The notion of fitness is a key element of the theory of evolution. In nature, being fit for life means having the ability to survive. There are trillions of examples of this principle in operation every day. Evolution through time has delivered enormously complex organs, behaviors, and relationships that govern how species develop and survive.
Human beings generally fancy themselves a unique product of evolution. Our brains enable us to conceptualize the very processes by which we live and die. This cognizance is highly prized in endeavors such as business, politics and religion.
It is also a necessary tool in pursuit of abstract pursuits such as sports. We invent games and contests for ourselves that measure or demonstrate our relative state of fitness. That is why the Olympic Games were originally invented, as a means to display the height of human physical endeavor. “Athletics” is originally the term used for events in track and field, but the term has expanded to include all types of sports.
For those who run, ride and swim, the ideal preparation for these events involves considerable training. This is because building endurance requires what we might call “chemical rehearsal.” With every movement we make, chemical reactions are taking place deep within our muscles and circulatory systems. We’re not simply a coat of armor marching around in the event we are challenged.
These internal processes are quite elemental. They were formulated in the most basic life forms and ultimately adapted (and adopted) into more complex functions. The trial and error necessary to make these processes work h have taken billions of years.
But consider the basic fact that, according to LiveScience.com: “The system of blood vessels in the human body measure about 60,000 miles (96,560 kilometers). Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart through the body. Veins carry oxygen-poor blood back to the heart.”
Mind-boggling statistics such as that make people doubt the ability of nature and evolution to create such a miraculous, complex machine as the human body. Citing credulity on the part of people who trust science to such explanations, some doubters claim evolution is incapable of producing mechanisms such as the human eye.
The meaning of The Word
Often these cynics toward science and evolution (such as the inimitable Rush Limbaugh) prefer to credit God or some euphemistic Intelligent Designer as the inventor of all creation. Their case on behalf of religion often goes all the way back to a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis and a supposed process of creation that took just seven 24-hour days. From there the extrapolations include a narrow view of time that suggests the Earth itself is only 6-10,000 years old. That leaves little or no time for evolutionary processes to occur, so they write them off as an invention of the human mind. A sin, even.
The trouble with these ostensibly Christian objections to the theory of evolution is that Jesus himself would never have abided in them. Jesus taught using parables founded in highly organic symbolism, and was thus a naturalist before there was such a thing. His symbolic use of images from nature to teach spiritual principles is called metonymy, the use of the characters of one object from nature to describe the attributes of another.
The Bible is rife with metonymy from beginning to end. We could not read the book or understand a single concept about God without this metaphorical tool. Instead we get reports of God appearing as a mighty wind or the flames in a burning bush. God chooses not to be revealed directly interacting with the human race except through Christ and a few other representatives. The argument about how that process ultimately works is vexing the world to this day. But almost always, it is the literal interpretation of scripture that causes the most problems. About that habit Jesus chastised the religious leaders of his own day, calling them hypocrites and a “brood of vipers” (note the metaphor) for turning scripture into law as a means to control other human beings.
It’s really quite a simple, ugly and unchanging fact of human nature if you break it all down. Religion without metaphor is nothing more than a means to control other people.
The solution to all these arguments can ironically be found in our genetics. For starters, the human race is all one species. There is no person on earth who by definition of our origins is better than the other. That scientific fact aligns so closely with the claims of Jesus one can only gawk at how stupid it really is to deny evolution in terms of human understanding.
And to that effect, every race of human being constitutes mere variations on a single species, homo sapiens, that has developed differences in appearance in response to specific climactic environments and other forces of nature. Yet for all this diversity, human beings from each of these variations can definitely breed.
But let’s be clear: human beings cannot (or do not) effectively mate with other ape species because we are not evolved for that capacity. The outcomes of any such breeding (program) would not be fit for survival. The physical and mental attributes of inter-species breeding would be confused and under any biological pressure would not survive. That’s how evolution works. It’s quite merciless, and that is why books such as the Bible contain prohibitions against it. That includes bans against breeding with our own relatives, because breeding with people whose DNA is too close to our own can produce undesirable physical and mental defects. So the Bible acknowledges the workings of genetics. Not all genetic variation and specificity has desirable outcomes.
When new species do evolve in nature it is typically when groups of individuals become isolated from other populations. This combination of genetic variation and pursuant survivability is the natural laboratory in which evolution occurs. That’s why seemingly backward evolutionary adaptations can occur as well. Flightless cormorants on the Galapagos islands no longer needed to fly in order to survive. They swam to catch their food instead, and with no other natural predators to take them out, the birds slowly lost use of their wings for purposes of escape. Evolution has a sense of humor, you might say. And it doesn’t work in one simple direction.
Yet we still share 95% of our DNA with our closest ape ancestors. This proves that at some point we had a common ancestor. Human beings diverged in one direction while apes like chimpanzees evolved in another. Our human ancestors wandered out on the savannah and began to walk erect by necessity. This opened up all sorts of other capacities, such as carrying objects while walking and ultimately that led to tool-using and other adaptations that pushed and pulled the descendant line of apes that developed into human beings in entirely new directions.
Monkeying with fitness
So we did not “come from monkeys” as is unpopularly supposed by those who object to the theory of evolution. We descended from a branch of bipedal apes, some of which succeeded in evolutionary history, while others did not.
If you’re paying attention, you begin to see the clear parallels between evolution and sport. It only makes sense that certain people are better adapted to endurance sports than others. Some possess better capacities to process oxygen or have hearts that pump blood more efficiently to the muscles. They have an evolutionary advantage, in other words, that predisposes them to success in human sports.
That is not to say that improvement cannot be achieved through training and perseverance. One of the things we love about sports is the champion that has worked the hardest to achieve their goals. They may overcome physical shortcomings through persistence and training.
But that means considerable thought and willpower must be applied to that training in order to gain maximal effects. Entire theories of sports training have evolved as a result. Back in the 1970s the theory of Long Slow Distance (LSD) dominating running. Its proponent Arthur Lydiard trained his athletes using long runs and up to 200 miles or running per week to build endurance. This endurance base was then honed through speedwork and hills.
Yet other coaches took the shorter route. Brooks Johnson at Stanford trained a 5000-meter runner named Doug Padilla to race using primarily speedwork, seldom more than 30 miles per week. Similarly, the likes of middle distance runner Sebastian Coe incorporated plyometrics and strength work to enhance speed over short distances. Coe broke the world record in both the 800 and 1500 meters during the height of his reign. He was trained by his father, who evolved the system of strength training and running to create a close to perfect running machine.
Yet even Seb Coe had his evolutionary flaws. These included flat feet, for which the athlete wore orthotics to train and compete in order to avoid injury from that biomechanical flaw.
These examples tell us that every athlete has to work with the mechanics of evolution while simultaneously compensating for individual shortfalls.
Evolving your training
The practical application of all this theory also suggests that your training must evolve over time. Changes in physical ability from ages 12-24 are profound. Athletes gain strength and endurance during these years as they reach maturity. Maximizing endurance from ages 24-34 is the goal, when most athletes reach their peak.
Using that physical base and mental acuity gained from competition allows many athletes to success from the ages of 34-40. We call that “experience” but really what we’re talking about is an evolved ability to understand our mental and physical response under many conditions. That’s how older athletes such as Meb Kefleghzi are able to out-compete runners 10-15 years younger. Only by learning to love and accept our physical limitations can we actually learn to exceed them.
Beyond the age of 40, an athlete’s training absolutely must evolve in response to physiological changes occurring within the body. The human body loses some of its ability to recover from stress as we age. Our systems literally begin to wear out past the age of 40. This also mocks the idea that human beings once lived 600-800 years. Evolution defies any such claims on simple grounds that animal flesh simply burns out with time.
Taking an oral myth and turning it into a supposed truth does nothing to defy these facts. It only proves the lengths to which human beings will go to deceive themselves toward ideas of immortality. It’s fine to lionize the characters in the Bible as primal examples of human virtue and perpetuity but we don’t need to turn them into demi-gods to prove the point that some people are exceptional. The human body is miraculous enough on its own without exaggerating our potential to some unreachable ideal. That’s just foolishness.
Definition of insanity
As for us “everyday” human beings, it makes no sense to do the same exact training from one year to the next. Everything from weather to diet and even cultural or financial stress can affect an athlete’s ability to train and perform. The idea that one’s training should be the same for five or ten years in a row is patently absurd.
Yes, there are some formulas for success, and good coaches abide by them. But great coaches also know how to adapt training to the athlete’s ability to respond. If something is not working, then an alternative must be found. This is especially true in response to the inevitable injuries that occur as a result of physical stress on the body from training. Plowing ahead when injury or illness catches up to an athlete is insane.
The effects of a set type of training can also wear off. Athletes learn to “game the system” over time, with perceived effort compromised by the ability to hold back and avoid pain or discomfort. That’s why variability is important in training. The human body and mind is not a machine. It does not always perform on demand, nor does it always benefit from rote repetition.
Evolution in real time
That means as we age and mature as athletes, it is often important to create circumstances in which we test ourselves in new ways. The flipside is that we must also learn to accept the need to recover more, to add rest days and possibly take a longer view of progress than we did as very young athletes.
In other words, our training must evolve. It helps to understand that every step we take is an evolution in our being. That’s why devices such as FitBit are becoming so popular. They give us empiric feedback on the tiny chemical reactions brought on by simple acts such as walking. This is evolution taking place in real time.
The evolutionary game
Of course, there are always those who want to game the process of evolution. That’s where practices such as using steroids, doping or blood infusion for endurance athletes enter the picture. When Lance Armstrong convinced his entire cycling team to engage in use of EPO, his doctor was simply applying drugs invented to help cancer patients maintain healthy blood oxygen levels to enhance athlete performance. The same held true with blood-doping, the extraction and reinfusion of blood into an athlete’s circulatory system. None of these methods would work without a complex understanding of the evolutionary processes behind athletic performance. The basic premise of the program was to help athletes exceed the body’s native capacity to produce blood and process oxygen. In other words, the goal was to become superhuman.
The future of athletic performance may, in fact, be genetic engineering. That holds potential to bring out aspects of human performance through gene guidance and selection. That’s where the world of evolution and human performance begins to get really murky.
And that’s when it may well help to have a Bible or Quran or another holy book in hand when we consider the meaning of such evolutionary changes, not just the mechanisms. That’s what the Bible was always intended to do: function as a guide for our morality, but not as a science book.
SEEK JUSTICE. SHOW RESPECT. LOVE LIFE.