Standing upright is not the only thing that Homo erectus and MLB pitchers shared in common

Please Read the following article:

 

Baseball is America’s past time as well as one of its oldest and most prestigious sports. No position has dominated the sport more than the pitcher.  The article above makes a seemingly trivial point: a strong throwing motion is an evolutionarily desirable trait.  Humans have a unique ability, which differentiates them from every other species in the world: the ability to throw objects extremely fast and accurately. 

It is common knowledge that hominid species including Homo erectus, Homo neanderthal, and Homo sapien all used tools to hunt large prey. Many of the earliest tools were simple objects that could be thrown, such as rocks and sharpened sticks. Is it possible that the throwing technique of modern day MLB pitchers closely resembles that utilized by Homo erectus and Homo Neanderthal?  According to Dr. Neil Roach and David Carrier, the probability is high.  In essence, they make the argument that throwing is not a skill that is taught, but more so that the ability to throw is an evolutionary trait. Therefore the argument can be made that, since throwing is instinctual, Homo erectus may have used a very similar technique when hunting mammals on the European plains, to the one Mariano Rivera uses when striking out an opposing ball player.

Modern research conducted by Daniel Lieberman and Dr. Roach shows that the ability to throw is a product of the anatomical structure of the human shoulder.  The scientific research conducted concludes that, unlike other primates, the human shoulder is relatively open, allowing humans to store energy as they windup and release that extra energy when throwing the object.  New scientific data shows that the human’s ability to contort its upper body adds even more energy to the windup and results in the human’s excellent throwing ability.  Primates such as chimpanzees have closed shoulders, resulting in the inability to capture that extra energy.  It is unquestionable that a strong throwing arm is a desirable evolutionary trait. 

A fundamentally deeper question that is proposed is how large of an effect did throwing motion have on human evolution.  Dr. Roach believes that the hominid’s throwing ability played a huge role in human evolution, especially considering its effect on their diet.  As he explains in a short video, “throwing was an important part of hunting and allowed our hominid ancestors who didn’t have any weapons… to use simple technologies.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_bYlY6AHew)  He credits human’s ability to hunt large game as a predecessor to the development of larger bodies and brain sizes.  So can the evolutionary success of the Homo sapien species be traced back to the ability to throw? Most likely not; nonetheless, it was a substantial factor in hominid evolution.

On a separate note, the author of the article is James Gorman.  James Gorman primarily writes for the science section of the New York Times.  I found that he used a very effective technique to broaden his reader base.  Instead of simply writing on the subject of the evolution of human’s throwing ability, he broadens his reader base by making a correlation to MLB pitchers. 

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6 Responses to Standing upright is not the only thing that Homo erectus and MLB pitchers shared in common

  1. tksekf says:

    I agree with phishmonkees that Gorman’s technic of making an analogy to MLB pitchers was indeed a clever way to broaden his audience. As phishmonkees notes at the beginning of the post, “Baseball is America’s past time as well as one of its oldest and most prestigious sports,” which shows that making an analogy to baseball suddenly allowed a much bigger range of people to get interested by this article by merely reading the title.
    However, I personally do not like such technics used in journalism, because I think it is deceiving. Yes, MLB pitchers are not totally unrelated to the article’s main idea, but I find that talking about pitchers in the article’s title (“Scientists Unlock Mystery in Evolution of Pitchers”) does not perfectly correspond with the role of a ‘title’. While a title must sound interesting and catch people’s attention, it must also give readers a general idea of what the writing is going to be about. The title for this article is a bit too focused on catching people’s attention rather than conveying the article’s main point, which would result in many clicks on the link to take a look at the article, but perhaps not the same number of people actually reading through the article because the content was not something they were hoping to find.

    • greenDC says:

      I agree with tksekf. The correlation ends with the common ability of throwing objects precisely. If the title were to be more appropriate, it would have to suggest something along the lines of Major League Baseball players being the driving force of human evolution. This statement, even to a completely unfamiliar audience, would most likely be interpreted as being false. Due to this issue, the sensationalist nature of the title is misleading as tksekf suggested.
      However, it is also interesting to note that phishmonkees chose to describe baseball as a prestigious sport, as in this case, it is being compared to the “talents” of early humans like the Homo erectus. By making such a comparison, rather than recognizing the impressive abilities of these ancestors, it moderately reduces the prestige of “America’s past time”.

  2. jps591 says:

    I disagree with tksekf’s comment that including the MLB analogy was deceiving. The commenter claims that in order for a title to be effective, it must “sound interesting and catch people’s attention [and] give readers a general idea of what the writing is going to be about.” He or she argues that it “does not perfectly correspond with the role of a ‘title'” because “the title for this article is a bit too focused on catching people’s attention rather than conveying the main point.” This statement does not sit well with me because I believe the title does accurately capture what is being discussed in the article in a way which many Americans who are not avid science enthusiasts can relate to. The article discusses how human’s got the ability to throw overhand with the velocity we can and the title accurately reflects that. It does not attempt to deceive the reader one bit. It’s not like baseball was just used in the title and not referred to for the rest of the article. It was referenced numerous times in the article, and after every main point the author made, there was some sort of allusion. By relating the evolutionary trait to something as common as baseball, it gives the audience of the New York Times who are not well versed in science something tangible and familiar that they can relate it to. Additionally, try to think of other activities where you throw something overhand with a high velocity. There are not many everyday activities that would require that besides baseball. Baseball was almost an essential example in this article and by using it the point was very clear and understandable.

    I find it interesting that a trait that was once necessary for survival is now obsolete and not necessary for everyday life. This shows how evolution is a never-ending process; how an evolutionary feature once necessary for hunting and survival is now only useful for recreation and enjoyment.

  3. I thought the article was very informative and exposed new insight in to the physiology of pitching. What is most interesting is the fact that for such a complex system that hurdles an object at speeds in the high 90s mph, there is no specific use for it in our survival. When we were a more primitive species, it is possible it is used during hunting. However, the relative super power of humans to be able to throw a ball at that speed, isn’t useful except for baseball and other recreational activities. This is all that the author explores in the article. I thought about how not every person is able to throw a ball as fast as a MLB pitcher. Sure, they have practice and accuracy, but it was more interesting to me that some people can’t throw faster than a chimpanzee, even with the evolutionary adaptations. Now, I don’t think this is a whole in the theory of evolution, but the fact that the adaptation is a purely human one is interesting in that it goes against the popular belief in desirable traits will survive over ones not suited for the environment.

    This article is perfect as an example of how humans themselves have gone against the theory of adapting to the environment. We are special in that we adapt the environments to us. Other species live in nature and are changed by nature. How does nature affect us? virtually none day by day. We can go under the air conditioning on a hot day rather than develop a more efficient system evolutionarily. Throwing was probably one adaptation that we haven’t fully utilized because we have adapted the environment to us. In 200,000 from now, what adaptations will we have, or lose, or use for a different use?

  4. running95 says:

    This article addresses an idea that I have had for a long time: the idea that todays sports are simply fun versions of what were once necessary activities. For example, sports such as swimming and track and field require speed and endurance which at one time was essential to catch prey and evade attackers. Moreover, archery, basketball, soccer, and hockey require dexterity, accuracy, quick-thinking and focus which were absolutely vital to our ancestors’ survival. What I have never thought of, however, is the idea that the body is still designed today to complete these tasks. The idea that we use stored elastic energy to propel our arms forward in the act of throwing is actually extremely intriguing to me and I understand completely how that would work.

    I also happen to disagree with Susan Larson. While she disputes the idea of human shoulders evolving to be adept at throwing spears, harpoons, and the like, I completely accept it. The reason why she “throws like a girl” is not due to her different body complex but rather due to her different gender. In most hunter-gatherer societies women were the gatherers and men the hunters, therefore although women happened to posses the same anatomical capabilities as men, they were not necessarily programmed to innately know how to use them. Furthermore, as Dr. Carrier said, it is something that comes with practice. It is no coincidence that humans have slightly webbed fingers and an ability to control breathing because those attributes have made us more able to swim and maneuver in the water. However, just because we posses these features does not automatically mean that we know how to swim. In fact, there are people well into their adult lives who lack the ability to swim effectively. And simply because all average humans have two legs that allow us to walk upright and arms and ears that help us to maintain balance, does not mean by any account that we are born with the innate ability to walk, as Dr. Carrier addresses. Most things humans can do we have been taught and throwing is no different from swimming, or walking, or aiming–these are all things that we must learn and we must teach our own children. In short, our anatomy is the most telling evidence of who we once were as a species and simply because not every person is able to maximize the abilities that they were born with does not mean that those abilities are not there.

  5. findwhatwind says:

    I think running95’s argument that women are not “innately programmed” to know how to use certain anatomical skills is fundamentally flawed, as this implies the concept of nurture over nature, which contradicts the rest of his or her argument. It is true that both men and women would have the same genetic advantages, unless for whatever reason the genes that encoded for the ability to throw was located on the y chromosome. By arguing that women were previously the gatherers in hunter-gatherer societies and therefore did not take full advantage of their genetic throwing abilities, running95 is supporting their argument that just because every person has genetic advances that makes it easier for humans to swim, not every person learns how to swim. I believe the logic is flawed however, when they try to apply this logic to explain why Susan Larson “throw[s] like a girl.” If it is true that all people are born with this physical ability, even though it must be taught, then the individual’s ability to throw is based on nurture, not nature, and therefore what female ancestors did or did not take advantage of as far as throwing abilities go would have no effect whatsoever.

    This argument would hold true, however, if as I mentioned earlier, the gene that encodes for the throwing ability of humans is located on, or affected by genes located on, the y chromosome. In this case, it is very possible that, assuming that natural selection in favor of a strong ability to throw would have only affected males, the mutations selected for would have been mutations in these y-chromosome genes, and therefore would have had the effect that only males would have this strong throwing ability. However, there is no evidence to support this, particularly considering that there are some very impressive female pitchers, and therefore I do agree completely with Susan Larson.

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