosted purchasing power made possible by the credit card.

That is a much-abbreviated summary of an already condensed account of the long-term trends that make it possible to order anything and have it at your door within the week, probably. The cost is more than the price, however. Colwell includes a graph showing the global output of plastic after 1950. One billion tons of it had been produced by some point in the early 1980s. The second billion was added over the following 10 years. It doubles again over about the same period. As of 2015, the last year on the chart, the cumulative output was near eight billion tons. This will not end well.

It’s an engaging book, and the photographs of artifacts are occasionally stunning. The one of the mollusk shell with zigzags carved into it left me feeling briefly unstuck in time, while the pictures of hoarders’ homes inspire more nausea than awe. Colwell makes an observation that may prove as memorable as Carlin’s monologue: he defines hoarding as “an animal instinct that is often veiled in humans by what some consume and insist on keeping and what others consume"—and then store in a landfill.

Scott McLemee is Inside Higher Ed’s “Intellectual Affairs” columnist. He was a contributing editor at Lingua Franca magazine and a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education before joining Inside Higher Ed in 2005.

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