Born To Run?

In Born to Run, Christopher McDougall (2009) challenges common myths about distance running, such as more expensive shoes are better, and he offers Dennis Bramble’s and Dan Lieberman’s theory about its evolutionary significance

Bramble and Lieberman, according to McDougall, maintain that distance running was a way that early humans (Homo sapiens) supplied the protein that enabled the expansion of the human brain. In that, they differed from Neanderthals, who relied on strength and strategy to kill animals and, thus, incurred the costs of doing so. Unlike the Neanderthals, Homo sapiens, Bramble and Lieberman suggest, chased prey until, unable to sweat, it dropped and died, which they confirmed when Bramble met Louis Liebenberg, a Cape Town mathematician who had been living with an independent Bushman tribe.

Bramble tells McDougall that humans are remarkably good at distance running — an athletic activity in which sixty-year olds can compete with teenagers — that also reinforced gender equity and social community. The problem, however, is that the human brain, which was fed by endurance running, is now, given the abundance of food, discouraging endurance in favor of the more efficient leisure, which has been physically catastrophic. Running could, Bramble insists, stop epidemics, for example, and those who disbelieve humans were born to run are denying both history and destiny (214-244).

Running, in other words, played a part, if Bramble and Lieberman are right, in human evolution, but that seems somewhat different from suggesting that humans evolved to run, which sometimes seems to be McDougall’s suggestion. Moreover, these early humans certainly were not running on concrete or asphalt much of the time, which could limit how long our bodies can sustain this potentially powerful activity.

McDougall, Christopher. 2009. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. New York: Vintage Books.

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