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.

New Comment
16 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

I have read large book with scinitific exploration of how humans comes to drawing. The result may be not true, but the way how the author searched for it, impressed me. The book is unfortunately in Russian. http://kronk.spb.ru/library/stolar-ad-1985.htm

Firstly, it is based on the enormous ammount of factual material as well as analysis and rejecting of many "obvious" explanations. Factual material shows very strange picture: that humans invented drawing step by step. They started from models of animals built from their bones, later, they attached such model to a wall, later they start to make sculputers of animals from clay, which trasformed into relief sculptures, and the the relief becomes surface drawings, and later contur drawings. It took tens of thousands years.

What surprised me is that there is no way I could come to this conclusion (which could be false anyway as the book is rather old) being a laymen in the prehostoric art.

This post is a pretty comprehensive brainstorm of a crucially important topic; I've found that just reading through it sparks ideas.

Seeing this list made me think: If these factors contributed to past humans taking so long to invent things, perhaps we could try to influence them in our current era in order to accelerate progress.

Some of them are already changing, for example population growth or the trend in decreasing absolute poverty. However, there seems to be an opportunity to direct more deliberate effort into making headway in the following areas:

  • Concepts: different human languages are known to have words that are hard to translate into other languages; studies have found that people with different native tongues think differently, etc. So it is possible that we are missing concepts that already exist but haven't spread universally. Not having these concepts means that we cannot think using them. (The same goes for specialized academic fields.)
  • External thinking tools: human-computer interfaces and augmented reality can help here.
  • Records: we seem to be getting better at this, but see also the vulnerability of digital data. In addition to finding new ways of storing data for the long-term, we also need to improve the communication of data across geographic and linguistic regions of the world. For example, a lot of academic articles are never translated into English.
  • Enhancing human capabilities: genetic engineering, nootropics, cyborgization, etc. can potentially improve our mental hardware (although currently they are ineffective or risky).
  • Social costs: "nerd culture" seems to be more accepted now, which I guess is encouraging. However, there are still people who oppose technological advances (like GMOs, stem cell research, nuclear energy, etc.) due to ethical concerns or just general skepticism of science.
  • Value of invention; orders of invention; prerequisites of inventions; etc. : I'm less sure about how we can modify these. Perhaps the more we invent, the more we can invent, implying that invention today should be easier than at any prior point; however, it is also possible that most of the low-hanging fruit have already been harvested. Any thoughts?

I don't think that nerd culture automatically leads to more openness for innovation. It leads to openness for certain innovations but less openess for innovations made by people who aren't seen as nerds. This goes especially for innovations that aren't supported by academic research.

One way to increase the value of many inventions would be Prediction-based Medicine if there would be a market in prediction based medicine it would make many inventions profitable that currently aren't.

There may be one more core idea that is obvious to us now but seemingly wasn't very common in many societies: Things might actually get better and the world is not about to end soon.

Most religions have the basic arc of a story: there is a beginning, there is an ending and lots of BS sandwiched in the middle. Since most civilizations didn't realize how old the earth actually is, the apocalyptic ending part of the religious story was usually projected just a few hundred years out, especially by the dominant monotheistic civilizations during the last two millenia. It seems really weird to think that so many cultures lived in the ruins of the Roman Empire and didn't seem to have the ambition to rediscover and adapt what was right in front of them, but it seems their zeitgeist was fairly fatalistic. Why build new aqueducts and a sewer system if the end is coming in a few centuries or even decades anyway?

Interesting list, but seems to have a triumphalist bias. I doubt that "50K years ago, nobody could imagine changing the world" is true, and I suspect that "hunter-gathering cultures have actually found locally-optimal ways of life, and were generally happier and healthier than most premodern post-agricultural people" was a much bigger factor than most of these.

For an in depth argument that could taken to support this point, I highly recommend Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman.

this topic is super relevant to my fiction project! Really good summary of a lot of areas that affect progress.

Moved to frontpage.

Rope might be difficult to imagine if you weren't already using something similar from nature

Rope might be difficult to imagine if you weren't already using something similar from nature.

Non-homo sapiens started making some sort of string (which is very similar technology to rope) at least 50,000 years ago. The earliest needle we've found is Denisovan (not homo sapien)(50k y.a..) and the earliest thread we've found is Neanderthal (30k y.a.). The needle is evidence of thread, but needles are more likely to have survived the time span than thread, which disintegrates.

The thing that is similar to rope in nature is just vines or roots, and indeed we have impressions of twined or braided vines left on clay-fired pots. Twined vines or other natural cordage would meet most of your rope-like needs until you had to do things like lift very heavy stones.

I think that there are a lot of recent cases where implementation of clearly useful innovations were ridicoulusly slow. For example, cryonics was well known from 1960s (and was first suggested even in 18 century) - but still is mostly ignored. Even I knew the idea it 20 year before Michael Darwin personaly persued me that it is right.

And it gives me another explanation of slowing acceptance of the new ideas. Basically, it is based on the oversimplification that humans are neural nets mostly repating what they learned on their training dataset. If the dataset is not including many instances of cryonics, they will ignore the idea. Humans could be trained to make innovations, like combining words "uber", "crypto" and "blockchain" and call it "my startup", but it is limited type of innovations.

Some people are more able to think not based on their training dataset, but to understand the nature of the human intelligence we should study evolution of the whole human dataset.

  1. People’s brains were actually biologically less functional fifty thousand years ago.



Is that biology or culture? Given the short time scale of the Flynn effect its probably not biological.

The usual explanation is that a significant chunk of it was caused by better nutrition and less injuries, which I do think can reasonably be classified as biological.