The Evolution of Waiting

Why Having Patience Is an Adaptive Trait



I know how to wait. Or I should say I once learned how to wait and now I’m grateful the ability stuck because it turned out to be an asset, especially these days.

Decades ago, I was a primatologist, that is, a person trained to watch monkeys. As an anthropologist, all that monkey watching had a purpose — to test various hypotheses about why those animals so closely related to humans acted the way they did, and what that might mean for the evolution of human behavior. My observations began at the University of California, Davis, Primate Center where I watched female rhesus and bonnet macaques in large outdoor enclosures where they could go about their monkey social business. Day after day, for a few years, I stood outside in the sun and heat, and the rain, noting down who did what to whom. I spoke to no one. I just stood there alone and watched as the monkeys did their thing, hoping they didn’t notice I was there. I also did the same sort of stand-and-watch at an outdoor monkey park in southern France for a year and for a few months in Bali at temples covered with monkeys.

Although those days were often filled with monkey antics, there was also a lot of downtime when the animal didn’t do much of anything, and so we sat silently together, waiting for something to happen. During those years, I learned how to be alone. And when I was away from home, I was also alone at night (and in those days, without a cell phone or a computer or the internet), and so I also learned to be someone without a social life, for months on end.

These experiences were life-changing in many ways, but what I remember most is the quiet, the solitude, and the inner peace that came from waiting, hour after hour. All that quiet waiting also turned out to be a learning experience, an adjustment, and in the end, an advantage. After those days were over, I discovered that I had been trained to wait at the doctor’s office, for a friend in a coffee shop, or for something to begin or end. To those who show up late, I always say, “No worries. I am good at waiting.” And I am. Inside, I hunker down into a calm, observant space, and chill.

Certainly, the past 18 months have tried the patience of everyone on the plant, including an expert waiter such as myself, but somehow most of us are still continuing to wait out this pandemic. Sure, we are upset, annoyed, exasperated, but still, we sit at home, waiting for Delta to go away. Our collective patience, then, suggests that it’s not just me, that there might be some basic human trait that helps us hunker down when necessary.

Looking across cultures, that is, away from the frenzy of modern Western culture, most lives have long periods of waiting. Hunters and gatherers have to be silent and still while tracking prey and gathering plants across a landscape requires not only botanical and spatial knowledge but also a kind of quiet persistence at a walking pace. Those who make their living by fishing also require the same sort of patience and adaptation to quiet watching. This quality of patience might have been ingrained in our kind back when we were all hunters and gatherers and had lives more in tune with what we now call “downtime” which was just part of normal life back then. Reacting with quiet and calm certainly must have been evolutionarily adaptive if peaceful waiting and watching resulted in better food resources.

Successful waiting also has its social advantages. When living in close quarts with others, waiting means we have to figure out our differences or end up in destructive inter-personal conflicts. Those who live in small compounds, communities, or villages know all about keeping your mouth shut while sitting around together. They also know about waiting for crops to ripen, the mail to arrive, the seasons to change or for friends to show up. Overall, silently waiting with others is much better for everyone than haggling, gossip, or even catching up on the latest.

Sadly, the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution has changed all that, and people in the West spend their time rushing about, overworked, and overly involved socially, which is the opposite of waiting. The effects of stress on the mind and body in our current culture speak to how odd it is that we now operate at a fast pace with no interludes for anything; the discordance also explains the irritation of many when asked just to wait. Now that we’ve gotten used to this particular Western pace, many have trouble recalling the art of waiting.

During these times of quarantine, social distancing, and lack of gatherings, and being forced to work from the quiet of our homes, we need to reach back into our innate selves and find the evolutionary history of waiting with grace. Be calm, wait for the gazelle, look out your window at the plants growing, and know that calmly waiting is not just part of who you are, it’s also something that might just save your life right now.

Patience, after all, is a virtue, and an adaptive one.

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