Why everything might have taken so long

I asked why humanity took so long to do anything at the start, and the Internet gave me its thoughts. Here is my expanded list of hypotheses, summarizing from comments on the post, here, and here.

Inventing is harder than it looks

  1. Inventions are usually more ingenious than they seem. Relatedly, reality has a lot of detail.
  2. There are lots of apparent paths: without hindsight, you have to waste a lot of time on dead ends.
  3. People are not as inventive as they imagine. For instance, I haven’t actually invented anything – why do I even imagine I could invent rope?
  4. Posing the question is a large part of the work. If you have never seen rope, it actually doesn’t occur to you that rope would come in handy, or to ask yourself how to make some.
  5. Animals (including humans) mostly think by intuitively recognizing over time what is promising and not among affordances they have, and reading what common observations imply. New affordances generally only appear by some outside force e.g. accidentally. To invent a thing, you have to somehow have an affordance to make it even though you have never seen it. And in retrospect it seems so obvious because now you do have the affordance.

People fifty thousand years ago were not really behaviorally modern

  1. People’s brains were actually biologically less functional fifty thousand years ago.
  2. Having concepts in general is a big deal. You need a foundation of knowledge and mental models to come up with more of them.
  3. We lacked a small number of unimaginably basic concepts that it is hard to even imagine not having now. For instance ‘abstraction’, or ‘changing the world around you to make it better’.
  4. Having external thinking tools is a big deal. Modern ‘human intelligence’ relies a lot on things like writing and collected data, that aren’t in anyone’s brain.
  5. The entire mental landscapes of early people was very different, as Julian Jaynes suggests.  In particular, they lacked self awareness and the ability to have original thought rather than just repeating whatever they usually repeat.


  1. Often A isn’t useful without B, and B isn’t useful without A. For instance, A is chariots and B is roads.
  2. A isn’t useful without lots of other things, which don’t depend on A, but take longer to accrue than you imagine.
  3. Lots of ways to solve problems don’t lead to great things in the long run. ‘Crude hacks’ get you most of the way there, reducing the value of great inventions.

Nobody can do much at all

  1. People in general are stupid in all domains, even now. Everything is always mysteriously a thousand times harder than you might think.
  2. Have I tried even making rope from scratch? Let alone inventing it?

People were really busy

  1. Poverty traps. Inventing only pays off long term, so for anyone to do it you need spare wealth and maybe institutions for capital to fund invention.
  2. People are just really busy doing and thinking about other things. Like mating and dancing and eating and so on.

Communication and records

  1. The early humans did have those things, we just don’t have good records. Which is not surprising, because our records of those times are clearly very lacking.
  2. Things got invented a lot, but communication wasn’t good/common enough to spread them. For instance because tribes were small and didn’t interact that much).

Social costs

  1. Technology might have been seen as a sign of weakness or laziness
  2. Making technology might make you stand out rather than fit in
  3. Productivity shames your peers and invites more work from you
  4. Inventions are sometimes against received wisdom


  1. There were very few people in the past, so the total thinking occurring between 50k and 28k years ago was less than in the last hundred years.


  1. We didn’t invent things until they became relevant at all, and most of these things aren’t relevant to a hunter-gatherer.
  2. Innovation is risky: if you try a new thing, you might die.

Orders of invention

  1. First order inventions are those where the raw materials are in your immediate surroundings, and they don’t require huge amounts of skill. My intuition is mostly that first order inventions should have been faster. But maybe we did get very good at first order ones quickly, but it is hard to move to higher orders.
  2. You need a full-time craftsman to make most basic things to a quality where they are worth having, and we couldn’t afford full-time craftsmen for a very long time.
  3. Each new layer requires the last layer of innovation be common enough that it is available everywhere, for the next person to use.

37 responses to “Why everything might have taken so long

  1. The next time someone emphatically opines to me that “X happened because of Y,” without considering other explanations, I will show them this post as a reminder of just how many hypotheses can be reasonable. This is a fantastic enumeration of how far you can go beyond the availability bias.

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  4. These two blog posts were a great New Years present.

    The question was fun to toss around in one’s mind, and your follow through in this post was terrific.

    Well done!

  5. You really ought to read “The Secret of Our Success” by Heinrich

  6. The Secret of Our Success by Joseph HENrich begins with stories of literate educated westerners, full of concepts like abstraction and invention, who couldn’t figure out how to use the resources around them and starved to death while the traditional people around them survived quite well.

  7. even with billions of bikers, and more than a hundred years, it took until very recently for there to be (e.g.) fat bikes with tires large enough to go anywhere, and all the benefits that provides. similar with packrafts, despite years of folk exploring, years of tech to make them, etc. so we know that seemingly low-hanging fruit either isn’t, or people just don’t bother (even millions or billions of people with relevant interests and decades). so the real question is why are we still so bad at finding and developing/commercializing relevant “inventions” (someone in other comments noted wheels on suitcases, which is another good example).

  8. I think posts like this are valuable and things would get invented faster if people made efforts to summarize and categorize searches through hypothesis space more.

    Related to a sub clause of one of the explanations: people are busy doing other things. Specifically they are busy reinventing countless wheels.

    • > if people made efforts to summarize

      Writing an ‘API to future inventors’ is an important part of summarizing experimentation. Creating good documentation so that a future finder of your work can make use of it is very valuable. This is very important in long cycle development technologies (heavy industry, aerospace, etc.). Todays ‘big breakthrough’ often stands on older work that was missing some essential tool that only recently came into creation.

  9. Time to experiment is a luxury good. If you must spend all your time foraging, creating shelter, sleeping, migrating, when do you invent capital assets like tools.

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  11. Also, there have been breaks in history when things that were discovered were forgotten. The Romans used concrete to build the Pantheon, but its use was forgotten about for 1000 years. And stuff like this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antikythera_mechanism – Greek astrological device using technology that wasn’t reinvented for 1500 years.

  12. Another great example… early meso-Americans used the wheel on children’s toys long before early Europeans cultures “discovered” it for more functional use, yet, the meso-Americans never thought to make bigger versions for use in things like wheel-barrels and such.

    • A wheel made more sense as a child’s toy than as a freight mover on the Andean slopes and one-llama-wide roads of the Incan Empire.

      Maybe some of the Incan kids who played with toy wheels did grow up to think of wheelbarrows then decided they didn’t want to risk stuff rolling down or off the road and getting out of control.

  13. People were really busy:

    3. Slavery, serfdom, etc. keeping slaves and serfs too busy to innovate much.

    4. Lack of birth control (everything from condoms not being invented yet to forced marriage not allowing a girl to use abstinence) keeping parents (especially women and married girls) too busy to innovate much and/or too dead of childbirth to innovate anymore.

    So much for that comment on your earlier post praising the idea of women as property. That comment’s dream would have had Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie not invent programming and nuclear science.

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  15. Fantastic read. Not something I’ve thought much about but totally fascinating the second you got going. Awesome.

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  17. If one paraphrases the question as ‘Why do things happen so quickly now?’, then the TL;DR is that we can reach higher because we stand on the shoulders of previous generations.

    It’s all (very) nicely written but that may be all there is to it.

  18. Just one thing:

    > Often A isn’t useful without B, and B isn’t useful without A. For instance, A is chariots and B is roads.

    Even without chariots, road are useful: pack animals and people on foot will move much more easily if there is a solid path that doesn’t turn to mud when it’s raining, that’s clear of obstacles and relatively smooth.

    Other than that, it’s a good read.

  19. When ideas combine their value can increase beyond the value of the individual underlying ideas. It’s like CAPM in finance – there are individual correlations between the ideas in addition to their individual risk/return payouts.

    For those combinations to happen – the ideas have to happen in the first place, and the odds of that improves when ideas can persist in and travel great distances. The Internet makes that easy. Your thoughts here really nail these issues.

    Framing the individual ideas and components is a common way of breaking down big industrial projects – it is also used in aerospace. (https://fredlybrand.com/2012/05/09/corona-and-the-u-2-the-components-of-strategic-reconnaissance/)

  20. Wonderful post. I have been thinking about early inventions and artificial intelligence for a long time. I’ve been hoping that by learning about early inventions and how they were created that we can learn to create better AI techniques. I also like to think about why human beings were able to make the change (evolve?) from being animals to civilization. What was important about our early ancestors millions of years ago that allowed use to make fire, trade, throw rocks, and use tools? Was it the prefrontal cortex, opposable thumbs, vocal cords, standing upright, or some combination of those things?

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  22. These all seem probably true, at least plausible, surely many can be significant factors at the same time. It’s anybody’s guess how large each factor is. Meanwhile I wonder what’s missed!

    Also none of these predict the actual numbers, the measurable quantities. Number of years without invention, number of inventions, etc. Also it’s a selection of just one side: reasons for slowness.

  23. Nah, chariots are pretty useful on any flat-ish, hard-ish surface; they’d be useless in war if they only worked on a road, because your chariot-less opponent would cleverly not fight you on the road, wot?

    Likewise, roads are good for wagons even if there are no chariots.

    Perhaps “wheeled transport” is what you’re looking for?

    (Though even then … the Conestoga Wagon was made exactly to not need a “road” as such.

    All you need is plains.)


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  28. One more reason might be nomadism. My grandparents were nomads traveling by reindeer drawn sleds, so they had really few possessions. Without the sleds they would have been restricted to what they could carry or save for a later visit.

  29. Re: the ‘crude hacks’ – there is plenty of cordage that is constantly used by primitive cultures – vines for example. So rope-like things were common. Also, the 28k years ago was the first case we have evidence for but it may have started much earlier.

  30. The whole history has been accelerating. Evolution took billions of years to occur. Surely people from the future (if the humanity doesn’t self-destruct that is) will look at us and laugh at why it “took so long” for us to invent things that seem to be utterly obvious to them? Something that is obvious given all the foundation built by predecessors to stand upon, isn’t necessarily obvious for people who don’t have that foundation at all. Another example: Before the Internet came, people thought they could just went about their lives totally fine, while we nowadays can’t imagine life without it. I don’t think there’s much surprising/hard to comprehend about it.

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  32. If you’ve ever done any industrial analysis, you run into a combination of these reasons. Industrial analysis is used by the intelligence community to figure out vulnerabilities and capabilities. During World War II, they wanted to know what to drop bombs on. Since then it has been used to track nuclear proliferation and biochemical weapons. It’s also used by industry analysts to estimate Apple Watch sales and figure out what features the next iPhone will have.

    I was exposed to it a bit as an undergraduate. We were asked to explain why the ancient Romans couldn’t build integrated circuits. Working out an answer was both daunting and educational. One answer was that the Romans couldn’t work with active fluorine compounds. They had plenty of access to silicon and copper, but they couldn’t produce a properly clean surface. There was also stuff about electricity, photo-chemistry, and the metals needed for proper doping.

    It helps to remember that there is push and pull. Gutenberg wouldn’t have built a printing press if the local religion didn’t insist that everyone read The Holy Bible to save their immortal souls. Look at the recent dramatic drop in solar panel prices. That could have happened in the 1980s, except that it took Chinese government’s desire to do something about the bad air in Beijing to make it happen.

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