If cavemen could watch TV, what would they want?

The Paleo TV format

What would they watch? And what primal needs does TV satisfy for us?

Well, I’m confused by life, aren’t you?

You’d think we’d have worked out the right way to live.  All that knowledge but we’re as suspicious as ever.

And here we are, surrounded by science, and the developed world is getting fatter. A veritable tsunami of fat bubbling waistwards from shop to plate to mouth to stomach and then marbling the innards and expanding the gut.  For decades, the finest scientific research that food processing and selling profits can pay for has told us that we need to cut calories and fat.  An emerging consensus (this for instance) now seems to be saying that cutting calories and fat doesn’t, in fact, provide sustainable weight-loss, while cutting out such modern delights as sugar, carbohydrates and processed food does.

But I’m also confused by exercise.  I’ve run marathons (PB 3:01:17.  Apologies for shoe-horning that in) and yet, and yet, I’m convinced by the research that says that the best forms of exercise for weight loss aren’t 40-minute bursts of aerobic effort, but generalised everyday movements such as walking and strolling about, coupled with balls-out intense ohmygodmakeitstop torture for 30 seconds or so.

What this diet and this exercise seem to have in common are their similarity to how cavemen used to eat, and behave.  Scientists who take the loooong view argue that despite the changes in lifestyle in recent years – meaning since the industrial revolution – our bodies are really based on the more primitive model that developed over millions of years.  We like modern processed food, but it doesn’t really like us.  So the best form of exercise is the sort you would use to get from place to place by your own means – walking – or to catch food, or to escape from danger (bursts of intense running or swimming).

And the best diet is to eat the food you might find easily to hand if you landed on a desert island: animals, fish, green vegetables, low-hanging fruit, nuts and so on.

Anyway, it’s a theory. And since it stands in opposition to the well-financed research supporting ‘value added’ forms of exercise (thank you Nike and Virgin Gyms), and food (hello Cadbury, Hovis, and everyone else), I’m prepared to give it a listen.

So, here’s the question.  If modern man might thrive on the natural food and lifestyle of Paleolithic early humans, how might TV fit into such a lifestyle?  What would Paleolithic man and woman get out of watching TV?  And if our bodies and brains are fundamentally based on prehistoric man how does TV deliver on needs that go back that far?

I’ve mentioned Clay Shirky’s ‘Cognitive Surplus’ round these parts before.  Clay compared television with the temporary gin craze of the 1720s (apparently Britons were very verrrrry drrrunk that decade), and argued that it was a temporary, damaging epoch which would decline as the internet ushered in a collaborative, creative form of living.   So for him, TV wouldn’t fit in at all.  Well, that’s a point of view.

But this blog celebrates television. So let’s assume that just as now, the days are long and the nights were longer, and ancient cavemen didn’t have accountancy jobs to go to, or daily commutes to endure.  How does TV fit in with the lifestyle from a million or two years ago, to nearer history, 10,000 years ago?  Well, as someone helpfully says on Wikipedia, ‘Due to a lack of written records from this time period’ we don’t know that much about it. But there may have been craftsmanship, religion of course, curiosity about animals.   Sex.  (Thank goodness, because without it, frankly, Uncle George and Aunty Molly would have never even existed).

But once all the hunting and gathering and eating and sex and building shelters and running away from lions and quarrelsome neighbours was done, I bet they were similar to the rest of us.  The same basic needs.  Maslow would probably argue that they were operating at the lower levels of his hierarchy of needs (see diagram).  Television delivers pretty well on the three middle levels.  (I’ve covered elsewhere the idea that television viewing preferences are governed, in part, on circadian rhythms… that is biological processes that are based on the passing day – light, darkness and so on.  Let’s look at it differently.)

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Prehistoric people might have generally been near the bottom of these needs. Self-actualisation probably happened after we learned how to read. Or until Maslow invented it. I’m guessing here.

Just as ancient people will have wanted more than just dozing around (but a lot of dozing around too), TV provides us with a range of excitement which it fits in well with our largely sedentary lifestyle.  But what else?  Well it makes sense that we mainly watch TV when it is dark and we’re not doing anything else.  In fact, it gives us something to look at when the sun has gone down.  It might help with some of the physiological needs of early man, such as building a shelter or making it look nice (Anything with Bear Grylls in, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here,  Homes Under the Hammer, Love Your Garden).  But we also watch things that satisfy our higher level needs in a range of ways.  For instance, making us feel safer about the world by helping us understand it, and providing a warning sign for problems ahead (the News, the weather, documentaries).  This can give us the confidence to take risks – such as trusting people we’ve never met, rather than hitting them with a makeshift club.  It helps us feel good about other people, a crucial socialising aspect  – understanding them a little, or finding things out that we don’t observe directly (Coronation Street, This Morning, Loose Women).  That helps us to understand who we are too.

It might include tales of good and evil (especially where good wins), providing a rudimentary morality (Judge Judy, Dixon of Dock Green).  It would look beautiful (Life on Earth. Next Top Model).  It might also be straightforward – primal – so content that is amusing at a primitive level (Celebrity Juice), or requiring little thought (sport). It would help to regulate their day, providing cues as the day passed such as when to get up (Daybreak), hunt (Gordon Ramsey’s F Word), have sex (… anything with Lucy Liemann in it) and sleep (Closedown).    And it might help provide cues to the passing of the year (Springwatch, Autumnwatch, New Year Hootenany).  It might touch us in ways we don’t quite understand (In The Night Garden).  It might, like Stonehenge offer a rather prehistoric and bonkers notion of life (anything with John Edward, Derek Acora or Gillian McKeith in it).  And it might give us a rudimentary sense of pride or achievement (Embarrassing Bodies, quizzes).

So there you go.   Television may seem ever so sophisticated.  It may feel contrived or processed, or BIG.  But at its best, audiences love television when it gets them through the night, or when it’s  about humans muddling through, growing a little (or a lot), loving each other (or at least curious), having a laugh, and occasionally, and this is so important, saying ugg to each other.

That’s not a new thing at all.


The Review Show: Paleo style

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