The Magic Glute
(don't know why I didn't post this pretty good column to the blog earlier)
In the November 18, 2004 issue of Nature, Dennis M. Bramble and Daniel E. Lieberman wrote that distance running, not bipedal walking, was what made Homo erectus look like you and me...well, like you, anyway. I recognize myself more clearly in the authors' description of the diffident Australopithecus: short legs, long forearms, and high, bookwormishly shrugged shoulders. Our nearer ancestor, Homo erectus, had shorter arms, longer legs, a skinnier ribcage and pelvis and - key to the further evolution of the species - buns.
Like chimpanzees today, proto-humans had narrow pelvises that could not support the robust gluteus maximus for which Homo sapiens is known (and you thought he was differentiated by his brain!). Identifying 25 other traits besides strong buttocks that made Homo sapiens born to run, the authors also noted the development of a nuchal ligament at the back of the neck. As with other mammals capable of high-speed or long-distance running, this connective tissue permits a runner to keep his noggin still, unlike the pigs that Bramble and Lieberman set to racing on treadmills as bobble-head surrogates for Olivia Newton-John.
In summing up the duo's findings for the New York Times, John Noble Wilford wrote: "Endurance running, unique to humans among primates and uncommon in all mammals other than dogs, horses and hyenas, apparently evolved at least two million years ago and probably let human ancestors hunt and scavenge over great distances. That was probably decisive in the pursuit of high-protein food for development of large brains."
While I was pleased thus to have confirmed my own notion that the ass figured large in human development, I was disquieted by its connection with running after food or anything else, except perhaps other asses. My friend Larry McCray, who had sent me Wilford's report, commented, "I note in passing that both sexes have developed the runner's backside, so I guess it wasn't deeply true that the men always hunted and the women always gathered." I found other holes in the story.
As I have long used my own gluteus maximus to connect the otherwise lonely armrests of my favorite chair, and to act as a counterbalance when I might otherwise be falling down drunk, the authors of this Nature study did not convince me that the ability to run long distances is crucial to the survival of the species, or ever was. If anything, their article made me wonder why our early ancestors were (a) so hungry that they would consider running long distances after food yet (b) so unimpaired by starvation that they could muster the energy to race across the veldt and into adjoining counties. Running just a little bit - I could see that as a useful evolutionary accretion. The laws of natural selection would tend to favor the effective hunters (and maybe even mobile female gatherers), who could sprint after game or away from those who would make game of them. This Darwinian trend would lead and breed to ever more muscular if not more ample glutes; the latter awaited the invention of television and fast food.
Scientists will tend to assign human progress to evidence of increasing strength, power, speed, and problem-solving skills, such as the making of tools. Artists will see the ascent of man in his rise up the great chain of being, from the bogs of the lowliest invertebrates to the spiritual realm of the angels. I believe the posterior is anterior to progress of both kinds - whether it is the bounteously insured booty of J. Lo or the bag of pudding hanging from Karl Rove. Not only does the gluteal region propel fight or flight or pursuit, as the Nature study suggests, it is also the seat of wisdom, weighing against the impulse to rush off and do something, anything, to scratch an itch.
Whether you call it an ass or an arse, a butt or a bottom, the troika of gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus form the muscles upon which we sit as we await inspiration or contemplate action, and many things are better engaged in the contemplation, from homicide to exercise. By the grace of the three glutes we may have been born to run, but it is by enabling us to sit comfortably that these magical muscles have aided Newton, Einstein, and Alistair Cooke in the formulation of their greatest ideas. If these brainy men and others like them had sat less and run more, they might have captured a scampering bunny or two but the rest of us would have descended into a race of intellectual girlymen.
Which is where we're headed, anyway. The liberal arts are suspected of undermining Americans' drive to a service economy. Book lovers are regarded as sentimental castrati. Deconstructionists and semioticians create a mock aestheticism around hiphop music and slasher films, and the fans roll in and snuffle the nonsense as if they were cats and it catnip. Once the unexamined life was deemed not worth living; now it is worth forensic examination.
The focus of American men's lust has lately been reported to have shifted from breasts to bottoms, bringing our sexual politics, if not our foreign policy, into alignment with the rest of the world. Plastic surgeons are said to be doing more butt reshaping than either breast enhancements or facial reconstructions, excepting possibly eyelifts. Unwilling to accept the river of life that makes all of us more similar than not, we regard life as an extended masquerade ball in which we may appear younger than we are, thinner than our heredity would demand, more appealing in the bedroom. In our pharmatopia no shortcoming, real or imagined, must be endured. Endorphins, pheromones, ecstatic transport are but a mouse-click away.
That oxymoronic term "Reality TV" has moved from sleepover to makeover, with reconstruction of homes, physiques, family relationships. The do-over craze has extended to our surroundings, our bodies, our body politic. A swirl of action, like Sally Rand's fan-dance way back when, convinces observers that they have seen something they haven't.
I grant that some things are less easily accomplished on one's butt than with it: war, procreation, windsurfing (did I miss anything?), yet the sedentary pursuit of such active sports is frequently less hazardous to all who might otherwise be involved or affected. The Tao has a useful construct for armchair adventurism: wei wu wei, - literally "do/don't do," but better understood as purposeful inaction, which contrasts nicely with the world's tendency to purposeless action. When we call someone an ass, it is seldom because they failed to get off theirs.
In our heedless rush to renovation - Enlarge your debt! Reduce your penis! (or was it the other way?) - who suggests getting on a spiritual StairMaster? Who says, chisel your knowledge as you would your abs? Who points out that interior decoration endures while exterior changes imply a mannequin within?
We were born not merely to run, but also to fly. Benjamin Franklin's epitaph, the one he wrote in his youth, highlights the one true makeover, against which all others wither:
The Body of
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering & Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.-
Yet the Work itself shall not be lost,
For it will, as he believed, appear once more,
In a newAnd more beautiful Edition,
Corrected and amended
BY: The Author.
No workout or makeover is required; ladies and gentlemen, be seated.