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Val123's avatar

Do you have any theories as to why humans put such a premium on athletics?

Asked by Val123 (12704points) November 9th, 2009

Throughout history physical competition has ranked right up there in the top three Important Things in society. First comes power, then physical beauty, then physical ability (I’m just making this up so feel free to contradict me!)
Virtually every society, no matter how well or poorly developed, has some sort of official or unofficial competition designed around physical ability built into their society.
Do you have any thoughts on the evolutionary aspect that may have created this tendency in human society? How would being a pro tennis player be explained in terms of human evolution?

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15 Answers

efritz's avatar

Survival of the fittest. And those guys are definitely the fittest.

Plus, their kind of talent is so rare. And they’re entertaining to watch, for some people.

Val123's avatar

@efritz GA. But many, many people have rare talents but they don’t become staples in a society…

asmonet's avatar

We’re just plain attracted to the strongest, best examples of our species on a biological level. Seems natural we’d find pleasure in watching them show off – it speaks to our basic needs.

efritz's avatar

@Val123 – I don’t really think so. Artists, musicians, actors/celebrities, writers, geniuses, etc. have prominent positions in all kinds of cultures. I know that’s very generalized, but I can’t think of anything specific right now . . .

ragingloli's avatar

typical mating behaviour. gotta impress the females.

doggywuv's avatar

I think it’s because sports were originally a means of practicing for hunting. Other animals play hunting practice games too (e.g. lions).

Harp's avatar

I think this is because of our mirror neurons. Neurologists have established that when we observe someone performing a physical action, our brains, via our mirror neurons, run a simulation of that action as if we ourselves were performing them. When we watch someone skiing a slalom, or pole vaulting, our brain allows us to feel, right there in our own motor cortex, what it might feel like to be doing that. For a moment, we become supermen (in our heads, at least).

From an evolutionary point of view, the mirror neurons are what have enabled us to learn by watching. When we see someone do something, the mirror neurons teach our bodies the sequence of motions needed to replicate that action by giving us a mental preview of what it will feel like.

If it weren’t for that vicarious element, I don’t think we’d take any interest in spectator sports.

proXXi's avatar

Human survival has depended on chasing down food and running and fighting to avoid becoming food.

These are athletic activities.

nxknxk's avatar

At the risk of looking like a fanboy (guilty, anyway) I’ll refer again to David Foster Wallace:

“Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.

“The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.

[And in a footnote:] ”...great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important — they make up for a lot.”

I think some of this is just abstracting the experience of witnessing professional athletes like, say, LeBron James or (in the case of this article by Wallace) Roger Federer do such amazing stuff with their bodies. I really like @Harp‘s answer then, because it’s certainly less subjective. (Not that the two views can’t be reconciled.)

doggywuv's avatar

@efritz Culture and intelligence are much more important factors in biological fitness than is physical strength and ability.

Drawkward's avatar

In ye olden days of being a hunter-gatherer and grunting, people (usually men) with the best physical attributes were the leaders and heroes because they could provide best for their families/kinship groups. Athletics is an extension of that, a throwback to who can do the best with what they’ve got.

Val123's avatar

Good answers everyone!

Haleth's avatar

I think that competitive team games like football and basketball are like ancient warfare in a way. Wars are fought completely different now. Maybe these games are a vestige of those types of battles, and it does the same thing psychologically for people, just with lower stakes. (I’ve been watching lots of football in sports bars lately.)

mattbrowne's avatar

@efritz – Survival of the fittest does actually mean it’s about people who can best adapt to change. Those are not necessarily athletes. In addition, we know the most healthy way to live is a compromise between no exercise at all and extreme forms of exercise. There’s a price to pay when it comes to the bodies of athletes. I’m not saying this is a reason not to have top athletes. It’s certainly more dangerous to smoke than becoming an athlete.

The reason we admire athletes? Same reason we admire Einstein or Mozart or Gandhi or Mandela. They achieved something that is special.

The reason we watch sports events? Same reason we watch thrillers. There’s entertainment and suspense.

Of course there’s also an evolutionary aspect to it. Homo sapiens succeeded because there was just the right balance of competition and cooporation. The latter explains altruism for example. The first explains our fascination with supporting a particular football team. We ourselves are competing with folks supporting the other team.

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