By Mark Lundegren
Recent reports of a National Football League (NFL) bounty program in the United States, paying and encouraging players to injure their opponents, are a stark reminder that competition has important natural or rational limits.
In citing this example, however, we must immediately add that sports like professional football, in both its American and International varieties, is a modern preoccupation that already functions far beyond desirable natural limits for social competition – when judged from the standpoint of its net effect on the health and quality of life of its participants and fans.
After all, consider the influences of this most popular competitive sport of our times on the lives and health of those who participate in the sport or follow it avidly. In the case of NFL players, there is perhaps a five times higher risk of chronic cognitive health impairment and comparable risks of premature physical disability and degeneration. International football players fare somewhat better, but still are subject to greatly elevated risks of injury and long-term physical disability. We would add that in both of these and many other competitive sports, drug use is a widespread phenomenon – to enhance performance, to treat pain, and for escape from the unnatural stress and pressure of sports-related competition.
As for professional football fans, anyone who has been to a game in any professional-level league (and many below this level) knows firsthand the widely health-indifferent cultures that this sport and many other supernormally competitive pastimes reliably attract and foster. Such fan cultures are regularly and often strongly marked by patently unhealthy eating, excessive alcohol consumption, increased aggression and violence, elevated stress, obsessive and risk-seeking behaviors, and decreased enjoyment of essential but less stimulating life activities, to begin a list.
Our Naturally Cooperative Life
Though this pattern of effects is poorly appreciated and counter-intuitive to many of us today, it’s fairly easy to understand why highly competitive activities like football are so closely correlated with reduced health and well-being for all involved, once we adopt a naturalized and longer-term perspective on human competition overall.
To understand this linkage – and leaving aside the cruder fact of added risk of physical trauma for participants in nearly all competitive sports – we need only explore the idea that humans are not naturally adapted for highly competitive social settings and do not function optimally when intense or protracted levels of species competition become a dominating influence or presence in our lives.
Consider our five million-year earlier life as hunter-gatherers on the plains of Africa, the source of our dominant genes and innate human characteristics. Being physically weak relative to many of the predator and prey animals we lived alongside in this life – owing to our even longer pre-human life as lithe forest-based foragers – we compensated for our physical shortcomings in several important ways.
Notable human adaptations for African plains life included living in sufficiently large groups to aid in our protection and using weapons to deter outside aggression. But by far our strongest and most significant adaptation for survival in this new environment was greatly increased cooperation, a hallmark of all primate species that humans progressed to unprecedented levels in wild nature.
To see the central natural place of cooperation in humans, it essential to understand that human beings are not schooling, flocking, or herding animals who rely first on numbers for survival. Instead, we and other primates are band animals – no, not the musical kind – that live and act in well-organized groups and use sophisticated social cooperation and communication as our primary adaptive strategy.
All mammals cooperate to some degree, of course, taking advantage of the natural power of this more advanced and intelligent mode of natural life and collectively reflecting our higher level of evolution relative to more primitive and individualistic forms of animal life.
Natural human life, in other words, was and still is a predominantly collective enterprise. We are naturally evolved to favor and derive great satisfaction and health benefits from active cooperation and reciprocating life with others. In nature, much of what we did, and even thought, was with regard to maintaining our standing with and value to others. Indeed, a recent study of modern-day foragers, the Hadza, found that they actively segregate more individualistic members and on average prefer and enjoy reciprocal alliances with strong cooperators.
As modern humans, we do the same thing, but often on too small a scale or in too limited and unconscious ways to take advantage of our new modern health and quality of life potential in an advanced technological society.
Competition’s Natural Place & Limits
At this point, you might want to point out that there was significant competition in natural human life. This is undeniably true. As with other strongly social animals, competition occurred within our bands periodically when status, mating, and other valuable relationships were in question. But normally, such relationships were well-established and communal life in our bands was largely gregarious, inclusive, and supportive.
Significant competition within our bands was thus normally infrequent and, when it did occur, it was strongly regulated by social norms and even active intervention by its members. Much like today, there was of course sporadic competition and rivalry of the petty variety – minor disputes and cheating amidst daily life – and we are naturally adapted to manage these through our facilities for empathy and diplomacy. Within our socially transparent bands, life was of necessity normally highly communal, emotionally intimate, and reciprocally supportive – all aiding survival in what were fairly harsh and demanding external conditions.
In considering natural competition in humans, we should add that there was also periodic intense competition, and even feuding and warfare, between human bands in nature, especially when resources where scarce, but such competition was not a primary feature of daily life, except in perhaps the most environmentally stressed of times. More often, human bands engaged in more civil exchanges, including trade and teaching, and individual band life was usually set in a larger regional network of bands that interacted and intermixed regularly, and were loosely supportive of one another.
Overall, life at the top of the food chain was cooperative and reciprocating, naturally reinforcing itself by its predominance and internal incentives (just as does modern supernormal competition). Indeed, excesses of human competition within or between bands in earlier life always risked undermining band integrity and survival itself. Nature encouraged reasonably cool and empathetic heads (and genes) to prevail over time through the gift of continuing life.
Re-discovering Modern Cooperation
For all these reasons, it is no surprise that modern-day research finds that people in our time function more optimally and happily in settings that are principally and meritoriously cooperative. This suggests that human competition and our exposure to it not only have natural limits, but quite significant ones too – limits far below the general level of competition most of us are subject or exposed to in life today.
As we discuss in detail within HumanaNatura’s natural health programs, human competition is best kept significantly in check through social norms and incentives, if we are to optimize and advance our modern health and quality of life. In principle, rivalry should only be encouraged when and where competition advances our collective good. In practice, this limitation constrains competition to socially and naturally useful activities such as identifying threats, challenging assumptions and creating new understanding, and innovating methods – all in ways that improve our health, quality of life, and adaptiveness.
With a naturalized outlook on human life and competition, and keeping in mind the idea that we are naturally evolved to favor and thrive amidst cooperative life, it becomes fairly obvious why widespread scientific research has concluded that we do far worse in predominantly competitive and less supportive settings than in reciprocally cooperative and thus more natural ones. This research teaches us that in conditions of chronic competition, including exposure to competitive behaviors and even unequal competitive outcomes, we grow more health-indifferent, less happy, less attentive to our surroundings, and even less intelligent. This important natural fact of human life is often lost in the immediacy, stress, and perpetual highs and lows of modern competitive life – as this life actively limits our natural orientation and thinking, in other words.
HumanaNatura embodies these crucial natural health and quality of life findings in our important two-part Natural Life Model that contrasts primitive “alpha-cycle” (competitive) and more advanced “beta-cycle” (cooperative) human living conditions. You can learn about this model in the Natural Living section of our comprehensive and science-based Personal Health Program.
We hope you will take this latest and quite significant controversy involving competitive sports as an opportunity to consider and explore the correct place of competition in our lives and modern society – and the naturally healthier and more optimal alternatives we all have to approach life, work, and play more cooperatively. The links above will take you to excellent research in this often misunderstood but health-critical area, while HumanaNatura’s natural health system can guide you to actively and progressively create more cooperative, healthier, and naturally higher quality life for yourself and in the relationships and world around you.
In practice, you can address all or the majority of your most important health and quality of life risks and opportunities through HumanaNatura’s four science-based health techniques – Natural Eating, Natural Exercise, Natural Living and Natural Communities. These four techniques form HumanaNatura’s comprehensive natural health system and are explained in detail in our complete and naturally individualized Personal Health Program. If you want to start by learning more about HumanaNatura and your opportunities for greater modern natural health and well-being, go to The Four HumanaNatura Techniques.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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