In How To Invent Everything, Ryan North takes us on an incredible journey from the very beginning of human history all the way up to the present. Framed as a guide for a waylaid time traveler, this book instructs readers on how to build and sustain an entire civilization—from creating written language to domesticating cows to assembling an airplane. Each section explains how to invent a key technology from basic principles, while also offering hilarious (and sometimes harrowing) peeks at what the world looked like before that technology came into play. The result is an irreverent, fun, and deeply informative treasure trove of scientific and engineering insight.
How To Invent Everything sparkles with the same unique sense of humor the many fans of Ryan North’s comics and interactive Shakespearean adventures know and love. Full of clear instructions, helpful diagrams, accurate science, and fascinating historical anecdotes, it’s also a book for armchair survivalists, history buffs, and time travel nerds with very serious questions about exactly how hard it would be to build a working computer out of crabs.
Thanks to the fine folks at Riverhead Books, we’re sharing an excerpt of this fantastic new book!
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A special note if you are stranded between 200,000 BCE and 50,000 BCE and you are thinking, “the humans here are crazy and I am definitely doomed forever”
Great news! You can actually be the most influential person in history!
As your careful study of the flowchart on the previous pages likely revealed, humans first evolved around the year 200,000 BCE. We call them “anatomically modern humans,” and they mark the moment when humans with skeletons exactly the same as ours first appeared. As an experiment, we could put your skeleton beside that of an anatomically modern human from 200,000 years ago and it would be impossible to tell them apart.
We will not be performing this experiment, but we could.
But what’s fascinating is despite the fact that modern human bodies were now available, nothing really changed. For more than 150,000 years, these humans behaved pretty much the same as any other protohuman species. And then, around the year 50,000 BCE, something happened: these anatomically modern humans suddenly started acting like us. They began to fish, create art, bury their dead, and decorate their bodies. They began to think abstractly.
Most important, they began to talk.
The technology of language–and it is a technology, it’s something we’ve had to invent, and it took us over 100,000 years to do it–is the greatest gift we humans have ever given ourselves. You can still think without language–close your eyes and imagine a really cool hat and you’ve just done it–but it limits the kinds of thoughts you can have. Cool hats are easy to imagine, but the meaning of the sentence “Three weeks from tomorrow, have your oldest stepsister meet me on the southeast corner two blocks east from the first house we egged last Halloween” is extremely difficult to nail down without having concrete words for the concepts of time, place, numbers, relationships, and spooky holidays.* And if you’re struggling to express complex thoughts even in your own head, it’s pretty evident that you won’t be having those complex thoughts as often, or at all.
It was language that gave us the ability to imagine better, grander, more world-changing ideas than we otherwise could, and most important, it gave us the ability to store an idea not just in our own heads but inside the minds of others. With language, information can spread at the speed of sound, or, if you’re using sign language instead of speaking, at the speed of light. Shared ideas lead to communities, which are the basis of culture and civilization, and which brings us to our first Civilization Pro Tip:
Civilization pro tip: Language is the technology from which all others spread, and you’ve already got it for free.
This huge expanse of time–the 150,000 years between 200,000 BCE, when humans first appeared, to 50,000 BCE, when they finally started talking–is where you can have the single greatest effect on history. If you can help humans of this era become behaviorally modern as soon as they became anatomically modern–if you can teach them to talk–then you can give every civilization on the planet a 150,000-year head start.
It’s probably worth the effort.
We once thought the change from anatomical to behavioral modernity was due to some physical change in our brains. Perhaps a random genetic mutation in one human-who suddenly found themselves able to communicate in ways no animal had done before-provided us with the huge advantage of a new capacity for abstract thought? However, the historical record doesn’t support the idea of this great leap forward. The things we most associate with behavioral modernity–art, music, clever tools, burying the dead, making ourselves look cooler with jewelry and body paint–all appear before the breakthrough around 50,000 BCE, but in fits and starts, appearing locally and then disappearing. Much like the magic that rhetorical wizards have long revealed was actually inside us all along, so too have humans had the capacity for language. We just needed to unlock it.
The unique challenge facing you in this era is how to teach a language to people when the very idea of spoken language may be new to them. It’s important to remember that most humans you encounter may not have language, but they’ll still communicate with one another, through grunts and body language. All you need to do is move them from grunts to words, and don’t worry: a complicated language like English with things like “subjunctive clauses” and “imperfect futures” (used here in the grammatical sense, not the time-travel sense) is not necessary, and you can get by with a simplified version of the language you already know, called “pidgin.” You will also have better results if you focus on teaching children. The older humans are, the harder it is for them to learn languages, and fluent acquisition of a first language becomes much more challenging-if not impossible-after puberty.
Civilization pro tip: Babies begin to focus on the noises used in language around them after about six months of age, so if you’re inventing a language from scratch, you’ll likely have more success incorporating whatever sounds the baby is already hearing from its parents.
Remember: evolution happens very slowly, and even 200,000 years ago the people you’ll encounter are humans, just like you–indistinguishable at the biological level. They just need to be taught.
You can teach them.
And you will be remembered as a god.
*And this is actually a simple example, dealing as it does in physical things like sisters and egged houses that can actually be imagined. Once you get into more abstract sentences like “The lure of imaginary totality is momentarily frozen before the dialect of desire hastens on within symbolic chains” (Fred Botting, Making Monstrous: Frankenstein, Criticism, Theory, 1991 CE), any language-free communication of those ideas becomes almost impossible.
How to Invent Everything by Ryan North is available now.
Excerpted from How to Invent Everything by Ryan North. Copyright © 2018 by Ryan North. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.