Featured below are some of the various things I have written over the last few years for fun. There’s no theme between it all. I was just following the call, putting fingers to keyboard. And here are the results (in corresponding order):
- Polymath Profile: Nathan Myhrvold
- A profile of the most interesting man you’ve never heard of.
- The Unfortunate Adventure of Alexander Fudge
- Fictional short-story.
- Why “Getting In” Doesn’t Really Matter
- Angsty rant of an Ivy-league reject.
- Small-Talk: The Keystone of Conversation
- I like to talk. Here’s my justification.
- The Deceit of College Mail
- No, you’re not actually so smart that Stanford is recruiting you.
- Born Runners
- I love running. You should too. After reading Christopher McDougall’s hit book Born to Run I realize that this is more or less a synopsis of it. But that’s okay. Right?
Polymath Profile: Nathan Myhrvold
As time progresses, the amount of information in our world expands at an exponential rate. With this progression, it is becoming increasingly difficult to accumulate much expertise in more than a single field, let alone across a spectrum of them. However, even today, such polymaths do exist, and one of the finest examples comes in the form of Nathan Myhrvold, a man with such fantastic and varying accomplishments that it’s quite simply easier to just continue on with this article than to list them all in succession. So here we go:
Born in 1959, Myhrvold grew up in Seattle, and his gifts became apparent from a young age. At fourteen he had finished high school and began picking up degrees left and right. From UCLA he earned a bachelor’s degree in geophysics and a master’s in space physics. Then, after being awarded the Hertz Foundation Fellowship, he studied at Princeton, earning a master’s in mathematical economics and completing his PhD in mathematical and theoretical physics. However, he was not done there. Following Princeton, he completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge University, working alongside Stephen Hawking, and conducting cosmology research.
In the early eighties, Myhrvold left Cambridge and moved to Oakland, California. There, he started Dynamical Systems Research (DSR), a computer startup which created operating software for multitasking through the use of computer windows. Not long after, DSR was bought by Microsoft for 1.5 million dollars. The purchase brought Myhrvold into Microsoft’s orbit, and he quickly rose through the ranks, founding Microsoft Research and eventually becoming both the Chief Strategist and the Chief Technology Officer in his fourteen years at the company. During those years he also became a close friend of Bill Gates, who later described Myhrvold as the smartest person he knew. With Gates, he co wrote “The Road Ahead,” a book describing the implications of technology on the future, which quickly became a New York Times Best Seller, with sales exceeding two million copies.
In 2000, Myhrvold left Microsoft to form another company: Intellectual Ventures (IV). This was a consolidation of the world’s top research professionals in a vast array of fields all uniting for the purpose of, as they would describe, “making the world a better place”. Situated in a nondescript warehouse on the outskirts of Seattle, IV quickly became an invention powerhouse, dabbling in a myriad of concepts and ideas all at once. The team would go off on tangents, conduct experiments, file patents, and adhere to no real uniting plan, save the all-important spirit of innovation and curiosity from which the company grew. As Malcolm Gladwell would describe in his article, “In the Air”, evaluating Myhrvold and the compounding effects of working in highly capable groups for research:
The kinds of ideas the group came up with weren’t trivial. Intellectual Ventures just had a patent issued on automatic, battery-powered glasses, with a tiny video camera that reads the image off the retina and adjusts the fluid-filled lenses accordingly, up to ten times a second. It just licensed off a cluster of its patents, for eighty million dollars. It has invented new kinds of techniques for making microchips and improving jet engines; it has proposed a way to custom-tailor the mesh “sleeve” that neurosurgeons can use to repair aneurysms.
Since its conception, IV has become the largest patent holder in the world, accumulating tens of thousands of patents by both purchasing them from other inventors as well as creating new ones themselves. Bill Gates is a frequent collaborator in their warehouse as well, clearly not offended by his friend’s departure from Microsoft.
However, like any good polymath, Myhrvold doesn’t limit himself to only technological pursuits. From early on in his career, he held a fascination with the culinary arts, working as an apprentice chef at Rover’s, one of Seattle’s leading restaurants. Being rather scientifically-minded, he worked to fuse the art of cooking with the methodology of science, and in doing so he wrote his first cookbook, Modernist Cuisine, which, in its six volumes numbering over two thousand pages, covers everything from the actual preparation techniques of the food to in-depth descriptions of the plants and animals that go into different dishes. Since its publication, the book has generated over twenty million dollars, despite a retail price of over four hundred dollars. However, his cooking career doesn’t end there. Myhrvold was also on the team which took home the top prize at the Memphis Barbeque World Championships in 1991, as well as being featured as a judge on the show Top Chef.
But still his talents extend further. He is an accomplished paleontologist, and has written research papers on topics including dinosaur growth (in 2001 he hypothesized that the Apatosaurus may grow up to six tons in a single year) and the development of bird-like tails in an Oviraptorosaur, which have been published in scientific journals such as Nature and Science. On one expedition with the Museum of the Rockies, Myhrvold and his team uncovered more T. Rex fossils than any other expedition in history. He even has a life-sized mold of an actual T. Rex skeleton situated in the center of his home.
Furthermore, he is an award-winning nature photographer and has had his work featured in a number of publications, and he even created the photos used in Modernist Cuisine. His work is striking and draws from a vast number of locations around the world, and he even took up scuba diving to shoot pictures of sea life. Not only that, but Myhrvold is an accomplished writer, and has written articles for magazines such as Slate, Fortune, Time, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Traveler, and Harvard Business Review. His work discuss mostly technological developments and implications on our world and culture, but also touch on human ethics, economics, and the culinary arts.
Myhrvold isn’t just a jack of all trades, but he is also a supporter of other trades beyond his own. Together with Paul Allen, he has pledged one million dollars to SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) for the manufacturing of the world’s most powerful telescope, and he is a prominent supporting figure of the Seattle arts scene.
On top of everything, Myhrvold has been able to raise a family in Seattle and amass a monstrous nine figure fortune. With accomplishments in too many fields to count, there is no doubt that Myhrvold will go down in history as one of the greatest polymaths of the twenty-first century. At only fifty-five years of age, he still has decades to pursue his passions, and for a man with so many, only time will tell what he will do next.
The Unfortunate Adventure of Alexander Fudge
It was a rare occurrence when Mother would allow young Alexander to go out after supper. Such an instance commonly corresponded with Mother having a glass or two of red wine with her meal, or maybe when the Duerksens from 5C were over. Whatever her reasoning, on this particular autumn evening, Alexander was excused from the table and given permission to walk to Forest Park with his friends.
“Don’t be home late,” Mother warned him as he buttoned his overcoat and skipped out the door.
“Yes Mother!” he hollered at her, beginning his descent down the stairs.
At the entrance to the building, Alexander found David and Eli waiting for him. They exchanged greetings, and the three friends took off towards the park.
The sidewalks were in need of repair, and the oak trees once planted at regular intervals had become so overgrown and gnarled that the original aesthetic had long disappeared. The neighborhood was primarily residential, consisting of four brownstone apartment buildings and a handful of older yet still maintained houses with a similar facade. The only other notable features of the neighborhood were the lone coffee shop, with its forever-smudged windows, a synagogue on the corner, and of course, Forest Park.
It was in front of the synagogue that Alexander and his companions crossed the street to the park. The conversation was typical on their walk as the boys romped from one topic to another. They began with a stimulating discussion about the lovely Ariella, a girl all three of them had in their class, and that all three of them shared an equal enamorment. This led way into a joint rant between David and Eli over the “totally stupid” amount of homework that Mrs. Simon assigned each night.
During his friends’ vocalization of their grievances, Alexander contributed rather little, for he quite liked school, and he knew Mother would not stand for him disrespecting Mrs. Simon.
From there the boys moved on to an evaluation of every other boy in their class, deeming each individual to be either “boss,” or a “sh–head,” both of which were slang terms newly introduced to the boys, having overheard a clan of middle schoolers using them at the park several weeks prior. Once again, Alexander partook minimally.
Once the boys had arrived to Forest Park, they assumed their usual seats at the picnic table overlooking the basketball courts. Eli was fanned out across the top, while David sat next to him and Alexander planted himself in a more civil fashion on the bench. They continued their talk while watching a group of slightly older, and considerably larger boys engage in a game of pickup basketball. There were four of them, and despite their intimidating appearances, their abilities left much to be desired.
“I bet I could beat all those guys by myself,” went David.
“Yeah you could,” said Eli. “They have no idea what they’re doing.”
Alexander found this quite unlikely, though he refrained from saying so.
The boys continued observing the game for several more minutes, when they witnessed as one of the players went in for a layup and failed terribly. Before he could extend his arm all the way, the ball slipped from his fingers and went flying into the air, missing the hoop completely. What was worse, however, was that as he was doing so, in the most spectacular of fashions, the boy lost his footing and went crashing head-first into the pole supporting the basket. It made a loud BONK as his skull collided with the metal, and they boy fell to the ground in agony.
Having witnessed the entire event, and in demonstration of the foolishness that only comes with youth, David howled with laughter.
The boys who had formerly been playing basketball had rushed to the aid of their friend, who recovered with surprising speed, and upon hearing the raucous laughter of David, they bolted over with red in their faces to the three friends.
While rubbing the side of his head, the boy who had face-planted asked with a threatening tone, “What’s so funny twerp?”
Before he had even finished his sentence, David’s face had turned completely white.
“I…I was laughing at something he said,” stuttered David, pointing at Alexander.
Having already turned as white as David, Alexander wasted no time in explaining what had happen to their hostile inquirers. “No you didn’t! You laughed at him falling!”
Having extracted the answer they wanted, the gang of boys returned their attention to David.
“You little liar!” said the boy still rubbing his face.
David attempted to say something in his defense, but before he could spit out the words, the boy slugged him right in the jaw. The force knocked him clear off the table. Before David could recover, the other boys lunged at him, punching and kicking him without a second thought. He screamed out in anguish, but the boys only cursed him and kicked harder.
Unaccustomed to stressful situations, Alexander retreated within himself and watched in horror as his friend was assaulted. The best course of action wasn’t clear to him, for there were four enemies, and they were each notably larger than any of his friends or himself. The outcome of the fight seemed inevitable.
Meanwhile, Eli was oblivious to such inner contemplation. Without hesitating, he tackled the boy kicking David the hardest, and grappled with him on the ground. Of the three friends, Eli was by far the weakest, yet he fought with such furiousness that his opponent’s nose was soon bloodied. Alexander stayed planted in his place.
Eli was soon overtaken by another boy, and the situation began to seem hopeless. Both David and Eli each had two adversaries, and neither was faring well. At this point, they were both on their backs with one boy on top of them, and another kicking them in the side. The two had blood streaming from their noses and the corner of their mouths. David’s black eye was already clear. Yet, they struggled onward, which greatly confused Alexander. He figured that if they sucked it up and took their beating it would most likely be over sooner than if they resisted. But, for whatever reason, neither boy would give up.
While these thoughts were all bouncing around Alexander’s head, he had been creeping away from the battleground.
Why should I get beat up too? he thought. Even if I try to stop them, there’s no way I walk away with anything less than a bunch of bruises.
And so Alexander resolved to run.
Without anyone noticing, he turned his back on the brawl and fled as fast as he could. He dashed across the street in front of the synagogue. Sped down the sidewalk by the coffee shop. Slipped beneath the shade of the willows. And finally, he made it to the entrance of his building, unscathed. With an exhausted grin, Alexander went up to his apartment. Mother greeted him with a (slightly boozed) smile, and inquired as to his evening.
“It was fine,” he said, and proceeded to get ready for bed. Without revisiting the unpleasant memories of the events which had transpired, Alexander crawled beneath his cotton sheets and drifted off into a smooth slumber.
* * *
Alexander awoke the following morning to the smell of Mother’s Sunday breakfast. A smile flashed across his face, and he got out of bed with a merry hop. As he was walking down the hall to the kitchen, he passed by the window overlooking the street. Without much thought, he glanced out of it and noticed a pair of figures strolling down the sidewalk. Alexander inspected the scene closer and quickly realized that the two were none other than David and Eli. Both looked to have had their scratches washed and their bruises tended. From looking at their bodies, one could easily tell the boys had been the victims of a beating, however, there was no trace of the previous evening’s tussle present on their faces. Both bore beaming grins. Confused at what could have transpired after his departure, Alexander pulled up the window and shouted at his two friends.
“Hey guys! Up here!”
To Alexander’s disappointment, neither boy seemed to have heard him. They remained utterly absorbed in their conversation, carrying on in the opposite direction of Alexander’s building. The smiles remained plastered across their faces.
Why “Getting In” Doesn’t Really Matter
This last year alone, 35,023 students submitted applications to Harvard University. Of those students, a mere 2,047 were accepted. That means less than six out of every one hundred students who applied were deemed “worthy” of that ever-so-prestigious Ivy League education. So what happens to the rest? Surely they will be cast into oblivion, attending second-tier schools, filling only the jobs those Ivy League-grads have no interest in. I mean, the Wall Street Journal’s report on the median earnings of college graduates by school shows indisputable evidence that students from prestigious universities such as Harvard, MIT, and Stanford earn considerably more than the “lowly” grads from quite literally every other school in the country. So, judging from this, those of us who fail to get in at an elite university will never amount to the same levels as our Ivy League-accepted peers, right?
Actually, this claim is not entirely true. According to a study done by Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger of Princeton University, published in 1999, and using data spanning over three decades, the median earnings of students rejected by elite universities was found to have no deviation from those who attended them. The only exception being those of certain ethnic minorities with disadvantaged families. The study took pools of applicants from a number of elite universities and observed their admittance or rejection, and of those who were rejected, the lower-level colleges of which they attended. It then tracked the average earnings of all these students, and actually found there to be, on average, no difference in the median wages of the students who were accepted, and of those not accepted, twenty years after graduation.
How can this be true when the average earnings of graduates from lesser institutions is so much lower than those of elite ones? That is because this model accounts for the average earnings of all these schools’ graduates. What this study found is that the students who were rejected by prestigious colleges earned the same amount as their admitted counterparts, regardless of where they attended school. How could this be? Elite universities are not responsible for their graduate’s high income levels, but the inverse: graduates earning high incomes are responsible for the perception that their enrollment at elite universities caused this. The truth of the matter, however, is that the type of student which would attend an elite university, is almost always highly skilled in intelligence, social abilities, and most importantly: ambition. These traits are what drives success (defined as income levels, for our purposes), and they are not exclusive just to those admitted to these schools. As stated at the beginning, Harvard had over 30,000 applicants. Now, being the types of students who would desire to attend a school like Harvard, they all possess that ever-important factor of ambition. And that is why the rejected students still experience the same levels of success in life. It is simple logistics why elite universities cannot accept all capable students. As written by Ben Jones, former Director of Admissions for MIT, “The absolute worst part of this job is the fact that there are so few spots for so many qualified people.” Thus, due to the numbers, these schools cannot admit many capable students. However, these rejected-students will not prove failures, but as witnessed by Dale and Krueger, will perform equally well in the job market with their “elite” peers.
Another study, conducted by economist Mai Seki, found a strong correlation between average SAT scores and grades with earnings of students rejected by elite schools. It also found that students rejected by these schools, with similar test scores as their accepted peers, experienced equal median wages in the middle of their careers. It should be noted, however, that this correlation was not witnessed between all students of equal test scores, but only of those who applied to elite universities. What could explain this? Ambition. The students who applied to the elite schools, accepted or not, all demonstrated some level of probable ambition by doing so. Meanwhile, students who had similar test scores but did not apply, showed no increased desire for quality in education. This means that it is not only the test scores or the grades that drive earning potential, but the ambition of students often paired with strong academics that ultimately results in their monetary success.
So, if you don’t get accepted to Harvard, don’t worry too much about it. The fact that you even applied means far more than the acceptance letter. Your ambition and desire for success will bring you just as far as any college could. If you want success in life, work for it, and remember: it’s not about where you go to school; it’s about why you go.
Small Talk: The Keystone of Conversation
While browsing through my Twitter feed the other day, I came across a tweet from an old acquaintance of mine. It read (rewritten with proper grammar and spelling):
“There’s nothing worse than small talk. I don’t care how the weather is. Tell me who you are. What are your dreams? What matters to you? Life’s too short to waste time.”
Now, my initial reaction to this was one of approval. The statement appeals to a sort of romanticism so often associated with life’s brevity and our innate desire for meaningful experiences. In fact, after contemplating this idea I decided to implement it into my lifestyle. For the following weeks, I made a conscious effort to avoid the trivial, and only have conversations about meaningful things. The first instance of this came one week after I had happened across the tweet. I was at a quaint party in a friend’s basement, and found myself seated next to a woman I hardly knew. We had made eye contact, exchanged greetings, and there was that momentary pause when you begin a conversation with a new person and are contemplating what to say. In that period, I remembered my new conviction to askew small talk, so I raced to fulfill my pledge.
“What do you think about Obamacare?” The words had come out of my mouth before I had even had a chance to consider them.
The woman looked at me with rather befuddled glances. Hesitant, and clearly uncomfortable by my sudden question, she said she was against it.
Now, it must be said that I am a devoted supporter of the Affordable Care Act, and have no qualms about sharing or defending my views. In this instance, my overwhelming attitude created an intensely awkward conversation between me (a born and bred debater) and this woman who was not used to sharing, much less defending her views.
The conversation ended quickly, as the woman beckoned a man she recognized over, introduced us, and made her escape. I could tell that our talk had unsettled her, and it made me question the practicality of opening with such a heavy question.
After several weeks of pondering the significance of this instance, I have come to hold a new philosophy. One in which a month of research has solidified, and I now adhere to with every new person I encounter. Small talk is, in fact, the keystone of all conversation.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines small talk as, “informal, friendly conversation about unimportant subjects.” It dominates our daily conversations. When we meet new people, run into old acquaintance, and even when we converse with those we are closest to. However, small talk does not serve as a crutch, signifying a lack of things to say, but rather a crucial bridge which leads the way to bigger and better conversations. It serves as a gateway to our deeper exchanges, allowing us to determine which people are worth sharing our opinions with.
As said by linguist Professor Viveka Adelswärd of Linköping University (Sweden), “Small talk provides us with lots of information, and helps us to ‘read the atmosphere’. With small talk we probe the human terrain.” This perfectly illustrates my folly in the conversation with the women. Without preliminary small talk, I failed to “read the atmosphere,” and determine whether she was the kind of person who I could hold such a pointed conversation with.
What’s more, is that given our judgmental nature as a society, first impressions hold a great importance. As it would seem, small talk plays a huge role in first impressions as well. They establish our levels of trust when meeting new people, and dictate how comfortable we feel around them. This is precisely what Harvard Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy explains in her 2012 interview with Wired magazine. When asked how people convey a sense of trust during first interactions, she responded:
Research proves that five minutes of chit-chat before a negotiation increases the amount of value that’s created in the negotiation. What’s funny about all this is that the things that you do to increase trust actually often are things that are seen as wastes of time. People say, “Oh, I don’t have time for small talk.” Well, you should make the time for small talk because it will really help.
So, not only does small talk work to open further, more opinionated discussions, but it also serves as a way to communicate our levels of trustworthiness to one another. Thus, in my conversation with the woman at the party, my lack of small talk not only created an awkward and short lived conversation, but most likely made me come off as a bit of a lunatic.
It is from small talk that our opinions of one another are shaped. An underacknowledged art that allows us to delve deeper within the ideas of others, as well as our own. The odds of you being able to go up to a stranger, ask them their views on abortion, and hope to maintain some form of intellectual conversation are slim to none. You would come off as rude, belligerent, and foolish amongst other things. Thus, after a great deal of thought, I must denounce my acquaintance’s tweet. Do not go into a conversation expecting to forgo all dialogue you deem meaningless. Instead, embrace small talk and all of its benefits. Understand that it works as a gateway. Both into who we are as people, as well as discussions of greater topics. For small talk is the keystone of conversation; allowing us to venture into and share our thoughts, our dreams, and our ideas.
The Deceit of College Mail
As I sat in class several weeks ago, I overheard a conversation of some students behind me:
“You got one from Yale? Holy shit!”
“Yep. But get this; Harvard too!”
“Oh my god…”
They were discussing one student’s recent letters he had received from a number of elite universities. This mail seemed to give the student a sense of accomplishment, if not vanity. It led him to believe these institutions were pursuing him; that if they sent him mail, he would probably be able to get accepted.
I know misconceptions to this extent are probably not held by most students receiving this college propaganda, however, this instance did convince me of the need to explain some things to you bright-eyed high schoolers.
The presumed reason why colleges send out such massive quantities of mail is to advertise to prospective students and have them consider their institution. For the vast majority of colleges, this is the purpose for the propaganda. However, if we look at certain elite schools, this clearly is not the case.
Take Yale, for example. Last year, over twenty-nine-thousand student submitted applications while less ten percent were accepted. These numbers can be seen replicated at a number of elite colleges, all going to show what high demand there is for certain colleges. Furthermore, schools such as Yale, Harvard, Stanford, and MIT are household names–ones often featured in the news and pop culture for their prestige or academic exploits. It wouldn’t make sense for these elite institutions to spend huge sums of money on mail when everyone already knows them, right? If a school like Harvard spends the time to mail you a custom pamphlet with your name typed at the top, certainly they would accept you.
Well, to best explain this scheme I’ll use a (somewhat) hypothetical scenario that’s actually played out countless time every spring when the acceptance letters ship out. Here we go:
White, middle class, Sally is a strong student. Not top of her class, but still she’s never gotten below a “B”. She scored a 1900 on her SAT and plays on the varsity lacrosse team. Her parents both attended college at local state schools and she’s never really thought about anything beyond that. However, one day she gets an envelope from Columbia carrying a fancy booklet that even has her name typed on the top page. Sally is smitten. She never considered applying to an ivy; however, judging from this they must want her pretty bad. Not to mention she looks pretty cute in columbia blue. So, despite Columbia’s seven percent acceptance rate, and 2215 average SAT, Sally gives it a go and sends in her application. Spring comes around and she gets her rejection notice and moves on to the state school.
Now what’s the significance here? Sally applied and got rejected; no big deal. However, the question still persists as to why a school like Columbia would bother sending her the mail in the first place. The answer is simple: they wanted to reject her.
You see, every year colleges purchase students’ test score information from organizations such as the “Collegeboard”. They can choose students with different ranges of test scores to target and get information such as their email or mailing address to bombard with propaganda. What the elite schools do, however, is purchase the information of students with test scores below the average accepted at their institution. They then send information about their school to these students who have no hope of ever getting accepted. They want to reject them.
Now why would such prestigious schools be so cruel? Well, we have “The Princeton Review,” and “US News,” to thank for that. What makes these schools elite in the first place is the difficulty of getting accepted to them. Furthermore, schools hold their rankings on lists such as those previously mentioned as crucial for maintaining a prestigious image. And you know what those lists factor into their rankings? Selectivity. The lower the acceptance rate, the higher the rating. Just look for yourself–the lists practically go in order of most selective to least selective. And in an attempt to manipulate the system and move up a coveted spot or two, elite colleges trick students with no chance of getting accepted into applying. It drives down the acceptance rate and up the ranking.
Thus, don’t mistake that personalized letter from Princeton for a free ticket in. In a society obsessed with prestige and being better than the next guy, colleges have found a way to trick students into applying only so they can be rejected. All to maintain the “eliteness” of the school. So all because you got mail from a school does not mean you should send in an application (especially with elite schools charging nearly one hundred dollars just to apply). Choose where you want to go to school both realistically and personally. And above all else: think before you apply.
People hate running. Well, not all people; the amount of marathon runners is increasing each year. However, there persists an idea in our culture that running serves as a sort of punishment. Go to any youth sport practice, and you’ll likely see the coach making players run laps as punishment for lack of enthusiasm or effort. What’s more, visit any middle-school gym class and you’ll witness the sense of sheer dread students display when faced with running “The Mile”. Throughout much of our society there seems to be a common dislike of running. Whether it’s because of how strenuous the activity can be, or out of our innate fear of being judged by others, is up to debate. However, what can be said is that our fear of running is greatly ironic, for running is actually one of the most natural things human beings have evolved to do.
When compared to most other mammals, humans fare quite poorly in terms of our athletic prowess. We are not as strong, cannot jump as high or far, and are not as fast as most other mammals. However, when it comes to running longer distances (several miles or more) humans are perhaps the best. In fact, on hot days, people have succeeded in beating horses in marathon races. Why is this? Because we have evolved in such a way that the human body is optimally engineered for long and steady distances.
Unlike many other mammals, such as horses, who cool down through panting (which they cannot do while galloping), humans can release heat incredibly efficiently in the form of sweat. This can be done while running, which allows us to continue for longer periods of time without the need to pause and cool down. Furthermore, as evidenced in a study done for The Journal of Experimental Biology, titled, “Walking, Running, and the Evolution of Short Toes in Humans,” our shorter toes, paired with our bipedal motion, reduces the amount of energy used during movement, allowing us to go further distances much more efficiently. The study also claimed that decreasing relative toe length in animals by just twenty percent, may halve the mechanical work (and thus energy) being used. Also, humans have evolved muscles that specifically aid us during distance running, such as the gluteus maximus (butt muscle). This suggests that our early ancestors must have ran a great deal during their daily lives.
One striking example in support of this idea can be seen in the storied Native American tribe of Mexico, the Tarahumara. In the earliest days of the Spanish conquistadors, while tribes such as the Aztec battled with the Spanish (and ultimately perished), the Tarahumara fled deep within the recesses of the continent and avoided contact with the Europeans for centuries. What this gives us is a tribe of people that has been virtually untouched for millennia, serving as a window to our past. Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, these natives consistently produce some of the greatest distance runners in the entire world. What’s more is that they train running mostly barefooted or with skimpy sandals that have been used in their culture for generations, not making use of our technological advances in running shoes and training equipment. Despite their lack of sophisticated gear, the Tarahumara have accomplished some of the greatest feats in distance running history: top runners in their tribe have covered over seven hundred kilometers in barely over forty eight hours. That’s under six minutes and forty seconds per mile for over four hundred and twenty miles! Thus, as many experts have concluded, the Tarahumara are living evidence preserved in the canyons of northern Mexico, showing us that our ancestors were natural long distance runners.
But why could it be that humans have developed such outstanding cardiovascular abilities? There are a number of theories; however, two in particular are accepted more often than others. First: we developed our running abilities to aid us as scavengers in the earliest days of our existence. Meaning, although we didn’t have other mechanisms necessary to take down our prey, we could reach the caracasses of dead animals through strategic scavenging, or using tell-tale signs such as birds circling overhead to determine the location of the food, and then use our superior endurance abilities to reach it before our competitors. This skill would prove as an evolutionary advantage, and over time the humans that were most adept would survive and reproduce to create natural selection leading to a population of natural distance runners. This theory is supported by a study done by Daniel E. Lieberman of Harvard and Dennis M. Bramble of the University of Utah in 2007, which suggested that our outstanding ability to maintain low speeds for great periods of time developed around two million years ago as a result of our hunting and scavenging patterns. This leads us to our second explanation for why our abilities arose: to aid us in persistence hunting. This form of hunting consists of chasing down an animal over the course of great distances and time until it has been totally exhausted and is forced into hyperthermia (where the body complete overheats) and can be killed easily despite our lack of relative strength. Such forms of hunting emerged mostly in the Early Stone Age, when spears were still primitive and we had yet to learn the construction needed for most tools, as explained by Duke Anthropologist Stephen E. Churchill. So, to compensate for our lack of weaponry and tools, early humans developed persistence hunting, further favoring endurance abilities over the course of natural selection.
As a member of a flourishing community of running enthusiasts, I find all of this to be heartening news. Something in need of recognition in our culture which all-too-often demonizes running as a means of punishment for those who fail when participating in more popular sports. What we need to do is not only recognize our gifts, but take advantage of them. To be human is to be a runner, and when we consider the innumerable benefits of distance running (fighting off depression, increasing longevity, memory, and general fitness to name a few!) you tell me: what’s your excuse for not getting out the door and doing what we do best?