“Sports Fandom” and the Unpersons of Evolutionary Psychology

I had to smile when I read an article on the website of the journal Evolutionary Psychology entitled “The Evolutionary Significance of Red Sox Nation: Sport Fandom as a Byproduct of Coalitional Psychology.” Here’s a blurb from the abstract:

Sport fandom has received considerable attention from social scientists, yet few have considered it from an evolutionary perspective. To redress this gap, we develop the hypothesis that team sports exhibit characteristics that activate mechanisms which evolved to facilitate the development of coalitions in the context of small-scale warfare.

What charming naiveté! Of course, according to the current narrative in the field, time did not exist before 1975. Then there was a “big bang” in the form of the publication by E. O. Wilson of Sociobiology, and all Evolutionary Psychology followed from that. In a way it’s almost unbelievable that the authors don’t know about the massive firestorm Konrad Lorenz unloosed among the orthodox back in the day when the “blank slate” was flying high by suggesting a hypotheses identical to theirs, and suggesting that, if true, it might be used as a means of controlling innate aggression.  For example, in On Aggression he wrote,

It was probably in highly ritualized but still serious hostile fighting that sport had its origin. It can be defined as a specifically human form of nonhostile combat, governed by the strictest of culturally developed rules.

…human sport is more akin to serious fighting than animal play is; also, sport indubitably contains aggressive motivation, demonstrably absent in most animal play.

The most important function of sport lies in furnishing a healthy safety valve for that most indispensable and, at the same time, most dangerous form of aggression that I have described as collective militant enthusiasm.

A typical, if somewhat jaundiced and ridiculous, orthodox response to such heretical ideas from a “right thinking” expert of the day may be found  in an essay published in 1968 by psychologist John H. Crook:

The behavior of crowds watching “conventionally” competitive sports often indicates the arousal of aggressive attitudes rather than their happy sublimation. Further, the behavior of players cannot always be recommended. The wanton destruction of train interiors by British football team supporters on the way to an “away” fixture certainly reveals a release of social tensions in what would appear to be highly convivial surroundings.

One can find many similar tart responses to Lorenz’ hypothesis in the work of the “experts” in human behavior of the day.  Oblivious to the work of the “great ancient ones” before the Wilson Big Bang, the authors of Red Sox Nation continue,

We propose that an evolutionary hypothesis—that sport fandom is the by-product of an evolved coalitional psychology—can address these issues and provide a more satisfying account of sport fandom than has been offered previously. More specifically, we hypothesize that although sport fandom may not provide net reproductive benefits in modern environments, it is the by-product of a suite of cognitive and affective adaptations that would have generally increased inclusive fitness during human evolutionary history. These adaptations would allow individuals to effectively form and maintain coalitions with others, especially men, in the context of inter-group conflicts, often based on recurrent episodes of overt aggression.

The claim that much modern group behavior can be understood as a manifestation of a coalitional (or “male warrior”) psychology has been developed and empirically supported in several recent studies (e.g., Bugental and Beaulieu, 2009; Johnson and van Vugt, 2009; van Vugt, De Cremer, and Janssen, 2007; Yuki and Yokota, 2009). We extend this logic to sport fandom and argue that specific aspects of coalitional psychology can yield sport fandom in appropriate contexts.

…and so on. It’s as if one had gone back in a time machine to the Soviet Union of the 1950’s and was listening to a Communist apparatchik tell you with a perfectly straight face that he’d never heard of a man named Trotsky.

Sorry guys, but your hypothesis is not novel. The Communists aren’t the only ones who had “unpersons.” The behavioral scientists of the 21st century have them as well, and the list includes the names “Konrad Lorenz” and “Robert Ardrey.”

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