I am weary of political battle so my wandering mind has struck out in a new direction. Robert Heinlein once commented that “specialization is for ants.” Humans, not being ants should not specialize nor aspire to do so. So what brings this to me rather free flowing thought processes?
Blame it in part on Sara Today. I posted a rather simple satirical piece making fun of those who praise all things paleolithic not too long ago. She pointed out to me that the early homo sapiens were quite healthy and, if they did not die of injury, lived to ripe old age. They also grew to much the same height as modern humans (something that did not occur again for thousands of years after homo sapiens decided to stop hunting and gathering and grow their food. I read the book Sara recommended, Sex At Dawn. This was followed by Diamond’s Why Sex is Fun (I admit to enjoying reading about sex however, neither of these books is particularly prurient in nature) and Collapse (also by Diamond). Then my ongoing argument with my grandson about barefoot running led to my reading a book he recommended, Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. This fascinating book goes into great detail about the nutrition, techniques, and evolution of ability to run ultramarathon distances. One interesting aspect of this book is that Ben (the grandson) has been told that he is not a very good reader at school. This book is an interesting and challenging read with interesting story lines, characters, and scientific discussion. He apparently read it with comprehension and interest. I will not comment further here on the capacity of his teacher to understand students.
All of these books involve analysis of what makes humans human, how we evolved to be this way, and how we might continue to take advantage of whatever our evolution best qualifies us to do. I am not an anthropologist, nor an ultramarathoner (don’t even run anymore), an evolutionary scientist, nor any of several other “specialties” that would qualify me to add to the knowledge basis in these and other books. However, I find myself interested and speculating on what it all means. A few observations:
1. Humans have very large brains and are capable of organized thinking and planning. However, Neanderthals also had large brains and obviously carried out complex planning (their hunt techniques show this) yet ceased to exist.
2. Humans are rather weak and puny, cannot sprint very fast, can’t climb trees very well, can’t swim very well, and don’t have a very keen sense of smell nor hearing. Yet, they pretty consistently beat animals that excel them at one or more of these capabilities. We do so through a mixture of outthinking them and working as a complex group of cooperating individuals.
3. Evidence shows that humans are quite unique in our running capacity. For example, we are one of the only species that can breath one or more times per stride when running (most if not all others breath once per stride). Our skeleton has evolved for running (several things support this including the pelvic structure, the achilles tendon, the nuchal ligament, our arched foot, our heat control through perspiration and breathing rather than breathing alone, our rather short, narrow foot, and our pharynx/larynx/trachea complex that allows faster oxygen intake.
4. McDougall raises the interesting point of whether our brain evolved so large in order to use cognition to guide running down game or if our running down game gave rise to increasing cognition as a benefit to success. While this appears to be a chicken versus egg conundrum, the fact that there is some doubt raises questions in my mind as to the preeminence of our brain as what differentiates us from other animals.
5. Hunter gatherers did not overpopulate their environment. The peak of population in that era of human existence was around one million. After one of the global “die offs,” the number dropped to less than 10,000! They ate well since they were surrounded by easily obtained food. Sex At Dawn estimates that most of the time it took only an hour or two a day to obtain all the food needed! There is no evidence that they engaged in territorial warfare. Indeed, few skeletal remains from that era show evidence of injury one would expect from interperson violence. Why fight when there is plenty of food and sexual relations are readily available to all members of the tribe?
6. With the advent of agriculture (crops and animal husbandry), human society changed greatly. We began to specialize (farmers, hunters, politicians, priests, teachers, etc). Population began to increase (more workers means less work). When the inevitable crop failures occurred, there was reason to invade and fight with nearby communities for supplies. We began to damage our environment through overharvesting of trees, overplanting crops, excess irrigation, and so forth. Collapse details numerous cases in which environmental damage by humans led to collapse of complex and successful societies.
7. One wonders if humans are innately lazy. Or, perhaps all animals are lazy. After all, if food can be obtained more securely and with less perceived work, what animal will not take the easier route? The attraction of villages/cities is obvious. Food and reproductive access are readily available with little or no work. If you want a venison steak, you go to the grocery and buy it. This is far easier than running a deer to its point of exhaustion over a period of three to five hours (McDougall points out the very interesting thing that this is about the time of most marathoners achievement). However, and this seems important to me, the life style and diet of the “citified” person is incredibly different than that of the earliest homo sapiens who had presumably evolved over about 4.5 million years for success at reproduction and foraging. Rather than an entire village being able to run/jog/walk 25 to 50 miles in a day, few can now make a mile or two a day. Rather than meat, fruit, nuts, and some vegetables, our diet is now heavily into grains, sugar, and meat with some fruit and vegetables (nuts are mostly snacks).
8. As an apology to Ben (the grandson), I admit that barefoot or minimal shoe gear may well be very justifiable and I have been giving poor to rotten counsel to my patients and running friends for the past 38 years.
So, in brief summary, maybe the “paleophilologists” have a valid point. After all, those of us who believe that evolution explains how species came to be what they are should give serious heed to what those species (of which homo sapiens is one) evolved to be like. I shall cease making fun of them. Who knows, maybe I will try running again using minimal shoes.