Mammoth, Chimps and Octopi: evolutionary psychology and our battle to prioritise

Evolutionary psychology helps us see why we struggle to choose well, and how to choose better

Why do we find it so hard to prioritise well? Why are our plans so often flawed?

Our minds are primal.

Let’s take a lightning tour of evolutionary psychology. 

With a hero of mine, Tim Urban, as our guide and illustrator.

Wild Minds

For more than 99% of human history, and 99.99% of animal history, our human and animal minds evolved to adapt to very different environments to our modern, crowded, digital world. 

For 800 million years, animals and their ancestors evolved in groups.

For 200 million years, mammals, primates and their ancestors evolved in groups.

For 50 million years, great apes and their ancestors evolved in groups. 

Only in the last few 100,000 years did modern human brains evolve.

Origins are the key to understanding human nature, as social psychologist Jon Haidt puts it.

Mammals and primates are social animals by origin: they band together in groups.

Humans are ultra-social mammals and primates by origin: they band together in tribes.

What happened to our minds as we evolved from mammals and apes into humans?

Take the case of chimps and gorillas. There are more than 8 billion – 8,000,000,000 – humans, but fewer than 400,000 gorillas and chimps, both now endangered. Why? Humans evolved in savannahs, where food was scattered and only obtained through collective effort, so they had to cooperate, and adapted to band together as foraging tribes of over 100. By contrast, you never see two gorillas or two chimps carrying a log together. Gorillas evolved in jungles, where food was concentrated and contestable, so they could monopolise it with violence, and adapted to compete fiercely, not to cooperate – usually 5 to 10. 

We share ancestors with mammals, monkeys and apes over millions of years. MYA: Million Years Ago. 

Groups compete. Cohesive groups survive. Groups of humans became ultra-cohesive.

Our tribal origins designed our human brains with a considerably larger neo-cortex than other primates, enabling humans to co-plan, converse, live and thrive in ever-larger social tribes.

Primal emotions

Human emotions are adapted to the ultra-social, small-scale life our ancestors led for hundreds of thousands of years in highly cooperative, nomadic foraging bands – but not adapted to the ultra-complex, ultra-abundant modern life of the past few hundred years.

Studies of animals and cultures find that emotions are universal and adaptive.

Advances in knowledge in archeology, anthropology, genetics, neuroscience and evolutionary biology show how human psychology, emotion and behaviour evolved.

Our animal, mammal, primate minds evolved to solve recurrent problems in our environments, mainly survival and reproduction, over hundreds of millions of years.

  • Animals need to find food, water and shelter to survive
  • Animals fear threats, dangers and risks 
  • Animals retreat in fear, avoiding predators 
  • Animals fight in anger, whilst avoiding maiming or death
  • Animals find and choose mates, whilst avoiding rejection, to reproduce 
  • Mammals needed to protect and bring up their vulnerable young, for survival

Our primal, tribal minds evolved to make life-changing decisions in our groups, over millions of years.

  • Humans choose groups, allies, opponents and recognise them, avoiding death
  • Humans act on anticipation and novelty to seek and find resources
  • Humans act on disgust and cast out violators 
  • Humans enjoy interaction and exploration
  • Humans find security and belonging by cooperating 

Emotions are adaptations that helped us survive, cooperate and reproduce. 

  • Fear, thirst, hunger, pain, anger and disgust helped animals survive 
  • Enjoyment and arousal helped animals reproduce 
  • Joy and sadness helped animals nurture young and cooperate 

Human emotions are complex adaptations that helped us adapt to our varied ancient environments and cooperate.

  • Pride, awe, embarrassment, hope, angst, optimism, pessimism, love, honour, gratitude, humour, humility, generosity, remorse, guilt, envy, shame, sadness, grief – all helped us cooperate in complex social environments

Our inner moth: human emotions are often now maladapted

Human emotions, now in a very different environment in scale, complexity, stimulus and abundance, are sometimes maladapted. Human society has changed dramatically, rapidly, suddenly: from small groups of up to 150 hunter-gatherers for over a million years, to nations of millions in the last thousand years, to civilisations of billions in the last hundred years. Our modern skulls still house our ancient animal and stone-age tribal minds. Hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary adaptations aimed at animal and primal survival in a harsh world are still now rooted deeply in our genetics.

For millions of years, moths have used moonlight to navigate at night. Suddenly, electric lights get switched on. Moths’ brains haven’t had time to adapt to the new situation, and now millions of moths are misfiring.

Like a moth to electric lights, we humans are often attracted to things now that aren’t best for us.

To survive in food-scarce environments, ancestral humans evolved hunger, anticipation, enjoyment, inclinations and compulsions to seek sweet, fatty foods, and consume them fast. It was advantageous to be impulsive in acquiring high-calorie foods. We still now prefer sweet, fatty foods, but these aren’t adaptive in modern, food-rich environments with super-fatty, super-sugary over-abundance. This maladaptation results in obesity and diabetes epidemics. 

As Tim Urban, whose inspiring ideas and illustrations inspired this blogpost, says (and draws), “Modern humans are like modern moths, running on a well-intentioned primitive mind, constantly misinterpreting the weird world we’ve built for ourselves.”

Likewise, desires, gratifications and fears overly influence our choices, even when they aren’t best for us.

Our minds are not only like moths: as Buddha, Plato and many others recognised, our minds have other animal qualities to them. A menagerie of our animal, mammal, primate and primitive pasts are still in our brains, a zoo of instincts, intuitions, aversions and inclinations. 

Our inner mammoth: our fears are maladapted

We struggle with maladapted fear and aversions. 

Over 250,000 years ago, and for millennia after millennia, very early humans evolved a fearful obsession with what others thought of them: an anxious craving for approval and a paralysing fear of disapproval. Disapproval could mean death. Rejection could deprive a nomadic hunter-gatherer of the tribe’s safety. Humans who hated to fit in, died out. Humans long to belong, to fit in, to conform, because that’s what our ancestral tribespeople had always needed to do, for hundreds of millennia. So that’s how we’re wired. 

In today’s less brutal world, disapproval doesn’t bring about death. 

But social fears still disproportionately affect us, so we cover ourselves for all sorts of eventualities, often limiting and scuppering ourselves with awkwardness, shyness, anticipations, hesitations, self-doubts, nervousness, apprehensions, worries, fears, imagined troubles and anxieties.

Our inner chimp: our gratifications are maladapted

We struggle with maladapted gratifications and distractions.

We have a bias towards newness. Towards shiny objects. Towards curiosity. Towards fears of missing out. Towards restlessness. Towards procrastination. Towards instant gratification. We get distracted and sidetracked by new, exciting things, by starting new things, at the expense of completing more important, trickier tasks. When we encounter something new, our brains release dopamine, a pleasure/reward chemical, to motivate us to seek out new environments and experiences in the future, and to adapt to change. Our brains are wired to seek out novelty. 

In today’s supersensorium of abundant options, and proliferation of instant infinite information, free media, free comms and free social media, the options are limitless, but our brains, attention, time and thinking capacity are still just as limited as they always were. So we get distracted fast and easily.   


Our inner octopus: our desires are maladapted

We struggle with maladapted desires and overstretch.

Our desires compete. Our wishes conflict. Our goals clash. We want it all: we want financial security, stability, independence and resilience; we want personal, social, cultural and moral development and impact; we want lifestyle freedom, flexibility and ease; we want health, without hassle; we want love, effortlessly; we want meaning, purpose, balance, happiness and fulfilment. 

Like an intelligent but brain-spread octopus with multiple minds, we get overstretched and overwhelmed by our competing desires. Priorities are like arms –  you’re mad if you think you have more than two of them – but we often long for an octopoid 8 rather than a humanoid 2. 


My inner overstretch-octopus, inner approval-mammoth and inner distraction-monkey get me a lot.

I write about overstretch, and yet I still overload us..

I read about simplicity, and yet I still overcomplicate things..

I talk about burnout, and yet I still overcook it..

I drone on and on endlessly about overload and distraction, yet still find myself overloaded and distracted, and I still distract and overload my colleagues…

How do our menagerie minds, full of chimps, mammoths and octopi, misfire?

When we make our plans. Our inner octupi overstretch us; our inner mammoth trembles and cowers; our inner chimp distracts us from what matters most.

Four ways our plans misfire

Our plans are fearful

We fear others’ disapproval; we fear others’ reproaches; we avoid difficult, discomforting truths.

Our plans are distracted

We distract ourselves with new-fangled notions, monkey-mind distractibility and shiny objects rather than sorting fundamentals.

Our plans are overstretched

We overstretch ourselves into vast octopoid breadths and tangles, without sound foundations in place.

Our rational plans aren’t as powerful as our emotion-fuelled habits

Our plans go against the grain of human nature, which is social, emotional, habitual.

We mismatch rational, clinical, bureaucratic, hierarchical plans with our emotional, groupish, instinctive minds.

Four ways to plan better – to keep zen our inner zoo

Let go of fear – choose courage

To overcome the fears of the inner mammoth, work out whose approval you are overcompensating for, and practise letting go of it, keeping in mind what truly matters most.

Let go of distractions – choose focus 

To overcome the short-termist, instant-gratification distractions of the inner monkey, choose and commit to a simple, easy focus, chunking down problems into smaller, easier, much more enjoyable chunks.

Let go of overstretch – choose enjoyment 

To overcome the octopoid overstretch, choose one decisive top priority; embrace zen-like creative constraints and enjoyable, liberating limits.

Let go of bureaucracy – choose stories and habits

To overcome hierarchy-bureaucracy mismatches with human nature, return to our origins as campfire storytellers, and go with the flow of human psychology of habits, enjoyment and adventure.


Evolutionary psychology shows us why we struggle to choose well.

We are distracted, overloaded and fearful due to how our animal minds evolved and adapted to survive and reproduce in varied, food-scarce, predator-filled environments over millions and millions of years.

Evolutionary psychology shows us how we can prioritise better.

It helps us understand our animal and human minds. 

It helps us understand evolutionary mismatches.

It helps us understand how primal environments and modern societies differ.

To understand how and where long-evolved adaptations no longer now produce adaptive responses: our fears, gratifications, distractions and overload.

To choose focus, courage, habits, stories and enjoyment. 

To match our planning to the ways our brains are wired. 


Big thanks to Tim Urban at *Wait but Why* for the inspiration, illustrations and for sharing his illuminating chimp, octopus and mammoth analogies with the world.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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