Some almost random thoughts..

Friday, August 1, 2008

Why sports and career can feel like matters of life and death.

Why are men more interested in sports and a career then women? Sure, many women follow sports, but for men its seems sometimes they can't live without it. And while many women successfully pursue a career, it is the men that give it a higher priority in their life .

I believe it is our evolutionary background as hunter-gatherers that holds the key to explaining this behaviour. And once you see the goal of the effort people put into finishing first, you will also see why this same behaviour may be getting us into trouble in today’s world..

Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers over millions of years on the African savannah. The woman gathering and the men hunting, although those lines would not have been so black and white. We were shaped by the behaviours that helped us survive in that environment. And we still carry many of the motivations behind those behaviours with us today. Only recently did humans evolve language and did our brains stumble upon the power of 'parallel processing' together. We talked our way out of the savannah. And then writing, book printing and the internet catapulted us into the urban world we see around us today, where we can combine the thoughts of all the people around us and before us and act faster and more intelligent than ever.

What has gotten lost in the rush is the fact that the rest of our brain and body didn’t really evolve out of the savannah, it just walked out. We still think like the social apes that we are. The apes that were busy enough trying to secure food and find the best possible partner. The problem of finding a partner is still with us. But we solved the food problem. If we need it, we know where we can find it. Where women spent time gathering fruits and vegetables and where men went out on the hunt, now they can go to the supermarket around the corner and find more food then ever.

It is these methods we used to find food, that have shaped much of our social structure. Coalitions and hierarchies are based around how instrumental you are to others in them getting their food. Success in gathering fruits and vegetables depends on the quality of your information network, and on your ability to show it off. You rely on others telling you where the latest fruiting tree is. Female status is about who hears it first. Today’s women still show off the quality of their information network with signals like gossip and clothing. (See earlier post). For men, hunting was the way they brought in their share of the family’s food. And it is the requirements in hunting that have shaped the social structure among men.

Hunting is a team effort. Whether you drive the animals towards your fellow hunters, or whether you track and stone the bigger ones, you are much better off going with a few others. But while you need others to hunt successfully, you don’t want to bring anyone along that can’t pull his own weight. Why bother going out with the guy that slows you down in the running, or that is too dumb to understand when to be quiet. Nobody wants to share the meat and the glory with a slacker. For a male to do well in hunting, he needs to earn his place in the best team going out to hunt. That is what guarantees him and his family a regular supply of meat.

How do you get yourself on the best hunting team out there, and not the second or the third? Of course you make sure everybody notices you with yet another catch after every successful hunt. But any other physical contest you can do with other men in the group can serve to impress. Depending on the intended catch, there may be a place for a good runner, an experienced tracker, a thrower or a very strong guy. Even the weakest guy can still make a good addition to the team if he is very smart. So you have an incentive to compete in any playful contest there is, earning your place in the upper league. Make sure you get that trophy that shows you are a winner and that you could well be the ‘most valued player’ in the hunt next time around.

The diverse team nature of hunting is the reason why men are so eager to compete in any game whenever they can. And why it is so much about impressing other men. It is the other men that decide who comes along with them and who doesn’t. Sure, girls better take note of who brings in the meat and who doesn’t. But to them so many more things matter, like showing good health and appearing to make a faithful partner and a devoted father. The men couldn’t care less. They want to see you bleed. And when anyone else in your team takes part in a contest, support him because if he wins, your hunting party will attract the best young ones out there. Competing in games against neighbouring groups may be a good pasttime. But the population density throughout evolution has been too low to consider that the reason behind playing games as much as we do.

Your male brain pushes you to get into the best team you possibly can. Because the meat out there isn’t going to wait. So it drives you to take on any challenge until you are secure in your place. In a small group, there is an end to these displays of prowess. At some point it is clear where everybody stands and the displays become few and far between. Why would you go to the limit in head to head contests when it is clear that you are in the right spot. The next guy up really is better than you and the next guy down still has a lot to learn. The displays calm down when everybody knows where everybody stands.

What would happen if you made the group much bigger, like it has happened in our modern time? For men, changing the game hasn’t meant much. If your game is about making money, you show your trophies in the car park and you talk about your income in the bar. If it is about writing scientific papers, everybody can see the citations. Only now there is always a higher league to get into. And when you compare yourself to your peers, suddenly you can’t be so sure of your place any more. The next guy up and the next guy down seem awfully close in their winnings.

Even though our social circle isn’t that much bigger than it used to be, it has become much more homogeneous. The schooling system, the housing arrangements and our work floor have sorted us along the lines of our abilities. In your first school you knew exactly where everybody stood at the end of the year. Then the class got separated, and each pupil went on with others of his own level. And sometimes that happens to people several times until the people around them are practically indistinguishable in talent. That tells your brain to keep up the displays, else you may lose out on food in the hunt.

As social primates on the savannah, human males used every possible contest to sort out who gets to be in the best position for the hunt. Our determination to get to the highest team has determined our survival and is still with us today. But the mechanism is incompatible with our increased group size. The hunter has become stuck in his display behaviour, exhausting not only himself, but also his environment.

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Laughter and storytelling:

All humans are equipped with the ability to experience the same social emotions like shame, pride, envy and respect. But the applicability of these emotions can vary strongly from group to group and over time. So the brain needs us to constantly calibrate our social morals with those of our group. The most efficient way to do this is through storytelling. We evolved a love of listening to stories, because in a stone age setting that would expose us to the reactions of our group to the story. We slowly but surely mirror the reactions we hear around us, like laughter and outrage, so that we end up in sync with the social morals of the group. This shows why watching comedy without the studio laughter is difficult. Not only can't you laugh with others, you actually get the message that what you hear shouldn't be deemed funny, because nobody else is laughing.

Laughter and storytelling combine to make us compatible in behaviour, because when it comes to social morals, it did not pay to be different. In the modern world, we have automated the storyteller in the middle of the group, into the TV-set we mostly watch on our own. But without the vocal reactions of our group, it might have become a waste of time.

Hunting and gathering.

As humans we solved our basic food problem. Getting the calories we need to survive is easy. But like animals in the zoo that get fed, we have kept much of the display behaviour related to our feeding methods throughout our evolution.

The gatherer into gossip and fashion.
The success in gathering partly depends on the quality of your information network. You need to hear in time where the latest fruiting tree is. There may be more than enough for the person that finds it, but not enough for everyone. A gatherer that finds food will share the information with someone that seems likely to be able to return the favour another time. So gatherers have evolved a need to signal having a quality social network and being 'up to date'.

Gossip and keeping up with fashion trends are modern display behaviours linked to the innate need to be up to date and to be seen to be up to date. With gossip, a gatherer has a special interest in being the first in relaying otherwise useful bits of information.

The hunter into sports and career.
Stone-age hunting is a team effort needing diverse skills. You are better off hunting with a few others. But you do not want to bring anyone along who can't pull his own weight. You do not want to share the meat and the glory with a slacker. So the hunter has evolved a constant need to show they will make a valuable team member to other hunters. That is what gets you on the best hunting party and that gets you the best food and possibly 'extra' mating opportunities.

Every opportunity you have to compete with others to show off your skills can help you get picked by the best. Modern sports and even career are behaviours linked to the need to show you are a valuable team member and you deserve your spot in the highest league. The displays needed to establish and keep your deserved rank would settle down in a small group. In our modern large group the hunter has become stuck in this display behaviour because there is always a higher league to get into. And people's social circle has become more homogeneous through the sorting that happens in school, housing and work arrangements. So there is always someone close ahead or behind. This may be an important driver behind the 'never enough' economy.

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