Running as Social Commentary

There isn’t much philosophy on eating, and that’s a shame (though very understandable), but there also isn’t much philosophy on running, but I recently found some, thanks to a buddy (thanks to either Jonathan or Paul, I don’t remember which.

In this TED talk, the speaker makes a bunch of fascinating empirical, descriptive points, and then some other more philosophical points. Ever eager to defend my intellectual turf (I’m actually not really interested in that garbage-game at all; read the preceding sentence as expressing sarcasm), I want to take issue with the philosophical issues after laying out the general structure of the empirical talk.

This guy (forgot his name) points to some specific things regarding running. One of them has to do with the recent craze in favor of wearing what I like to call “swamp man” shoes” but are really just those shoes that look like your feet. He talks about how his running pains went away when he put those types of shoes on, and I really don’t know how to evaluate his point that these shoes are superior except through a lot of anecdotes that I’ve collected. Many people swear by them but I’ve never had a problem with ordinary running shoes, though my dad did. One the one hand, it seems plausible to me that humans would run better if we would just run the way that nature intended us to run. After all, I think we are healthier when we eat the way nature intended us to eat. On the other hand though, its not ridiculous to think that some simple technology might help us run better, just as jackets help us stay warm better.

This guy also told the story of a recent marathon runner (don’t remember it either, but no big deal, I didn’t really get it to start with); a woman who won the race after hanging back to help a fellow runner. This is a really inspiring story, and it blew my mind to hear it, especially after hearing that doctors used to think that women who ran long distances would tear their uteruses apart under the stress. This really tells you a lot about how ideology can influence even supposedly purely “scientific” pursuits.

Also, women are really good distance runners, and very close to as fast as men. This is in sharp contrast to women sprinters who are much slower then men.

Then the normative, ethical theorizing begins when the speaker says that our running capability is tied up with what makes a good society. He points to a small group of Natives living in Mexico who often run hundreds of miles each day and flourish in their social organization. He makes them out to have a kind of paradise-like existence and he suggests that running is a big contributor. In a word, he suggest that we should become a running culture as a way of enhancing feelings of community, physical fitness, and everything else. Everybody should get those swamp man shoes.

The argument in favor of this utopianism though is pretty poor. For one thing, his argument is that groups of Savannah stalking humans had to work together tightly in order to slowly wear out and run down prey animals over long periods of time (apparently humans are great at running forever and ever even though slow for short distance). Also, he surmises that since the “hunt” would range over miles and miles, the women, even pregnant women, had to be able to run to keep up to get the kill right when it was brought down.

There are a bunch of problems here, one being that his explanations for the goodness of social organizations based around long distance running are pretty general, and available to just about any evolutionary story. He says “well, people have to cooperate to run down prey over long distances.” Ok yea sure, but people have to cooperate to use agriculture, they have to cooperate to avoid natural disasters, and cooperate to resist invaders and other people.

Also, his theory doesn’t explain why men are such better sprinters. Everyone can run long distances so that we can bring down prey. Ok fine, but then why would it matter if one sex could sprint must faster than the other. Probably for an evolutionary reason…

Also, there are many inspiring sports stories that don’t have to do with running. Just a few Olympics ago, one skiier tossed his ski pole to a competitor so he could finish. There are probably a million others. So maybe running isn’t the key to unlocking all our special human capacities.

Lastly, I think its important to remember why we don’t run around trying to kill our food, and I’m not even referring to the ease that we can get things these days. I just mean that those societies requiring everyone to run around all the time probably had no place for people with polio, or broke their bones beyond repair. I mean, I’m sure those societies tried to keep those injured members alive, but nowadays, injured people can more fully participate in society because we need more things and more skills. For example, the federal government buys a bunch of products from blind people who manufacture them. Our technology allows these people to be set up in such a way as to utilize skills that others can take advantage of.

To put it another way, we moved past running down prey (as cool as that is) because we have new commitments like moral equality, respect for persons, and the importance of participating in a common community.

Also, it’s not like a culture of agriculture or whatever doesn’t have special community values of its own.



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