Human devolution

An anthropologist has documented a remarkable physical decline in modern man:

Many prehistoric Australian aboriginals could have outrun world 100 and 200 meters record holder Usain Bolt in modern conditions.

Some Tutsi men in Rwanda exceeded the current world high jump record of 2.45 meters during initiation ceremonies in which they had to jump at least their own height to progress to manhood.

Any Neanderthal woman could have beaten former bodybuilder and current California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in an arm wrestle.

These and other eye-catching claims are detailed in a book by Australian anthropologist Peter McAllister entitled “Manthropology” and provocatively sub-titled “The Science of the Inadequate Modern Male.” . . .

His conclusions about the speed of Australian aboriginals 20,000 years ago are based on a set of footprints, preserved in a fossilized claypan lake bed, of six men chasing prey. An analysis of the footsteps of one of the men, dubbed T8, shows he reached speeds of 37 kph on a soft, muddy lake edge. Bolt, by comparison, reached a top speed of 42 kph during his then world 100 meters record of 9.69 seconds at last year’s Beijing Olympics.

In an interview in the English university town of Cambridge where he was temporarily resident, McAllister said that, with modern training, spiked shoes and rubberized tracks, aboriginal hunters might have reached speeds of 45 kph.

“We can assume they are running close to their maximum if they are chasing an animal,” he said.

“But if they can do that speed of 37 kph on very soft ground I suspect there is a strong chance they would have outdone Usain Bolt if they had all the advantages that he does.

“We can tell that T8 is accelerating toward the end of his tracks.” . . .

Turning to the high jump, McAllister said photographs taken by a German anthropologist showed young men jumping heights of up to 2.52 meters in the early years of last century.

“It was an initiation ritual, everybody had to do it. They had to be able to jump their own height to progress to manhood,” he said.

“It was something they did all the time and they lived very active lives from a very early age. They developed very phenomenal abilities in jumping. They were jumping from boyhood onwards to prove themselves.”

McAllister said a Neanderthal woman had 10 percent more muscle bulk than modern European man. Trained to capacity she would have reached 90 percent of Schwarzenegger’s bulk at his peak in the 1970s.

“But because of the quirk of her physiology, with a much shorter lower arm, she would slam him to the table without a problem,” he said.

Manthropology abounds with other examples:

* Roman legions completed more than one-and-a-half marathons a day carrying more than half their body weight in equipment.

* Athens employed 30,000 rowers who could all exceed the achievements of modern oarsmen.

* Australian aboriginals threw a hardwood spear 110 meters or more (the current world javelin record is 98.48).

Of course, modern man does not need to be so physical, with our technology, tools, and conveniences. We might think that our development instead has been in our minds. We certainly have an accumulation of great technological blessings, which inventors and engineers make available to the rest of us. And yet our technology, tools, and conveniences arguably mean that we likewise do not have to use our minds to the level that we once did. I think of what Luther said in his call to town councilmen to open Christian schools. In his praise of the liberal arts and classical education, he said that if we could roll up all of the monks, priests, and bishops together, they would not match up to the educational level achieved by one Roman soldier. And no one today would want to get into a fight with one.

Devolution

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Pete

    I’m a bit skeptical about the aborigines/Usain Bolt comparison. If his measurements are correct, they achieved 88% of Bolt’s speed. I ran track in my younger days and some of my times approached 85-90% of those of world class athletes, but those world class athletes were never in any danger from me. They were safely out on the periphery of the bell curve and that last 10-15% (in terms of speed, strength, whatever) is the toughest. My money’s on Bolt.

  • Pete

    I’m a bit skeptical about the aborigines/Usain Bolt comparison. If his measurements are correct, they achieved 88% of Bolt’s speed. I ran track in my younger days and some of my times approached 85-90% of those of world class athletes, but those world class athletes were never in any danger from me. They were safely out on the periphery of the bell curve and that last 10-15% (in terms of speed, strength, whatever) is the toughest. My money’s on Bolt.

  • Tom Hering

    Manhood: so easy, a caveman could do it.

  • Tom Hering

    Manhood: so easy, a caveman could do it.

  • Matt C.

    Speaking of tying this to Luther, it makes me think of his Genesis lectures: “I am fully convinced that before Adam’s sin his eyes were so sharp and clear that they surpassed those of the lynx and eagle. He was stronger than the lions and the bears, whose strength is very great; and he handled them the way we handle puppies.”

    Perhaps this is just another part of the slow degeneration of man since the Fall.

  • Matt C.

    Speaking of tying this to Luther, it makes me think of his Genesis lectures: “I am fully convinced that before Adam’s sin his eyes were so sharp and clear that they surpassed those of the lynx and eagle. He was stronger than the lions and the bears, whose strength is very great; and he handled them the way we handle puppies.”

    Perhaps this is just another part of the slow degeneration of man since the Fall.

  • Orianna Laun

    I ask somewhat glibly, is this proof of evolution or devolution?
    Evolution in that man is adapting to his environment (we don’t need to out run and out stalk dinner); or devolution in that it overturns “survival of the fittest”. Maybe I missed the point.

  • Orianna Laun

    I ask somewhat glibly, is this proof of evolution or devolution?
    Evolution in that man is adapting to his environment (we don’t need to out run and out stalk dinner); or devolution in that it overturns “survival of the fittest”. Maybe I missed the point.

  • Matt C.

    Orianna,

    From a consistent naturalistic perspective, there is no distinction between evolution and devolution. The term devolution implies some sense of “lower” — a non-naturalistic value-judgment. There is only adaptation to certain environments. No concept of “fittest” can extend past them. This data therefore fits the mold.

    Nevertheless, we don’t live in a naturalistic world, so this data is also explainable within a Christian worldview as “devolution.”

  • Matt C.

    Orianna,

    From a consistent naturalistic perspective, there is no distinction between evolution and devolution. The term devolution implies some sense of “lower” — a non-naturalistic value-judgment. There is only adaptation to certain environments. No concept of “fittest” can extend past them. This data therefore fits the mold.

    Nevertheless, we don’t live in a naturalistic world, so this data is also explainable within a Christian worldview as “devolution.”

  • Orianna Laun

    I guess I at least missed the title of the post–oops.
    I once heard of a homeschooled high school student who wrote a rather scholarly article regarding the devolution of language (earlier languages were more complex than today’s–even more so with txt msgs–we’ve even lost our vowels!) It seems that our “unenlightened” ancestors were much more complex than we.

  • Orianna Laun

    I guess I at least missed the title of the post–oops.
    I once heard of a homeschooled high school student who wrote a rather scholarly article regarding the devolution of language (earlier languages were more complex than today’s–even more so with txt msgs–we’ve even lost our vowels!) It seems that our “unenlightened” ancestors were much more complex than we.

  • Matt C.

    Good point. If a decline is physical prowess can be so clearly demonstrated, I wonder if that would be sufficient grounds to change the presumption that modern man is smarter into a thesis. Then we could actually examine whether or not we really are smarter instead of just assuming we are.

  • Matt C.

    Good point. If a decline is physical prowess can be so clearly demonstrated, I wonder if that would be sufficient grounds to change the presumption that modern man is smarter into a thesis. Then we could actually examine whether or not we really are smarter instead of just assuming we are.

  • WebMonk

    Mostly they base it off of brain size which is a very, very rough approximation with enough loopholes to make a lawyer dance with glee. But when the general differences are large enough, it’s a pretty solid indicator. It’s mostly when you start getting into the “barely bigger/smaller” that the results start getting a bit suspect.

    If thy can find a skull that is sufficiently intact, they can do some analysis of what parts of the brain were developed – many higher cognitive abilities occur in the frontal lobes, and if those lobes are significantly smaller, then it’s a pretty good bet the person didn’t have the same level of higher reasoning abilities.

  • WebMonk

    Mostly they base it off of brain size which is a very, very rough approximation with enough loopholes to make a lawyer dance with glee. But when the general differences are large enough, it’s a pretty solid indicator. It’s mostly when you start getting into the “barely bigger/smaller” that the results start getting a bit suspect.

    If thy can find a skull that is sufficiently intact, they can do some analysis of what parts of the brain were developed – many higher cognitive abilities occur in the frontal lobes, and if those lobes are significantly smaller, then it’s a pretty good bet the person didn’t have the same level of higher reasoning abilities.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    If we assume that modern man is weaker, and slower, because he no longer requires the physical capacities of his ancestors, the same might go for intellectual capacities.

    Pre-literate societies “were” their own computers. Their poetry was a complex information storage and retrieval system, in which important facts and events were locked into the forms of the poem–rhythm, meter, rhyme, alliteration, etc. So rigid were these rules that any mistake in memory was usually immediately recognizable. If the words were wrong, the poetic form was pretty obviously violated.

    I’ve heard that Polynesian navigators carried complex star maps in their heads, enabling them to sail far out of sight of land without charts, and to find their way home again.

    Modern man has almost completely lost his memorization skills. I don’t know if these skills have been lost to the gene pool, or just allowed to atrophy through disuse. Perhaps our descendants in a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max world would develop them again straightaway. But in certain senses, we today certainly lack the intellectual capacity of a Viking skald or an Aboriginal shaman.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    If we assume that modern man is weaker, and slower, because he no longer requires the physical capacities of his ancestors, the same might go for intellectual capacities.

    Pre-literate societies “were” their own computers. Their poetry was a complex information storage and retrieval system, in which important facts and events were locked into the forms of the poem–rhythm, meter, rhyme, alliteration, etc. So rigid were these rules that any mistake in memory was usually immediately recognizable. If the words were wrong, the poetic form was pretty obviously violated.

    I’ve heard that Polynesian navigators carried complex star maps in their heads, enabling them to sail far out of sight of land without charts, and to find their way home again.

    Modern man has almost completely lost his memorization skills. I don’t know if these skills have been lost to the gene pool, or just allowed to atrophy through disuse. Perhaps our descendants in a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max world would develop them again straightaway. But in certain senses, we today certainly lack the intellectual capacity of a Viking skald or an Aboriginal shaman.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    I’m also skeptical. I ran track with guys whose stride just seemed to go for miles–but the high school records were in no danger from them. Our anthropologist friend would take a look at Steve and Dave’s stride, though, and assume they were blowing the rest of us away.

    In the same way, there are reasons that photographic evidence isn’t always conclusive, to put it mildly…..

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    I’m also skeptical. I ran track with guys whose stride just seemed to go for miles–but the high school records were in no danger from them. Our anthropologist friend would take a look at Steve and Dave’s stride, though, and assume they were blowing the rest of us away.

    In the same way, there are reasons that photographic evidence isn’t always conclusive, to put it mildly…..

  • Bryan Lindemood

    The author of Psalm 119 must have truly magnificent frontal lobes :)

  • Bryan Lindemood

    The author of Psalm 119 must have truly magnificent frontal lobes :)

  • Booklover

    It verily seems as if there has been a devolution of intellectual ability also. The musicians of yore composed hundreds of intricate pieces of music. We don’t see that now.

  • Booklover

    It verily seems as if there has been a devolution of intellectual ability also. The musicians of yore composed hundreds of intricate pieces of music. We don’t see that now.

  • http://www.shempel.blogspot.com Sarah in Exile

    I love that illustration!

  • http://www.shempel.blogspot.com Sarah in Exile

    I love that illustration!

  • JonSLC

    Lars @ 9: Pre-literate societies, I think, would astound us in many ways. Christians of the past likely had much more of Scripture memorized, and they appreciated the nuances of composition embedded therein because they heard and spoke the words. Your comments reminded me of similar thoughts I’d just read in “Listening to the Text: Oral Patterning in Paul’s Letters.” John Harvey demonstrates that there was an established tradition of composing for the sake of easier memorization, and that Paul was inspired to incorporate many of these compositional techniques in his letters. As for us, we don’t need to memorize, since we have the Bible in printed form, on our laptops, our PDAs…

  • JonSLC

    Lars @ 9: Pre-literate societies, I think, would astound us in many ways. Christians of the past likely had much more of Scripture memorized, and they appreciated the nuances of composition embedded therein because they heard and spoke the words. Your comments reminded me of similar thoughts I’d just read in “Listening to the Text: Oral Patterning in Paul’s Letters.” John Harvey demonstrates that there was an established tradition of composing for the sake of easier memorization, and that Paul was inspired to incorporate many of these compositional techniques in his letters. As for us, we don’t need to memorize, since we have the Bible in printed form, on our laptops, our PDAs…

  • Dan Kempin

    The post was worth it just for the graphic on the bottom!

  • Dan Kempin

    The post was worth it just for the graphic on the bottom!

  • James Hageman

    I just like that the guys with the flower pots on their heads were right.

  • James Hageman

    I just like that the guys with the flower pots on their heads were right.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    In reading about my home congregation’s history, I learned the following information which bears on both sides of this issue. In the early years (late 19th Century), confirmation students from our church walked to the pastor’s house (which was located at another point in the parish–20 miles away) every Saturday for what was called “reading for the minister.” I believe they were required to memorize the entire text of Sverdrup’s translation of Pontoppidan’s explanation of the Small Catechism, along with large sections of Scripture.

    In my day, we just had to memorize designated sections of Tanner’s explanation (which included the Small Catechism itself), plus selected Bible verses.

    Today, I don’t believe there’s much memorization at all.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    In reading about my home congregation’s history, I learned the following information which bears on both sides of this issue. In the early years (late 19th Century), confirmation students from our church walked to the pastor’s house (which was located at another point in the parish–20 miles away) every Saturday for what was called “reading for the minister.” I believe they were required to memorize the entire text of Sverdrup’s translation of Pontoppidan’s explanation of the Small Catechism, along with large sections of Scripture.

    In my day, we just had to memorize designated sections of Tanner’s explanation (which included the Small Catechism itself), plus selected Bible verses.

    Today, I don’t believe there’s much memorization at all.

  • DonS

    Color me skeptical. We know that over the past 100 years, man has gotten faster, bigger and stronger, even though we do, on average, a lot less physical labor today than we did then. So, I’m not sure that correlates. Moreover, the evidence record on which this entertaining article is based is THIN!

  • DonS

    Color me skeptical. We know that over the past 100 years, man has gotten faster, bigger and stronger, even though we do, on average, a lot less physical labor today than we did then. So, I’m not sure that correlates. Moreover, the evidence record on which this entertaining article is based is THIN!

  • Joe

    Lars – we still require memorization and public questioning of our confirmation students. Technically, any member of the congregation can ask questions regarding the Small Catechism. In practice the Pastor asks the questions but the kids do not know what they will be asked ahead of time. They have to have the entire Small Catechism memorized.

  • Joe

    Lars – we still require memorization and public questioning of our confirmation students. Technically, any member of the congregation can ask questions regarding the Small Catechism. In practice the Pastor asks the questions but the kids do not know what they will be asked ahead of time. They have to have the entire Small Catechism memorized.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Some sort of natural law decrees that as civilization advances, much is lost, though even more gained. Otherwise sensible people would reject the advances. When cultivated farming displaced the hunter-gatherers on balance more was gained than lost. Same with the industrial revolution and with the quantum physics one that among many other things gave us the computer.

    As Lars remarks the Polynesian navigators intimately knew the wind, tides, and heavens, though on balance they would have welcomed a modern GPS unit; Same with the intrepid Norse navigators.

    Many modern people find ways through hunting, fishing, and athletics stay physically active, however less so than peoples in past ages.

    Another point is that many of these ancient people who lived close to nature routinely died in their twenties and thirties. We can take Peter McAllister’s point without being romantically wistful about an idealized past.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Some sort of natural law decrees that as civilization advances, much is lost, though even more gained. Otherwise sensible people would reject the advances. When cultivated farming displaced the hunter-gatherers on balance more was gained than lost. Same with the industrial revolution and with the quantum physics one that among many other things gave us the computer.

    As Lars remarks the Polynesian navigators intimately knew the wind, tides, and heavens, though on balance they would have welcomed a modern GPS unit; Same with the intrepid Norse navigators.

    Many modern people find ways through hunting, fishing, and athletics stay physically active, however less so than peoples in past ages.

    Another point is that many of these ancient people who lived close to nature routinely died in their twenties and thirties. We can take Peter McAllister’s point without being romantically wistful about an idealized past.

  • Bruce Gee

    Re: memorization: both Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir have reported that they had just about all of the New Testament and most of the Old Testament committed to memory by age eleven. Muir’s came at the end of a rod, and didn’t seem to help him in the area of faith. Nevertheless, his memoirs record that he could start at Matthew and go pretty much all the way to Revelation by rote. Heck, my goal is just to get the book of Romans down.

    I’d guess that if you were able to graph the physical skills and development of homo sapien over the last many thousands of years, it wouldn’t be a straight line, lower left to upper right. It may be that in the past hundred years humankind has gotten larger and stronger, but that may just be a microblip. Our environment calls out of us what it is we need to survive and thrive. Right now–unless you want to play in the NFL–people can do just fine without great physical abilities.

  • Bruce Gee

    Re: memorization: both Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir have reported that they had just about all of the New Testament and most of the Old Testament committed to memory by age eleven. Muir’s came at the end of a rod, and didn’t seem to help him in the area of faith. Nevertheless, his memoirs record that he could start at Matthew and go pretty much all the way to Revelation by rote. Heck, my goal is just to get the book of Romans down.

    I’d guess that if you were able to graph the physical skills and development of homo sapien over the last many thousands of years, it wouldn’t be a straight line, lower left to upper right. It may be that in the past hundred years humankind has gotten larger and stronger, but that may just be a microblip. Our environment calls out of us what it is we need to survive and thrive. Right now–unless you want to play in the NFL–people can do just fine without great physical abilities.

  • Trey

    Keep in mind that the Romans and others mentioned did it without sports enhancing drugs or proteins. They actually ate real food not synthetics.

  • Trey

    Keep in mind that the Romans and others mentioned did it without sports enhancing drugs or proteins. They actually ate real food not synthetics.

  • kerner

    wasn’t this discovered in the late 1970′s by these people?

  • kerner

    wasn’t this discovered in the late 1970′s by these people?

  • http://barrybishop.blogspot.com/ Barry D. Bishop

    The Bible records that early man was skilled and intelligent–building musical instruments and things from metal (Gen 4:20-22). Furthermore, they lived for hundreds of years. In a more recent time, the pyramids in Egypt were built by people.
    I believe we have atrophied mentally and physically. Only a philosophical commitment to humanism (man is getting better) and evolution makes people believe otherwise.

  • http://barrybishop.blogspot.com/ Barry D. Bishop

    The Bible records that early man was skilled and intelligent–building musical instruments and things from metal (Gen 4:20-22). Furthermore, they lived for hundreds of years. In a more recent time, the pyramids in Egypt were built by people.
    I believe we have atrophied mentally and physically. Only a philosophical commitment to humanism (man is getting better) and evolution makes people believe otherwise.


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