A Unifying Account of Technological Knowledge: Animal Construction, Tool Use, and Technology

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Virginia Tech

Philosophers, historians of technology, and anthropologists often offer accounts of technology that include a “human clause,” some phrase to the effect that only humans use or make technologies. When these academics do consider tool use, they refer to a few cases, usually from chimpanzee studies, as special and unusual in the animal kingdom and whose similarities to human tool use can be explained through some shared evolutionary heritage. However, new observational and laboratory animal studies demonstrate that tool use and the use of learned techniques are actually more widespread than many scholars have appreciated, encompassing the behaviors of dolphins, crows, gorillas, and octopuses. Some studies have shown that even species that are not known to produce tools in the wild can, in the right contexts, produce and use tools as capably as related species that do employ tools. Some of the non-human animals' tool use and manufacture indicates learned components, shared material cultures, innovation, an understanding of 'folk' physics and causal reasoning, the standardization of tools, and the use of metatools.

This dissertation involves a reflection on these new animal studies cases: what they might indicate, how they relate to concepts used in defining technology (and humanity), how they might disrupt human-centered models of technology. This dissertation also provides a framework for considering these animal cases within the context of technological knowledge, one important concept in philosophy of technology. To highlight the relationships between two different approaches to technological knowledge, this project introduces a graphical model for considering animal cases alongside human technologies; mapping individual technologies and techniques in terms of technological know-how and encapsulation of information allow for the additional consideration of animal constructions – webs, nests, dams, etc. – alongside animal tool use and human technologies. By categorizing non-human animal constructions, tool use, and technology along the same axes, we see that the individual material products of humans and non-humans are often a matter of degree, and not a matter of kind. Animal constructions and tool use can be productively incorporated into philosophy of technology.

technological knowledge, animal architecture, animal tool use, know how, epistemology of technology