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In recent decades, the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis has been quietly expanded to embrace the evolution of complex systems (living and non-living) and the information on which they are based (e.g., Adami 2011; Mayfield 2013). The expanded theoretical framework is especially appropriate—perhaps essential—for understanding the evolution of modern humans, who represent major changes in the way that information is stored, transmitted, translated, and manipulated (Maynard Smith and Szathmáry 1995). Modern humans may be distinguished from earlier forms of Homo by an enhanced faculty for manipulation of information (i.e., computation) that permits generation of a potentially infinite variety of combinations of hierarchically-organized units of information. This faculty is most commonly manifest in the computations that underlie spoken and unspoken language (Hauser et al. 2002), which may be considered a form of information technology. Spoken or imagined words are “material symbols” (Clark 2008) manipulated in the brain to facilitate complex computation in a manner analogous to the beads of an abacus.
If technology is viewed as a form of computation (i.e., manipulation of objects and materials), this faculty also is evident in the artifacts produced by modern humans, which exhibit an increasingly complex, hierarchical organization with a potentially infinite variety of combinatorial possibilities. Because the acquisition of syntactic language requires a lengthy "critical period" of exposure during childhood, the computational complexity of language appears to be linked to the significantly delayed maturation of the modern human brain (which is only 25% of its adult volume at birth). Greenfield (1991) found that the manipulation of objects exhibits increasing complexity (i.e., more hierarchical levels of organization) during childhood and noted overlap in areas of the brain activated for language and object manipulation. The enhanced faculty for manipulation of information and objects (i.e., increased computational complexity) found in modern humans is thus plausibly tied to the delayed growth of the brain and extended childhood, which begins to evolve after about 0.5 million years ago, but apparently is not comparable to that of living people until after 0.2 million years ago (Smith et al. 2007; Smith et al. 2010). The evolution of enhanced computational complexity in modern humans transformed existing systems of communication and technology, yielding an open-ended syntactic form of language and potentially infinite variety of hierarchically structured artifacts. Modern humans created new forms of information, including visual art (analog) and notation (digital), and colonized most terrestrial habitats on Earth by designing their own adaptive “traits” (e.g., tailored clothing) based on complex technological computations.