Are We Born to Climb?

Is climbing as innate as sharing, copulating, greed, or even walking? Many evolutionary biologists would offer that the essence of climbing can be found in our DNA. It is hardwired into us, this desire to be in the vertical world. And beyond that desire, our bodies are built for the physical challenges of climbing.

How did humans transform from tree swinging monkeys (the third chimpanzee) to plains walking hominids? Here is a glimpse into the evolutionary traits that allow us to freely climb, why we enjoy it, and why some of us are better than others.

We currently share approximately 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees (believed to be our closest relative).

Our genetics are expressed in all aspects of our physical, mental, social, and even spiritual lives. For example, alcoholics and smokers are genetically inclined to addiction.  There are genes in our DNA that are believed to express our level of need for explaining the world around us (spirituality). The amount of muscle on your forearm and the rate in which it is able to recover from a workout are based on genes.

All human characteristics are a balance between our genetics and our environments.  This is the great “nature versus nurture” debate. Scientists currently understand this debate as an interaction where nature (genes) is expressed through contact with nurture (environment). So for example, if you live in an impoverished place and are unable to secure protein then the ability for your forearms to recover from a workout, or even develop, will be drastically affected. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that simply because my father has amazing forearm strength that I will necessarily inherit the same strength. It means that I have a genetic predisposition for amazing forearms and if I work on it, I too, can have amazing forearms.

“Species fitness” is a term describing a species’ ability to ensure the survival of its genes.  That means that its reproduction is successful, its DNA gets passed on and the offspring survive to reproduce. It has nothing to do with cardio level or amount of muscle as the common use of the word fitness means.  Evolutionary theory states that species are in a constant state of evolving to meet their maximum “species fitness.” For this article fitness will mean “species fitness.”

Vestigial traits are things that are left over from the physiology of earlier generations of a species, no longer necessary for sexual reproduction or survival. These are traits that do not add to fitness but were never “lost” through the generations even though they have not been used (i.e. the human appendix or the eyes of a mole).

So let’s start from the beginning. Chimps are tree dwelling species. Many primates live in trees to avoid predation from larger mammals, find rivals to establish territories, spot mates, have less parasites, and to collect fruits and nuts.

Stop for a moment and imagine yourself as a forest dweller. Wouldn’t the ability to find high ground make you feel safer? You could see well ahead of you, ensure nothing was stalking you, you could see the babes from far away, and food is ripe for the picking.

In his book Born to Run, Christopher McDougall writes about the extensive research done on why humans evolved to leave the safety of trees. It seems this “leap” onto two legs was to gain access to more oxygen (just sit up straight and see the difference it makes in your ability to suck down air) and in turn, to run farther to track prey.

It is impossible to separate every single trait and determine if it is vestigial or adapted for an existence living on the plains, or left over from climbing trees. And while we have lost many traits that could have helped in our vertical endeavors such as a tail, some flexibility, and smaller size, we still have a few traits that allow us to both run and climb. 

Our tendons in our hands and fingers allow us to support more than our full body on them. Drop-knees, gastons, underclings, pinches, and dynos; they are all possible due to our physical traits. So while I agree with McDougall that we are “born to run,” I think it is significant that we can still climb.

Our bodies have not evolved to where we are unable to reap the benefits of climbing to higher places. Why would they? Sure being able to run allows us to hunt, but being able to climb provides for more food collection which is easier than hunting and provides added safety. So in reality, we are actually born to run and to climb.

Why do we enjoy climbing? There is obvious irony in connecting a potentially dangerous sport with species fitness. After all, people die climbing and are therefore unable to pass their genetics along.  But there are many other less obvious still “natural” benefits to climbing. Think first of all the things you enjoy doing. What common links do they have?  They may be things you are good at (make you feel successful), things that challenge you, things your friends or family enjoy and are socially gratifying, relieve stress and keep us healthy, or they allow us to be in places we enjoy. Our joy for climbing is somewhere in this myriad of love affairs, a love affair that is wrapped up as tightly as our DNA.

Humans have an innate desire to be in and appreciate certain things in nature (this is called biophilia). Why are sunrises, babies, green grass, the sound of running water, and starry skies appealing to almost every single human? Likely because it is genetically engrained in us to associate them with food, shelter, water, space- the basic needs for species fitness.

Climbing allows us to experience outdoor places like this. Stress relief and being physically active also allows us to live longer and have higher levels of species fitness- producing more offspring. Muscles, posture, etc. are a sign of health and mates look for someone that can produce healthy offspring.

There are many biochemical reactions that climbing may satisfy as well. First, the reason exercise feels good to us is that our body releases endorphins, creating a similar chemical reaction to morphine in our blood stream. This release of endorphins has evolved to let us “know” that exercise is good for us. The second is the release of adrenaline, non-adrenaline, and cortisol during the “flight or fight” response. The release of such chemicals may be satisfying for humans that are hardwired to have them active and working, but don’t get to use them on a daily basis.

Many of the perceived benefits of climbing are directly linked to species fitness. Even with the possibility of death, climbing is still a viable option for meeting many of the needs for survival and mating.

Our DNA holds the knowledge to our climbing past and future. Our genes dictate our abilities and we get to decide how we express them. The fundamental root of climbing is not found on a rock face, on a different continent, with friends, or in our minds. It is found in the blueprint to life that makes those things relevant to us, the double helix. Many things about the human genome remain undiscovered like a slow page turning mystery novel. But there is one truth in all of it: it is truly the essence of climbing.

By Scott Borden. He is a senior contributor to the Zine. He lives with his family in Gunnison, Colorado.


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