Monday, June 11, 2012

Born to Run and the Allure of the Natural

It is popular these days (and attractive to us runners) to believe that humans are born to run and that running is a natural practice that somehow lies prior to culture or is at least shared across cultures. Of course Chris MacDougall makes this case most vividly in the book Born to Run by connecting running with two things: the ancient "pre-civilized" culture of the Tarahumara and the remarkably fertile image of the bare foot. He gives us a picture of running as something at least in principle raw, pre-consumer, and innate. These qualities of running, especially as practiced by this primitive tribe, make it a possible practice of liberating ourselves from a decadent, insulated, sedentary Western consumer culture.

The bare foot is a particularly potent sign for this liberation. It is a double image. A bare foot reminds us of two contrasting feelings at the same time: the stinging pain of stepping on a sharp gravel and the bliss of digging the toes into soft and dewy grass. By offering the promise that we could actually run again on these feet, McDougall implicitly makes a deeper, more romantic promise: that the sharp, stinging pains caused by our over-cultured hypersensitivities could be replaced with a naturally connected foot that feels the ground beneath it without being pained by it. [Side note: apparently it is possible to run on gravel without pain. Click this link to Barefoot Josh's video and see if you can watch without wincing.]

In other words, McDougall's implicit claim is that the natural state of human life is at one with its environment, and civilized culture, represented by the dainty and necessarily shod foot, has led us to a life that feels as if we are picking our way through a gravel field on underdeveloped feet. This is how the Tarahumara and the bare foot, the two stars of Born to Run, work together: the aboriginal, natural (and fragile) Tarahumara are the cultural equivalent of the bare foot. While each of these are naturally resilient and well-suited to their environments, the encroachment of contemporary culture has made them unnaturally fragile.


The fact that this book is so popular, even among non-runners, demonstrates that this narrative speaks to us. The shoe stands for culture. The effect of culture is to essentially damage and disrupt a natural body that works well enough on its own. The key to living well is to cast off culture and return to a more natural way of life. Readers of Rousseau will recognize that this is not a new argument. In the first chapter of Emile, Rousseau makes essentially the same argument about bourgeois culture, except his favorite article of clothing is not the shoe, but swaddling clothes, which inhibit the natural movement of the infant and essentially prepare it for a swaddled life of middle-class slavery.

As many of those who have tried out minimalism or barefoot running (or researched more fully the details of McDougall's book) have found out, however, MacDougall's account of the bare foot and the Tarahumara is more mythology than reality. Born to Run, as a narrative, is afflicted with the sensationalism, exaggeration, and hyperbolic claims that are both causes and effects of contemporary culture being out of whack with its environment. The very things that make it popular--its huckster spirit, its fools gold promises, its larger than life characters, its heros and villians--are part and parcel of the decadent, expanding, strip mall marketing culture that it criticizes.

In short, Born to Run is not so much critical of culture as it is a product of culture. Once we realize this, we begin to see that the difficulty of returning to nature and the body (or at least of living well in nature and in our bodies) is much more complicated than mythologizing the life of the Tarahumara or the qualities of the bare foot. In fact, the very mythologizing, looking for simplified images in response to respond vastly complicated problems, is symptomatic of our culture's insensitivity to the environment. We want our problems to have a natural and simple solution so that we can get over our sensitivity, quit tiptoeing our way through life, and get to some sort of "natural" and worry-free state that feels a little bit like the way grass felt beneath our feet as children. The only problem with a natural and worry-free state is that it is profoundly unethical. Childhood (or at least the popular image of childhood) is natural and easy--because it has no responsibilities.

 The basic problem with the return to nature argument is that it assumes that the natural state of human life is happiness. Rousseau made this assumption clear from the outset. He believed that the natural state had to be happiness because he believed that the universe was created by a benevolent deity. Post Darwin, this is a harder premise to buy. Physics and biology tell us that the natural state of things is indifference. Psychology shows us that the natural state of the human mind is to swing easily among various moods, and that some of us, perhaps even most of us, even tend naturally to melancholy states. All things considered, we do not tend to peace and happiness. These things come through effort and chance.

The universe doesn't give a damn.
The popularity of Born to Run shows that we have not yet made peace with a post-Darwinian view of the natural. We want to believe that culture--basically, from the point of view of nature, a series of human errors--is what makes us unhappy. If we could return to a natural state, somehow undo the errors that have accumulated through time, then we could find a native attunement, a natural happiness that is perhaps something like being at one with the creator of the universe. A feeling not unlike digging one's bare toes into the natural soil.

This line of thought paints culture as unnatural. For human beings, however, the most natural thing is to live in a culture--to make choices, to build tools, to communicate, hope, dream, and criticize. This is our natural state. To believe that happiness is found through a rejection of culture is itself a cultural idea, dependent upon cultural premises that are deeply flawed because they pit nature against culture. Culture cannot be cast off, like a pair of shoes. The challenge before us is to continue to refine and remodel--the pragmatist word is "reconstruct"--our cultural ways of living. Nature gives us no pure models to imitate. It only gives us an environment to live in. The problem is not how to return to nature but, as cultural animals, how to construct a culture that can co-exist harmoniously with the nature in which we find ourselves.

This is long, hard work. Interminable, actually, as the conditions of both culture and nature are constantly changing. This is what makes the shortcuts so tempting. We want to throw culture off entirely, romanticize the primitive, pretend we are "born to" do this or that. The reality is that we are born for suffering as much as for happiness; we are born to balance them as long as we can stand it; and we are born, eventually, to succumb to age, to injury, to death. What's natural is to be born, to grow, to decay, then to die. The natural, really, is a bummer.

But finding a happiness that is more than escapism requires dealing with bummers. We will never replace the sharp rocks of life with grassy meadows, and we will never eliminate pain from life. We are not born to run. We make ourselves runners, for a time, with effort, if we are lucky. In the same way, we are not born to happiness. We have to make it and remake it.

29 comments:

  1. this posting and the one in defense of democratic elitism struck a lot of cords with this "controversial", yet truthful, commencement speech. check it out here: http://articles.boston.com/2012-06-07/yourtown/32104492_1_weddings-commencement-graduates
    keep up the thought provoking writing, I, for one, really enjoy it.

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    1. Thank you, Josh. It's always nice to know when people are reading. I will check out the speech. Happy running!

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  2. Ah, well said! I shall link to this one. *Love* your closing paragraph!

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  3. I second Marius' comments. I am copying the last paragraph to tape somewhere................or ?

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  4. It sounds cliche to call something thought provoking, but this really was! I have always longed for something simpler, and bought the romanticism of Born to Run completely. However, I gained nothing from either, unless you count false nostalgia and a stone bruise as a "gain." This post was an interesting way to tie those ideas together.
    I recently watched "Midnight in Paris" by Woody Allen. It doesn't have much to do with the nature aspect of your post, but the main character engages in "Golden Age" thinking. I thought only I did that, but tons of people do. And if they don't, they are usually escaping reality in some other manner!
    I am always most aware that nature doesn't give a shit (my uneducated way of saying indifference:) on solo trail runs. When bombing a steep downhill at 4 minute pace I realize that if I slip and bust my skull, that might be it for me!
    You racing in Bell Buckle this weekend?

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    1. Hey David,

      I have to admit, I loved Born to Run, and while this post is critical of it, it is a fantastic read. Philosophers have this bad habit of being most critical of the things we enjoy!

      I guess I'd say this: escaping from reality is not all bad, as long as we come back to it every now and again.

      I will definitely be at Bell Buckle: it's pretty much my favorite race. Hope to see you there.

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  5. I'd first like to say that this article was an extremely enjoyable read; however, I would definitely look forward to an in-depth discussion with regards to some of your talking points.

    First and foremost (but perhaps besides your main point) I feel as though you have falsely made synonymous the terms minimalist running and barefoot running. If I'm not mistaken, only one individual in the book runs barefoot. The others actually discourage running barefoot (there are a few sections where Barefoot Ted is harassed for resisting to wear shoes) for the same reasons you have listed above. Instead, they wear protective sandals/minimalist shoes. This may may simply be a nuance in your claim, but I feel as though you use it as a way to exaggerate the ridiculousness of McDougall and Co.

    Another claim you have made is that we are not born to run. Now, of course, I'd like you to not take this phrasing too literally, but we have, in fact, evolved for long distance running so how you come to the conclusion that we are not born to run confuses me. The physiology of our legs and our ability to sweat are both evolutionary traits used by our ancestors for survival (or so we think. if you've heard arguments otherwise please share). So if perhaps you could elaborate on this topic, I would better understand your claim.

    Aside from those critiques, I find your discussion on culture and the natural state of being to be fascinating. I like the notion that the most natural state of being for humans is to live in culture (and is not necessarily "happiness"); however if you could elaborate a little more on the sentence "Born to Run is not so much critical of culture as it is a product of culture" a little more, I'd really appreciate it. I definitely see the connection between culture and nature, but I'm having trouble making sense of this claim. I have no qualm with it, I simply just do not understand it.

    Lastly, I think that you should perhaps rethink your claim: "The only problem with a natural and worry-free state is that it is profoundly unethical. Childhood (or at least the popular image of childhood) is natural and easy--because it has no responsibilities." I feel as though you have made a false analogy here. The Taraumara are a functioning society (as are the african bushmen) and so to make the claim that their life that McDougall promotes is easy because it lacks responsibility is probably incorrect considering the Taraumara have succeeded. I think McDougall argument is more along the lines that a simplistic lifestyle leads to a more content life. It has responsibility but is free from the unnecessary stresses that our "western" society places on us (I say western, because Indigenous people still retain a sense of community; however, they do so in a much simpler and local manner).

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    1. Hi there,

      Thanks for the detailed and interesting questions. I will probably not be able to respond to them all fully or directly, but I really appreciate you taking the time to respond thoughtfully and critically.

      1) Barefoot vs. minimalist. Your point is well taken. I was probably doing what I accused MacDougall of doing--exaggerating his claims to make a point. I didn't want to make MacDougall sound ridiculous; I was interested in looking at how he used the bare foot as a sort of metaphor for being in tune / out of tune with the natural environment and the power of that image. I am not sure whether I want to weight in on the whole barefoot movement--I will say that I like to run in pretty minimal shoes, and I was fascinated by MacDougall's evocation of the foot as this delicate instrument of balance. I agree that the upshot of Born to Run is not that we all discard our shoes, but that we consider more carefully the implications of the sensitivity of the body before we "cushion" that sensitivity. That sounds like a message worth heeding.

      2) I am not an expert in human evolution, but I guess from an evolutionary standpoint, we are not "born to" do anything in particular, but are instead the inheritors of chance characteristics developed through interactions with the environment. It is definitely exciting to me to think that one of the main contributors to that history has been long distance running, and there are times when I feel "in my bones" that I am "born to run." But it also seems pretty clear to me that I am born to do many other things. And some days I don't feel born to run at all. My body betrays that narrative. I guess I see a tension between an evolutionary perspective and the idea of being "born to" anything. That's part of what I was trying to get at here.

      3) The idea here is simply that the book "Born to Run" is a product of many of the forces that it criticizes. So, we can look at it as a book that is critical of mainstream American culture (this is more or less how it presents itself) or we can look at it as a product of that culture (which is the critical tack I'm taking here.) Each perspective discloses different things. It's probably unfair to take either of these perspectives as totally authoritative.

      4) I want to be very careful here and make a distinction between the Tarahumaran culture as it works in MacDougall's narrative and the Tarahumaran culture as such. To my mind, we don't get a very clear view of the Tarahumara from MacDougall. He doesn't present himself as an anthropologist. What we get is MacDougall's very American view of the Tarahumara, and it strikes me that his view presents the Tarahumaran culture as a character in a compelling story. When I write about the Tarahumaran culture in the post above, I am only referring to the Tarahumara as MacDougall presents them--which seems to me to have very little relation to the actually reality of life as a Tarahumaran.

      Not sure if these answers are satisfactory; I did my best! Thanks for the feedback.
      Jeff

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    2. Hey Jeff,

      Thanks for the response; your explanations were spot on. I guess I was misinterpreting your critique of *how* McDougall was portraying barefoot running for a critique of the running style itself(?) (I may still be off on this). Regardess, you defiantly touched upon some really interesting concepts. I just sort of stumbled upon your blog, but I look forward to reading more of your work.

      Keep it up!

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  6. Excellent post, Jeff! I love the move: the promise of the return to nature is itself a product of the culture from which we seek to escape. McDougal is just one more salesperson.

    That said, I have had good luck with minimalist running. Whether or not it's natural, I think it helps develop balance. If you're like me, you spent 30 years unbalanced, so care is advised.

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    1. Yep, and not only did you spend 30 years unbalanced, you probably inherited characteristics from your unbalanced ancestors. So, yeah, go minimalist, proceed with caution, and criticize the stories you love the most.

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  7. If you were a preacher and I a congregant, I'd be saying Amen to a lot of what's in this post. I, too, LOVED Born to Run (it made me laugh out loud), but I found its conclusions just a little too perfect. While I like running barefoot in grass (short, golf-course-type grass with no possibility of broken beer bottles present), I have no desire to run barefoot on gravel, asphalt or concrete. And the whole Noble Savage thing....yeah....there are many in Boulder who espouse this ideal, but having lived in a quasi-third-world country, I'm more often grateful for my Western comforts (the ability to afford shoes among them) than I feel enslaved by them. It's funny about the swaddling thing: those of us who are 21st century parents were all taught that babies *like* to be swaddled, because it's how it was for them in the womb--constricted and cozy (and my two kids certainly slept better as tiny infants when swaddled). Doesn't get more primitive or natural than the womb, right? :^)

    I would add, as a Christian (and also a believer in evolution), that a constant state of happiness without responsibility or suffering is not the prevailing view of my type of believer, either. Much of religion deals with how to handle suffering, how to understand it, with the assumption being that suffering is as human as happiness. Maybe this is why your post spoke to me: because running brings me both suffering and happiness, whether I was born to do it or not.

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    1. Thanks for the thoughtful (as usual) comment! I know that religion practiced well is one of the best means of pursuing the wisdom/happiness that I lay out in this post. Religious traditions like Christianity have, in fact, always been highly critical of the "natural"--that's one of the functions of the supernatural.

      And though I am critical of Rousseau here, I think Emile is one of the great books in history. His treatment of the childcare practices of the day as a metaphor for the ailments of culture is pretty much phenomenal. Great point: if you think the idea of the "natural" is controversial in running, just look at the way the word is used and associated with maternity! Yikes! I will let you write that post. ;)

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  8. Thanks for linking to my video! If I may make a request, next time post the one with me running a 5 min/mile, please.

    I think this post is pretty spot on. Re BTR, I really enjoyed it too. It also made it a little easier socially to start running publicly without shoes. For the record, though, my choice to run barefoot has nothing to do with culture. Well, other than fashion of course. It's just that once you can run on (most) gravel, why bother with shoes?

    But barefootery is not a panacea; I still get hurt sometimes with regular old overuse pains and injuries (my feet, interestingly, suffering the least). It is a fun way to race, though.

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    1. Ha ha, I saw that--4:57, very nice.

      I still consider the gravel running more impressive. *Wince.*

      I linked to you because of that video and also because a) your blog is hilarious and b) I like the way you do the barefoot thing. My gripe is not with barefoot running, but with the way it is often naively linked up with a bunch of other stuff.

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    2. The gravel is all part of my Stoic training.

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  9. Thanks for this, Jeff. Beyond enjoyment of the reading, I took this away: The more I live in and embrace my really real reality, that closer to happiness I will be.

    I do not know where JJ Rousseau got the idea that God wants us to be happy all the time. I am not surprised to learn that he suffered psychologically at the end of his life, as did Nietzsche who swung to a kind of opposite pole ("God is dead and we have killed him.") Isn't there something in between "cosmic genie" and "dead?"

    I think a deep and abiding joy coexists, even requires, that melancholy you referenced, Jeff. This is most consonant with Christianity, as I understand and experience it.

    I agree with your points on Physics and Biology. At the same time, I do not think (nor did you suggest) that good Biologists or Physicists believe that their disciplines tell the "whole story."

    I have no interest in barefoot running or minimalism, nor have I read Born to Run. I prefer delving into the lives of real runners, like Quentin Cassidy.

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    1. I didn't want to give the wrong impression of Rousseau. His argument is more complex, but it begins with a simple premise: that Nature is created by God, that God is good, and that therefore becoming Good (and closer to God) means getting in tune with our nature. His was a powerful humanistic argument that to my mind moved culture forward. I mainly wanted to say something like: look, this argument has a long history and is deeply embedded in our way of thinking.

      I do not think that Rousseau or Nietzsche's poor mental health was caused by their philosophizing. On the contrary, I think the intensity with which they considered the nature of their reality and reflected deeply on culture was motivated by their suffering. There are many people who believe that the universe is essentially good -- and many people who believe that the universe is essentially neutral -- who have good mental health.

      My argument is not that we ought to think like Rousseau or Darwin (or Nietzsche), but that we *already think like they do*, and this thought has certain consequences for how we approach concrete issues like what sort of shoe we choose to run in.

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    2. I see.

      Also, I think I oversimplified their lives and thinking to the point of error. That's what happens when you try to distill a person's life and thinking in two sentences. I actually admire them both.

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    3. No worries at all, Nader. Yours was a very good post, thanks as always for the comment, and I loved your reference to QC. A work of fiction can be truer than a true story. That's exactly what I was driving at.

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  10. This article is outstanding. You are so right about balance, adapting and how we make ourselves runners. This is a week I prefer more dewey grass to sharp stones, but just in case I've changed my shoes choice for a race to adapt.

    "co-exist harmoniously with the nature in which we find ourselves"

    Thank you ; )

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  11. As someone who is running with friends who have never run before, I appreciate the effort that running requires. These women in their 50s would in no way claim at this point to be born to run. They are giving birth to their running selves and the transformation from a non runner into a runner is grueling. Your blog gave tribute to this effort in a way I have never thought about before. Thank you, Jeff.

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  12. That was a thought provoking post - thanks Jeff. There was a line in Anonymous June 11's comment that we 'evolved to run' (or walk/jog upright) that was covered in the BBC series 'Origins of Us' http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMzBmSVlLvs

    I'm happy (most of the time) to be born into culture. I used to do quite a bit of barefoot running (minimal shoes these days) but my decision to do so was a practical thing. I couldn't buy spikes to fit my foot and as we had a beautiful grass track near where I was living at the time I tried running barefoot. Racing this way for me was faster (than wearing racing flats), but I could only do it for distances up to 5k. Beyond that, the track made me wince (I never tried barefoot on the road) so wore shoes. Like Zola Budd I guess - she trained in shoes and only raced shorter distances or cross country barefoot.

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    1. Thanks for this, Ewen. Man, I would love to have a grass track to run barefoot on!

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  13. This is a shallow comment for a deep post, but I have to point out that "You Are Here" actually points to the Andromeda Galaxy, 2.5 million light years away. Now then, ad astra per aspera -- maybe that's what we're really born for?

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    1. Ha ha, very nice Bob. Thanks for reading.

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