"Every innovation starts as knowledge”

When Men became Conscious, began to Invent, Innovate …. “knowing that he knew”

"Every innovation starts as knowledge”

What relationship do you see, Professor, between palaeontology and innovation ?

YC – “As you know, palaeontology is a science for the past, and what interested me most were the prospects that this science would open up, as we explore the future of mankind and the world … as a naturalist by training and profession, I see Man as a truly extraordinary creature. First, he appeared among other living animals including the primates, and to begin with he was a primate like the others. He then began to mark his difference with the others, “knowing that he knew”, acquiring thought patterns. Then he builds a new environment, with its societal, cultural and technical characteristics … which environment has ever since continued to evolve and develop, becoming more complicated, more complex in a world where man learned to organise his life and this set the origins of my personal surprise. In my time and in my job, I have also witnessed development of techniques developing at a hitherto unsuspected pace. I had the opportunity to work using the Synchrotron, a particle accelerator [based at Orsay University South of Paris]. The breakthrough possibilities offered by this machine were really enormous. X-rays, Scans and intracranial moulding have been superseded by this tool that in fact enables you to freely ‘walk around’ inside the skull and explore its convolutions as you wish. In short, I admire Man and his genius and am fascinated by the techniques he has invented and developed.

How would you define an innovative process?

The innovation process, as I see it, is akin to that for an invention. To innovate is to use a discovery in order to invent, to anticipate and lead on in fine to progress. The latter term is a constant subject of heated debate, especially from a philosophical standpoint. Prehistoric times reveal real progress, exemplified by the way Man discovered and made knives by knapping stones (flint). 2 M.yrs ago, our early ancestors could knap one kilo of flint stone into 10cm of cutting edge, with difficulty apparently (homo habilis). Then homo erectus came on the scene and managed to obtain 40 cm from the same kilo. And, 50 000 years ago, homo sapiens produced 2 metres. Finally, 20 000 years ago, the achievement was 20 metres, all of this from one kilo of flint! At that date, Man had become a master of stone knapping techniques. Progress here cannot be gainsaid.

Where does anticipation come into the innovative process?

Let me refer for a moment to the wall paintings in the Grotte de Lascaux Grotto in South France (Dordogne) which, when analysed, taught us that the paints contained vegetable dyes and minerals as well as mortar cements (often based on clay), water with a dense mineral content and even blood, for the purpose of making the paint adhere to the grotto walls. The question we can raise here is what the Lascaux artists expected? First of all, they wanted their art-work to last through time, maybe that their children and several generations to come could see what they had done and painted. We can admit today that it was a fairly successful venture. But a more relevant answer is that they were projecting themselves into an unknown future. We estimate today that our Sun has 5 billion years of fuel left before it “goes out”. We too are projecting ourselves towards that unknown future … In a word, innovation and projection are parallel in their processes.

You link the emergence of conscience and man’s ability to innovate. Would you like to comment the assertion?

The human encephalon (our brain), at some point in the past, crossed the threshold of complexity, viz., the point where a conscience emerged – as palaeontologists, we date the emergence to about 3 M years before our era. From that point on, Man was in a position to anticipate events. Concomitantly there was already a climate warming phenomenon, felt particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa (the Tropics) and which obliged our ancestors to change, from pre-human to human, modern, forms, thereby enabling the species to adapt to the radically dry periods that reigned. Let me give you just one figure: the number of tree-pollen compared with grass-pollens. The ratio is all the higher when there are plentiful forests of trees. Three M.years ago the ratio was 0.4. Two M.years ago, the ratio had dropped to 0.01! … Some species of animals became extinct, others fled, others transformed themselves and adapted to the new drier situation: elephants, antelopes, rhinos, horses … Pre-humans adapted themselves, transforming their central nervous system and dental array (teeth).They could now eat meat, all the more important that there was not enough vegetables. And the increased capacity of his central nervous system conferred an ability to reflect and reason and probably at this time, saw the emergence of his conscience. The quantitative leap is going to produce what we scientists call a ‘discontinuity’. In English there is a saying “More is different”. The gain here for Man was not just a simple increase but a real and significant difference. As if we were asserting that 1+1 was no longer 2. The same sort of leap is also relevant when inert matter became living matter. Molecules that accumulated in an aquatic milieu started to aggregate in molecular chains, ‘discovering’ ‘replication and multiplication. In some cases, this threshold is called “the advent of life” and in others “the emergence of conscience”? Whatever the case, it is important that we understand that each adaptation is an innovation and each innovation is essential because it is first and foremost a form of knowledge. And knowledge is freedom. The more we know, the better we can comprehend the world around us and anticipate on future events.

Are we to understand that Man always innovates consciously ?

No. Scientific research cannot be summarised as being simply limited to the search for potential applications of our discoveries. As I see it, there is no distinction to be made between basic research and applied sciences. The base-line is science, from which possible applications and innovations are derived, without even having to imagine them.. We should not lose from sight that innovation is an adventure and by definition we should always be prepared for the unexpected, even if the ethics committees are necessary to channel scientists (inclinations for a ‘touch of madness’). But let us admit that this madness often leads to inventions and make the plea – leave us our madness, under your control if you must, but leave it, please! [laughter in the room]. Scientists must not be reasonable – it is not written in our remit. We must use their powers of reasoning but not be reasonable.”

We can now quote what Prof. Yves COPPENS, emeritus professor at the prestigious College de France and one of the world’s specialists in palaeontology said in the Preface to the UTC “A to Z” publications, and who kindly gave us here his insights into innovation :

“If there are innovations in palaeontology, I really would find it a little difficult to address the question of future fossils (although it sounds good)”.