2012-10-20

Why I Am Amazing, But Usain Bolt Is A Wimp

Okay, I don't really mean that. However, this morning, I came across a fascinating blog post (hat tip to Tyler Cowen) exploring the fact that endurance athleticism is what humans do best. With regard to my headline above, here is what Daniel Lieberman has to say:
The other reason we often discount the importance of brawn in our lives is that we have a very strange idea of what constitutes athleticism. Think about the events that we care about most in the Olympics. They're the power sports. They're the 100-meter dash, the 100-meter freestyle events. Most athletes, the ones we really value the most, are physically very powerful. But if you think about it this way, most humans are wimps.
Usain Bolt, who is the world's fastest human being today, can run about 10.4 meters a second, and he can do so for about ten or 20 seconds. My dog, any goat, any sheep I can study in my lab, can run about twice as fast as Usain Bolt without any training, without any practice, any special technology, any drugs or whatever. Humans, the very fastest human beings, are incredibly slow compared to most mammals. Not only in terms of brute speed, but also in terms of how long they can go at a given speed. Usain Bolt can go 10.4 meters a second for about ten to 20 seconds. My dog or a goat or a lion or a gazelle or some antelope in Africa can run 20 meters a second for about four minutes. So there's no way Usain Bolt could ever outrun any lion or for that matter run down any animal.
Hence, Usain Bolt is a wimp. Don't object - a scientist said this!

Okay, okay, I'm having a little fun with this. Lieberman is actually discussing the idea that, from an evolutionary perspective, "brawn," aka the physical attributes of the human species, is a lot more important than "brains," aka the intellect. Throughout the article, he makes a good case for something that I have believed for a long time; namely, that human beings are capable of fantastic feats of physical prowess - especially in the realm of endurance - as a general rule, that it requires little or no training, and that it is largely a banal fact. Consider how Lieberman describes marathon running:
The marathon, of course, is a very interesting example. A lot of people think marathons are extraordinary, and they wonder how many people can run marathons. At least a million people run a marathon every year. If you watch any major marathon, you realize that most of those folks aren't extraordinary athletes, they're just average moms and dads. A lot of them are charity runners who decided to raise money for some cancer cause or diabetes or something. I think that proves that really your average human being can run 26.2 miles without that much training, or much ability to be a great athlete. Of course, to run a marathon at really fast speeds is remarkable, but again, it just takes some practice and training. It's not something that's really extraordinary.
We're actually remarkable endurance athletes, and that endurance athleticism is deeply woven into our bodies, literally from our heads to our toes. We have adaptations in our feet and our legs and our hips and pelvises and our heads and our brains and our respiratory systems. We even have neurobiological adaptations that give us a runner's high, all of which help make us extraordinary endurance athletes. We've lost sight at just how good we are at endurance athleticism, and that's led to a perverse idea that humans really aren't very good athletes.
Over the course of the blog post, Lieberman explains why "brawn" is important. He also provides a good description of how human beings have evolved to become excellent long-distance runners. It is an excellent blog post that I highly recommend.

Three key messages come out of this Lieberman post. First, human beings are incredible endurance athletes. Second, we humans don't think we're incredible athletes by animal standards, because we happen to be obsessed with the wrong kind of athleticism, e.g. muscle power and sprinting. Third, sedentary lifestyles are basically a phenomenon no older than 100 years, and over the course of human history, being sedentary is a total anomaly.

It's an excellent read.