I’ve been watching Evolve on the History Channel and have found it quite interesting. The last episode I watched was on skin and it had an interesting segment on human skin and running.
While the idea that humans evolved to run has been around for a while, the segment did a good job presenting the various aspects of the human body that make us ideal endurance runners. Since the show was on skin, the focus was obviously on the skin.
Mammals are generally good at maintaining body warmth. We are “warm blooded” and also have fur/hair that serves as insulation. However, cold is not the only problem we face. We also face the problem of heat. While other mammals have evolved means of coping with the heat, humans seem to be the best at this task. Unlike other mammals, we can secrete (sweat) plenty of water through specialized glands. This enables us to cool ourselves via evaporation. Because of this feature, we can thermoregulate very effectively and thus can handle the heat better than other animals.
In addition to our skin, we also have the right muscles for running. As the show pointed out, humans have relatively large buttocks (baby does, in fact, have back). Our large butt muscles (gluteus maximus) are ideally suited for running. Throw in our bipedalism, our binocular vision, our opposable thumbs and our intelligence and you have the makings of a top predator.
Interestingly, one of our most effective hunting methods involved our skin. Most prey animals tend to cool themselves via panting. Unfortunately for them, this is not as efficient as sweating and it works poorly when an animal is running. Hence, it is believed that human hunters could run their prey to exhaustion. This fact is has also been known to modern hunters and I learned about this long ago. After I had started running track, I went deer hunting with my Dad and his friend. They joked that I should run the deer down (this was a joke because I’d probably get shot if I ran through the woods). My Dad said that although a human could not outsprint a deer, eventually the deer would become exhuasted and that would be it for Bambi.
I’ve never tried running down a deer, but I do know that I can outlast even a husky while running. Hence, the idea that early humans used running as a hunting method makes sense. As a runner, I find that quite appealing.
If we are natural runners, and we seem to be, then it is tempting to think that we should run. Naturally, I am thinking about Aristotle here. His view was that each thing had a purpose (or purposes) and excellence involved fulfilling one’s purpose as well as possible. Thus, if man is the running animal (and not just the rational animal), then our excellence depends on being runners. Hence, we should run.
Of course, the idea of purpose lost favor long ago in the sciences. Even if humans are evolved to run, this fact has no normative implications. The theory of evolution has, as a key component, the view that the world is fundamentally lacking in purpose in regards to the natures of living things. In the case of running, we are not designed to run. Randon chance and natural selection merely resulted in a running animal. And, as those who follow Hume point out, one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.”
Since I am a runner, I find Aristotle appealing. We are runners and, if we wish to be excellent at being human, then we need to run. I freely acknowledge my runner’s bias in this matter.
Naturally, some might say “but I cannot run.” To borrow from Obama “yes you can.” Running need not be literal running and we can run in different ways. Yes, that is obscure and cryptic. But, if you run about ten miles, it will make perfect sense. Really. 🙂