Is Running the Secret to our Evolutionary Success?

A Tarahumara runner
A Recycled Minds Conversation
by douglas reeser and lana lynne on 2.8.11

After viewing Christopher McDougall's recent TEDx talk (watch it below) based on his book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, we decided to have a conversation about the talk, the book, and certain items we found particularly interesting or irksome.

The book, just to give a bit of context, is McDougall's case that humans evolved because of our running ability. Wrapped around that argument are a few interconnected narratives: the evolution of the running sneaker and its relationship to running injuries; ultramarathoners, who run 50 and 100 mile races; and the Tarahumara of Mexico, who run for hundreds of miles with minimal footwear in the rough terrain of the Copper Canyons of northern Mexico. Of this last part, McDougall would probably argue that the fact that I added "with minimal footwear" is evidence of how far we've distanced ourselves from our running ancestors; and how deeply entrenched we are in consumerism. Considering the introduction of Nike's running sneaker was only in the 1970s, we now must be sold what once was our evolutionary advantage.

But to return to the Tarahumara: McDougall believes that (re)achieving our running potential does not rest solely on training, nor is it something that can be calculated in the lab. Rather, this potential is a combination of competitiveness and compassion and biology. In the TEDx talk, he explores the Tarahumara's lack of "modern ailments," as he calls them (such as war, heart disease, depression), why women are superior runners the longer the distance, why a 64-year-old can run as well as he did as a teenager, and how early homo sapiens found food without weapons. His conclusion places one idea in the center of all these items: that humans evolved as running hunting pack animals.

DC: I should state upfront that I am a fan of the barefoot running. I have been running in the 5-finger shoes for a year and a half, and am more than satisfied with the switch. Much of what McDougall says makes sense to me, and that has physically translated to less pain due to running. Still, there are a few problems that need to be pointed out about his TedX talk.

One, McDougall mentions that the Aztecs and Maya engaged with the Spanish, and that has resulted in there being few of these people remaining. While the Spanish conquest had devastating effects on the native populations of the Americas, it did not wipe them out as is popularly held. For instance, Guatemala has an indigenous population of nearly 6 million, most of them Maya. I work in southern Belize, where Maya communities make up over 80% of the villages in the region. In short, the Maya are still around, and in significant numbers, as are the ancestors of the Aztecs in central Mexico.

McDougall also characterizes the Tarahumara as being unchanged since the Stone Age (because they retreated from the Spanish). This denies them their history, and characterizes them as primitive. My anthropological training tells me that, without knowing the details, the Tarahumara culture has changed, grown, and adapted to an unknowable variety of challenges they have faced over the last 500 years. In the minds of many indigenous people and social scientists, portraying the Tarahumara as a "Stone-age" group perpetuates a racist ideology that places them below the "advanced" Western world.

LL: I agree that McDougall's TED talk implied a certain quaintness to the Tarahumara that may misrepresent their community. Perhaps he simplified their history because of the time constraints of the talk, or perhaps to bolster his argument. In the book, he obviously has more room to expand on the Tarahumara way of life. He talks about people leaving the community; some return (toting western influences) and others do not. Moreover, in the book, his writing approaches them in a very individual way. That is, his narrative does not try to encompass the whole of the culture; rather, he draws conclusions based on the interactions he has with the few people he meets. Although any conclusions he makes could be seen as oversimplification, I would argue that as a non-anthropological nonfiction storyteller, he handles writing about them in an honest, non-overreaching way.

In terms of the evolution issues he brings up, again, he goes into much more detail in the book, and the talk could have perhaps benefited from a little context -- how is he challenging conventional beliefs about human evolution? In the book, he explores the possibility of how evolving as a running pack might answer a lot of questions about some prehistoric mysteries: why we outlived the Neanderthals, why the human body evolved with certain anatomical features that only make sense if humans ran (instead of walked), why these anatomical features were different from every other mammal, and so on. From what I gathered, most evolutionary biologists scoff at the idea of humans as born runners because humans lack speed. McDougall argues that speed was and is not the issue. It is endurance and distance.

DC: I think the importance of endurance is a really interesting idea. It is commonly held that the development of bipedalism -- walking upright on 2 legs, freeing up the arms and hands -- has offered humans and our ancestors significant advantages. As McDougall points out, while a biped can not run as fast as other animals who use all 4 limbs to run, they could keep up a steady pace for much longer distances than those same 4-leggeds. Walking (and running) on 2 legs also exposes the less of the surface of the body to the direct heat of the sun, prolonging the time of activity before overheating. Further, by standing upright, bipeds can see for longer distances, and their hands are freed up to carry possessions, including their children, their food, and their weapons among other things. Clearly the move to walking on 2-legs was a significant development that aided in the survival of our species.

What is less commonly accepted, however, is whether bipedalism was the primary developmental advantage of ancient humans. In fact, a number of species that were also bipedal died off over the years, most significantly, the Neanderthals, but also a number of other ancient human ancestors. Anthropologists point out that increasing brain size was another development that occurred in early humans. This larger, more powerful brain likely plays at least an equally important role in the survival and flourishing of the human primate. It remains unclear which development came first, or if they perhaps coincided with one another. In short, it seems that McDougall is likely over-emphasizing bipedalism as the key to our adaptive advantage and ability to survive in ancient environments.

LL: If there is an element of overemphasizing to his argument, I don't feel like it undercuts the book at all. The story as it unfolds in the book is one that challenges conventional medicine and consumerism, and, in fact, shows how the two are often intricately intertwined. A worthwhile read, for the runner and those who've forgotten how (like me).

DC: I agree! I was running when I first read his book, but it certainly inspired me to shed my expensive running shoes and go run like my ancestors!

Image Credit: Norwas de Raramuri: Friends of the Running People at
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1 comment:

  1. Even running on a flat surface which is paved can also result in improved coordination because it forces the body to work together to keep the runner upright and traveling in the correct path. Those who run regularly typically move more fluidly than those who do not run or engage in any type of regular exercise.


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