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From Mammoths to Time Management

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.

10 thoughts on “From Mammoths to Time Management”

  1. This particular blog post seems unfinished. We learned to postpone the gratification of desires which has led to us being “bound up” by the “tyranny” of time management? I am thankful for how we humans were designed and don’t feel bound up by anything tyrannical.

    • I think Cal means that if you choose goals whose fruition requires time, you are bound by those goals to manage that time well, when the reward is far off. Which as we all know is a real challenge!

  2. Interesting. Although, I can identify with humans changing over time and how previous cultural activities can greatly influence us even today. But I guess I view the changes as more cultural and biological rather than from a natural selection/evolution mindset, due to religion/spiritual mindset.

  3. In Chapter 7 of Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life titled ‘Pursue What is Meaningful (Not What Is Expedient)’ he also discusses the Mammoth theory as an origin of delaying gratification and goes further by attributing it to the foundation of God and Religion. That long before we were able to articulate what we were doing we acted out the statement “that something better might be attained in the future by giving up something of value in the present”. And whereas animals just follow the dictates of their nature, at some point long ago we began to realise that reality was structured as if it could be bargained with. It’s an interesting point (and chapter) and reminded me of similar points raised by yourself, Cal.

  4. I was just watching a Nature documentary on crows (“Murder of Crows”) and they had a similar observation. They said that some reasons crows are so dang smart is that they are in large societies (i.e. murders) where they have to understand their place relative to other birds. Like, other crows will steal their food caches so they get really good about faking out where they are storing their stuff. Also, crows are omnivores, so they develop really creative ways to get food. Like, some animals can get born already knowing how to get the one food they eat (instinct) whereas crows have to always be on the ball. Like they learn how to crack nuts and that kind of thing. They make fairly complex TOOLS for goodness sake (at least one species of crows does.) And of course both of these evolutionary pressures, societies and being omnivores, applies to humans as well.


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