Elaine Doll-Dunn, Psy.D.

Oh great. My daughter just sent me an e-mail touting research that says early humans evolved to run long distances. That neither bothers nor surprises me, it’s the peripheral information. I’m okay with the spring-loaded ligaments in the legs and feet, long lean legs for longer strides, shorter forearms to enable the upper body to counterbalance the lower half during running, and larger disks which allow for better shock absorption….but the big butt? Yeah, so the study calls it “well developed gluteus maximus”, butt….I know my anatomy. Really, humans lean forward when they run and the buttocks keep then from pitching over on their nose each time a foot hits the ground. Running really is just controlled free fall; when we walk, we barely use the gluteus maximus, but as soon as we start running it plays a vital role to keep us from falling—it stabilizes the trunk, and provides balance/ballast. (Finally! A rationale for all those donuts…”I’m doing my speed work!”) And then there are the arches in our feet which offer spring in our step, and broad surface areas of our joints, which help distribute the shock of impact from running.

The upper body has wide shoulders good for swinging arms from for balance as we stride—and lighter forearms that are easy to move back and forth. Even our heads are equipped for running. A large ligament stretching from our spines to the back of our heads stabilizes the oscillation of our heads as we run, and we have skull features that prevent overheating. An estimated three million sweat glands make us good sweating machines, and since most of us aren’t very furry, we can literally stay “cool” while we run for food.

So let’s just accept this postulation by Daniel Lieberman, professor of anthropology at Harvard University and Dennis Bramble, biology professor at the University of Utah. They say humans were born to run and evolved from ape-like creatures into the way they look today probably because of the need to cover long distances and compete for food. (The down side? We don’t climb trees as well as our ancestors. There’s always a trade-off.)

Since bipedalism, the ability to walk upright on two legs, evolved in ape-like ancestors called Australopithecus at least 4.5 million years ago, and there were 2.5 million to 3 million years of bipedal walking without ever looking like a human, walking probably wasn’t what transformed the hominid body. Running did. Running to survive. Running to get to the kill before the carrion (as opposed to carry-out), and running to avoid becoming the kill, and having to go great distances to find or facilitate that kill…that, they suggest, substantially shaped human evolution. Running made us human---at least in an anatomical sense, says Bramble. There are spouses that would argue the point.

Think of the implications. Will our progeny have even larger derrieres to stabilize the one long arm stretching to the drive-up window nabbing the super-sized #4? It’s worth thinking about. Will constant sitting at a computer, or like machine, ultimately produce a round shouldered, generous derriered, massive headed, scrawny legged, squinty eyed, small lunged, weak hearted, hirsute (gotta stay warm somehow, if you’re not gonna get the blood pumping in your furnace!) future humanoid?? Oh, my. I don’t even like to think about it.

So as you reluctantly tie on your Asics tomorrow morning, and grudgingly slip into your fall running gear, and tentatively crack the door to a frosty morning, consider the alternative. As quoth Dennis Bramble, “Have you ever looked at an ape? They have no buns.” McDonald’s does, and so do we, let’s moderate both. In a very real sense we also run to survive…I don’t wanna go back to climbing trees.

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