Monkey Men

One of the better things I heard last year came from a TV program that in every other respect was a bit rubbish. It was a series called ‘Walking with Humans’ and dealt with the evolution of man. My son loves monkeys, he especially loves people dressed up as monkeys and since this program was filled with actors in monkey suits jumping about, hollering and picking nits of each other it was a non-negotiable TV commitment for us all!

Anyway, one night, amidst all the lolloping and screeching of the monkey men, the narrator outlined a fascinating evolutionary insight that I thought was seamlessly applicable to the creative industries of game and film where tight deadlines and long hours are common place. It was salutary and was roughly this.

Around two million years ago our immediate ancestors had reached an evolutionary plateau. That is, in all significant biological/anatomical respects they were us; they walked on two legs, had opposable thumbs, had big brains and were only slightly hairier than we’d find acceptable in polite society these days. Their technology and tools consisted of chipped flints; sharp hand held bits of rock that they made by smashing stones against each other until they split giving them a cutting edge (the monkey men showed us how)

Now, the interesting thing, it turns out, is that having reached this point of biological and technological sophistication there was no further development of tools for another million years! Chipped flints ruled. And then, all of a sudden, about a million years ago there occurred a technological and creative explosion. Suddenly we have spears and knives with handles, jewelry, carved wood and stone figures.

The question is why? There was no biological/anatomical change over that time; our brains were no bigger nor our hands more dexterous. So evolutionary biologists pondered this question for a while until one bright spark made the inspired suggestion that perhaps it was all to do with the discovery of fire! The implications of this are huge although not immediately obvious.

It suggests that for a million years we spent all of our time busily keeping alive, keeping the wolf, quite literally, from the door. Its easy to imagine how our lives might have played out, huddled up in some tree or behind a bush, gripping chipped flints in sweaty hands and looking out for which ever hungry predator was eyeing us up. But when some genius discovered fire everything changed! Other animals are frightened of fire and our evenings could be spent warm and relaxed doing nothing but gazing vacantly into the flames! So  the invention of fire bought with it the invention of laziness and for the first time in our history we could do nothing, and, crucially, all that spare mental capacity and manual dexterity that had sat dormant for a million years had space and time to work!

As an explanation for the creative explosion in our distant past it is satisfyingly elegant. But more than that (and whether or not its true) it encapsulates brilliantly a strong argument against one of the defining characteristics of the entertainment industry: tight deadlines and long working hours. These are so much a part of the industry that they are barely noticed; indeed those keen to show their commitment, ambition and seriousness often enthusiastically embrace them. But what this evolutionary tale suggests is what we all really know, namely that if we are serious, and have real ambition and want to be really good then we’d better be lazy, sometimes at least. More than that it warns us that if we’re don’t  we’ll remain stupid. And there’s more than enough in the collective output of the game and film industry (some of which I’ve been responsible for) to suggest that this is not a lesson well learnt.