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Man the Athlete

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JP Rushton

Richard Lynn

L:inda Gottfredson

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5450 words

Homo nerdicus or Homo athleticus? Which name more aptly describes Man? Without many important adaptations incurred throughout our evolutionary history, modern Man as you see him wouldn’t be here today. The most important factor in this being our morphology and anatomy which evolved due to our endurance running, hunting, and scavenging. The topics I will cover today are 1) morphological differences between hominin species and chimpanzees; 2) how Man became athletic and bring up criticisms with the model; 3) the evolution of our aerobic physical ability and brain size; 4) an evolutionary basis for sports; and 5) the role of children’s playing in the evolution of human athleticism.

Morphological differences between Man and Chimp

Substantial evolution in the lineage of Man has occurred since we have split from the last common ancestor (LCA) with chimpanzees between 12.1 and 5.3 mya (Moorjani et al, 2016; Patterson et al, 2006). One of the most immediate differences that jump out at you when watching a human and chimpanzee is such stark differences in morphology, in particular, how we walk (pelvic differences) as well as our arm length relative to our torsos. Though we both evolved to be proficient at abilities that had us become evolutionarily successful in the environments we found ourselves in, one species of primate went on to become the apes the took over the world whereas the chimps continued life as the LCA did (as far as we can tell). The evolution of our athleticism is why we have a lean body with the right morphology for endurance running and associated movements. In fact, the evolution of our brain size hinged on a reduction in our fat depots (Navarette, Schaik, and Isler, 2011).

One of the largest differences you can see between the two species is how we walk. Chimps are “specially adapted for supporting weight on the dorsal aspects of middle phalanges of flexed hand digits II–V” (Tuttle, 1967). Meanwhile, humans are specifically adapted for bipedality due to the change in our pelvis over the course of our evolution (Gruss and Schmitt, 2015). Due to staying more arboreal than venturing on the ground, chimp morphology over the course of the divergence became more and more adapted to life in the trees.

Our modern gait is associated with physiologic and anatomic adaptations throughout our evolution, and are not ‘primitive retentions’ from the LCA (Schmitt, 2003). There are very crucial selective pressures that need to be looked at to see which selection pressures caused us to become athletes. Parts of Austripolithicenes still live on in us today, most notably in our lower leg/foot (Prang, 2015). Further, our ancestor, the famous Lucy had the beginnings of a modern pelvis, which was the beginning of the shift to the more energetically efficient bipedality, one thing that fully separates Man from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Of course, no conversation about human evolution would be complete without talking about Erectus. Analysis of 1.5 million-year-old footprints shows that Erectus was the first to have a humanlike weight transfer while walking, confirming “the presence of an energy-saving longitudinally arched foot in H. Erectus.” (Hatala et al, 2016). We have not yet discovered a full Homo erectus foot, but 1.5 million-year-old footprints found in Kenya show that whatever hominin made those prints had a long, striding gait with a full arch (Steudel-Numbers, 2006; Bennett et al, 2009). The same estimates from Steudel-Numbers (2006) show that Erectus nearly halved its travel costs compared to australopithecines. This is due to a longer stride which was much more Manlike than apelike due to a humanlike pelvis and gluteus maximus (Lieberman et al, 2006).

However, the most important adaptations that Erectus evolved was the ability to keep cool while walking long distances. Loss of hair loss specifically allowed individuals to be active in hot climates without overheating. Our ancestors’ hair loss facilitated sweating (Ruxton and Wilkinson, 2011b), which allowed us to become the proficient hunters—the athletes—that we would become. There is also thermoregulatory evidence that endurance running may have been possible for Homo erectus, but not any other earlier hominin (Ruxton and Wilkinson, 2011a) which was the beginnings of our selection to become athletes. The evidence reviewed in Ruxton and Wilkinson (2011a) shows that once hair loss and sweating ability reached human levels, thermoregulation was then possible under the midday sun.

Moreover, our modern gait and bipedalism is 75 percent less costly than quadrupedal/bipedal walking in chimpanzees (Sockel, Raichlen, and Pontzer, 2007), so this extra energy that was conserved with our physiologic and anatomic adaptations due to bipedalism could have gone towards other pertinent metabolic functions—like fueling a bigger brain (more energy could be used to feed more neurons).

Born to run

Before getting into how we are able to run so efficiently, I need to talk about what made it possible for us to be able to have the energy to sustain our distance running. That one thing is eating cooked food (meat). This one seemingly simple thing is the ‘prime mover’ so to speak, of our success as athletes. Eating cooked food significantly increases the amount of energy obtained during digestion. That we could extract more energy out of cooked food—no matter what type of food it was—can not be overstated. This is what gave us the energy to hunt and scavenge. We are, of course, able to hunt/scavenge while fasted, which is an extremely useful evolutionary adaptation which increases important hormones to have us search for food. The hormones released during a fasted state aid in human physiologic/metabolic functioning allowing one who is searching for food more heightened sensibilities.

We are evolutionarily adapted to be endurance runners. Endurance running is defined as the ability to run more than 5 km using aerobic metabolism (Lieberman and Bramble, 2007). Since we are poor sprinters, the idea is that our body has evolved for walking. However, numerous anatomical changes in our phenotypes in comparison to our chimp ancestors have left us some clues. In the previous section, I talked about physical changes that occurred after Man and Chimp diverged, well those evolutionary changes are why we evolved to be athletic.

Endurance running first evolved, most likely due to scavenging and hunting (Lieberman et al, 2009). Through natural selection—survival of the ‘good enough’, those who had better physiologic and anatomic adaptations could reach the animal carcass before other scavengers like vultures and hyenas could get to it. Over time, this substantially changed how we would look. Numerous physiologic changes in our lineage attest to the evolution of our endurance running. The nuchal ligament, as well as the radius of the semicircular canal is larger in Homo sapiens than in chimpanzees or australopithecines. This stabilizes our head while running—something that our ancestors could not do because they didn’t have a canal our size (Bramble and Lieberman, 2004).

Skeletal evidence that points to our evolution as athletes consists of (but not limited to):

  • The Nuchal ligament—stabilizes the head
  • Shoulder and head stabilization
  • Limb length and mass (we have legs longer than our torsos which decreases energy used)
  • Joint surface (we can absorb more shock when our feet hit the ground due to a larger surface area)
  • Plantar arch (generates spring for running but not walking)
  • Calcaneal tuber and Achilles tendon (shorter tuber length leads to a longer Achilles heel stretch, converting more kinetic energy into  elastic energy)

So people who had anatomy closer to this in our evolutionary past had more of a success of getting to that animal carcass, divvying it amongst his family/tribe, ensuring the passage of his genes to the next generation. Man had to be athletic in order to be able to run for long distances. Where this would have come in handy the most would have been the Savanna in our ancestral past. Man could now use persistence hunting—chasing animals in the heat of the day—and kill them when they tired out. The evolutionary adaptation sweating due to the loss of our fur is the only reason this is possible.

One of the most important adaptations for endurance running is thermoregulation. All humans are adapted for long range locomotion rather than speed and to dump rather than retain heat (Lieberman, 2015). This is one of the most important adaptations we evolved that had us become successful endurance runners. We could chase down prey and wait for our prey to become exhausted/overheat and then we would move in for the kill. Of course, intelligence and sociality come into play as we needed to create hunting bands, but without our superior endurance running capabilities—that no other animal in the animal kingdom has—we would have gone down a completely different evolutionary path than the one we went down. Our genome has evolved to support endurance running (Mattson, 2012). Since there is an association between too much sitting and all-cause mortality (Biddle et al, 2016), this is yet more evidence that we evolved to be mobile, not sedentary hominins.

Further evidence that we evolved to be athletic is in our hands. When you think about our hands and how we can manipulate our environments with them—what sets us apart from every other species—then, obviously, in our evolutionary past, those who were more successful would have had a higher chance of reproducing. Aggressive clubbing and throwing are thought to be one of the earliest hominin specializations.  If true, then those who could club and throw best would have the best chance of passing their genes to the next generation, thusly selecting for more efficient hands (Young, 2003). While we may have evolved more efficient hands over time warring with other hominins, some are more prone to disk herniation.

Plomp et al (2015) propose the ‘ancestral shape hypothesis’ which is derived from studying bipedalism. They propose that those who are more prone to disk herniation preferentially affects those who have vertebrae “towards the ancestral end of the range of shape variation within H. sapiens and therefore are less well adapted for bipedalism” (Plomp et al, 2015). One of the most amazing things they discovered was that humans with signs of intervertebral disc herniation are “indistinguishable from those of chimpanzees.” Of course, due to this, we should then look towards evolutionary biology in regards to a lot of human ailments (which I have also argued here on dietary evolutionary mismatches as well as on obesity).

Of course there are some naysayers arguing that endurance running didn’t drive our evolution. He wrongly states that it’s about what drove the evolution of our bipedalism; however, what the endurance running hypothesis argues is that there are certain physiologic and anatomic changes that only could have occurred from endurance running. Better endurance runners got selected for over time, leading to novel adaptations that stayed in the gene pool and got selected for. One thing is a larger gluteus maximus. A humanlike pelvis is found in the fossil record as far back as 1.9 mya in Erectus (Lieberman et al, 2006). Furthermore, longer toes had a larger mechanical cost, and were thusly selected against, which also helped in the evolution of our endurance running (Rolian et al, 2009). All in all, there are too many adaptations that our bodies have that can only be explained by adapting to endurance running. Just because we may have gotten to the weaker animals sometimes doesn’t falsify the hypothesis; Man still needed to sweat and persist in the hot mid-day temperatures chasing prey.

Brain size and aerobic physical capacity

When speaking about the increase in our brain size/neuronal count, fire/cooking, the social brain hypothesis, and other theories are brought up first. Erectus had a lot of humanlike qualities, including the ability to control/use fire (Berna et al, 2012), and the appearance of our modern gait/stride which first appeared in Erectus (Steudel-Numbers, 2006; Bennet et al, 2009). This huge change also occurred around the time our lineage began cooking meat/using fire. Without the increased energy from cooking, we wouldn’t be able to hunt for too long. However, we do have very important specific adaptations during a fasted state—the release of hormones such as catecholamines (adrenaline and noradrenaline) which have as react faster to predators/possible prey. Though, a plant-based diet wouldn’t cut it in regards to our daily energy requirements to feed our huge brain with a huge neuronal count (Fonseca-Azevedo and Herculano-Houzel, 2012). Cooked meat is the only way we’d be able to have enough energy required to hunt game.

What kind of an effect did it have on our cranial capacity/evolution?

Four groups of mice selectively bred for high amounts of “voluntary wheel-running”, ran 3 times further than the controls which increased Vo2 max in the mice. Those mice had higher levels of BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor) several days after the experiment concluded as well as also showing greater cell creation in the hippocampus when allowed to run compared to the controls. In two lines of selected mice, the hormone VEGF (Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor) which was correlated with higher muscle capillary density compared to controls. This shows that the evolution of endurance running in mice leads to important hormonal changes which then affected brain growth (Raichlen and Polk, 2012).

The amount of oxygen our brains use increased by 600 percent compared to 350 percent for our brain size over the course of our evolutionary history. This is important. What would cause an increase in oxygen consumption to the brain? Endurance running. There was further selection in our skeleton for endurance running in our morphology such as the semicircular canal radii. The first humanlike semicircular canal radii were found in Erectus (Spoor, Wood, and Zonneveid, 1994). This meant that we had the ability for running and other agile behaviors which were then selected for. There is also little to no activation of the gluteus medius while walking (Lee et al, 2014), implying that it evolved for more efficient endurance running.

Controlling for body mass in humans, extinct hominins and great apes, Raichlen and Polk (2012) found significant positive correlations with encephalization quotient and hindlimb length (0.93), anterior and posterior radii (0.77 and 0.66 respectively), which support the idea that human athletic ability is tied to neurobiological evolution. A man that was a better athlete compared to another would have a better chance to pass on his genes, as physical fitness is a good predictor of biological fitness. Putting this all together, selection improved our aerobic capacity over our evolutionary history by specifically altering signaling systems responsible for metabolism and oxygen intake (BDNF, VEGF, and IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1), responsible for the regulation of growth hormone), which are important for blood flow, increased muscle capillary density, and a larger brain.

Putting this all together, selection improved our aerobic capacity over our evolutionary history by specifically altering signaling systems responsible for metabolism and oxygen intake (BDNF, VEGF, IGF-1). More evidence is needed to corroborate Raichlen and Polk’s (2012) hypothesis. However, with what we know about aerobic capacity and the hormones that drive it and brain size, we can make inferences based on the available data and say, with confidence, that part of our brain evolution was driven by our increased aerobic capacity/morphology, with the catalyst being endurance running. Though with our increased proclivity for athleticism and endurance running, when we became ‘us’, this just shifted the competition and athletic competition—which, hundreds of thousands/millions of years ago would mean life or death, mate or no mate, food or no food.

Clearly, without the evolution of our bipedalism/athleticism we wouldn’t have evolved the brains we have and thus we would be something completely different today.

Sport and evolutionary history

We crowd into arenas to watch people compete against each other in athletic competition. Why? What are the evolutionary reasons behind this? One view is that sport (and along with it playing) was a way for men to get practice hunting game, with playing also affecting children’s ability to assess the strength of others (Lombardo, 2012).

In an evolutionary context, sports developed as a way for men to further develop skills in order to better provide for his family, as well as assessing other men’s physical strength so he can adapt his fighting to how his opponent fights in a possible future situation. Men would then be selected for these advantageous traits. You see people crowd into arenas to watch their favorite sports teams. We are ‘wired’ to like these types of competitions, which then leads to more competition. Since we evolved to be athletes, then it would stand to reason that we would like to watch others be athletic (and hit each other as hard as they can), as a type of modern-day gladiator games.

Better hunters have better reproductive success (Smith, 2004). Further, hunter-gatherer men with lower-pitched voices have more children, while men with higher-pitched voices had higher child mortality rate (Apicella, Feinberg, and Marlowe, 2007). This signals that the H-G men with more children have higher testosterone than others, which then attracts more women to them. Champion athletes, hunters, and warriors all obtain high reproductive success. Women are sexually attracted to certain traits, which events of human athleticism show. However, men follow sports more closely than women (Lombardo, 2012), and for good reason.

Men may watch sports more than women since, in an evolutionary context, they may learn more about potential allies and who to steer clear from because they would get physically dominated. Further, men could watch the actions of others at play and mimic their actions in an attempt to gain higher status with women. Another reason is a man’s character: you can see a man’s character during sports competition and by watching one’s actions closely during, for instance, playing, you can better ascertain their motivations during life or death situations. Men may also derive thrills from watching “idealized men” perform athletic activities. These are consistent with Lombardo’s (2012) male lek hypothesis, “where male physical prowess and the behaviors important in conflict and cooperation are displayed by athletes and evaluated primarily by male, not female, spectators.”

Testosterone changes based on whether one’s favorite sports team wins or loses (Bernhardt et al, 1998). This is important. Testosterone does change under stressful/group situations. Testosterone is also argued to have a role in the search for, and maintenance of social status (Eisenegger, Haushofer, and Fehr, 2011). Testosterone responses to competition in men are also related to facial masculinity (Pound, Penton-Voak, and Surrin, 2009). Male’s physical strength is also signaled through facial characteristics of dominance and masculinity, considered attractive to women (Fink, Neave, and Seydel, 2007). Since testosterone fuels both competition, protectiveness and confidence (Eisenegger et al, 2016), a woman would be attracted to a man’s athleticism/strength, which would then be correlated with his facial structure further signaling biological fitness to possible mates. Testosterone doesn’t cause prostate cancer, as is commonly stated (Stattin et al, 2003; Michaud, Billups, and Partin, 2015). Testosterone is a beneficial hormone; you should be worried way more about low T than high T. Further, young men interacting with similar young men increases testosterone while interacting with dissimilar men decreases testosterone (DeSoto et al, 2009). This lends credence to the hypothesis that testosterone raises in response to male-male competition.

Since testosterone is correlated with the above traits, and since athletes have higher testosterone than non-athletes (Wood and Stanton, 2011) then certain types of males would be left in the dust. Athleticism can be looked at as a way to expend excess energy. Those with more excess energy would be more sexually attractive to women and mating opportunities would increase. This is why it’s ridiculous to believe that we evolved to be the ‘nerds’ of the animal kingdom when so much of our evolutionary success has hinged on our athleticism and superior endurance running and other athletic capabilities.

Playing

Child’s play is how children feel out the world in a ‘setting’ in which there are no real-world consequences so they can get a feel for how the world really is. Human babes are born helpless, yet with large heads. Natural selection has lead to large brains to care for children, causing earlier childbirths and making children more helpless, which selected for higher intelligence causing a feedback loop (Piantadosi and Kidd, 2016). They show that across the primate genera, the helplessness of an infant is an extremely strong predictor of adult intelligence.

Indeed, a lot of the crucial shaping of our intelligence and motor capabilities are developed in our infancy and early childhood, which we have over chimpanzees. Blaisdell (2015) defines play as: “an activity that is purposeless in that it tends to be detached from the outcome, is imperfect from the goal-directed form of the activity, and that tends to occur when the individual is in a non-stressed state.” Playing is just a carefree activity that children do to get a feel for the world around them. During this time, skills are honed that, in our ancestral past, allowed us to survive and prosper during times of need (persistence hunting, scavenging, etc).

Anthropological evidence also suggests that the existence of extended childhood in humans adapted to establish the skills and knowledge needed to be a proficient hunter-gatherer. Since there are no real-world outcomes to playing (other than increased/decreased pride), a child can get some physical experience without suffering the real life repercussions of failing. Studies of hunter-gatherers show that play fosters the skills needed to be proficient in tool-making and tool-use, food provisioning, shelter, and predator defense. Play time also hones athletic ability and the brain-body connection so one can be prepared for a stressful situation. In fact, children’s fascination with ‘why’ questions make them ‘little philosophers’, which is an evolutionary adaptation to prepare for possible future outcomes.

Think of play fighting. While play fighting, the outcome has no important real life applications (well, the loser’s pride is hit) and what is occurring is the honing of skills that are useful to survival. During our ancestral evolution, play fighting between brothers could have honed the skills needed during a life our death situation when another band of humans was encountered. As you begin to associate certain movements with certain events, you then become better prepared subconsciously for when novel situations occur. The advantage of an extended childhood with large amounts of play time allow the brain and body to make certain connections between things and when these situations arise during a life or death situation, the brain-body will already have the muscle memory to handle the situation.

Conclusion

Studying our evolution since the divergence between Man and chimp, we can see the types of adaptations that we have incurred over our evolutionary history that have lead to us being specifically adapted for long-term endurance running. The ability to sweat, which, as far as we know began with Erectus, was paramount in our history for thermoregulation. Looking at the evolution of our pelvis, toes, gluteal muscles, heads, shoulders, brains, etc all will point to how they are adapted to a bipedal ape that is born to run—born to be an athlete. Without our athleticism, our intelligence wouldn’t be possible. We have a brain-body connection, our brain isn’t the only thing that drives our body, the two work in concert giving each other information, reacting to familiar and novel stimuli. That’s for another time though.

We didn’t evolve to be Homo nerdicus, we evolved to be Homo athleticus. This can be seen with how exercise has such a huge impact on cognition. We can further see the relationship between our athletic ability and our cognition/brain size. Without the way our evolution happened, Man—along with everything else you see around you—would not be here today. In a survival situation—one in which society completely breaks down—one who has better control over his body and motor functions/capabilities will outlast those who do not. Ultimate and conscious control over our bodies, reacting to stimuli in the environment is fostered in our infancy during our play time with others. Playing allows an individual to get experience in a simulated event, getting important muscle memory to react to future situations. The brain itself, of course, is being molded during playing as well. This just attests to the large part that playing has on cognition, survival skills and athletic ability over our evolutionary history.

Aerobic capacity throughout our evolutionary history beginning with Erectus was paramount for what we have become today. Without the evolution of certain muscles like our gluteus maximus along with certain appendages that gave us the ability to trek/run long distances, we would have lost a very important variable in our brain evolution. Aerobic activity increases blood flow to the brain and so the more successful endurance runners/hunters would increase their biological fitness (as seen in Smith, 2004) and thusly those who were more athletically successful would have more children, increasing selection for important traits for endurance running/athleticism throughout our evolutionary history.

We still play sports today since we love competition. Testosterone fuels the need for competition and sports is the best way to engage in competition in the modern day. Women are much more attracted to men with higher levels of testosterone which in turn means a more masculinized face which signals dominance and testosterone levels during competition. Women are attracted to men with higher levels of testosterone and a more masculinized face. This just so happens to mirror athletes, who have both of these traits. However, being in top physical condition is not enough; an athlete must also have a strong mental background if, for instance, they wish to break world records (Lippi, Favaloro, and Guidi, 2008).

The evolution of human playing ties this together. These sports competitions that we have made hearken back to our evolutionary past and show who would have fared best in the past. When we play, we are feeling our competition and who we can possibly make allies with/watch out for due to their actions during playing. One would also see who he would likely need to avoid and form an alliance with as to not get on his bad side and prevent a loss of status in his band. This is what it really comes down to—loss of status. Higher-status men do have higher levels of testosterone, and by one losing to a more capable person, they show that they aren’t fit to lead and they fall in the social hierarchy.

To fully understand human evolution and how we became ‘us’ we need to understand the evolution of our morphology and how it pertains to things such as our cognition and overall brain size and what advantages/disadvantages it afforded us. Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that we have evolved to be athletic and any change in that makeup will lead to a decrease in quality of life.

Homo athleticus, not Homo nerdicus, best describes Man.

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Charles Murray

Arthur Jensen

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