Sunday, January 30, 2011
Running Up The Score
Check out the peacock at Jan's Cascade Exposures site. (Jan, can I have permission to upload it here?) The theory is that peacocks developed these useless and resource draining displays to signal to potential mates "I have got energy to burn, baby. Great genes. Great access to resources. Better get on this bus now!" Anyone who has watched humans from about age 11 to, well, it does slow down gradually, so lets be generous to each other and say 25, can see that we do it too. Males and females, and we'll touch on the differences a bit. It sometimes seems that they can barely help it. Signaling erupts spontaneously even from those who aren't especially interested in dating.
Less-often mentioned is that societies do this as well. Athleticism is a big one. It is not merely the obvious display of "our men are strong and trained in marksmanship. Be afraid." (And why would you want to notify neighboring tribes how attractive your women are anyway?) The additional signal is "We are prosperous enough that we can squander the energy of our young men into display. We are prosperous enough that we can hold our young women out from grinding labor and preserve their beauty." Subsistence economies can't afford to forgo those resources. At increasing levels of prosperity, this becomes more and more intentional and organised. As I cast my mind around previous civilizations, competitions show up more frequently in the record as nations gain resources and assume ascendancy. Beowulf is challenged with the rumor that someone named Breca beat him in a swimming race. Which the hero answered with one of the great athletic trump cards, "Yes, but I was fighting off sea monsters at the time. And did I mention that it was a five-day race in full armor?" The competition between Wu and Yue brought forth Kung Fu. Odysseus came back to win an archery contest, and the Greeks eventually put this whole collection of competitions into an Olympics.
There was an idea of teaching virtue through sport in all of these, becoming more explicit as civilization advanced. Courage, certainly, and determination. Loyalty starts to creep in. And by medieval times, ideas of fairness, proportion, and proper conduct are becoming part of the sport package. Not much of Christian virtue, except as those overlap the secular virtues. Loyalty and courage can be in the service of evil as easily as good.
Yet you will notice that these are still individual sports and competitions. The Mayans had a group melee with much death which ended when someone could score a goal - at which point the losing team got slaughtered. Medieval tournaments had jousting for the elites, but a general bloody scrum was often the highlight. But true team sports, other than the near-combats, don't come along until much later. Town vs. town games might be held yearly at most, and often were no more complicated than capturing the other town's goose and ripping its head off. Mob football was largely chaos. Highland games were still largely individual.
Wellington's comment "The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton" always struck me as a rather silly line, an overidealisation of the importance of sport in developing character and hardening of the young men of a narrow English elite. But as I think of it in this context, there's something to it. Only at very high levels of organisation, when a culture is quite prosperous and increasingly dependent on interlocking parts of economy and governance, do team sports appear. The idea of coordinated effort becomes an important virtue to impart. Engineering and architecture, trade and transportation, become central to continued growth and prosperity - and university elites take on team sports at exactly this time in history. Pickup games of baseball and rounders - team games but still largely individual - show up in America in the 19th C. But team sports as we now know them are mostly confined to the university until very recently. Even in England, who really led in this idea of team sports, rugby and association football are early 19th C, and school sports; cricket no more of a true team sport than baseball; racing sports might go so far as to include relays.
The church varied in its opinion of sports from weary tolerance to outright disapproval. It was not accidental that Shrovetide football occurred in the revelry just before Lent. The Puritans were highly suspicious of games as a waste of precious time, though they allowed that the physical activity - and notably the camaraderie among participants - could have salutary effects on vigorous young men.
But the approval and warm embrace of sports by Christian churches is very recent, and tied in strongly with the overlap of new societal virtues with specifically Christian training.
As a sports fan, I don't like where this is going...