(Written 15 Apr 2011)
Dear All,
Watching schoolboy rugby on Saturday morning prompted a discussion about whether humans are the only species to take an interest in the outcome of physical clashes in the way that we do?
Certainly ‘play’ is something in which all mammals engage because of the important role of ‘play’ in the socialising of the young and the teaching of skills. However, the question considered here is not about ‘play’ as a medium of instruction in which we hope to teach our offspring lessons in life and how to deal with the fickle outcomes of winning and losing a game – any number of sporting activities including tiddlywinks can do that. This question is about the excitement experienced by humans (mostly males) when they stand around a field of competition waiting anxiously to see if “my gladiator is bigger than his”? Is that a uniquely human experience?
Of course not all of us have a morbid fascination with bone-crunching tackling or being able one day to “strip one’s sleeve and show (the) scars, and say, “these wounds had I on (rugby) day”’ (acknowledge the Bard – Henry V). Pippa made the point that she hated the smell of testosterone in the air on Saturday mornings as the young bucks prepared to ‘bash heads’, but, by and large, we gather to watch the contest with keen interest and do not have a sense of recoil as an ambulance goes across the field to pick up an injured player.
I expect that the root of keenly watching for the outcome of our gladiator’s performance is to be found deep in our reptilian brain, which at one time in our evolution made the difference between survival or otherwise. There was a time when having a big strong male in the troop was essential to securing a life-giving spot at a watering hole, or access to a safe cave; and I expect that subliminally we still respond to that impulse without really knowing why. We still respond excitedly to the notion that our guy is able to throw a pointed stick farther than their guy because it is still somehow comforting, but at the same time mildly confusing because the necessity of being able to throw a pointed stick has long since been superseded.
So, are we the only species to have such a keen interest in the outcome of physical contests? I don’t think so. In rutting season the outcome of male dominance in all species is the focus of all members of the effected social group because it may have a direct bearing on their very lives. There is a general state of excitement and curiosity with good reason, but the stress that goes with it dies down when the time for mating is over. When the hormonal process has taken its course the herd will once again settle into to a humdrum existence and the pride will only get tetchy if their territory is actually threatened. There are no artificial displays of strength. So why this persistence in humans? Well, as Bronowski points out (Ascent of Man, Futura, 1981, pg. 250) the human “female is receptive at all times, she has permanent breasts, she takes part in sexual selection. Eve’s apple, as it were, fertilizes mankind; or at least spurs it to its ageless preoccupation”; and as a result of this constant spurring, these young males – with the reptilian brain in control and without actually knowing what they are competing for – bash into one another incessantly.
Saturday morning rugby is a complex amalgam of sound educational activities and the expression of a deeper, hidden impulse that has been with us for millions of years. And the codgers watch from the sidelines and discuss the outcome of the competition as if it were important… which of course it is.