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Born, and Evolved, to Run

Daniel Lieberman, author of The Evolution of the Human Head, sat down with the NYT for an interesting conversation.

Some years ago, I was doing an experiment where I put pigs on treadmills. The goal was to learn how running stressed the bones in the head. One day, a colleague, Dennis Bramble, walked into the lab, watched what was going on, and declared, “You know, that pig can’t hold its head still!”

This was my “eureka!” moment. I’d observed pigs on treadmills for hundreds of hours and had never thought about this. So Dennis and I started talking about how, when these pigs ran, their heads bobbed every which way and how running humans are really adept at stabilizing their heads. We realized that there were special features in the human neck that enable us to keep our heads still. That gives us an evolutionary advantage because it helps us avoid falls and injuries. And this seemed like evidence of natural selection in our ability to run, an important factor in how we became hunters rather than just foragers and got access to richer foods, which fueled the evolution of our big brains.

So I got interested in how we developed these stable heads. I’m a runner myself. It’s always interesting to study one’s passion. By 2004, we’d found enough evidence to publish a paper in Nature where we declared, “Humans were born to run.” We cited the many dozens of adaptations in the human body that had made us into superlative endurance runners, even compared to dogs and horses.

Before bows and arrows and before horses were tamed, we did “persistence hunting” where we ran kudu, wildebeest and zebra into exhaustion. These animals can’t pant when they gallop. They overheat. People would find a big animal and chase it till it collapsed. You need no technology to do this, just the ability to run long distances, which all of us have.

You can see proof of this capability every November when 45,000 people run for many hours through the streets of New York.

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In his treatise The Evolution of the Human Head, Daniel Lieberman sets out to explain how the human head works, and why our heads evolved in this peculiarly human way.