Monday, October 19, 2009

Wimps?

I would love to hear some informed commentary on this article from Reuters and The Independent:
Modern man 'a wimp', says anthropologist

Many prehistoric Australian aboriginals could have outrun world 100 and 200 metres 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."

McAllister sets out his stall in the opening sentence of the prologue.

"If you're reading this then you - or the male you have bought it for - are the worst man in history...."

...

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).

McAllister said it was difficult to equate the ancient spear with the modern javelin but added: "Given other evidence of Aboriginal man's superb athleticism you'd have to wonder whether they couldn't have taken out every modern javelin event they entered."

Why the decline?

"We are so inactive these days and have been since the industrial revolution really kicked into gear," McAllister replied. "These people were much more robust than we were.

"We don't see that because we convert to what things were like about 30 years ago. There's been such a stark improvement in times, technique has improved out of sight, times and heights have all improved vastly since then but if you go back further it's a different story.

"At the start of the industrial revolution there are statistics about how much harder people worked then.

"The human body is very plastic and it responds to stress. We have lost 40 percent of the shafts of our long bones because we have much less of a muscular load placed upon them these days.

"We are simply not exposed to the same loads or challenges that people were in the ancient past and even in the recent past so our bodies haven't developed. Even the level of training that we do, our elite athletes, doesn't come close to replicating that.

"We wouldn't want to go back to the brutality of those days but there are some things we would do well to profit from."
Well, he sure knows how to get interviews and onto talkshows. But such interviews aren't necessarily the whole story. This may make more or less sense when spelled out in detail. It sounds oversimplified to me. Were early factory workers "inactive?" More likely worn out by too much repetitive, body-destructive work.

Image: Women making artillery shells in Quebec in World War II. Active or inactive?

Has there been, in his theory, a decline in womankind?

Update: In addition to the substantial comments below, Will McLean has weighed in on this. Indeed, see his recent blog entries for other good material.

3 comments:

  1. I've read a bit of press coverage on this book, and while I'm no anthropologist, it just seems way too simplistic to me, and a pretty blatant attempt to use catchy soundbites and dubious comparisons to sell books. And the fact that it is very much targeted at men only seems to be a rather cynical attempt to cash into the whole 'be a real man' anti-feminist backlash.

    I'd like to see the quality of the evidence he uses to back up some of his claims. My understanding is that in the Western world at least, humans of both sexes are on average taller, stronger and live a lot longer than they did 100 or even 50 years ago, so surely that must call into question his 'you're the worst men in history' thesis? And yes, anyone who has read accounts of factory workers from the 19th and early 20th centuries know those were no cushy jobs. Working people were worn out and in their graves by their 30s or 40s.

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  2. Anonymous5:53 pm

    The theory sounds fishy to me. He seems to be drawing his examples from times and places where comprehensive health statistics aren't available and anecdotes were likely to be inflated.

    It does remind me of a fascinating article I read some time back in the New York Times. Apparently someone went through the health records of draftees for the American Civil War and discovered that a number of conditions like arthritis, heart disease and lung disease were much, much more common then and they showed up earlier in life than they do today.

    This is the article.

    Ariella Elema

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  3. Hahahahahahaha ... oh, wait, he's serious.

    There is absolutely nothing to this other than a series of unsubstantiated guesses. I'll almost certainly be buying this book as part of my ongoing collection of ridiculous pseudoanthropological crapdoodle, and will let you know more then, but it seems like he has absolutely no critical eye for evaluating the inflated claims of chroniclers and makes wild estimates based on supposition.

    We have good records of athletic prowess going back at least 100 years and if his theory had any merit, we would have seen a decrease in ability over time rather than the reality, which is of course just the opposite.

    And don't even get me started on the extraordinarily sexist assumptions embodied in the title ...

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