Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Soccer, Socialization and Human Evolution

I have a friend who insists soccer is an inferior sport because it does not take advantage of that great marker of human evolution: opposable thumbs. As a result my friend reasons that soccer is too primitive and not civilized enough for him to appreciate.

But the fact that soccer prohibits use of the hands for most players may, in fact, make it the most civilized of all sports.

Norbert Elias argues that "'sportization' . . . had the character of a civilizing spurt comparable in its overall direction to the ‘courtization’ of the warriors where the tightening rules of etiquette played a significant part" (151).

He offers hunting as an example. "Earlier forms of hunting thus imposed on their followers few restraints. People enjoyed the pleasures of hunting and killing animals in whatever way they could and ate as many of them as they liked" (161). But as hunting developed, as it became more civilized (if killing an animal can be civilized), more and more restraints were placed on hunters and on how they conducted the hunt and the kill. Traps were not considered gentlemanly. A sword or dagger was used to kill a buck instead of a bow and arrow or a rifle.

The same was true of in music. Concert goers used to cheer wildly at musical passages they liked even as the band played on. Then they restrained themselves, clapping only between movements. Now civilized concert goers know to applaud only at the end of an entire piece. (As an aside, this is one reason I prefer sports to concerts: I can cheer when the feeling takes hold.) In short, concert goers, like soccer players, can no longer use their hands except after the final note/whistle sounds.

By not using their hands, soccer players are showing they are civilized enough to compete, to do artful things with a ball, without the great evolutionary asset of opposable thumbs. Their fans are, admittedly, less civilized, but the sport itself is a model of restraint and civilization. In fact, soccer was introduced to the lower classes of the British Empire in order to civilize them... and teach them restraint.

All sports impose rules to force participants to exercise control over their bodies in often unnatural, but artistic ways. Imagine basketball without the dribble, tennis without the net, etc. Soccer is just a little more advanced in this, a little more evolved perhaps, than some other sports.

*Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning, Quest for Excitement.


Jeremy said...

I once read a blog post where someone claimed that primitive cannibals were more civilized than Western Europeans.

OK, so maybe it wasn't a blog post, but this post reads much like it.

SM Sprenger said...

Interesting thesis. How do you account for gorillas, chimpanzees, etc., which also have opposable thumbs? The thumb may be a necessary cause but perhaps not sufficient--or so it seems.

Isn't what makes sports, modern hunting, etc. "civilizing" rather their deflection or sublimation of appetitive interest? their lack of immediate utility? Your (modern) art analogy would support this.

Corry Cropper said...

Jeremy, Yes... I remember that blog post. Posted in 1590 or so, if memory serves.

Scott, their lack of utility makes sports much like the humanities, I suppose...;)