Christopher McDougall: How Did Endurance Help Early Humans Survive? Christopher McDougall explores the mysteries of the human instinct to run. How did endurance help early humans survive — and what urges from our ancient ancestors spur us on today?
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How Did Endurance Help Early Humans Survive?

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How Did Endurance Help Early Humans Survive?

How Did Endurance Help Early Humans Survive?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So you might be a really terrible runner. Maybe it's just not your thing. But this guy...

CHRIS MCDOUGALL: Yup, I'm right here.

RAZ: Great. Oh, perfect.

MCDOUGALL: Sure.

RAZ: He is out to convince you...

MCDOUGALL: I'm Chris McDougall. I'm the author of "Born To Run."

RAZ: ...That millions of years ago, evolution turned us into runners. And Chris says running, to be precise, long-distance running, is basically all we got.

MCDOUGALL: I mean, think about this right now. If you stripped me naked and you chucked me out in the woods, I have no natural weaponry at all. I mean, humans as animals, we're not very strong.

RAZ: You - yeah, right.

MCDOUGALL: We can't climb very well. We don't swim very well. We can't fly. We have no fangs. We got nothing. I probably would not walk back out of those woods.

RAZ: There's a theory about human evolution, and it argues that the human brain basically just exploded in size about 2 million years ago. And a lot of that growth came from food, which included eating animals. But we also know that humans only started to kill their prey with rocks and spears about 200,000 years ago, so a big anthropological mystery, which Chris laid out on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MCDOUGALL: So somehow for nearly two million years, we are killing animals without any weapons. Now we're not using our strength because we are the biggest sissies in the jungle, OK. Every other animal is stronger than we are. They have fangs. They have claws. They have nimbleness. They have speed. You know, we think Usain Bolt is fast. Usain Bolt would get his [expletive] kicked by a squirrel. OK, we're not fast.

(LAUGHTER)

MCDOUGALL: That would be an Olympic event. Turn a squirrel loose. Whoever catches the squirrel, you get a gold medal.

(LAUGHTER)

MCDOUGALL: So no weapons, no speed, no strength, no fangs, no claws, how are we killing these animals? Perhaps it's because humans, as much as we like to think of ourselves as masters of the universe, actually evolved as nothing more than a pack of hunting dogs. Maybe we evolved as a hunting-pack animal because the one advantage we have in the wilderness is sweat. Better than any other mammal on earth, we can sweat really well. But the advantage of that is the fact that when it comes to running under hot heat for long distances, we're superb. We're the best on the planet. You take a horse on a hot day, and after about five or six miles, that horse has a choice. It's either going to breathe, or it's going to cool off, but it ain't doing both. We can. So what if we evolved as hunting-pack animals? What if the only natural advantage we had in the world was the fact that we could get together as a group, go out there on an African savanna, pick out an antelope, and go out as a pack and run that thing to death?

RAZ: I mean, we essentially evolve to endure.

MCDOUGALL: That's exactly it. That is our one superpower on earth.

RAZ: Yeah.

MCDOUGALL: And I love it, too, because it's not the superpower you would choose for yourself. You know, if you were given all of the powers in the animal kingdom at your disposal, you think, I want to soar like a hawk. I want to swim like a dolphin. But actually, it was that ability to sweat which made every other great human achievement possible because the fact that we could sweat allowed us to run super long distances on hot days.

RAZ: Yeah.

MCDOUGALL: So rather than overpowering animals, rather than out-sprinting them, we can endure. We can go and go and go and go until they would just collapse and fall over.

RAZ: This is how we became who we are by adapting. And though we think of adaptation as something intrinsic like evolution, it can also be a choice, a decision you make to change, and a power we all have. So on the show today, we're going to explore ideas about adaptation, whether it's adapting to our biological circumstances or our physical limitations or the changing world around us. For Chris McDougall, the idea that humans adapted to run long distances means that somewhere deep inside of us, we're built for it. So the obvious question Chris asked is, if we're intrinsically meant to do this, how come most of us don't?

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MCDOUGALL: And the answer to what I think can be found down in the Copper Canyons of Mexico where there's a tribe, a reclusive tribe called the Tarahumara Indians, they have been living essentially unchanged for the past 400 years. When the conquistadors arrived in North America, you had two choices. You could either fight back and engage, or you could take off. The Mayans and the Aztecs engaged, which is why there are very few Mayans and Aztecs. The Tarahumara had a different strategy. They took off and hid in this labyrinthine networking kind of spider webbing system of canyons called the Copper Canyons. And there they've remained since the 1600s, essentially the same way they've always been. Deep in the old age, 70 and 80 years old, these guys aren't running marathons. They're running mega-marathons. They're not doing 26 miles. They're doing 100, 150 miles at a time and apparently without injury, without problems.

RAZ: Wow, I mean, how did this happen? I mean, what's the story?

MCDOUGALL: So here's the thing. When I first went down to the Copper Canyons to look for the Tarahumara, I thought that what I was going to be finding was like, you know, Professor X's X-Men Academy. I thought...

RAZ: Yeah.

MCDOUGALL: ...I was going to find this, like, culture of, like, mutants.

RAZ: Right.

MCDOUGALL: What I discovered instead was this is normal humanity. I was looking into our own past. I was actually looking at what humans really are. We're the ones that have adapted to an artificial culture. The Tarahumara are kind of like living Smithsonian exhibits. They are preserving the same natural abilities that humans relied on millions of years ago.

RAZ: And today, Chris believes most of us have actually over-adapted. We've lost something primal about how we run. And the story of how that may have happened starts with a guy named Bill Bowerman.

MCDOUGALL: And he was a coach at the University of Oregon.

RAZ: Bowerman coached track and field there. And in the mid-1970s, he heard about a group of people in New Zealand who would run through the hills near their town.

MCDOUGALL: Former cardiac patients, people who had had heart attacks, and Bowerman thought, well, this is crazy. You know, this idea of, like, jogging through the mountains is insane. These people are going to die. But what he realized is these people were actually prospering. Instead of their hearts giving out, their hearts were getting stronger.

RAZ: OK, so long story short, running was not exactly the thing it is today back in the 1970s. So Bowerman brings the phenomenon of jogging to the U.S., and he starts by inviting students to come jog with him on the weekend. And one of those students was a guy on Bill Bowerman's track team. His name was Phil Knight. And he had an idea.

MCDOUGALL: Phil said, hey, you know, as long as people are interested in this new hobby of jogging, there's not much we can do to capitalize on except for one thing. The only thing you can use is a pair of shoes. So, Phil Knight started the company of Blue Ribbon Sports, which became Nike, and he started to innovate and mess around with shoes. Now the early Nike running shoes were like same kind of things that Jesse Owens and Roger Bannister wore.

RAZ: Yeah, so, like, what was Jesse Owens running in?

MCDOUGALL: A pair of slippers, everybody's in - and essentially, it's actually not very different than what elite runners would wear today...

RAZ: Yeah.

MCDOUGALL: ...Which is the thinnest sliver of protection underneath their soles, nothing else. But what really made Nike's fortune is bigger is better. The bigger you can make it, the more cushiony, the more soft, the more people are going to be attracted to it. So it was really Nike that came up with this idea of the cushioned running shoe.

RAZ: Yeah, I remember when I was a kid, the first time I saw Nike Airs, you know, use of the little window in the shoe...

MCDOUGALL: Right.

RAZ: ...And the sole, and you thought, oh, how cool. You're walking on air.

MCDOUGALL: And that's a thing about it, too. The real big breakthrough that Nike came up with is this idea that if you don't buy the right shoe, you're going to get injured. And that's where all this cushioning and motion control and all this foot correction stuff began.

RAZ: As for exactly what this all has to do with those tribes in Mexico and how Chris made that connection, well, he's a runner.

MCDOUGALL: I would say just about every day, yeah.

RAZ: And he started a couple years after college to lose weight.

MCDOUGALL: But I kept getting hurt. I kept getting injured, and I would see doctors, and they would say, well, you know, dude, you're built like Shrek. Of course you're getting injured. So I had given up running for years. It was only after I went down to the Copper Canyons and I watched these, like, 80-year-old Tarahumara runners doing 30 miles through the mountains that I thought, there probably isn't a right way to run.

RAZ: It took a few years of studying the Tarahumara Indians for Chris McDougall to figure out the secret. What he still believes is the right way to run. And when he did figure it out, it wasn't just a turning point in his own life. It was a moment that would reshape the entire multibillion-dollar running shoe industry.

MCDOUGALL: So here's the big lightbulb moment for me. In 1994, someone got the idea of entering a group of Tarahumara runners in this legendary race called the Leadville Trail 100. It's a 100-mile race through the Rocky Mountains. They entered the face, and they just obliterated the field.

RAZ: Wow.

MCDOUGALL: And not only did they win, they had been given new running shoes to wear. They didn't like them, so they went to the town dump and carved out sandals from discarded tires, strapped them on, and ran 100 miles in them. So essentially, what they did was they preserved the adaptations which allowed humans to survive in hostile environments for most of our existence.

RAZ: And once Chris wrote about this, you can imagine what happened next. It inspired the entire barefoot running movement. Chris is the reason you see people wearing those five-fingered toe shoes at the gym, the reason running shoes seem to get lighter and lighter every time you go out looking for a new pair. And when Chris gave this TED Talk back in 2010, that movement was just taking off.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MCDOUGALL: So what I've been seeing today is there is kind of a growing subculture of barefoot runners, people who have gotten rid of their shoes. And what they have found uniformly is you get rid of the shoes, you get rid of the stress, you get rid of the injuries and the ailments, and what you find is something the Tarahumara have known for a very long time, that this can be a whole lot of fun. I've experienced it personally myself. I was injured all my life, and then in my early 40s, I got rid of my shoes, and my running...

RAZ: OK, we should point out that there's been a lot of public debate about the health benefits of running barefoot. In fact, more than a few people have been injured trying to run barefoot. But, Chris McDougall's theory on our over-adaptation does make you wonder whether we've lost something primal about how our bodies work.

MCDOUGALL: If you look at the foot, the foot is this amazing piece of architecture. It has an arch with absorbed shock. It has these five toes which spread out and balance. It has these 20, 60 intricately connected bones and ligaments and tendons and censures (ph). It is an unbelievable miracle of creation, and yet somehow, some guy in Oregon in a lab thinks he can sketch something which is better than that.

RAZ: I mean, it makes sense at a certain time in our history that we had to adapt to chase gazelles, so we needed to be barefoot. But now we have to adapt to walk the long aisles of Costco to load our cars.

MCDOUGALL: (Laughter).

RAZ: So is there a possibility that, you know, another two, 300 hundred years of cushioned running, we'll just, you know, sort of change our physiology, and we'll be fine?

MCDOUGALL: I hope not. It's so unnecessary. Like, why would you bother? Why would you bother to try and adapt yourself? It would be like we could adapt to hitting ourselves in the face with a hammer if we kept at it long enough. But you know what, maybe just put the hammer down. Don't do it anymore.

RAZ: I'm actually really glad that we don't have to chase gazelles anymore.

MCDOUGALL: You know, yes and no, obviously, I haven't moved to the Copper Canyons and live in a cave, you know. On the other hand, if you're a running culture, like, you can't be materialistic, so, you know, you're not hoarding a bunch of crap and working 9 to 5 and, like, attacking your neighbors. You're just, like, chilling and running.

RAZ: Chris McDougall, he wrote "Born To Run." You can check out his entire talk at ted.com. Our show today, ideas about adaptation, I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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