January 2, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

Human Endurance: Is It Evolutionary?

Some people are gluttons for punishment.  Many a couch potato is probably content to watch an Ironman or Ultramarathon on HDTV from a recliner, but the ones who take part in the grueling endurance contests gaining popularity illustrate some human capabilities scientists are only beginning to understand.  Nature1 described one called the Primal Quest adventure race:

Trek 125 kilometres, and cycle 250 more.  Kayak 131, rappel through canyons for another 97, and swim 13 in churning whitewater.  Throw in some horseback riding and rock climbing; spread it all over six days in the blistering Utah heat; and never stop to sleep.

Only some contestants complete this “adventure torture” but the fact anybody does has attracted the attention of physiologists.  Participants burn more calories than can be replaced by food.  Some scientists focus on the chemistry of fat metabolism for answers; others look at genetics.  Still others think the explanation is in the minds of the winners, not their physiques.  One researcher did not think the bodies of ultraracers are significantly different from those of other active people.  “The brain is the oft-overlooked organ that sets ultraracers apart,” he said; “– they are mental freaks, not physiological ones.”
    Freaks or not, ultraracers carry out feats that push their physical abilities to the limit and seemingly beyond.  Evolutionists look to something in human ancestry to explain abilities only a few today are using.

But even couch potatoes may have something of the endurance racer in them.  Daniel Lieberman, a biological anthropologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, argues that the human body is well-adapted to long-distance running, as an evolutionary hangover from our hunting and scavenging days.  Ultraendurance racers “are able to be freaks because evolution has enabled us”, he says.  A body capable of jogging tens of kilometres at a time helped our ancestors survive, he says.  Fuelled by plentiful water, energy bars and yet more training, that body can complete the 90 or more kilometres of an ultramarathon.

The article ended with an anecdote about one researcher who joined them to study them.  “If this is true, then many of those who study ultraendurance racers have also embraced their evolutionary past,” reporter Helen Pearson remarked.  A sidebar lists five of the most notorious international competitions.


1Helen Pearson, “Physiology: Freaks of nature?”, Nature 444, 1000-1001 (21 December 2006) | doi:10.1038/4441000a.

It was Lieberman who dazzled us in the 11/18/2004 entry about human endurance running.  This would be a good time to re-read that fascinating article that explained how unique it is in the animal kingdom, and how many physiological adaptations have to work together to make it possible.  The myth that all these remarkable traits converged in humans so that they could hunt and scavenge better takes great faith.  No other animal requires swimming, cycling, kayaking, trekking and running for six days in Utah heat to catch a meal, leastwise our chimpanzee brethren who were supposedly evolving alongside us in Africa in the same environment (09/01/2005).  The widespread phenomenon of overdesign, beyond what would be expected for mere survival, is a “major problem in quantitative evolutionary design” (see 06/19/2002).  The evolution of the couch potato lifestyle would be much easier to explain.  At least there is a known physical law behind it: entropy.
    As usual, Darwinian evolution is just a mythoid attached to the observational facts of the phenomenon, and contributes nothing to our understanding.  The science of human physiology has long prospered by viewing the body as a paragon of design.  If the body was created, then any attempt to “embrace one’s evolutionary past” is tantamount to hallucinating.  Lieberman is right about one thing; he and his fellow evolutionists have an “evolutionary hangover.”  Dar-wine has a deleterious effect on a researcher’s cognitive and logical faculties.  Suggested New Year’s resolution: kick the habit and sober up.

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