Q&A: JOSEPH B. WOLFFE MEMORIAL LECTURER
Dan Lieberman is a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University. He will deliver the Joseph B. Wolffe Memorial Lecture on “Human Evolution, Endurance Running and Injury” on Wednesday at 8 a.m. in the Convention Center, hall 4A.
Q: What is the one overarching point you'd like attendees to take away from your lecture?
Dan Lieberman: That an evolutionary approach to thinking about the body can yield many insights into what is normal and how people get injured or sick. Too often, we assume that the world around us is normal, but it isn't normal in many ways from an evolutionary perspective, and our bodies pay a big price for our unusual diets, lack of exercise, and many other recent shifts in the way we live. Further, as a society, we spend far too much attention on curing the symptoms of many diseases rather than addressing their causes, many of which have an evolutionary origin.
Q: How did you develop an interest in human evolution and endurance running?
DL: I have always enjoyed running and became interested in it from a scientific perspective when I was in graduate school. I was doing some experiments on pigs, running them on treadmills, and a colleague pointed out they couldn't stabilize their heads well. So, we started thinking about how we as humans stabilize our heads during running, and I realized that the genus Homo had specializations for head stabilization not present in australopiths. We continued our conversation, started doing some experiments, and eventually amassed a mountain of data.
Q: How are endurance athletes today different from athletes of the past?
DL: No one really knows, but big differences are speed and distance, both of which can lead to injury when done in excess. I think the human capacity to store only about 18-20 miles worth of glycogen tells us that humans probably didn't evolve to run marathon-length distances. In addition, humans probably didn't evolve to go as fast as we push elite athletes now. The trick for most of human evolution was to run fast enough to make a quadruped gallop. Running 10-20 kilometers at six meters/second probably pushes the body very close to a safety factor that can lead to injury. Also, humans evolved to run barefoot and on complex surfaces much less hard than concrete and asphalt.