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?