Is climbing as innate as sharing, copulating, greed, or even walking? Many evolutionary biologists would offer that the essence of climbing can be found in our DNA. It is hardwired into us, this desire to be in the vertical world. And beyond that desire, our bodies are built for the physical challenges of climbing.
by D Scott Borden, Senior Correspondent (banner photo by Drew Ludwig)
This piece is published in The Climbing Zine Book, now available
How did humans transform from tree swinging monkeys (the third chimpanzee) to plains walking hominids? Here is a glimpse into the evolutionary traits that allow us to freely climb, why we enjoy it, and why some of us are better than others.
Dates are a daunting endeavor so let’s get a few out of the way:
60 million years ago: primates evolve (living in trees and being squirrel-like)
Six million years ago: the physical and behavioral traits that all humans share evolved from our apelike ancestors
Four million years ago: bipedalism (the ability to walk on two legs) evolved
100,000 years ago: advanced traits evolved (complex symbolic expression, art, culture, language, use of tools, complex brains, etc.)
And the only thing more daunting than dates is genetics, so let’s review a few important things about the blueprints for all life.
We currently share approximately 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees (believed to be our closest relative).
Our genetics are expressed in all aspects of our physical, mental, social, and even spiritual lives. For example, alcoholics and smokers are genetically inclined to addiction. There are genes in our DNA that are believed to express our level of need for explaining the world around us (spirituality). The amount of muscle on your forearm and the rate in which it is able to recover from a workout are based on genes.
All human characteristics are a balance between our genetics and our environments. This is the great “nature versus nurture” debate. Scientists currently understand this debate as an interaction where nature (genes) is expressed through contact with nurture (environment). So for example, if you live in an impoverished place and are unable to secure protein then the ability for your forearms to recover from a workout, or even develop, will be drastically affected. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that simply because my father has amazing forearm strength that I will necessarily inherit the same strength. It means that I have a genetic predisposition for amazing forearms and if I work on it, I too, can have amazing forearms.
“Species fitness” is a term describing a species’ ability to ensure the survival of its genes. That means that its reproduction is successful, its DNA gets passed on and the offspring survive to reproduce. It has nothing to do with cardio level or amount of muscle as the common use of the word fitness means. Evolutionary theory states that species are in a constant state of evolving to meet their maximum “species fitness.” For this article fitness will mean “species fitness.”
Vestigial traits are things that are left over from the physiology of earlier generations of a species, no longer necessary for sexual reproduction or survival. These are traits that do not add to fitness but were never “lost” through the generations even though they have not been used (i.e. the human appendix or the eyes of a mole).
So let’s start from the beginning. Chimps are tree dwelling species. Many primates live in trees to avoid predation from larger mammals, find rivals to establish territories, spot mates, have less parasites, and to collect fruits and nuts. Stop for a moment and imagine yourself as a forest dweller. Wouldn’t the ability to find high ground make you feel safer? You could see well ahead of you, ensure nothing was stalking you, you could see the babes from far away, and food is ripe for the picking. In his book Born to Run, Christopher McDougall writes about the extensive research done on why humans evolved to leave the safety of trees. It seems this “leap” onto two legs was to gain access to more oxygen (just sit up straight and see the difference it makes in your ability to suck down air) and in turn, to run farther to track prey. It is impossible to separate every single trait and determine if it is vestigial or adapted for an existence living on the plains, or left over from climbing trees. And while we have lost many traits that could have helped in our vertical endeavors such as a tail, some flexibility, and smaller size, we still have a few traits that allow us to both run and climb. Our tendons in our hands and fingers allow us to support more than our full body on them. Drop-knees, gastons, underclings, pinches, and dynos; they are all possible due to our physical traits. So while I agree with McDougall that we are “born to run,” I think it is significant that we can still climb. Our bodies have not evolved to where we are unable to reap the benefits of climbing to higher places. Why would they? Sure being able to run allows us to hunt, but being able to climb provides for more food collection which is easier then hunting and provides added safety. So in reality, we are actually born to run and to climb.
Why do we enjoy climbing? There is obvious irony in connecting a potentially dangerous sport with species fitness. After all, people die climbing and are therefore unable to pass their genetics along. But there are many other less obvious still “natural” benefits to climbing. Think first of all the things you enjoy doing. What common links do they have? They may be things you are good at (make you feel successful), things that challenge you, things your friends or family enjoy and are socially gratifying, relieve stress and keep us healthy, or they allow us to be in places we enjoy. Our joy for climbing is somewhere in this myriad of love affairs, a love affair that is wrapped up as tightly as our DNA.
Take these as examples of fitness: we are, compared to many species on the planet, alright at climbing. But it may be our perceived lack of ability that allows us to believe that we are good at the sport. These feelings of overcoming such a huge barrier probably make many of us enjoy the sport. These feelings are important evolutionarily because competition is at the root of evolution. Next, we have a need for social interaction because we are a communal species evolved for survival (hunting, raising young, sharing and trading, etc). When we make a community through climbing it satisfies this need. Additionally, humans have an innate desire to be in and appreciate certain things in nature (this is called biophilia). Why are sunrises, babies, green grass, the sound of running water, and starry skies appealing to almost every single human? Likely because it is genetically engrained in us to associate them with food, shelter, water, space- the basic needs for species fitness. Climbing allows us to experience outdoor places like this. Stress relief and being physically active also allows us to live longer and have higher levels of species fitness- producing more offspring. Muscles, posture, etc. are a sign of health and mates look for someone that can produce healthy offspring.
There are many biochemical reactions that climbing may satisfy as well. First, the reason exercise feels good to us is that our body releases endorphins, creating a similar chemical reaction to morphine in our blood stream. This release of endorphins has evolved to let us “know” that exercise is good for us. The second is the release of adrenaline, non-adrenaline, and cortisol during the “flight or fight” response. The release of such chemicals may be satisfying for humans that are hardwired to have them active and working, but don’t get to use them on a daily basis. Many of the perceived benefits of climbing are directly linked to species fitness. Even with the possibility of death, climbing is still a viable option for meeting many of the needs for survival and mating.
So what makes some of us better than others? First, we need our basic needs to be met. I have seen and read stories of Yosemite climbers eating only condiments and living in caves, but come-on! After basic needs are met we have a list of evolutionary traits that could affect climbing ability. In Eric Horst’s How to Climb 5.12, he states that people with a “normal” gene pool can climb 5.12 with the correct amount of training and dietary attention. Think of the last time you climbed. What physical attributes allowed you to move upward? Was it the amount of space and positioning of arms for muscle attachment? Perhaps your finger tendon strength, point of connection, and length of the tendon? Could it be the size and structure of your hands, legs, arms, and neck? Amount of rotation in your hip flexors, shoulders, and ankles? Every single one of these traits is expressed through your genes. Furthermore, dopamine levels (a chemical in your brain that regulates happiness) has been shown to be lower in people with risky behavior. So genetics may even guide our desire and mental prowess for climbing. Do the top climbers in the world have “better” climbing genes? Plainly put, yes. Of course, it is important to give them credit as well. They express those genes, to some degree, through manipulating their environment by working out, eating correctly, and avoiding environmental toxins. Genes are even at the essence of ability.
So here we are. We have come from a long line of tree swinging apes and evolved into runners and climbers. We have learned to enjoy and be good at climbing from our ancestors. Our DNA holds the knowledge to our climbing past and future. Our genes dictate our abilities and we get to decide how we express them. The fundamental root of climbing is not found on a rock face, on a different continent, with friends, or in our minds. It is found in the blueprint to life that makes those things relevant to us, the double helix. Many things about the human genome remain undiscovered like a slow page turning mystery novel. But there is one truth in all of it: it is truly the essence of climbing.
Scott Borden is a Senior Contributor to The Zine. He lives with his family in Gunnison, Colorado.
Scott, enjoyed your article. Not sure we ever discussed this topic but I am working on a journal article following the same lines only from an arborist’s point of view. I am convinced we all inherited the genes to climb and that one component of our aesthetic appreciation of the landscape is the climbability of the trees. Our ancestors surely fled to the tree canopy at any sign of danger even as they ventured out onto the savanna. If you were to seek safety from predation in the tree tops, you wouldn’t climb just any old tree. You’d pick the tree that had branching and support just right for your purpose. I suspect we unknowingly carry preference for broad low canopy with uniformly spaced latteral branching. Numerous empirical studies confirm this predilection. For my work it’s a matter of connecting the dots from anthropology (as you have done) to the contemporary human psyche and demonstrating this hypothesis with some original data. Jay