Why did everything take so long?

One of the biggest intuitive mysteries to me is how humanity took so long to do anything.

Humans have been ‘behaviorally modern’ for about 50 thousand years. And apparently didn’t invent, for instance:

This kind of thing seems really weird introspectively, because it is hard to imagine going a whole lifetime in the wilderness without wanting something like rope, or going a whole day wanting something like rope without figuring out how to make something like rope. Yet apparently people went for about a thousand lifetimes without that happening.

Some possible explanations:

  1. Inventions are usually more ingenious than they seem. LiveScience argues that it took so long to invent the wheel because “The tricky thing about the wheel is not conceiving of a cylinder rolling on its edge. It’s figuring out how to connect a stable, stationary platform to that cylinder.” I feel like that would explain why it took a month rather than a day. But a couple of thousand lifetimes?
  2. Knowing what you are looking for is everything. If you sat a person down and said, “look, how do you attach a stationary platform to a rolling thing?” they could figure it out within a few hours, but if you just give them the world, they don’t think about whether a stationary platform attached to a rolling thing would be useful, so “how do you attach a stationary platform to a rolling thing” doesn’t come up as a salient question for a couple of thousand lifetimes.
  3. Having concepts in general is a big deal, and being an early human who had never heard of any invention was a bit like being me when I’m half asleep.
  4. Everything is always mysteriously a thousand times harder than you might think. Consider writing a blog post. Why haven’t I written a blog post in a month?
  5. Others?

50 responses to “Why did everything take so long?

  1. Chariots or carts aren’t very useful without roads or other stable flat surfaces to move along, and if you just need to move loads occasionally you can put logs under a platform for a similar effect without doing any fine engineering. There’s often a crude hack that gets you much of the way there, and often the super-useful things are only super-useful because a lot of other stuff’s been done. What’s more, after a few generations of refining the crude hack, often initial attempts at the nifty new thing aren’t all that great.

    You also have to count wasted effort. In advance it’s not always obvious when you’re working on something like a cart and when you’re working on something like a perpetual motion machine. (Cf. alchemy, chemistry.)

    Finally, ever since the agricultural revolution, people have been really busy most of the time.

  2. Genetics, IQ, poverty traps, critical demographics, etc. They are deep processes that shape cognitive capital. You can ask the same question after observing contemporary hunter-gatherers for decades and decades: “How can they go on, a whole lifetime in the wilderness, without wanting something like X?”

    Well, when you’ve more urgent things to solve, it is pretty hard to come up with groundbreaking new solutions to persistent problems. You can see in ethnographic record. Even the most successful contemporary populations report they wish they had more food and security available. It is a constant lingering problem in the mind. The 20 years old who codes 10 hours per day and then goes home and invents the new blockchain technology is biologically and sociologically different than the humans that lived ~10.000 years ago. We may also underestimate how many subpopulations of humans out there are simply inclined to get used to whatever ticket the biosphere lottery has handed them and how fragile and unlikely it is to have a few persistent number of human beings who are inclined to search for other equilibria, low hanging technological fruits and actually improve upon the human condition. Instead of asking “How can they go on, a whole lifetime in the wilderness, without wanting something like X?” we may ask as well: “How did we got here when everything looked so fragile and persistently awful?”

    • ‘Cognitive capital’ is a good way of putting this. You need a foundation of knowledge and mental models before you can build more upon them. There is a ‘compounding’ and ‘momentum’ to knowledge acquisition. Starting out, it is quite slow – now it is quite fast (relatively). I think history demonstrates that this has been rapidly accelerating and we should expect a similar trajectory just a few centuries forward.

    • Hey there! What are the sub populations you’re talking about? What biological changes are you talking about? Who do you think invented the wheel and what exactly do you think made them biologically and ethnographically different? Thanks!

  3. Another consideration is risk. Sometimes trying something a new way and failing doesn’t just mean wasted effort, it means catastrophe. What if your cool new invention ends up having a critical flaw that kills you? Plausibly this happens reasonably often. If your nifty new axe breaks at the wrong part of a hunt, you might end up dead even if the basic idea was sound.

  4. Our model of the world prior to about 700 BCE is based on an extremely large amount of speculation and extremely little hard data or written records. Possibly people in the ancient world had all of those things. We know about the Antikythera Mechanism from a single data-point and would generally call such a thing wildly unlikely in the absence of that data-point. There are numerous other examples, including ‘obvious like water to a fish’ examples of single data points that we would otherwise consider very unlikely, like the existence of humans in Australia.

    In a world where the mainstream historical estimates of stone-age populations in the Americas 500 years ago involve order-of-magnitude uncertainty, estimates of the population of the world 20X earlier don’t need to be taken with a grain of salt but rather regarded as wholly fictitious. Other estimates, like when rope was invented, are likewise simply made-up based on the age of the oldest example we know of. In the case of rope in particular, I think there are figurines older than 28K years which appear to depict woven clothing as well.

  5. We find it obvious that one would want to increase their productivity, but in a different society, wanting to lessen your burden might be perceived as a weakness or defiance of group norms. It wouldn’t occur to you to make a rope because its utility would be far less than the scorn of your peers.

    • A thousand times this. “Ca’canny” is the rule of human endeavour in nearly all times and places. Productivity shames your peers (in olden time, typically your family!) and invites more work for you.

      The key technology was a social structure capable of absorbing relative productivity changes. I’d give decent odds that involves nontrivial urbanization, currency or written ledgers, and in extreme cases trade at a distance. It might also involve managerial innovations, of which history leaves little record.

  6. We’re not as inventive or original as we like to think. Intellectual progress is almost entirely a matter of recombining elements previously discovered or invented. Until underpinnings are built up, very slow progress would be expected.

    More important than these practical inventions might be the invention of abstraction. I understand that the Greeks at the time the Iliad was written lacked the term or concept for vision. Language was, I suppose, more near-mode. [Which would tend to refute the notion that far-mode is primarily a vehicle for hypocrisy.]

  7. It’s often hard, having been shown the solution to a problem, to have a good sense of how easily you could have solved it yourself; and in the case of inventions as old and ubiquitous as rope, the wheel or writing, the typical individual in the modern era been exposed to and absorbed the concept from a very young age.

    I also think its worth trying to better calibrate your general intuition for how hard it should be for humanity to invent X, by remembering when (implicitly) comparing different eras in history to population-weight the passage of time.

    E.g. 22,000 years to get to rope seems like a very long time. But how do you form your sense of how much invention should occur in 22,000 years? Partly you are introspecting on how much you think you could invent in an intuitively accessible period of time like a month, but partly, I suspect, by noticing how much invention has occurred in (say) the last 100 years and extrapolating. But, of course, the number of total brain-cycles that occurred in that 50,000-28,000 BCE span is less than from 1917-2017 CE, by maybe an order of magnitude or more. Of course the latter period has still by far the more impressive productivity even having made this adjustment, but at least we can get some sense that the apparent length of prehistorical stagnation is misleading.

  8. Michael Wulfsohn

    Taking a guess, early humans may have been more interested in fitting in than standing out?
    Or, pre-civilization, there may have been too much short term survival pressure for people to ever spend much time or mental energy on long term goals like inventing, which in addition risk failure?
    But I think the most convincing one is what you say – little ability to conceive of what doesn’t already exist or of how things could be done differently.

  9. Do we have any information at all on “leisure/free time” in a general premodern tribe or band? Some of these leaps might require not much more than one day’s *continuous* focused thought, but if you are so busy with daily survival, worrying about background threats (eg sickness, hostile tribes), your tasks within your tribe (which you’ll get penalized for if seen slacking), social/sexual/romantic relations, etc.. You may only very rarely have the mental space and time to focus on a particular puzzle for more than a few hours, let alone get the materials and time to experiment with solutions, and see that this is at all going anywhere (e.g that it’s promising enough to at least pass on your early thoughts about it to the brightest kids in the next generation).

    I’m not sure about this reason – – – it seems like a strong claim to suggest that people always ‘got distracted’. But in some contexts it may have contributed. I’ll look more into studies on contemporary tribes, see if any adress this.

  10. Part of the explanation can be found in this article: “Most of our intelligence is not in our brain, it is externalized as our civilization.”

  11. Have you tried making a rope from scratch?

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  13. Communication is hard and takes time, especially when your language is imprecise, you’re confused about epistemology and you have little interpersonal trust. And you have little time when you’re barely getting by as a hunter gatherer in a more or less constant state of war with neighboring tribes. And when you do have time to pass on knowledge, there is more important stuff you do first: Which plants are edible, who owes what to whom, how to please the Lord of the Hunt… Only after those basics are done would you get to your weird uncle’s games with round pieces of wood.

    Except inventions of weapons, of course. Weapons tech was comparatively highly developed even back in Homo Erectus, because it was an obvious priority.

    So I think all of those things were invented lots of times. But they usually died again with their inventors, or when the village that had them got raided. Over time, language got better, so bandwidth between brains got better, so the inventions could start getting copied often enough to be recognizable as such by archeologists.

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  15. Encephalization Quotient for Homo sapiens And Its Ancestors http://www.roperld.com/science/graphics/EQHomoSapiens.jpg

  16. Our evolved capacities included cognitive capacities for basic hunting and gathering as well as cognitive capacities for navigating coalitional politics in the tribe. They did not include the capacity for personal identity or original thought. I buy some version of Julian Jaynes’ notion that the ability to have an individual awareness was not standard until the past 5-10,000 years. Even then, it was at best partial until the 1000 BC or so. Human mentality was exceptionally simple until the rise of the great civilizations. It is often remarkably simple around the world today for those who live illiterate lives as agricultural laborers. One repetitiously does what one does, what one’s ancestors did, what has always been done. One would live and die without ever hearing a new belief or ever meeting anyone who had a different belief. One was raised with the same myths and stories that one’s great great great great grandparents were raised with. Culture was more static than any of us can imagine. They did not have a mind or awareness in the manner that we do. They moved from task to task like bovines or, to be fair, wolf-like cunning at times – but it is not clear that wolves think about innovations or entertain new ideas.

    • If that was true then none of them would have thought of changing any of it and we’d still be living like that today, because no one changed any of the way people live.

  17. One way to consider is that various inventions are first or second, even third order. First order is knapping flint. Or making mud bricks. Right, you can find all the things you need at hand. Learning the skill doesn’t crowd out basics of survival.

    Then you get to second order things, you tools. Gonna make an axle for a wheel? It has to be round, you need tools and skilled worker to build, maintain, and use them. That skilled worker won’t be able to do that unless someone else is supporting their physical needs.

    What probably happens is slowly over 25,000 years humans got really good at first order goods. And that leads eventually to agriculture. Excess goods leads to social stratification. And then the priesthood and nascent kings being able to support artisans. And over time their knowledge and skills increase and diffuses out.

    I can’t help but think of Tutankhamun’s grave goods. His household had a small army of people making this stuff. Without that small army of skilled workers those third order technological goods don’t exist. Think of his dagger. Someone found that that hunk of meteoric iron. And eventually it ended up in the royal workshop where it kicked around before someone made a dagger out it.

  18. Because humans are stupid, overwhelmingly blindingly stupid. They are not amazing beings, they’re biological creatures made of proteins and the fact that proteins are able to “invent” things at all is by itself incredibly remarkable.

    But seriously look around today. What do you see? 7 billion people on the planet, half of them are struggling to survive the threat of starvation caused by the other half’s greed, and those who live in luxury are more interested in The Kardashians or their petty day to day bullshit than doing anything remarkable or worthwhile with their own lives. They are _dumb_.

  19. Forget inventing the wheel. Why, up until 25 years ago, did luggage not have wheels, for getting through airports?

    • Suggestion: Because before the ADA there were a lot of stairs, so you would have to carry the luggage up them anyway. No point in having wheels on luggage until you can roll it up ramps the whole way.

      • Hazel, what’s ADA? NB I’ve used rolling luggage all over Europe, including railway stations with stairwells. Its still easier than schlepping them. Just looked up ADA. Q: why didn’t the airports just install a few lifts?? Wouldn’t that have been less expensive and easier?

        • The ADA is the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal law in the U.S. that calls for more accessibility.

          We in the U.S. shouldn’t assume that every English speaker on the internet is familiar with all the same stuff we’re familiar with in the U.S..

  20. Another possibility: These things WERE invented earlier, and our understanding of deep history is foggy and incomplete.

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  22. This essay and the prior comments assume that people have been around for at least 50,000 years. If the Judeo-Christian view of special creation is right, people have been around for less than 10,000 years. As others have pointed out, during most of that time, world population was a tiny fraction of what it is today. Yet people did some amazing things thousands of years ago. Do we have the technology to duplicate the pyramids or Machu Picchu? I doubt it.

    Michael Strong, if the ability to have individual awareness was partial until 1000 BC, that partial-awareness period includes the time of Noah, Abraham, and Moses. I find that odd, though I readily grant that people in some societies have a very different individual awareness from people in other societies. My impression is that someone in rural China may think of the individual quite differently from his second-cousin in San Francisco.

    • There’s a theory actually that ancient people without a concept of the self could mistake their own voice in their head for the voice of God. I think it’s called The Bicameral Mind or something.

      An alternate theory is that schizophrenia was just more common back then.

      Both theories are weird, and I don’t believe either, but they’re both gaining popularity

  23. What about the flamingly obvious one: evolution didn’t stop 50,000 years ago, and we’re smarter now than we were then?

  24. An anthropologist named Ted Cloak wrote an article, “Cultural Darwinism: Natural Selection of The Spoked Wood Wheel”, way way back in the ancient days of 1968. Alas, it is all but forgotten, but well worth a read. You can find it on the web, with photos of the wheel-making process, here:


    Toward the end Cloake observes: “So the adaptive superiority of a properly made spoked wheel is clear.
    But as we have seen, a spoked wheel is the outcome of a large number of cultural instructions; it is an immensely complex piece of engineering; it is a gestalt, a functionally integrated whole. If any part, or relation between parts, is not correctly executed, the wheel is not superior, it is definitely inferior to a good solid wheel. (As my informant put it, a properly made wheel will last five years under heavy loads in the tropics; an improperly made wheel will last about two months.)

    “How, then, could the first spoked wheel have survived the selective competition of the well-adapted solid wheel? I’m not speaking in metaphors here; wheel-making is passed along by apprenticeship. Wheelwrights who make worse wheels get to train fewer apprentices. In the long run their ideas are selected against, in favor of those of wheelwrights who make better wheels. Yet I submit that it is extremely unlikely that some Mesopotamian wheelwright-genius invented all the cultural instructions for making a successful spoked wheel in a tour de force of creative imagination and reasoning. Hence, I want to try to suggest how the spoked wheel evolved by increments, such that one instruction at a time could be thought up, introduced into the wheelmaker’s bag of tricks, and become established through natural selection, before the next innovation came along, and how this sequence of incremental innovations could lead to the apparent unity that you have seen made.”

    He then goes on to speculate.

  25. The simplest explanation is that “behavioral modernity” did not actually happen 50kYA, but more like 5kYA. On observing that they failed to make inventions we would consider obvious, we have no reason to presume they were similar enough to us that they would be obvious to them.

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  27. Hawks are optimized for flying. Dolphins are optimized for swimming. Wolves are optimized for running. What about humans? We’re optimized for allocating. We’re the most allocative species. We’re also the smartest species. Do you think that this is a coincidence? From my perspective, it’s obviously more cognitively demanding to correctly figure out how to allocate more resources. Like juggling more things is more challenging.

    Let’s pretend that this economic theory of human intelligence is correct. Why did it take so long to figure it out? Well, whose job was it to figure it out? Biologists? Economists?

    Below this text box it shows some of your “top rated” entries. These are determined by votes. Did anybody tell you that voting is the best way to determine the usefulness of things? If so, did they cite their sources when they did so? Then again, isn’t a citation also a vote? Imagine if voting wasn’t really the best way to determine the usefulness of things. Wouldn’t it then be pretty problematic that the usefulness of all academic papers is determined by voting? Wouldn’t this mean that biologists are likely to overlook the most useful economics papers and vice versa?

  28. Re: Benquo’s first comment. Richard Bulliet says much the same thing in his very interesting The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions.

    You don’t get a supply of wheels where there’s no demand for wheels–which until recently was most places.

  29. Creativity and originality are much harder than people think.

    The example I used to carry with me is Special Relativity. It took Einstein, one of the most brilliant people ever, to come up with it. But we can teach it to university freshman and it’s really quite simple. Your observations make this much clearer.

    FWIW, this line of thinking makes me feel like people go about their business with a stunning amount of hubris about their cognitive capacity. Growing up, I thought I was stupid because I was mystified by simple things like how a toilet worked. Only much later did I realize few people know these things. Still, we can learn about them quickly, but only because we have a huge array of schema learned over time to draw upon and piece it together. Gaining really novel understanding is really hard.

  30. I’ve read the article and the comments. Most of you just spewed out whatever came to your tiny blue pilled minds rather than thinking. Let me spell it out for you my challenged friends. Humans were the reason why. If you wanted to breed, you had to be the biggest baddest hombre to get the women. Not woman – women. Women were property and the biggest and baddest had them. Eventually all you blue pilled suckers got together and decided to share. Bingo! Marriage invented. Now you have a woman, now you can breed, now you’re not spending all day long hunting for food, competing against other males for a woman. Now you have… time. Lots of time. So you sit around with your other warrior blue pilled buddies and think of how to stop the rain from making your and your woman wet. Housing created. Now you sit around in your huts and try to think of how not to die from the smoke of your fire (wasn’t a problem before, was it you mud-hut living tards?), Chimney created. Etc. onwards.

    If you think that blew your mind, now think about today’s western society where women are sleeping around before and during marriage and after divorce. No contract anymore. No “biblical” family unit. Now we have a red pill awakening of males (which is about gender behavior comprehension, nothing more) which will result in…? According to history, we saw the fall of the Roman Empire (read any account from the final years, it reads like an account of modern life). Good luck to us all and Happy New Year.

    • ” Now you have… time. Lots of time. ”

      How much time are you allowing your woman to

      ” now think about today’s western society where women are sleeping around before and during marriage and after divorce.”

      Now think about today’s western society where a woman *not* sleeping with any man, instead of sleeping with a man who she doesn’t want, when she *doesn’t* have a man who she *does* want to sleep with is far more tolerated and survivable (more non-wife ways to earn a living).

      Now you are a girl, now you can postpone sex and breeding until years and years after your first period.

      Soon you’re not either dead of childbirth or spending all day long raising the children and cleaning up after the husband and in-laws forced on you when you had a period but not enough libido for intercourse yet and you really wanted to stay a virgin.

      In the future you’re not further exhausted by raising an additional child every year or so and doing whatever drudge work the people treating you as property order you to do.

      Now, soon, and in the future you have… time. Lots of time. Time to grow and learn.

      So you get together with your classmates and coworkers of both sexes and innovate far more in recent centuries than in earlier millennia…

      • Wait, I forgot to delete the first two lines when I was editing the comment from an earlier version into its final draft.

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  35. I believe it’s true that obviously advantageous technology isn’t at all obvious if you can see no need for it. At the risk of sounding both pedantic, traditionalist, and hackneyed: Necessity is the mother of invention.

    People got their needs met without the aid of rope, wheels, etc.

    Eat, sleep, get along with your mates, make babies: all accomplished without much technology.

    Show up toodling along on a Segway and your tribe mates might kill you for being a sorcerer or something.

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  38. This about how the development of the chimney (not that long ago) let people have rooms instead of living in one giant building together blew my mind. https://medium.com/the-ferenstein-wire/the-birth-and-death-of-privacy-3-000-years-of-history-in-50-images-614c26059e


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