The Fit List

How to Grow a Super-Athlete

As a species, we're living longer and having fewer children. And that's a fantastic development for amateur athletes—and society as a whole.

How to Grow a Super-Athlete

The whole world will transition to below replacement-level fertility by 2050, predicts Cadell Last. Photo: Andrey Kryuchkov/Thinkstock

What do you think society will look like thousands of years from now? Your answer to that question says a lot about your view of humanity. Consider the Pixar film Wall-E, in which people are so dependent on technology that they cannot walk without robotic assistance.

In a paper that was picked up by Business Insider, an anthropologist posited another answer: We’re already in the midst of a major evolutionary shift. Like the big three that went before—prosimians to monkeys, monkeys to apes, and apes to humans—this change is marked by later sexual maturation and a longer life span. But this time it’s happening lightning fast, and the consequences for athletes could be fantastic.

The current evolution is not biological, says Cadell Last, doctoral student in evolutionary anthropology, researcher at the Global Brain Institute, and author of the new paper on human evolution. It’s cultural. Natural selection has little to do with it; we’re in charge of the physical changes our bodies are undergoing.

Take reproduction, for instance. Humans have a limited amount of time and energy to spend on this planet. Historically, we’ve spent a lot of it on reproduction because, biologically, that’s how we advance the species. But Last foresees a society in which humans choose to delay having kids or skip it entirely, electing instead to further their cultural contributions to society, be they in arts, science, and even sports. We’ll get to do this, Last believes, because technology will allow us to live longer (our life expectancy could increase to 120 by the year 2050, he says), delay having children until we’re older (hello, fertility treatments and artificial wombs), and have fewer children altogether. The end result: amateur athletes will have more time to train and compete.

“Right now, sport in culture exists for kids between the ages of six and 18. We’ll see an extension of that,” Last says. “In sports, we’ll be encouraged to keep playing and have more support for adults to engage in whatever they want throughout their lives.”

You don’t have to look far to see evidence of Last’s evolutionary theory at work. Birthrates in industrialized countries like France, Germany, and Japan have fallen, for instance, and women in these countries are waiting longer to have babies. In the United States, too, much has been written recently about the cultural trend of delaying traditional ideals of adulthood, opting instead to admit that we don’t have everything under control and that we still love to play well past the age of 18. Participating in sports is the ultimate reflection of that sentiment. Yes, sports can benefit our mental and physical health, but we play them largely as a diversion. They’re fun and lacking in any truly serious responsibility.

Putting off parenthood has its roots in economics as well. For millennials like Last, it’s tough to find employment—a report in the Economist last summer dubbed them “generation jobless”—and one way to ride out a feeble job market is to stay in school. Investing those extra years in education, the numbers show, earns solid returns. And this cuts to the essence of Last’s point: How we used to adapt to life on earth, by raising as many kids as possible, as quickly as possible, amassing tiny genetic improvements generation after generation, is incomparably less efficient than just figuring out how to live better—that is, spending our time learning.

As Last writes, “Human life history throughout our species evolution can be thought of as one long trend … from ‘living fast and dying young’ to ‘living slow and dying old.’” The reason this trend is different now, and dramatically faster, is that we’re consciously promoting it. “In the modern world,” he continues, “all individual and collective economic success is dependent on our cultural and technological complexity.” By prolonging our education, playing, creating art, and pursuing our own interests before (or instead of) making and raising babies, we are cultivating a more prosperous society.

It should follow, then, that our newfound free time would lead to a sportier—and therefore healthier—population. Unfortunately, if we consider history a guide to the future, it probably won’t.

Over the past century, technological advancements have increased our life spans from about 45 around 1900 to 80 today. Yet humans have become collectively fatter, the result of poor diets and lack of exercise, yes, but also possibly of the way science has changed our environment. We also continue to work long hours, despite the automation of jobs (like farming) we spent a lot of time doing in the past.

Even so, we’ve seen participation in leisure sports explode in the past several years, with rates surging in nearly every endurance sport, from running to triathlon to nontraditional races like obstacle courses and zombie runs. Leisure sports haven’t stopped booming since the late 19th century, when we dropped from 72- to 66-hour workweeks.

If Last’s theory play out as he predicts (and Last himself acknowledges that it rests on some weighty assumptions), having much more time to do, well, anything, will leave amateur athletes in somewhat of a philosophical conundrum: Should we devote that extra time to sports? Is that the best cultural investment we can make with those extra hours and years? Surely we will still train, but we’ll have to decide, perhaps individually, when sports cross the line from enrichment to simply another distraction.

Filed To: Science

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