From Mammoths to Time ManagementMarch 25th, 2020 · 8 comments
In 1973, the BBC aired a 13-part documentary television series called The Ascent of Man. It was written and hosted by the polymath intellectual Jacob Bronowski, and following the lead of the BBC’s 1968 hit series, Civilization, it featured poetic commentary set against dramatic visuals.
Which is all to say, I was excited to recently come across a copy of the series’s companion book: a handsome large-format hardcover that largely replicates the commentary from the television show and is thick with full-color photos. (I’ve always loved sweeping science histories. I’m concurrently reading, off and on, a vintage copy of Richard Leakey’s 1978 book, People of the Lake, and Niall Ferguson’s latest, The Square and the Tower.)
I wanted to briefly share an interesting nugget I came across early in Bronowski’s book about the consequences of our ancestors’ shift toward an omnivorous diet:
“Meat is a more concentrated protein than plant, and eating meat cuts down the bulk and the time spent in eating by two-thirds. The consequences for the evolution of man were far-reaching. He had more time free, and could spend it in more indirect ways, to get food from sources (such as large animals) which could not be tackled by hungry brute force. Evidently that helped to promote (by natural selection) the tendency of all primates to interpose an internal delay in the brain between stimulus and response, until it developed into the full human ability to postpone the gratification of desire.”
The science on human evolution has taken astounding leaps since the 1970s, so I have no idea whether or not paleo-anthropologists still think it was the rewards of big game hunting that selected for the breaking of the stimulus and response loop in our brains. But I do know, based on some recent interviews I conducted with neuroscientists for a new book I’m working on, that this development — which gave us the ability to plan — is both largely overlooked, and remarkably central to basically everything great and terrible our species has done since.
More than anything, however, I like the neat just-so story implied by this passage: from our want of mammoths we eventually ended up bound by the tyranny of time management.