The Wrong Trousers
Back in 1993 a small British company called Aardman Animations released a short film by Nick Park called The Wrong Trousers. In the film, a hapless inventor called Wallace orders some TechnoTrousers from NASA so that he can program them to take his dog Gromit for walks. As this is a comedy of errors, it goes without saying that the TechnoTrousers end up being used for all manner of unintended purposes, with mayhem resulting — including a jewelry heist carried out by a nefarious penguin disguised as a chicken by means of wearing a rubber glove on its head.
The essence of the film is that an ingenious machine made by a few clever people ends up in the hands of someone who is, to put it politely, not up to the challenge of utilizing the technology adequately. The Wrong Trousers is therefore a perfect summary of the human condition.
We humans have sacrificed strong muscles, sharp claws, and powerful jaws in favor of our brains. Being able to solve simple puzzles was, over long eons of evolution, useful enough that our ingeniousness enabled us to compensate for more obvious physical traits. Using jawbones of dead animals and sharpened sticks compensated for the lack of powerful muscles. Being able to coax fire from fragments of leaf by striking a flint against another stone, or by laboriously rubbing heat into existence through friction, enabled us to perform all manners of magic inaccessible to other animals. And our relatively hairless bodies could be kept warm by wearing the pelts of better-endowed creatures. So for many hundreds of thousands of years, the tradeoff was worthwhile. We became specialist thinkers, albeit of an extremely rudimentary kind.
In this way, we are the same as most animals. Very few animals are generalists. We can count rodents, cephalopods, and cockroaches among their number, but the vast majority of animals specialize. Carnivorous cats have lightning reflexes, sharp claws, and powerful jaws. Herbivores have grinding molars and lengthy intestines within which bacteria can break down otherwise indigestible cellulose. Raptors have excellent eyesight and acrobatic skills, along…