The evolutionary significance of sport

Could this seething throng of German soccer fans be the audience at a male lek?

I’m always excited when scientists try to explain large, complex areas of human endeavour in evolutionary terms. I’m doubly excited when those areas are infused with cultural, social and economic influences because there is no danger of getting into the tired old business of separating evolved genes from the various forms of nurture. In Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll, I tried to take this kind of approach – especially with rock music.

Today’s version of the journal Evolutionary Psychology contains an intriguing paper about the evolution of sport. American biologist Michael P. Lombardo argues that “sport has evolved to function like a non-human mating display arena, commonly called a lek, like those found in birds such as the sage grouse of the western USA.”

Lombardo argues, however, that athletic contests allow men to show off their physical prowess and behaviours important in both cooperation and conflict. The key here is that men are displaying to other men, much more than they are displaying to women.

I don’t know that I buy into all of the arguments, and I am certain that, like rock music and other big cultural phenomena, there are many evolutionary functions that all find some expression in sport. Any explanation of sport will have to explain the roles of sportswomen and female spectators too. But it’s an interesting idea and one well worth studying further. Perhaps the NSW Waratahs might wish to grant me a season pass so I can study the issue more closely?

Rob Brooks

I am an evolutionary biologist who thinks about sex for a living. Things I have thought and written about include the evolution of mate choice, the costs of being attractive, the reason animals age and the links between sex, diet, obesity and death. Follow @Brooks_Rob on Twitter.

2 thoughts on “The evolutionary significance of sport

  • 6 February, 2012 at 1:21 pm
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    Of course, socially, we would need to steer the desired behaviours…a job for social engineers perhaps.

  • 6 February, 2012 at 1:19 pm
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    I’ve just seen this post…this is the old argument…nature/nurture! They both apply. They are both random. I think humans have developed an ability to influence nature (some good, some bad). We can influence our own nature through our own behaviours…so long as our behaviours support genetic (not necessarily maximise) replication, we might be on the right track?

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