What sport are humans best evolved for?

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Cheetahs are the fastest land animal. Sailfish the fastest swimmers. Pumas the highest jumpers. So which sport do humans excel at? Slate claims it’s endurance running. They made this claim as part of their coverage of the totally awesome Man versus Horse marathon, a 22 mile long annual Welsh race of humans versus horses. Now of course picking which sport we’re best evolved for is rather silly, but it’s also interesting if you think about it. Since I’ve seen this topic before, I wanted to give my pick.

First let me debunk endurance running. The idea originated with a 2004 paper by Daniel Lieberman claiming human ancestors evolved to hunt animals through “persistence hunting”, chasing animals until they collapsed from exhaustion. But it didn’t become mainstream until the 2009 bestseller Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. Since it’s flattering to runners, which include yours truly, the idea has a natural partisan group that champions it. Outside Magazine did a nice piece on a failed attempt at persistence hunting, which was ironically taken by advocates as a success. The Slate piece didn’t mention this of course.

To me endurance running as human’s best sport fails at two levels. First, it’s simply not true that human beings are the best endurance athletes across the animal kingdom. In the Man versus Horse Marathon mentioned above, humans have beat horses, but very rarely. And in fact the real endurance champions are bar-tailed godwits, birds that fly for nine days straight 7000 miles across the Pacific Ocean. Now that is real endurance!

But this idea fails at a much deeper level. If you want to highlight what makes humans special from an evolutionary perspective, a simple athletic contest of fastest, highest or most endurance is the wrong way to go. If that were true, then bar-tailed godwits would be running the world. We’d be their slaves. Planet of the Godwits. What makes humans evolutionarily unique are: a) big brains and b) cooperation. Big brains get all the press, but cooperation at human levels is nearly as rare. We are the exceptionally good at it. Furthermore there’s a school of thought that this level of cooperation and big brains were given a big boost by tribal warfare.

Looked at in this light, the very fact that we like tribal sports competition is in itself a sign of human uniqueness. It’s unlikely that horses or godwits would even appreciate the concept. So my criteria for identifying the sport which best reflects our evolved nature would be the very aspects of humanity which made us dominate the planet:

  1. Team competition – deep cooperation within teams, but at the same time tribal conflict between teams
  2. Tool use – have to have some type of implement for your sport which uses our specially evolved hands.
  3. Complex strategy – need to use our big brains
  4. Stylized warfare – you can argue this one, but to me humans are tribal and conflict prone, and sports themselves seem to be at heart stylized warfare, so any sport which hides this fact gets a lowered grade.

These criteria immediately rule out straightforward sports like running, jumping, swimming, etc. No team. No complex strategy. So let’s take a list of the world’s most popular sports and grade them using the criteria above. To get a passing grade of C you have hit all four.

  • Soccer – D. Dude, you don’t use your hands.
  • Cricket – C plus. Passing grade, but I’m marking it down a bit on complex strategy. Cricket has very complex rules, but on the fly decision making is normally rote. There is a single best play for nearly every situation. Also downgraded a bit for hiding the warfare.
  • Baseball – same as Cricket. C plus.
  • Field Hockey – B. Hits all the marks.
  • Tennis – D. Generally not a team sport.
  • Volleyball – B minus. Hits all the marks.
  • Table Tennis – D. Individual sport.
  • Golf – D. Individual sport.
  • Basketball – B. Hits all the marks.
  • Football – A minus. This is stylized tribal fighting, for better and for worse as well. I marked it down to A minus for lack of good tool use since it has a ball but no hand held tool.

So there you have it. My pick is Football.

Finally, I can’t wrap up an article on sports without talking some trash. After all, talking trash is part of our evolved tribal nature. It’s not my fault. So get in the mood by reading the classic Onion article You Will Suffer Humiliation When The Sports Team From My Area Defeats The Sports Team From Your Area.

Here goes. Lakers fans tell me they are hated because their team has been so good for so long. They like the Lakers because they like good basketball. Not because they are celebrity sell outs. Fine. But if that’s really true, then why haven’t they all become Clippers fans this year? The Clippers are playing far better ball. Undoubtedly some have changed sides. That makes sense. But the fans that haven’t, what’s their excuse?

And really, for baseball, we know the Giants won the world series because they are just excellent humans. Not because they are the team from my area beating the team from your area. Contrast them with say, the Atlanta Braves, whose collapse last season was sadly predictable. And likely to happen again this season.

There you go, some tribal sports and trash talk. Humanity at it’s best and worst. Feel free to comment. By the way, the Niners were robbed in the Superbowl. Robbed I tell you!

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