Top Story: February 4, 2011

Super Bowl Evolution

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We're big sports fans here at Science Today. In fact, we're starting Super Bowl weekend early and are on vacation today. But we didn't want to leave you in the lurch, so we're re-running our sports and evolution story that we posted last March Madness. Enjoy!

Why are humans so crazy about sports?

Well, according to some Belgian researchers, it’s due to evolution. In an article they published last year in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, cultural evolution plays a part in our love of sports, but if you get down to the brass tacks of it, sports is all about sexual selection.

According to the article, “From a Darwinian perspective, sports may be seen as one of the cultural activities invented to promote the acquisition of status. And acquiring status is—on average, in the long run, and in the ancestral environment to which our species is adapted—beneficial to an individual’s reproductive success.”

Nick Paumgartner of the New Yorker knows this is true. In an article he wrote earlier this month, he talks briefly about the behind-the-scenes sexual successes of athletes during the Olympics. But it’s how he feels as an amateur athlete that we all understand: “I suspect that skiing is, in some respects, an act of vanity. You want to be seen doing it. You make a mark in the snow and ask others to take note.” Sounds a little like a parading male peacock, huh?

In a recent Scientific American blog discussing this matter, Jesse Bering points out that the status is transferred from athlete to fan. “Sports that allow athletes to clearly showcase their most evolutionarily important attributes—strength, intelligence, endurance, speed and litheness, for example—attract the biggest following.” Basketball, check, but how do you explain the popularity of curling at last month’s Olympics?

As a fan, we take on the athletic ideals of the members of our team. Bering sites another study that found that following a World Cup soccer match, “Mean testosterone levels increased in the fans of winning teams and decreased in the fans of losing teams.”

So, your sports fanaticism? Thank evolution. But be careful, it can also be life-threatening. Heart attack rates have been shown to rise during the Super Bowl and World Cup. Go team, but take it easy.

(Update: more recent articles on dangerous sports-watching were published this week here and here.)

Image: Mahanga/Wikimedia

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