Which three books would most enhance Stone Age human survival?

April 8, 2006 | By | 6 Replies More

In the movie version of the H.G. Wells story, “The Time Machine,” the story ends with the Time Traveler disappearing into earth’s distant future, where the human species is not only living a primitive Stone Age existence, but is engaged in a life-and-death struggle against a violent competing species.  However, unlike the book version (found here), the movie ends with a provocative twist:  the Time Traveler is discovered to have taken three books with him, from his library, into the future.  The movie does not, however, identify the three books.

Since first seeing the movie years ago, I have often asked myself, if I were the Time Traveler, leaving today’s earth to live in a distant future where the human race is fighting for its survival without any of today’s modern conveniences (including weapons), which three books I would take (and that might be found in a scientist’s personal library).  Here are my current choices:

1) A book on first aid.  Not only would this be of value in day-to-day life, but it would also be very helpful for treating battlefield injuries.  Indeed, if two warring species are otherwise equally matched, the ability of one species to increase its survival rate after battle could be the one factor that tips survival in its favor.

2) An atlas.  Again, this would be of value both in peacetime and in war, by providing the ability to travel more quickly and easily, to find water and arable land and, perhaps most importantly, to choose advangageous battlefields and prepare ambushes.

3) A dictionary.  To the extent that a person’s language determines his or her understanding of reality, a dictionary would be a useful tool for leveraging human intelligence, again leading to a competitive advantage relative to a species that lacks such a tool.  It would also contain some information about weapons, shelters and other primitive survival tools.

I have considered, but rejected, substituting the dictionary for a Bible (or Quran, Bhagavad-gita, or other religious text).  The obvious benefit of a religious book is that it can help unify and inspire a community, turning individuals who are primarily concerned with their own survival into an army that is willing to sacrifice individuals for the sake of the group.  Indeed, nothing enhances group survival more than the peoples’ willingness to fight to the death for a greater good; namely, community survival.  Nevertheless, I rejected this choice because of the huge potential for religions to spin out of control.  Indeed, one look at human history reveals that many of our worst atrocities have been performed in the name of one religion or another, all in the name of serving an invisible supernatural being.  Religion can be, and has been, used to justify everything from slavery, to torture, to genocide.  True, it has also built cathedrals, fought hunger, provided health care, and done many other good things, but all of these positives have also been achieved without religion (as have slavery, torture and genocide).  This leads me to conclude that religion — at least as we know it today — is, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, detrimental to species survival.

I have also considered, but rejected, a book on primitive survival techniques, because I do not think such a book would be likely to be found in the library of very many scientists.

I have also rejected political books about structuring a government (e.g., the Constitution, the Magna Carta, etc.), because I believe such concepts rely on relatively modern innovations — especially communication technology — that would not exist in a Stone Age (and illiterate) world.

What about you?  What books would you take?  Given the potential for the human race to exhaust its supply of oil (and, thus, lose the modern conveniences that oil makes possible), or even bomb itself back to a Stone Age existence, this question is not entirely rhetorical.


Category: Culture, Language, Reading - Books and Magazines

About the Author ()

Grumpypilgrim is a writer and management consultant living in Madison, WI. He has several scientific degrees, including a recent master’s degree from MIT. He has also held several professional career positions, none of which has been in a field in which he ever took a university course. Grumps is an avid cyclist and, for many years now, has traveled more annual miles by bicycle than by car…and he wishes more people (for the health of both themselves and our planet) would do the same. Grumps is an enthusiastic advocate of life-long learning, healthy living and political awareness. He is single, and provides a loving home for abused and abandoned bicycles. Grumpy’s email: grumpypilgrim(AT)@gmail(DOT).com [Erich’s note: Grumpy asked that his email be encrypted this way to deter spam. If you want to write to him, drop out the parentheticals in the above address].

Comments (6)

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  1. JuJu Vieth says:

    Per JuJu (age 7):

    I would bring these books:

    1. A map of the world.

    2. A book on how to make new friends, and

    3. A book on how to build a time machine so you could get back home.

  2. Erich Vieth says:


    I’m a bit concerned about that atlas you’re bringing. It might not be accurate (given tectonic plate movement, depending on how far into the future you are located).

    I struggled with this question. I’d probably take the following:

    1. A book on how to survive in the wilderness (what plants to eat and other basic survival skills); a book like this. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0811729850/sr=8-

    2. The complete works of Mark Twain (a great ironist, to read in an ironic situation: books in the stone-age); and

    3. The complete works of Shakespeare (my reasoning – it might get lonely out there and it’s hard to think of works with more insight, humor or range of emotion).

    I was considering bringing a book on how to make chocolate. Another possibility was a book on how to date a stone-age woman. You know, “What do stone-age women want?”

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    When Richard P. Feynman was asked, what one piece of information would he consider the most important to transmit past the next collapse of civilization, he replied, "That everything is made of smaller things".

    This means more to mathematicians and scientists than it might first appear. This principle is the basis of calculus, of chemistry, of biology, sociology, and so on.

    My picks:

    Book 1: A book on accelerated math concepts. Begin with basic number types (Counting, rational, irrational, and transcendent), and take it up through logical proofs, plane geometry, Cartesian geometry, and calculus. Provide derivations for some of the practical formulas that have been most useful up till now, like those worked out by Newton, Maxwell, and Schroedinger. I put this one first because of importance, not because it would be the most immediately useful. That would be:

    Book 2: A biology primer starting with cells and their functions, and that describes the methods for figuring out what is deadly and what is edible would be of more use than a survival guide for any particular locality. Simple sanitation and antisepsis are the most important parts battlefield survival, beyond not getting hit by something. A major portion of Civil War casualties were because they didn't have these principles a mere 140 years ago.

    Book 3: "The New Way Things Work" by David Macaulay. If you don't know this book or its author, you should check it out. It's a great example of both text and illustrations explaining how essential pieces of industry and technology work, and how they evolved to be the way they are.

    Shakespeare and Twain require cultural context to understand them. Twain's "Political Economy" is one of my favorites, but only someone familiar with industrial society could understand its humor.

    An Atlas is not useful without the math and good clocks for surveying.

    A dictionary? Consider how useful a Yiddish dictionary would be in an Inuit civilization. Having a word in a foreign language for a concept never-before-needed is not much help to a civilization. What good is "laser" to a flint-knapping society? Just to have a word is no help in acquiring an object.

    A book on survival skills could be useful, but the flora and fauna may not match what is in it.

  4. Scholar says:

    I like the question, but have not decided yet on which 3 books would best benefit our ancestors. However, I do have a book recommendation(s) for today. It is "Man's Search for Meaning" by Victor Frankl, about a jewish doctor who kept a diary while he (his body and his mind) struggled to survive (cope with) the concentration camps.


    "We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." – Man's Search for Meaning

    "Don't aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run – in the long run, I say! – success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it." – Man's Search for Meaning

    Also good was "Hiroshima" which includes stories of the victims of the atomic bomb in WWII.

    You can also try, "The Endless Steppe" by Elie Wiesel about the holocaust…cattle cars, forced treks across frozen tundra, and the unspeakable labor camps.

    Not exactly light reading, but nonetheless, stories like these need to be shared.

  5. Hawkguy says:

    There are so many different kinds of books that would be helpful. I've read several really great ideas here, however, an atlas isn't one of them. The earth 800,000 years from now will undoubtedly be vastly different from the earth we know today, therefor I think an atlas would be a rather useless book.

    The first book I would take with me is a book on metallurgy. Such a book would of great usefulness to an inventor such as the "Time Traveller" in H.G. Wells' future.

    The second book I would take is a book on farming, harvesting, and feeding large populations. This book will help feed the people after the destruction of the Morlocks, afterall, they did the farming and cultivating that fed the feeble Eloi.

    And the Third book I would take would be a book on medicine, medicinal plants and remedies. The health of a culture is the very key to it's survival.

    I also don't think a bible or otherwise religious book would be a very good idea. The thought of a culture starting from scratch, begining from the very seed of existence with no outside influences would be a most fasinating think to watch, and to learn from.

  6. Jim Razinha says:

    This is an old post, I know, but I just came across it.

    Excellent, excellent question, and limiting to three is all the more challenge. I partook of the viral lists when I first was absorbed into the Facebook universe, creating and tagging lists of favorites, which books I've read, which were the most influential, etc. I am eclectic enough that redoing the same list results in a distinctly different compilation even the next day.

    Now, in the spirit of the original question (Erich cheated – "the complete works"??!), I'll take a quick stab at this:

    1)I do like Erich's first choice. A similar book would be Back to Basics. Or any of the How Things Work editions (except the child versions). A good survival book would also have information about poisons and food sources.

    2) The Handbook of Civil Engineering. That's help you build whatever you need.

    3) First Aid. Good call that.

    By limiting to three, some books on medicine, farming, construction, survival would necessarily be left behind. The comprehensive almanacs of knowledge would be the most valuable. Personally. I wouldn't care much about the human condition, or the contextual situations that engendered the Twains and Shakespeares to write their masterpieces. Nor would I think a math text to be initially beneficial (even if I like the idea). A good survival text should have basic geometry necessary to, well, survive, and possibly thrive.

    One of my favorite novels is "Lucifer's hammer" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Dated (published in 1985), but still relevant, it deals with the aftermath of a comet strike. One of the minor characters recognizes that civilization would need to be rebuilt and preserves his library of the necessary tools, keeping them out of the hands of anarchists.

    I thought further about if I were given one additional book "just for me": I think, at this moment (it will very likely change tomorrow) it would be Frank Herbert's "Dune".

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