The secret feminism of “Born to Run” Pt. 2: an alternate view of early humanity

If you have ever read a lot of what passes for evolutionary psychology these days, you know that many of the field’s practitioners are in love with a vision of early humanity that can only be described as vicious and brutal.  You know, man clubs food, man clubs woman, woman cowers in cave while making mastadon stew and popping out baby after cave baby, oog oog booga.  The underlying idea of most of these arguments is that men should be permitted to behave as atrociously as they want because they are genetically programmed to be assholes.  (Dudes, please tell me this offends you as much as it offends me.)

A really good example of evopsych gone waaaaay wrong is an article for Psychology Today, written by Dr. Satoshi Kanawaza, in which he asks the pressing question that is on everyone’s mind: “Why are black women less physically attractive than other women?”

It’s enough to make even the most mild-mannered lady go all FEMINIST HULKSMASH on the world.

Fortunately not everyone buys into this commonly-held vision of early humanity.  In “Born to Run,” Chris McDougall pretty much calls all that out as steaming piles of dork-shaped horseshit.  In his book, McDougall says the humanoid species that actually clubbed animals to death is, surprise!, not the humanoid species from which we descended.  In fact, we out-competed the animal-clubbing Neanderthals, despite being smaller and not as strong and probably not even as smart.  How did we do this?  By running our prey to death

This theory is known as “endurance running hypothesis“:

Most mammals can sprint faster than humans — having four legs gives them the advantage. But when it comes to long distances, humans can outrun almost any animal. Because we cool by sweating rather than panting, we can stay cool at speeds and distances that would overheat other animals. On a hot day, the two scientists wrote, a human could even outrun a horse in a 26.2-mile marathon.

Why would evolution favor the distance runner? The prevailing theory is that endurance running allowed primitive humans to incorporate meat into their diet. They may have watched the sky for scavenging birds and then run long distances to reach a fresh kill and steal the meat from whatever animal was there first.

(Quick aside: I’m the dog-mom to a greyhound, which is pretty much one of the definitive running mammals.  Evan could probably outsprint me, but he tires quickly and cannot cool himself down. I suspect I could easily outrun him over longer distances, which tells me that my body is meant to run as much as his is, if not more so.)

The early-humanity theory McDougall advances, which goes along with endurance running hypothesis, is one that is a bit more egalitarian than the idea that men provided food while women provided babies and clean caves:

“Women have really been underrated,” Dr. [Dennis] Bramble [an evolutionary biologist at the University of Utah] said. “They’ve been evolutionarily shortchanged.  We perpetuate this notion that they were sitting around waiting for the men to come back with food, but there’s no reason why women couldn’t be part of the hunting party.  Actually, it would be weird if women weren’t hunting alongside the men, since they’re the ones who really need the meat.  The human body benefits most from meat protein during infancy, pregnancy and lactation, so why wouldn’t women get as close to the beef supply as possible?”

McDougall writes about ultrarunner Kami Semick, who carries her four-year-old daughter in a backpack while running trails, and another ultrarunner who ran the Hardrock 100 while stopping  at every aid station to breastfeed her son.  His point is that childbearing and childrearing are not feats that necessarily require a woman be stationary.

Think about all of the junk psychology and crap pop science that uses the Violent Cavemen theory of early human life to explain our modern lives.  Think about how it is used to explain everything from dating to sexual violence, how this inherently unequal theory of humanity guides so much of our common discourse about ourselves.

Imagine if that went all away, and was instead replaced by this vision of early human life:

I could see a band of hunters – young and old, male and female – running tirelessly across the grasslands.  The women are up front, leading the way toward fresh tracks they spotted while foraging, and hard behind are the old men, their eyes on the ground and their minds inside a kudu skull half a mile ahead. Crowding their heels are teens eager to soak up tips.  The real muscle hangs back; the guys in their twenties, the strongest runners and hunters, watching the lead trackers and saving their strength for the kill. And bringing up the rear?  The Kami Semicks of the savannah, toting their kids and grandkids.

No one is stashed away from public life.  No one is deemed only worthwhile for childbearing or for hunting. No one is given a free pass on violent behavior. Everyone takes part. Everyone is essential.

So what does this mean for so-called ‘traditional’ life?  I’ll tell you what I think, which is that ‘traditional’ life is not as natural as its proponents say it is.  What is natural?  A society in which all members are valued for their contributions, in which all members hang together and work hard for the sake of the group.  An egalitarian society is what’s natural.

I strongly believe that all liberation movements – be it feminism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, anti-poverty, gay rights – are as much a part of our natural heritage as human beings as violence, hate and oppression.   The inclinations for both are buried deep inside of our hearts and minds, and the dueling impulses play out all over the world.  It’s why we hear about kindness and solidarity in refugee camps and abuse taking place within activist groups and religious organizations.  The question is, which inclination are we going to allow to dominate?

I have no idea if Bramble and McDougall’s vision of early humanity is true.  I’m not a paleontologist or an evolutionary psychologist or a researcher of any sort.  I know that this vision appeals to me because it correlates with my own dreams and ideas for the world around us.  I’m woman enough to admit my biases.  But I’ll tell you why else it appeals to me – because it gives us alternatives.  It tell us that we are not fighting a Sisyphean battle when we seek social justice and liberation.  It tells us that another world is indeed possible.

Previously:  The secret feminism of “Born to Run” Pt. 1: women and ultrarunning

18 responses to “The secret feminism of “Born to Run” Pt. 2: an alternate view of early humanity

  1. Ahhhhh, thank you! Yes to this forever: “I strongly believe that all liberation movements – be it feminism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, anti-poverty, gay rights – are as much a part of our natural heritage as human beings as violence, hate and oppression.”

  2. Where the hell are you reading evolutionary psychology where people are in love with “man clubs woman, woman cowers in cave while making mastadon stew”?

    I’m more offended at your idiotic recap of “many” evolutionary psychologists than anything else in this post. Perhaps if you’re reading “evolutionary psychology” articles from you can find this kind of drivel, but if you read actual articles or books from the eminent people in the field (David Buss, Geoffrey Miller, Daniel Nettle, Patricia H. Hawley, Lars Penke, Nancy L. Segal, etc.) you don’t find such cartoonish ideas.

    Maybe more time reading on the subject and less time posting your opinion about it is warranted.

    • I had actually deleted a sentence in which I said I felt badly for people who actually study the field with the goal of doing something more than just re-affirming their biases because they have to deal with asinine things like this clogging up their field, but I see now that I should have kept it. It would have at the very least prevented me from being criticized for my “idiotic” views.

      I agree that people should be reading legit researchers in the field, but you know as well as I do that the work of those people is not what makes it out into popular media, and not just, but also stuff like Psychology Today, which I know is a crap publication but is also a publication is read by far more people than the scholarly articles you are referencing, and hence have more of a reach within the wider public.

      • I didn’t say your views were idiotic, I found the recap that “what passes for evolutionary psychology” is “cave man” stories.

        Perhaps that’s my personal bias coming out, but I don’t equate getting a junk article published in with “passing for evolutionary biology.”

        I can see what you were trying to say if I read it in context of your comment, but it’s not so obvious to me if I read it without that context. I apologize for sounding rude, I just have a sore spot for people maligning the serious work that’s gone into the field post-“sociobiology.”

    • hey, you know what’s totally a way to NOT be taken seriously? calling people’s writing “idiotic.”

    • I can’t reply to your last comment, but I will say fair enough. I should have specified “pop evopsych,” which is the kind of crap that gets published in places like Psychology Today. You know, the kind of junk that grabs a lot of media attention because it confirms what people think they already know about the world.

      Also, I am not speaking about “evolutionary biology” as much as I’m talking about “evolutionary psychology.” I’m guessing your last comment was a mistake, since the scientists you referred to me are all psychology and behavioral scientists.

  3. I love this vision of history (and this blog) and love the thought experiment, and I love this piece of writing as a weapon to break down the bullshit evolutionary arguments we all have floating around in our consciousnesses and culture.

    That said, I worry that by decreeing this kind of arrangement as “natural” you are falling into the same trap as those who use evolutionary “evidence” to denigrate women. Should we just admit that we can never know our evolutionary history, and even less the “reasons” for it’s path? Then we are forced to honor our current cultures and bodies and capabilities. Should we just presume that stories are just stories, and we need a constant, consent-driven dialog with *people*, and in fact *all people*, in order to discover our “natural” way of being together?

    Or I don’t know… maybe we should champion these more humane visions of “natural life” in order to balance out the ramant misogynist ones!

    Either way, this is awesome, and thank you for the fuel.

    • I actually would be totally down with admitting that we really can’t ever know, and that all we can do is conjecture based on the information we do have. I also think it’s important to keep in mind that our conjectures will be filtered through our own perspectives of the world – basically, that we will be limited by the things our imaginations can conceive of. it’s the same kind of issue faced by scientists and researchers in every field, I think.

      I guess I just hate this idea that gets re-iterated over and over again, that people are evolutionarily conditioned to be this very specific, almost amoral way, when we have so much evidence to the contrary. Yes, people can be violent and people can take advantage of one another and people can be cruel. But we can also be kind, empathetic and cooperative, and I think that’s just as much a part of Who We Are as our tendencies towards violence and brutality. So I guess I’m championing a more nuanced view of what it means to be a person, instead of just going along with this idea that we are just Cavemen and Women with better hygiene. Does that make sense?

  4. Wolves are my favorite animals, and wolves, like humans, evolved as persistence hunters that hunt in packs. Even though females are smaller, both males and females participate in the hunt. It makes total sense that humans would have evolved the same way.

  5. Easy question:

    Did you find Born to Run an enjoyable read? Not whether you agreed or disagreed with most of the content but whether it was basically readable all the way through?

    I’ve started thinking I should read it, but… so many library book sale books to get through first. 😛

    • I LOVED IT. Here’s a post I wrote about it:

      If you are at all interested in barefoot running, you must read this book. it’s full of really thought-provoking information, and the narrative that provides the cohesive thread is really enthralling. Plus McDougall is a great writer. I hear you on having about a billion books to read – you should see my sad, groaning bookshelves – but this took me about two days to read.

      • Thanks for the answer and the link!

        I’m actually transitioning toward minimalist running (I doubt I’ll ever go truly barefoot because my running route tends to include various bits of jagged metal and glass).

        I’ll definitely put it on my “to look for” list at my used book haunts. And maybe on my Christmas list for new…

  6. If you’re at all interested in reading more about a non-caveman view of early humans, I cannot recommend enough Sarah Hrdy’s [not Hardy] two books, Mother Nature and Mothers and Others. There are two extended quotes from it on my blog here. The second one is specifically about the idea of women staying home all day.

    According to Hrdy, hunter-gatherers are pretty flexible in their food acquisition methods–a minority of hunter-gatherer societies have women hunting alongside men. She’s pretty clear that none of them had women just staying at the camp all day; calorically, they couldn’t afford it. Although hunter-gatherer groups aren’t/weren’t a feminist paradise, the staying-home-all-day pattern (as well as many of the other more oppressive things) is a post-agriculture thing.

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