So, Nat’ralists observe, a Flea
Hath smaller Fleas that on him prey,
And these have smaller yet to bite ’em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.
That’s what Donald Norman says in Things that Make Us Smart. He focuses mainly on the development of writing - not just the alphabet but all kinds of specialized notation for things like mathematics and music. His argument (sort of the inverse of an argument famously put forth by Socrates) is that the ability for us to write things down and then forget them really makes us smarter. Storing knowledge while it’s fresh and then being able to recall it later is one of the things that allowed for the flourishing of human intelligence.
I liken this to building jigs in woodworking. Your accuracy and neatness is limited if you do everything freehand. If you’re really careful, you can rip- and cross-cut really straight lines, but that’s about it. To do more intricate work, you typically need to build external aids that will augment your natural abilities. You start with almost nothing, then bootstrap your way up with a couple of sawhorses, try-squares, marking jigs, and maybe even a joiner’s bench. Without building the simple things first (like the sawhorses), you could never build the more complicated things later (like the workbench). Each tool you build requires the previous one, but also augments its capability.
This (bootstrapping) is a fascinating subject to ponder. Consider that the earliest people had nothing but their own hands to work with. Gradually, over the centuries, people learned to work with flint and stone, then metal. Our tools grew more capable and accurate as we used them to build ones that were yet more capable and accurate. Numerals and the abacus freed us from doing arithmetic within the limitations of our memory. Mechanical calculators freed us from the drudgery of arithmetic altogether and let us focus on higher-level concepts. Eventually, digital computers came on the scene. Then, people used computers to design still more sophisticated computers. All of these tools exist in a family tree that goes clear back (over several centuries) to somebody’s bare hands!