Running on our inner ape


Homo erectus

I do not think running meant anything until I had been in the Army for a couple of years. We went on two-mile runs on a regular basis, but I hated it. We ran in formation in long lines, singing songs led by a drill sergeant who would shout a line and we would return it or shout back given responses. I wish I could remember some of these, but they have all disappeared except for fragments like, “A yellow bird, (echo) with a yellow bill, (echo) was sitting on, (echo) my windowsill.” Where the (echo) was us echoing what the cadence caller had just shouted/sang. There was lots of swearing. We ran in green fatigues, in our leather “Army boots.” Never in tennis shoes. I was having difficulty running like this and went to an Army doctor who took X-rays of my feet. Back in 1974, I had been in a wreck where Scott, my high-school buddy, had fallen asleep at the wheel coming back from the Manti Temple. My foot had been crushed, but the Moab doctor had only noticed a broken leg and put a cast on me without fixing the crushed bones in my foot. They knitted together as mangled as they were when put into the cast after the wreck and for years people thought I walked like a duck because I was too lazy to push my foot back into position after being in a cast. Anyway, he saw my bones on the X-ray and was horrified by the mess. He said I should never run again. I got a ‘profile,’ which excused me from running with the troops, but strangely enough, it freed me to run on my own. I lived in a small city within biking distance from Schweinfurt where I was stationed, in the upper level of a house. It was on the edge of quiet rural areas and I would go for long runs through the forests and small farms that dotted the area. It was during this time that I learned to love running. It is odd, because when my Unit went for a run, I would be excused. They never suspected that later that day, I would run faster and further than any of them.

Our bodies are descended from a long line of runners. If you inspect the fossilized skeleton of a Homo erectus from the neck down, even physical anthropologists are hard-pressed to tell it from an anatomically modern human. This striding bipedal form came into being about two million years ago, a long time before we developed the big brain and rational accoutrements that Aristotle so cherished with its capacity for language and formal reason. Why this physical form? To run! Our body is apparently engineered by nature for the long jog. Dennis Bramble at University of Utah has pointed out that we are one of the best runners in the animal kingdom. Not that we are particularly speedy. Indeed, almost anything can outrun us in a sprint. But at running a distance (10k say) we are champions. Only the dog and horse are even in our league. Everything about us from the way our foot and knees are constructed, to the way our torso swings free from our hips and our stable foreword staring head are designed for trotting along for leagues. Not walking mind you–running.

The story of our bodies evolution seems to have its roots in scavenging and piracy. Picture a band of H. erectus, sitting around, the low foreheads encasing a slightly smaller brain, not quite allowing speech, but enough brains in place to make the same-shaped hand axes for over a million years (these were magnificent for crushing bones). These beasts (perhaps grouped in the shade of an Acacia tree), so much like us and yet so different, are highly social—like the common ancestor that sprouted both us and the chimps. Maybe this band is grooming one another; maybe gestures are becoming more advanced suggesting the first motion toward symbolic representation. But then suddenly, ten kilometers away, black dots appear hovering above the horizon—vultures. The reposing apes immediately leap to their feet and they run. Men, women and children all run together toward the circling vultures (excepting maybe the mothers with new infants—maybe them too). There is strong selection to get there quickly. The pride of lions that made the kill will devour most of it post-haste and what they leave will be snatched hurriedly by hyenas, jackals, and other scavengers. The band arrives at the kill and manifests the other trait that in all the animal kingdom only we and, presumably, our ancestors can do well. They pick up rocks and throw them. They have both speed and stunning accuracy at flinging rocks at their scavenger competitors and predatory providers. Although we can’t know for certain that they were as highly developed pitchers as we are (since throwing ability is a brain function and does not fossilize well), the anatomy for throwing is there and we may see the roots of baseball in this volley of well-aimed projectiles that drive the lions from their kill. Then with their well made stone axes chop off our booty and sit down to a sumptuous meal. They may have even cooked it.

What do I love about running? It is hard to say. I enjoy it at several levels. When I am running in Nature, like when I am running along the canal near my home in Pleasant Grove, I feel the air pumping through my lungs at a steady meter, my legs moving in rhythm with my arms swinging from side to side. I notice the air is fresh and I feel a part of things, connected to the world and its aspects. Things pass by as I jog along and as such, time seems disclosed and unmasked from its usually hidden place in the mystery of being. Distance and time become one, and the two can be exchanged without Einstein’s equations. Occasionally, I surprise the world and catch it being natural: ducks, deer, pheasants, quail, and such are spied before my trespass is marked and sets them in motion to evade my lumbering stride. When I run, the body and mind merge and I do not notice a separate consciousness sitting in the Cartesian theatre directing motion and watching out of its bay window. I become one thing. One running thing, which is not mind and body separately perceived, but one thing that works together in completeness and harmony—single entity, a thing in itself. Of course, this completeness of mind and body doesn’t always come, actually it is a kind of habit that is developed like meditation, not something striven for exactly, but something easily lost if my thoughts are on troubles, or my imagination has taken flight and I am lost in some fantasy. But when I run, I am my best self. I think this is because I have only one thing to do. And I do it well. Not that I am a good runner as viewed from others’ frames of reference (in fact some would not recognize it as running given the pace), but I run well from within. I have one purpose and it is easy and completable in the time I have. So I love to run. It takes me into time and out of time. It places me in motion, yet brings me stillness. It lets me touch nature with my own nature and the two join in a dynamic of combined grace.

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13 comments to Running on our inner ape

  • Cap

    What a beautiful idea that was brought through this blog. As you described your running, it made me think of that stillness of meditation. I have been biking sense I was in High School. I love biking to work and back. It gives me time to myself to think, to get lost. lately, I have been attempting to sit for 20 min a day an meditate. I only focus on my breathing. It seems that running for you is the same.

    There is something deeply spiritual about, whether it be running, or biking, or whatever that brings this calm. It is something that I treasure in my life.

    Thank you for sharing that!

  • As a runner myself for 35 years, not counting my Army running, I enjoyed this post, especially the last paragraph why you run. I ditto all of your comments. And, it was nice to know I have other runners (H. erectus) in my family.

  • I thought all that running stuff was directed evolution to make us more fit for cycling.

    Two questions: You say, “Only the dog and horse are even in our league.” Does this overlook the pronghorn antelope? My understanding is that they are the absolute champions of distance running, due to numerous anatomical adaptations (I know nothing of any physiological adaptations).

    Second, I remember reading about the development of running as being linked to chasing down prey—not as a cheetah does it, rather by chasing and chasing and chasing a herd until individual prey animals drop from exhaustion = easy kill.

  • SteveP

    Pronghorn are fast. Cheetah fast, but not made for the slow long run that humans, dogs and horses can do.

    Many species in the dog family use the tactic you describe. No cat does. They go for stealth and a short sprint. Lions do work together to drive prey to an ambush, but its a short run attack.

  • “Picture a band of H. erectus, sitting around, the low foreheads encasing a slightly smaller brain, not quite allowing speech”
    – Yes, I can see it! Is the one sitting against the large tree using a leaf to floss his teeth called Adam?

    “The band arrives at the kill and manifests the other trait that in all the animal kingdom only we and, presumably, our ancestors can do well. They pick up rocks and throw them.”
    – Yes, I can see it. Is the female with a weak, inaccurate throw called Eve?

    In all seriousness, I don’t see how the picture you paint of our supposed ancestors agrees with the story of the creation we read in the scriptures and hear and see in the temple.

    I hope you don’t perceive this as being a hostile post – I just wish to share my incredulous sentiments. As I wrote in my recent post, “An Olive Branch from Theistic Evolutionists”, we should respect all Latter-day Saints, regardless of their views on the origins of life. I just don’t understand how you can embrace a viewpoint that seems to deviate so far from the plain and simple truths of the gospel.

  • Karen

    I just got back from a run, and all I can say is that I am glad nature is not selecting for only the best runners – otherwise I certainly wouldn’t get the chance to make my contribution to the gene pool! After reading your ideas on the evolution of running, I wonder what evolutionary changes to our physiology are currently occuring. Have you seen the pixar movie “Wall-e”? It depicts a future with larger people and less bone mass and density. Do you think we are already on our way?

  • Hmm, I see my recent response to this post did not make the final cut.

  • SteveP

    Sorry for the delay, I was traveling again and could not get to the internet. Nice posts! Thanks.

  • Cap

    Karen-

    I think in certain aspects that we are well on our way to becoming like the individuals on Wall-e. The values of working, exercising, and eating healthy are deteriorating. It is sad to say, but I fear you can see this predominantly in America.

    I can still hope for the best. :)

  • Tyson F.

    Great post. A very interesting light to view evolution through. Being in podiatry school myself, I am learning extensively of the foot and lower extremity. Biomechanically speaking, running upright is a remarkable capability of the human – one which I believe helped to guide our evolutionary history, both past, present, and future. It is sad (and unhealthy) as noted by Cap that this long derived capability is becoming so deteriorated.

    Dr. Bramble’s work, including his paper in Nature, Born to Run, is integral in understanding how we as humans got to where we are today. I cringe to think what our evolutionary future looks like with little exercise and much obesity.

  • SteveP

    Hi Tyson!

    Thanks for the comment! I don’t know if you’ve seen the Pixtar movie Wall-E (or something like that). But it has a hilarious look at humans who never walk.

    Keep up the good thinking!

  • There is some solid information on this page. I am in love with your blog so far. I’ve added the feed to my boomarks and will check back often. I did get some errors with how fast the website loaded. Might be a problem to fix.

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