Monday, May 23, 2011

The Rabbit and the Mastodon: An Ancient Dilemma of Work and Wealth

Killing a mastodon probably made you pretty popular.

The guy who buys a round of drinks for the bar has got nothing on the guy who buys breakfast lunch and dinner for everyone he knows for a week. "Hey town - take the week off of work. Don't worry about it. It's on me."

That's roughly what I would've done with the Netflix Prize money. Every time I feel I'm on the tail of a big score, I start to divvy the money up in my mind. This much for mom and dad, that much to put Nathan through seminary, etc. I'm such a nice guy. People are going to love me.

An archaeologist named Hugh Robichaux once excavated a mammoth kill site on a campus close to mine when I was in undergrad. He got to learn a lot about Pleistocene megafauna, and he'd tell our class. He said that a mammoth kill was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, if that. The odds were bad, and the task was hard. But the glory was probably intense.

People didn't live on mastodons and mammoths. They lived on things like rabbits. Killing a rabbit is not a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It's an everyday thing. And it sucks. You go out every day, and you run around chasing something small and fast, wearing yourself out, and what you get in the end almost isn't worth the calories you burned to catch it.

That's why I've never been a Nine to Five man. Screw that. I'll hunt a few rabbits to keep me alive, but somewhere out there, there's a mastodon with my name on it. I was born for this. Aren't there some people who are just born for glory? That's what I would have told them in the Wired interview. You know, after the Netflix prize.

I imagine the paleolithic world had plenty of types like me. The modern world does too. Some pre-sedentary urge tells us that big game, with its slim-chance and big-payoff, is the only game in town if you want to be a hero. Rabbits just aren't as good for making everyone love you.

Or they weren't, until the sedentary shift.

One fine day, some anonymous demigod did something that changed the course of human history like nothing ever had or perhaps will again: he built a pen.

You put the rabbits inside. They breed. You eat. The running and sweating stops. It's like permanent mastodon week.

Our unsung Hero of Old and his village probably sat for months, shocked, after that. Will the gods be cool with this? What do we even do now?
Once having marched
Over the margins of animal necessity,
Over the grim line of sheer subsistence
    Then man came
To the deeper rituals of his bones,
To the time for thinking things over,
To the dance, the song, the story,
Or the hours given over to dreaming,
    Once having so marched.
Culture was born. And philosophy. And the professions.

And now we, in our own professions, can again chase mastodons. We can go for the Olympic tryouts, or the big record deal, or the Netflix prize. Or we can hunt rabbits, day in and day out, and make ends meet.

Or, we can take something small, and let it grow. We can be entrepreneurs.

It looks a lot like hunting rabbits at first. Stocking a pen is hunting rabbits at first. But eventually, the sustenance begins to flow at a level completely incommensurate with one's effort.

And then comes the time for thinking things over.

And your chances are a lot better than they are with a mastodon.

  Buy me a coffee to support posts like this.

  (Or, you know, a house. If you're just like a bored billionaire or something.)

1 comment:

  1. Nets and traps. Rabbits can be caught by nets and traps. Mastadons can't.