The Evolution of Expertise

Our history has shaped expertise and expertise has shaped our existence.

The Evolution of Expertise

In 2001: a Space Odyssey, the movie opens with a group of pre-historic hominids grazing the desert looking for food alongside other creatures; they are at the mercy of the environment, predators, and neighboring rivals.

While scavenging through bones left behind from animal remains, one ape has a realization. He picks up the bone and begins to strike the ground like a hammer, discovering its use as a weapon, and more importantly, a survival tool.

This realization gives this particular group dominance over its environment and prey. No longer scavengers for food or victims of more powerful rivals, the ape throws the stick high in the air in triumph.

As the stick comes descending back down, one of the most iconic shots in cinema history cuts to a spaceship in the future, showing the epic contrast and importance of this discovery for humans.


Humans have long developed expertise in functional domains such as hunting or toolmaking, allowing our ancestors to survive in harsh conditions.  

However, we've also developed expertise in expanded domains, including athletics, math and science, music, and much more. These domains wouldn't have developed in our earliest ancestors as they are all relatively new in the grand scheme of our existence.

And we continue to push our knowledge and abilities. Every year, new athletic records are broken, and discoveries are made; we are constantly exploring what we can master and become experts at.

Anders Ericsson defines expertise as "the mastery of specific skills that allow for performance that is beyond one's peers."

We have a tremendous capacity for learning, but how did we develop our abilities for expertise? What drives this behavior?

The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance states that modern-day expertise emerges from the plasticity of evolved cognitive abilities, increasing social competition, and inherent motivation to signal desirable traits that are culturally valued and tied to social prestige.

Selection Pressures

The first thing to look at is Biology. Different traits are "selected" depending on pressures from the environment. Then, those traits are passed on to the next generation if one has characteristics that allow them to survive and eventually pass on their genes.

An example, certain traits in dogs have been "selected" by humans, taking them from incredible predators to what we have today...

Sorry dogs

Pressure from Environment

On the other hand, nature doesn't typically select for cuteness, and pressures from the environment only allow the most adaptable to survive. One factor that most likely led to our cognitive abilities was environment variability.

Throughout our ancestor's history, they dealt with extreme weather fluctuations, and the attainment of high-quality food placed strain and cognitive stress on humans because of the rapidly changing environment.

So less intelligent behavior would have been at greater risk of starvation, and behavioral plasticity and adaptive versatility would have performed better under those conditions, allowing individuals with those traits to pass them to future generations.

It's believed that toolmaking, meat-eating, brain expansion, and other vital traits developed in response to these environmental problems.

Social Pressures

According to Ecological Dominance and Social Competition theory, at some point, our ancestors gained control over ecological and environmental pressures such as pathogens, climate, and prey.

Once this happened, humans experienced rapid population growth. After escaping the wrath of ecological pressures, human success primarily resulted from competition among humans instead of the environment.

It's no different than today; our success is much less about surviving nature as it is doing well within society. This inspired a cognitive "arms race" that increased brain size.

Moving up social hierarchies is much more complicated than hunting or gathering food. Someone wanting to do well would need to think through possible scenarios of how other individuals would act, so it's possible this pressure led to general IQ and creativity.

Humans began living in more aggregated societies marked by a division of labor and specialization. The complexity of tools increased with the expansion of brain size, and humans began to exhibit expertise in differentiated domains such as arts and ceramics.

Societies with deeper divisions of labor also created more experts and eventually developed an education system to enable the practice required to gain expertise.

And just like modern times, expert performance can attract prestige which can improve resources and social influence, motivating people to pursue higher performance levels.

Expertise is rare and difficult to achieve; communicating desirable traits such as work ethic, athleticism, intelligence, and ambition, all of which are typically broadcast publicity.

Due to these factors, the pursuit of expertise will most likely persist. We will continue to push the limits of our capabilities, allowing us to pass the knowledge learned to future generations who can build on it.

As of today, we are long removed from discovering how bones could be used as tools and not far off of the image traveling through space, giving evidence of the power of expertise.


Variability Selection in Hominid Evolution by Richard Potts

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson

The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance