Are Men Less Than They Were?

It all really started with a Facebook comment.  A friend on social media mentioned that centuries ago, the average man was built like an NFL cornerback.  At that time, I simply filed that information under the “cool things to check out” folder inside my brain and went on.

Photo from Flickr, by Tony Alter
Photo from Flickr, by Tony Alter

That tidbit stuck with me, however.  While cornerbacks aren’t the biggest guys on the field, they do tend to have to balance speed and strength in ways no one else has to.  They need to keep up with speedy receivers, but lay a smackdown like a linebacker.  Could the average person have really been like that?

I sent a private message to the friend to ask where he got that tidbit from.  He said he’d have to re-find it, but a short time later he sent me this link to an article from 2009.

A new book claims even modern athletes could not run as fast, jump as high, or have been nearly as strong as our predecessors.

The book, Manthropology: The Science of the Inadequate Modern Male, by Australian anthropologist Peter McAllister, describes many examples of the inadequacy of the modern male, calling them as a class, “the sorriest cohort of masculine Homo sapiens to ever walk the planet.”

Given spiked running shoes, Indigenous Australians of 20,000 years ago could have beaten today’s for running 100 and 200 meters. As recently as last century, some Tutsi males in Rwanda could have easily beaten the current high jump world record, and bodybuilders such as Arnold Schwarzenegger would have been no match in an arm wrestle with a Neanderthal woman.

Twenty thousand years ago six male Australian Aborigines chasing prey left footprints in a muddy lake shore that became fossilized. Analysis of the footprints shows one of them was running at 37 kph (23 mph), only 5 kph slower than Usain Bolt was traveling at when he ran the 100 meters in world record time of 9.69 seconds in Beijing last year. But Bolt had been the recipient of modern training, and had the benefits of spiked running shoes and a rubberized track, whereas the Aboriginal man was running barefoot in soft mud. Given the modern conditions, the man, dubbed T8, could have reached speeds of 45 kph, according to McAllister.

McAllister also presents as evidence of his thesis photographs taken by a German anthropologist early in the twentieth century. The photographs showed Tutsi initiation ceremonies in which young men had to jump their own height in order to be accepted as men. Some of them jumped as high as 2.52 meters, which is higher than the current world record of 2.45 meters.

McAllister, interviewed in his temporary residence in Cambridge, UK, also said women of the extinct hominids such as the carried around 10 percent more muscle than modern European men, and with training could have reached 90 percent of the bulk of Arnold Schwarzenegger at his physical prime. Her shorter lower arm would have given her a great advantage in an arm wrestle, and she could easily have slammed his arm to the table.

Go read the whole article, because it’s interesting.  It was interesting enough that I picked up a copy of the book and read it.  Wow.

McAllister makes a case through the book that no matter what modern man thinks we’re the best at, we’re not.  Not really.  We’re not the best in pretty much any conceivable way except in having cool technology around.

Unsurprisingly, McAllister’s work has met with some criticism.  After all, he pretty much lays out the case that modern men are wimps, and some people don’t like that kind of talk.

However, the overall point stands.  We’re not anything particularly special.  Our brutal sports aren’t that brutal, our fastest ever may not really be all that fast in the grand scheme of things, and our strongest may not really be the strongest.

While some people may not be overly comfortable with this information, McAllister isn’t the only one to reach that conclusion.

If you were to cross paths with one of your farming ancestors (circa 7,500 to 2,000 B.C.), he’d shove you to the ground, kick sand in your face, and jog off into the sunset with your mate slung over his shoulder. And even with somebody else’s partner slung over his other shoulder, you’d probably never catch up to him. Such has been our musculoskeletal decline in only a handful of millennia.

“Even our most highly trained athletes pale in comparison to these ancestors of ours,” says Dr. Colin Shaw of Cambridge University’s Phenotypic Adaptability, Variation and Evolution Research Group. “We’re certainly weaker than we used to be.”

Alison Macintosh, one of Shaw’s PAVE colleagues, thinks so, too. She’s the one whose recent paper, “From athletes to couch potatoes: Humans through 6,000 years of farming,” claims that, when Central Europeans made the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural ones, men’s lower limb strength and overall mobility decreased (even more so than among women).

“Yeah, but we’re smarter than those guys.  While our bodies have gotten smaller, our brains have gotten larger, right?”

Not really.  It looks like our brains have actually gotten smaller.

Both McAllister and Macintosh seem to agree that ancient man was a monster, and they also seem to agree that as life got easier, we got weaker, which is understandable.

However, all is not lost.

In Manthropology, argues that the difference between those ancient men and today isn’t genetic, but ontogenetic.  In other words, our development during our own lifetime is the reason none of us are the monsters our ancient ancestors are.

Frankly, at the rate we’re going, this will be our future.

Photo courtesy of Disney.
Photo courtesy of Disney.

People laughed at the fat people in Wall-E, but we shouldn’t. We’re actually headed in that direction as it is.  Our lifestyles, great as they are, are making is into just that.

Don’t believe me?  Obesity is considered a disability by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under the Americans With Disabilities Act.  The courts appear to be listening as well, apparently.

Further, there is an entire fat acceptance movement at work in Western countries dedicated to telling people that somehow being overweight is fine.  They argue that you can be healthy at any size, but ignore the mountains of scientific data that links obesity to things like heart disease and diabetes.

So yeah, we’re headed that direction.  Some morbidly obese people already routinely use scooters to get around in situations when the rest of us walk.

The ontogenetic development has taken a turn for the worse, it seems.  But it doesn’t have to.

While it’s unlikely we’ll ever end up as the physical specimen that McAllister and Macintosh argue we once were, we damn sure can do better.

First, we need to keep our kids active.

When I was a kid, I was considered a couch potato, but I spent infinitely more time outside than my own son has.  In part, my wife has this weird fear of my son being kidnapped or something (if you knew here history, though, it wouldn’t be so weird), but my son also had little interest in playing outside.  He just didn’t care about it.

This is actually normal in this day and age, so we as parents need to do what we can to change that.

Our kids need movement, and they need movement with resistance in that movement.  As McAllister points out in Manthropology, our ancient ancestors began doing work very young, which meant they grew up and grew stronger at the same time.

Now, I’m not saying to not let kids be kids.  However, there’s no harm in also giving them tasks that will help improve their strength as they develop.  Carrying things, for example, is a way a child can help the parents while slowly developing strength.

Another thing that kids can do is climb trees.  This old staple of childhood involves movements much like pull-ups and dips, which develop the deltoids, back, biceps, chest, and triceps.  Sounds like an almost complete upper body workout to me.

This is especially true for boys.  Contrary to what some feminists would like to think, strength matters for boys and, by extension, men and no amount of whining about how that thinking is toxic will change it.  It’s an evolutionary trait that isn’t likely to go away because a group of women thinks it’s mean.

As I wrap this already long piece up, I won’t say that we have the opportunity to become gods.  That’s hyperbole beyond my own personal comfort zone.  What I will say is that mankind hasn’t change genetically all that much from our ancient ancestors.  We’re still capable of outrunning Usain Bolt or lifting half-ton boulders.  Genetically, we are.

Somewhere along the way, we let comfort become more important, though.  We embraced comfort and technology and turned our back on that peak level we once saw regularly.  Why?  Who knows.  The truth is that we could have held onto both, to some extent.

Now, maybe we can take it back.


Author: Tom

Tom is a husband, father, novelist, opinion writer, and former Navy Corpsman currently living in Georgia. He's also someone who has lost almost 60 pounds in a safe, sustainable way, so he knows what he's talking about.

5 thoughts on “Are Men Less Than They Were?”

    1. Yes, I am. However, first, I’m quoting McAllister there, rather than equating Neatherthals with us.

      Further, there is also evidence that they interbred with our ancestors, so that would make them ancestors as well.

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