“Why no Gatherer-sports?”

Posted on September 4, 2010


There’s an old adage one hears in business schools to describe managers with a limited range of management skills (and presumably limited career prospects): if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

And if the only two tools you have are a hammer and a saw, every problem will look like either a nail or a two-by-four.

Hold this thought for a moment.

The title of this post is in quotation marks because it was cut-and-pasted from Robin Hanson’s always-thought-popping blog, Overcoming Bias. It’s a great question! It had never occurred to me. To ask the question is already to set up a kind of cognitive frame: one in which we are immediately invited to think of most sports as hunting sports. And at first this seems just obviously right.

We think “sports” and suddenly we see a kaleidoscope of the most primitive African-savanna-like hunting activities: running, leaping, attacking, scooting, throwing things, tackling, chasing, ganging up on an opponent, punching, clubbing; and then, as our attention gets more focused, we recall that every four years we are reminded that activities like archery, target-shooting (even on skis), and chucking spears are still considered to be sports. And then there’s sport fishing. Oh yes, sports are ever so hunty!

And macho. But hold on. Hunting was only one of the ways our primitive ancestors got food. And as every amateur folk anthropologist knows, it was the males who did the hunting. (Is that even true? What about fishing? Did the women-folk not even fish? Or trap rodents?) The females gathered, and picked lice off one another. (As real anthropologists on the comment-thread over at Overcoming Bias, and elsewhere, have noted, males spent a lot of time gathering as well. But whatever.) So why do we now ritualize only one of these noble, ancient food-gathering endeavors in sports — the male one? Surely this is further evidence of just how deep gender-biases plunge in our culture.

Worse yet, we try to fix this problem not by designing gatherer sports that would be better suited to the evolved human female’s range of talents, but by forcing girls and young women to have to compete as hunters! It’s like encouraging women onto Wall Street, as long as they are willing to wear pin-stripe suits and ties…

Time out. Just about everything is wrong with this picture. Here are a few quick thoughts.

1. Why are there no gatherer sports? Reason number one: because there’s no defense in gathering. [Click on the button below to read more…] : And the great sports, the ones that truly captivate the imagination of the enduring sporting public, have defense. (I’m OK with calling a number of games that wholly or mostly lack defense — like golf, bowling, most short or sequential races, etc. — “sports”. They are just not nearly as interesting as “real” sports, showcasing defense and strategic rationality. For a previous post on this, see here.) Or put another way, if you tried to build defense into a gatherer sport (say, a sport where one competitor was trying to snatch some object, and the other was trying to prevent her from doing it) it would suddenly look an awful lot like sports we are supposedly thinking of as hunter sports.

2. The point above is not so much about what hunting and gathering involve, but about when we start to think of a game or competition as a sport. To drive home the point all we have to do is note how prevalent gatherer games and competitions are. From Easter-egg and scavenger hunts, to competitions around harvesting time, to many of the staple competitions on game shows or so-called reality shows, where the winner is the one who can retrieve as many of some item as possible within a set time-period. Perhaps even some card games or casino games, where we play for “all the marbles” or chips, are like gathering. So yes, perhaps we do continue to ritualize gathering skills, but we do not tend to call these kinds of games “sports.” Maybe we should. But that’s an issue with how we use words, not how we behave or what we value.

3. Maybe some bona fide sports are more like gathering than hunting, when you really think about it. Like weightlifting competitions, which are won by the person who can gathering the heaviest thing. Or pole-vaulting, which is a lot like being the person who can get highest in the tree once the low-hanging fruit (literally) has been picked clean by the less adept gatherers. Maybe soccer is more like a gathering sport, where you are trying to gather on a rival tribe’s territory, and you have to be very sneaky to get right in there and “poach” a goal…

4. Hey! Why are there no farming-sports?! After all, sophisticated humans realized about 10,000 years ago that agriculture was often a better way to get food than hunting and gathering. Wait, I’m sure if we thought about it for a few minutes we could see why there probably are a lot of farming sports, or at least games. (Isn’t this why major-league sports teams in North America have so-called “farm teams” where they “grow” their talent?) And what about mining-sports, or shelter-building-sports, or assembly-line-worker sports…

5. And this brings us back to the old gem of managerial wisdom with which I began. If we only have a hammer and a saw, every problem will look like a nail or a wooden plank. We all recognize that there is something “primal” about sports. That their appeal seems to be tapping into some very primitive instincts and emotions; and also that they make use of physical capabilities that our earliest ancestors used on a daily basis… e.g., while hunting. But sports will look like extensions of hunting, and not gathering, only if those are the only two “tools” we can work with.

6. I should point out, if you haven’t read his original post with the same title yet, that nothing I am saying is particularly meant as a critique of Robin at Overcoming Bias. He was mostly just posing the question; not rambling on for over a 1000 words trying to answer it or deconstruct it. He was also not interested in the possible distinction between hunter/gatherer sports, per se, but in the sporting legacy, if you will, of the capabilities and skills used in these activities. As he put it: “Now sports let us show off many kinds of physically-expressed abilities. But it seems to me that most sports emphasize hunting skills, such as chasing, evading, throwing, and hitting, far more than gathering skills, such as visual search and fine finger control.”

That said, it’s not clear that we need to think of most of those skills as first and foremost or essentially “hunting” skills. Accurate throwing is probably the best candidate, since (I presume, on the basis of nothing but nature documentaries) none of our primate ancestors were particularly good at that, and because it probably was a capacity selected by evolution because it helped us kill prey. Though I bet it was even better, perhaps for tens of thousands of years, for getting fruit, nuts, and bee-hives, etc, out of trees.

Note that those other traits involving running and fighting, for example, may have been helpful for either avoiding being hunted (even for vegetarian ancestors) or for dealing with other humans or protohumans in social settings. Again, it looks like we’re “nailing” that answer only because we are being asked to swing a hammer.

In the next post I’ll stray even further from any academic expertise I have to answer the following question: if most sports (especially the great team sports) are not hunter sports, what are they? What primordial instinct, capability, or practice are they really tapping into?