Why do so many body-builders and strength athletes die relatively young?  In response to this question, whose empirical validity I am not concerned to question right now (but witness this), I offer the following meditation.

Keith Norris has written eloquently somewhere about the empirical reality that survival and performance become increasingly separate and even opposite goals as you reach the limits of human capacity for exertion. At some point, exerting more now means trading in longevity. I cannot go full-blast all the time, or most of the time, without burning my chronological candle down faster than I would otherwise.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that civilization teaches us to avoid “down time” in the name of achieving more. The elite athlete aims not to live long and happy, as an athlete, but to achieve something extraordinary with his (or her) body. There is no such thing as “resting on one’s laurels” (as always happens in foraging societies: a big kill or brush with death is followed by a lot of napping and doing nothing, except maybe eating). The result of civilization’s lack of contentment with survival is that we approach athleticism (especially the elite kind) as work, as a job. We seek short-term profits (big achievements) at the expense of longevity. When we go, we go full-bore (and burn really bright before going out early). When we stop (retiring with some career-ending injury or accumulation of injuries), we quit entirely. The forager works hard, yes, but he also rests hard. He cannot stop, unless he wants to die, and his life-rhythm is very different from the “all or nothing, win or lose” pace set by elite athletes.

Civilization seems to represent a kind of ongoing fragmentation in humanity whereby accidental strengths–and their concomitant weaknesses–are allowed an exaggerated expression. If I am predisposed to be very quick and strong, then civilization offers me the leisure to become an extreme phenotype. If I am predisposed to be mentally agile, then civilization offers me the leisure to become an extreme phenotype. The viability of extreme phenotypes is always less in nature than in civilization, and even in the latter we observe that extremity is often associated with early mortality (and other material handicaps: I am thinking in particular of purebred dogs here, as well as humans; one could also think of domestic sheep and cattle, which offer their human masters more milk, flesh, and wool at the expense of being too stupid and fat to survive without supervision).

‘Uncivilisation’ as a corrective to the extremities that civilization increasingly pushes requires some ‘return to the mean’ where physical and mental activity is concerned. If humans want to avoid dying early and prematurely crippled in some facet of their phenotype, they need to return to a life more like that of their ancestors–a life that offers them unstructured time for recuperation from strenuous labor. We need strenuous labor. But we also need rest. And we need both, the labor and the rest, to take place in environments less structured than the boxes constructed by civilization (the job site, the gym, the university). We need to return to nature, to learn again how to work and rest under the sun, moon, and stars. We need to learn the rhythms of nature outside in addition to the rhythms of our own internal humanity.

This diatribe appeared originally on my personal blog.  –JGM