Team Sports as “Tribal Candy”

Great shades of Konrad Lorenz! The paradigm shift in the social sciences continues. According to an article linked on the website of “Evolutionary Psychology,”

It makes no sense from a rational economic perspective, yet millions of people passionately follow sports teams. A new study suggests that such seemingly illogical behavior can be understood as a by-product of humans’ evolved coalitional psychology. The research, conducted at Grand Valley State University, supported this hypothesis by demonstrating that individuals who strongly value the interests of their ingroup are especially likely to be sports fans.

For those living in modern societies such as the U.S., it’s not easy to appreciate that small-scale warfare, such as males raiding a neighboring group to obtain resources or mates, has been a persistent threat during most of our evolutionary history. This threat, many evolutionary psychologists believe, has selected for components of what has been termed a coalitional, tribal, or “male warrior” psychology.

As noted in earlier posts, by the time a century had elapsed since the publication of “On the Origin of Species,” it had become perfectly clear to anyone with an open mind who accepted Darwins great theory and was aware of the relevant research available at the time that a) Innate predispositons or genetic “hard-wiring” in the brain have a profound effect on human behavior, including moral behavior, and b) Our “hard-wiring” manifests itself not only in “nice” and “kind” behavior, but in “not so nice” behavior as well, such as the complex of emotional responses responsible for hostility to outgroups.  Unfortunately, other than being obvious, these conclusions were also politically incorrect.  About that time a group of writers began insistently pointing out that they were true, and citing the data that made it obvious that they were true.  Unfortunately, in the process, they challenged the ideological narrative of the “tribe” of establishment psychologists and other behavioral scientists around at the time, who behaved precisely as anyone familiar with b) above might have predicted.  They reacted to this challenge to their ingroup with rage and hostility, vilifying and demonizing the writers who persisted in such heresies. 

In subsequent years, there was a remarkable paradigm shift.  The “experts” were forced by the accummulating weight of evidence to accept a), creating a whole new mythical narrative to explain their change of heart in the process.  However, having swallowed the camel (a), they still strain at the gnat (b), producing mountains of studies that demonstrate “kind” human behavior, and sending forth legions of ethologists to study bonobos, while studiously averting their gaze from anything that might suggest that our mental wiring can predispose us to “unkind” behavior as well.   If the article cited above is any indication, they may, at long last, finally be starting to come around.  The article continues,

The general idea that sports are related to warfare and other evolutionary challenges is long-standing. For example, several scientists have argued that combat sports evolved, at least in some cultures, to provide training for war, whereas other scientists have suggested that sports serve as an efficient means of establishing dominance relations within a group or displaying one’s qualities for potential mates. Sport fandom, however, has received less attention from evolutionists and, prior to the new study, had never been formally described as a by-product of coalitional psychology.

As older readers may recall, back in the day, Konrad Lorenz suggested in “On Aggression” and elsewhere the hypothesis that team sports might by useful as a means of channeling hostility to outgroups towards activities less destructive than warfare. This suggestion was treated with scorn at the time. The time may be ripe to give it more serious consideration.

Lorenz, Ardrey, and their like-minded colleagues were not behavioral determinists, nor were they “reductionists.”  On the contrary, they insisted on drawing attention to (b) because they firmly believed that it was possible to rationally understand the “unkind” in human behavior, and to control it in ways that might give us a fighting chance to avoid destroying ourselves with our increasingly potent weapons.  They did not pretend to have all the answers about how this might be done, but suggested that it would strongly behoove us to begin seriously looking for those answers, assuming we placed any value on our own survival.

Let us hope that articles like the one noted above are a sign that the community of experts on human behavior is finally beginning to pull its collective head out of the sand concerning the less positive aspects of human behavior.  The complex of innate behavioral traits associated with outgroup hostility represents an existential threat to us.  Any chance of effectively controlling them must depend on the degree to which we understand them.  It is time we began serious efforts to gain that understanding.  There will be no “human flourishing” if we destroy ourselves.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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