Geologic Eras and Knowledge Acquisition

Covering the Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. I, Part 1, Chapters I-IIIa: The Geological Ages, Physical Conditions, and Primitive Man in Egypt, Western Asia, and Europe in Paleolithic Times

This book is not a beach read. The vocabulary is technical, the references to specific archaeological sites and geographic areas are frequent, and particularly the geological changes detailed in the first chapter are hard to get a handle on, since I lack a frame of reference to anchor the dates or changes. We often think in metaphors and systems, and being able to draw a comparison or contrast between events improves our recall of those events and leads to greater insight. I hope that as I work through these volumes I will expand my references, allowing my knowledge and insight to compound.  This reinforces one of my rules for business communications:

Never present a data set without comparing it to something and providing a frame of reference.

Changes (or similarities) between different geographies or time periods are interesting and more memorable. For example, the statement “Sales grew faster in the second quarter than in the first” says provides greater insight and guidance than “Sales grew by 4% in the second quarter”. Ideally, one can combine both the absolute statement with the relative: “Sales grew by 4% in the second quarter, up from 1% growth in the first”. Many consultants will advise going one step further, and presenting a hypothesis for the change. If the data support such a hypothesis, that may be appropriate, but with only correlation to support a claim, I believe that the more honest approach is to simply present the change and allow one’s audience to discuss and consider a range of possible causes for such an increase, from random fluctuations, to seasonal differences, to particular offers or marketing campaigns having the desired effect. Like most dinosaur-loving children, I have been to many natural history museums, however, and have read about the geological ages and eras many times, but never retained the information until now.

When I saw the list of ages in this book, I decided that it was high time that I know their sequence, providing a frame of reference. Drawing in part on the principle that unusual mental images are easier to remember, the mnemonic that I came up with, in reverse chronological order, is: Please Put Mustard On Every Cucumber, Justin Timberlake. Politically Correct Dachshunds Screen Our Comments. As mnemonics, these work well because each is a single concrete image, and while I have not yet memorized the durations of each era, the geological features of the continents present at that time, or the life forms extant (all information contained in the first chapter of the book), it is a start. The pre-mammalian eras have limited relevance to contemporary corporate strategy, but the importance of knowing not only how to look up information (which is well-emphasized in corporate research) but also knowing the information directly is often underestimated. Leaders who do not know facts are liable to believe the consultant or investment banker with a slick sales pitch whose research may in fact be flawed, internally inconsistent, or even fabricated. They may also be weaker in negotiations- I recall a senior executive who asked me in a degree of some panic for a fact-book to rebut a negotiating partner’s statement that in asking for the rights to the Canadian market we “were asking for half of the value of North America.” Had she been readily aware of the fact that the population of the United States is roughly ten times that of Canada, she could have laughed confidently at the hyperbole and if she thought there were merit to the claim, asked the negotiating partner why he believed that the average Canadian spent ten times as much on the services in question as the average American. This would have saved our team some time for other work, but far more importantly, it would have saved her face with the negotiating partner. She would have retained greater negotiating leverage, momentum, and saved face further by focusing the discussion on the actual criteria that would constitute a fair agreement. Instead, she demonstrated to the negotiating partner her discomfort with the details, and that she was prepared to be intimidated by his presumed (but demonstrably false) sophisticated knowledge.

The first part of the mnemonic (Please Put Mustard On Every Cucumber, Justin Timberlake) leads from the Quaternary Era (rise of present-day species, ~ 2 Million years ago) back through the Mesozoic (evolution of reptiles, 225 Million Years ago).  The ages themselves: Pleistocene, Pliocene, Miocene, Oligocene, Eocene, Cretaceous, Jurassic and Triassic. The second sentence (Politically Correct Dachshunds Screen Our Comments) traces back through the Paleozoic and the beginning of more sophisticated land animals, to 600 Million years ago: Permian, Carboniferous, Devonian, Silurian, Ordovician, and Cambrian. Prior to that is, logically enough, the Pre-Cambrian era, in which soft-bodied animals evolved. These eras provides an excellent source for descriptive adjectives; one could refer to someone as being “of Carboniferous intelligence” (the era in which amphibians developed)- a much more cutting and precise insult than simply saying “he has the brain capacity of a toad”) because it not only emphasizes his lack of thought, but also implies that he has 250 million+ years of evolution to go to catch up to the rest of the species.

Another theme that I expect to revisit frequently in the course of this research is the challenging balance between generalization and specificity.  For many of us, the phrase “Paleolithic” (or, less specifically, “Stone Age”) evokes images of flint tools, fur-clad humans hunting mammoths, and building fires of sparks struck from flint. We may imagine that our ancestors in this era all lived similar lives without asking the necessary refining questions about the region of the world or their climate (consider so-called “Paleo” diets or workouts), yet market researchers today are convinced that even within a single metropolitan area, wealth, age, and demographics define subcultures and populations that have distinct ambitions and views on the world that they require different marketing campaigns for snack food.  Compounding our hubris is the fact that humans lived a Paleolithic lifestyle for the majority of 100,000 years, with improvements in flint scrapers, burins and blades occurring at different times in different populations during that period. These developments would have had a profound impact on the daily life of the community that benefited, and the relative isolation of different population groups would suggest the possibility of additionally distinct cultures.  Despite those regional and temporal differences, I expect that the quotidian dramas of intergenerational conflict, of relative status, of short-term and long-term plans, hopes, and fears would have been unrecognizable to us today.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is sometimes taken to imply that in times of greater scarcity, humans did not seek relationships or self-fulfillment.  I find that hypothesis questionable at best.  Ancient families had times of plenty as well as scarcity, and having learned to survive in their environment, I believe that Paleolithic people may not have found the uncertainty that they faced around obtaining sufficient food significantly more stressful than contemporary employees find their own professional uncertainties.

Up next: what the Mesolithic tells us about innovation, climate change, and “meeting customer needs.”

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