Josh about to pass his grandpa

Josh about to pass his grandpa
Here, at age three, Josh regularly runs a mile or two with me--and I have to work hard to keep up!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Bodies Before Brains: How We Got So Smart

Running with my 2-year-old grandson, Josh, has been a great revelation.  It has confirmed, for me, how we humans, out of all the millions of species on this planet, came to be the world-dominating animals we are.  And what it has confirmed is the very opposite of what most of us were taught in school—the idea that humans became what we are because of our big brains.

I’ve had a personal tutorial, these last few months, on how our development as the amazing creatures we are began with our bodies. Not that we didn’t have brains—so did apes, whales, and elephants.  But it’s what our unique physical challenges compelled us to do, in order to survive over hundreds of thousands of years before civilization began, that made the brain develop as it did.


            [Note to myself: write the next post, after this, on why the human brain is now shrinking, at an alarming rate in evolutionary time: the data, the documentation, etc.]


            I knew this, about the body developing first, long before Josh was born.  I became familiar with the work of the evolutionary biologists David Carrier and Dennis Bramble at the University of Utah, and Daniel Lieberman at Harvard, a quarter-century ago when they published their path-breaking article “How Running Made Us Human”—a cover story in the journal Nature.  The gist of their explanation was that prehistoric humans, lacking the physical power, speed, and built-in weapons (claws, sharp teeth, horns) of other big animals, eventually learned to survive by developing endurance rather than speed, to become successful “persistence hunters.” 

Years later, I elaborated on this revolutionary understanding of our origins in my book The Longest Race: A Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance.  But now, knowing this has become personal in a whole new way, because suddenly I’m seeing that the development of an individual person in some striking ways parallels what we now know was the development of our whole species.

I got a first inkling of this when my daughter, Elizabeth would bring Josh into our living room, when he was still in his first year, and he’d start running back-and-forth between the easy chair and the couch—wow, ten feet without a fall!  Soon, he’d run the ten feet and hurl himself onto the couch like a twelve-year-old doing a belly flop into a pool, laughing with glee.  Then, after a few weeks, he was running laps around the living room.  One day he ran 50 laps nonstop before I stopped counting, smiling and clapping and having the time of his life.

            I should clarify that Josh is in no way slow in his development of language.  He loves to talk, and surprises us every day (he’s now 2) with the new words and phrases he’s learned.  But all the joy and delight that we (and he) experience as he develops his linguistic and mental faculties were clearly preceded by the joy and delight of learning to stand up, walk, run, do flying belly flops onto couches, and then go for long runs with “Gampa” (that’s me) on the trails and roads in our neck of the woods.  Significantly Josh did a lot of running before he learned the word “run.”

            It’s also significant that Josh’s running is very different from that of an adult who has taken up running for the first time at age 30 or 40.  It’s not so mechanical or purposeful.  I don’t think he starts out with the thought “Let’s run a mile.”  For one thing, I’m sure he has no idea what a “mile” is.  His running experience is far more varied, complex, and non-goal-oriented than that.  He obviously feels the action in a way a lot of adults don’t quite: for him it’s as much like the pleasure of dancing to the sound of a great song as it is a matter of going somewhere.  He’ll run with little skips, or leaps, sometimes waving his arms over his head like a World Cup player who’s just kicked a goal.  Or he’ll suddenly speed up and yell “Go fast!” but with no suggestion that he’s racing, just that this is fun!

            But here’s the really interesting thing: as he runs, he’s also watching, observing, with an acuity that often amazes me.  One bright clear day, around mid-morning he stopped, pointed at the sky, and said “moon!”  I glanced up, laughed, and said “No, Josh, the moon comes at night, when it’s dark.”  But he insisted, “moon!”  I looked up again, narrowed my eyes, and then yes, there it was—a tiny, faint white sliver in the blue-white sky.  I have good vision (still don’t wear glasses), but found myself wondering, how did he see that?

Now, if he sees the moon, I know better than to question him.  He’ll do the same thing with all kinds of other observations, too.  Plane! Up dere!  Or “spider web, get a stick!” (The first time we found a spider web on an outdoor chair, I had shown him how to brush it off with a stick.)  I’d look where he was pointing, look really hard, and then—sure enough—a few feet off the trail in a tangle of brush was a barely visible web.  How did he see that? 

And then it hit me: Josh was instinctively doing what humans before civilization had to do to survive: He was watching, observing, using his eyes and ears with an acuity we modern grownups have largely abandoned. The “persistence hunting” theory wasn’t just about humans learning to outrun antelope or horses over long distances, but about all the tracking and observing they had to do before and during the chase, which might take hours.

It struck me that maybe one of the reasons a lot of modern endurance athletes have moved from the roads to the trails is that trail-running (or hiking, or mountain biking or climbing) both requires and invites more active engagement with the environment—watching the ground for rocks and roots, or pitfalls or cliffs, or adapting to the sun or wind or ice as we go, and getting closer to the miracle of the living world we evolved in,

            If you’re still learning (as we all are, but especially if you’re only 2 years old), your perceptions are exceeded only by your curiosity.  As we run, Josh will often stop to examine something: an exotic beetle I would not have noticed, or an ant lugging a twig five times the size of its body, or a crack in the pavement, or a lizard.  And he’ll turn to me and say “What dat?”  Or he’ll cock his head, gaze in a particular direction, and ask “What dat sound?”  Sometime it will take a few seconds to know what he’s hearing, because I have subconsciously screened it out.  A few days ago, nearing the end of summer, he said “What dat sound?” and it took me a minute to realize: Crickets!  Had I gone the whole summer without consciously hearing (and appreciating) them?

            There are 70 years of life experience separating Josh and me, but running with Josh is teaching me, as nothing else ever has, some important things about how we developed both as individuals and as a species.  That development began (and begins) with our physical experience—what we see and hear on the trail, or what we feel as we trip on a rock and lose balance.  Without that formative experience, there’d be no later on. There’d be no big-brain competence.

Commentators might talk about the virtues of a politician who seeks “balance” in his policies, between forceful action and prudent caution.  But understanding the meaning of balance had to begin with learning not to fall on your face!  Today we extol the concepts of “standing up to terrorists,” “walking the walk,” “running for office,” “tripping up an adversary,” “stumbling in a new business adventure.” We speak of the “pursuit of happiness,” and a “nation that shall endure,” and on and on.  Those are metaphors now, but they began with literal, physical, experience. 

            It’s intriguing to me that although I’m one of the most experienced endurance runners on the planet, I can learn so much and so profoundly from a little guy who’s just starting out—but who clearly delights in what he’s learning.  Josh is reminding me of what it is to be young and fully alive.  He makes my heart leap.

            I’m suddenly reminded of a poem William Wordsworth wrote a couple of centuries ago, which I last read when I was in college, and just now looked up again:


                        My heart leaps up when I behold

                        A rainbow in the sky:

                        So was it when my life began;

                        So is it now I am a man . . .

                        The child is father of the Man . . . .


What on Earth could that mean?  The past learns from the future?  If that is so, it suggests that we can only survive by having enough imagination and acuity to envision the future—to be alert enough to see what lies ahead on the trail of life.



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