Knowledge, “the tyranny of ethnography,” and our personal athletic horizons.

Our athletic potential is based largely on the biological traits humans acquired in evolutionary time, while our athletic horizons are mostly built around our experience of the athletic feats of people in our society. We are not in a position to make judgments about our own athletic potential.

Daniel Lieberman, the chief proponent of the endurance running hypothesis, has continually fielded criticisms that humans could not have evolved as endurance runners, because the cognitive burdens of persistence hunting, such as the need for tracking, would have been too great for early hominids to bear (among other things).

In a 2007 paper, Lieberman et. al. respond to such criticisms suggesting that (among other things), “less-encephalized mammals than humans”—i.e. those with smaller brains—are quite capable trackers, etc. Throughout the paper, the authors suggest that such criticisms come from the observation of modern hunter-gatherer groups, such as the Bushmen. They point out that spears and other hunting techniques are relatively recent inventions (from the early stone age), which fundamentally altered the ways in which humans hunted and scavenged.

The core message of the paper is that we cannot rely solely on ethnographic evidence—that is, the studies of current cultures—to extrapolate how humans used to hunt (and run):

We will never know for sure why and how [endurance running] capabilities evolved, but the modern ethnographic record is a limited, biased, and sometimes misleading source of evidence to test hypotheses about how ESA hominids hunted and scavenged. The challenge for paleoanthropologists is to explain the past in terms of testable hypotheses derived from actualistic studies and middle-range research without succumbing to the “tyranny of ethnography.”

The criticisms of how humans “could have” evolved (and what their physical and mental faculties could have been) were based primarily on current anecdotal evidence—from groups of people that are still largely hunter-gatherers.

The modern urban context so astonishingly different from both the early stone age, and the modern hunter-gatherer context, that the “tyranny of ethnography” becomes that much stronger for western runners. Our environment reflects very little of the physical, psychological and mental challenges that, across evolutionary time, our bodies developed to engage with. Of course, we are still evolving to adapt to our present context, but our context has changed so rapidly and so dramatically that our bodies are still overwhelmingly equipped to deal with those challenges (and not these).

What this means for anyone that has athletic hopes, is that their present condition in the urban context offers basically no evidence as to their potential athletic reach.

This does not mean that we should turn to ancient knowledge and shun the modern. It means that at present, we are not in a position to extrapolate, make assumptions, or set goals.

When we have barely scratched the surface of our athletic potential, we still know nothing about it.

The metaphor of a “horizon” works perfectly here. When we arrive at the game with inefficient, untested bodies, we have a very small understanding of our potential: we are still at ground level. But if we climb the mountain of nutrition (and not just parade around in climbing gear at the base of its slopes), our horizons will expand accordingly. If then we turn to the mountain of hip biomechanics (and climb it), our horizons will expand yet again. And as we climb mountains, our horizons will expand more and more—and at an overwhelmingly faster rate than someone who just walks in the valley.

Walking in the valley is like exploring the confines of our limits—our present limits. Recently, I read an article in which a runner described “breaking through the 3-hour-marathon ‘barrier.’” And I thought: why even call it that? But more importantly: what does it mean, that we call it a “barrier”?

(I’m arguing yet again that our language describes the confines of our mindset).

I believe that we call something “a barrier” only when our horizons expand no faster than our covered distance.

When we approach a “barrier,” we only call it that because we look left, we look right, and it stretches out past the horizon, hence the need to “break through” it. This language also illustrates the course of action: more of the same. Let’s just train more “speed,” more “endurance,” more “power.” (Most training regimes are no more fine-grained than this; it’s only since very recently that runners have begun adopting more varied approaches). And we have the problem of identity: a “real” runner won’t go to the gym, or for that matter, deconstruct their nutrition biases: ’cause you get faster by running faster, duh.

In other words, let’s slam ourselves against this barrier faster and faster, and count on the fact that, unlike us, it doesn’t recover. Eventually, it will break.

But that happened on the valley. Perhaps the mountain of focus, or the mountain of breathing, lay just beside this barrier.

“But it’s such a big mountain! I don’t want to have to climb it! And who knows what’s up there anyway! I’m a runner, not ‘a climber.’ ”

That barrier, however, only looks like a barrier because we were on ground level. We were assessing the landscape given our current knowledge of our athletic potential.

And with that current knowledge, it looks like a barrier, sure enough. But if we climb the mountain of breathing, we may see one of two things: that the barrier stretches beyond another mountain (which we must also climb), or that it ends just at the edge of the slope (as it usually does).

Here’s the cool part: having been on the summit of the mountain of breathing, our horizons expanded. We can see forwards now. Perhaps we can pick out one or two barriers—and we can see where they end. As we climb mountains, we can foresee our way around an increasing amount of “barriers,” and neatly sidestep them.

Those who haven’t decided to climb certain mountains are usually all headed along the same valley. They’ll see us veer sharply away from the valley road everyone else is taking, and they’ll ask us:

“Where the hell are you going?”

To every single person on that vast human train, we’ll seem to be going the wrong way. But they haven’t climbed certain mountains. Their athletic horizons are no more expansive than they were before they began. They did not set their initial assumptions aside—and what to us, climbers, is any old ravine to be circumvented, remains to them an epic tale of struggle, tribulation, and perseverance. 

Athletic development is not achieved by greater and more efficient training. It is achieved by starting on a journey of evolving horizons. (Training efficiencies must come from our evolving horizons). In this journey, we do not submit to the answers provided by the narrow pool of data from which our initial samples of “the possible” must necessarily come from: that is “the tyranny of ethnography.” And those answers are meaningless.

If our horizons remain steady, our training will “plateau” until we can walk its length, or break through it. But if we climb mountains; if our horizons continually expand (and we use them to plot our journey), our speed, power, and endurance will reach levels far beyond what we thought was “possible,” in our initial data set It had only ever been a matter of perspective.

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