Why nerds don’t like sports
When I was sixteen I was a nerd and I absolutely hated sports. One reason was that I was bad at sports, another reason I hated being embarrassed more than all the other kids. What’s more, I had hated losing since childhood. So, perhaps I was just a bad loser?
When I had my own children and saw how much fun they had running and exercising with the other kids I became aware that the classic nerd who only sits at home playing video and games is in desperate need of evolutionary explanations. Children with this kind of behavior wouldn’t most probably have made it to reproductive age and therefore not passed on their “nerdy” genes.
I slowly began to have a deeper understanding when I read Peter Gray’s wonderful book Free To Learn (2013). This book, which is a critique of our school system, is about how hunter-gatherer children learn in a non-coercive way by playing. Of course, play is the way all mammals learn, how could it have been otherwise for homo sapiens? However, the thing that struck me most was: hunter-gatherer children always play non-competitive games. No losers, only winners. What’s more, hunter-gatherers are keenly sensitive to ridicule, as ridicule is a warning that ostracism — the worst thing that may happen to a hunter-gatherer — may be impending. I eventually did take up sports when I was a grown-up. But it was always a non-competitive sport, such as biking by myself.
I have argued that people’s personality types are heavily influenced by their ancestor’s mode of subsistence: foraging (hunting and gathering, farming and herding). Nerds, geeks, and dorks (many of whom have conditions like ASD or ADHD) are typically hunter-gatherer types as opposed to farmer-herder types. However, the picture is far from complete. It is true ADHD is correlated with obesity, there is a four times higher risk of becoming obese, ADHD is also correlated with overexercising! What’s going on here?
I have noticed that many of my hunter-gatherer type acquaintances are marathon runners (in particular the extraverts). And my hunch is that hunter-gatherer types are vastly overrepresented among marathon runners. So, I hypothesized that perhaps
- Hunter-gatherers are selected for endurance
- Farmer-herders are selected for strength
When I sent this idea to a Mongolian HG friend of mine he dug up an interesting genetic study: Are ‘Endurance’ Alleles ‘Survival’ Alleles? Insights from the ACTN3 R577X Polymorphism
The main purpose of the present study was to compare the allelic and genotypic frequency of the ACTN3 R577X polymorphism between Spanish centenarians (aged 100–108 years), and a group of healthy young adults (controls, aged <40 years) of the same ethnic origin. A secondary aim was to compare the data obtained in centenarians with those of two groups of humans who show the two ‘extreme’ phenotypes of the exercise performance continuum, i.e. elite (world-class) athletes excelling in endurance and power sports respectively. We hypothesized that: (i) the XX genotype tends to be overrepresented in centenarians compared with the general population; (ii) the ACTN3 R577X allelic/genotypic frequency distribution of centenarians is similar to that of endurance athletes; and (iii) the XX genotype will be overrepresented in centenarians compared with the power athlete group.
The study had some highly interesting findings regarding the HG hypothesis. Carriers of the XX genotype
- Did significantly worse in power/speed competition but better in endurance competition
- Were overrepresented among centenarians
- Were present in about 18% of the sample
The first point would explain why so many nerds/HGs drop out of competitive games early on in their lives but may take up endurance sports (biking, long-distance running, etc.) later on in life. The second one may seem a bit odd and its relevance less clear. I have argued that in our ancestral environments hunter-gatherers had the longest life-history strategy
We know that people with ASD and ADHD often have shorter than average lifespans, but that shouldn’t be surprising considering the social stress that these people are exposed to. However, among very old people HG types should be overrepresented if my hypothesis is true.
Finally, the 18% mark is very close to the 20% hunter-gatherer type percentage I assume for Western populations based on the numbers of intuitives (roughly correspond to HG types) in the Myers-Briggs personality test.
If there is a connection between the ACTN3 R577X polymorphism and the HG hypothesis, geneticists should easily be able to verify it. There are also many interesting differences between sprinters and long-distance runners that align with the idea: sprinters need a lot of strength and are above average height. The best sprinters and track and field athletes are herder types (SP in MBTI). This shouldn’t be surprising if their evolutionary origin lies in cattle herding. The Yamnaya (steppe pastoralists that spread the Indo-European languages family) had the strongest selection for height discovered so far. Endurance runners, on the other hand, are typically shorter and less muscular.
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