Flour beetles, fruit flies, slime molds, honeybees, finches, and ants have all offered great models for identifying and understanding important aspects of evolutionary mechanisms.

In terms of connecting with people who don’t work in university research labs, though, none of those model species are particularly familiar or compelling — except, mainly, as nuisances or pests.

On the other hand, if we look at organizations like the Golden State Warriors of the National Basketball Association (NBA), the Denver Broncos of the National Football League (NFL), the Los Angeles Kings of the National Hockey League (NHL), and the Kansas City Royals of Major League Baseball (MLB)… we can (1) identify and understand important aspects of evolutionary mechanisms while simultaneously (2) engaging millions and millions of people with examples that are famous, familiar, and, often, the focus of favorable attitudes from fans.

As the editor of a new sports section for This View of Life (TVoL), I’m happy to announce an upcoming collection of articles about sports and evolution. This theme will apply evolutionary perspectives in contexts that are familiar to anyone with passing familiarity with sports competitions.  While this approach is liable to teach some evolutionists a thing or two about sports, it’s just as likely (if not more so) to introduce fans of one or another sport to important evolutionary principles and debates.

Sports teams are compelling to research since they offer great — and very public — cases where individual- and group-level interests need to be negotiated and advanced.  Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan — famous for studying “public choice theory” — actually wrote a full-length article about these conflicts for one of his later papers, openly contemplating the degree to which (and circumstances in which) self-serving ball-hogs (or puck-hogs, in hockey) might harm or help their teams[1] In evolution-speak, coaching staffs with one or more players who are prone to selfishly hog opportunities to score face a serious risk of a runaway-selection process whereby everyone on the team “defects” from the public good of passing (to look for the best opportunity for the team) in order to serve their own interests in the same way that any hogs aim to do so.

Sports are also rich for study since the rules of engagement vary significantly with some establishing environments that reward self-serving behavior (e.g., in sports that are predominantly individual) while others — such as competitive rowing — basically demand group-level adaptations if the team is going to be successful.  In fact, among rowers, two earlier research articles show that such adaptations appear to include using gossip (or “informal evaluative talk about others in an organization”) as a means of guarding against self-serving behavior and celebrating group-serving actors[2][3].  In evolution-speak, the allocation of rewards at the group level literally selects for group-level adaptations whereby individual-level interests (e.g., to slack) are actively “selected against” by members of the group.

Rowing teams, in particular, are also interesting since they constitute one of the main metaphors that Richard Dawkins uses in “The Selfish Gene”[4] as a means of advancing the view that selfishness rules the day.  In my own case, as a first-semester graduate student, I decided that I was going to “jump into” the rowing-team metaphor (without any rowing experience) and ended up completing participant-observation research that looks at the multiple levels of organization (and selection) that are found in environments such as intercollegiate rowing.

Limits to using sports competitions as a model domain for evolutionary thinking include the relatively blinkered opportunities — when compared with more open-ended kinds of “play” — for creativity.  While that’s why play warrants close attention on its own, it’s also the case that if you take a closer look at any soccer or tennis match — or whatever example suits your fancy — you’ll undoubtedly see players playing (e.g., experimenting with new methods even if the differences might be very subtle in relation to conventional approaches).

On this last point, it’s notable that in addition to offering useful models for understanding evolutionary mechanisms, it’s also the case that participation in sports appears to be good for the individuals who are involved.  Youth sports, especially, offer children an opportunity to “try out” different personas — to play within the structured environment of the given sport’s rules — and, interestingly, research has consistently shown that such participation is positively associated with later-in-life success (e.g., in the workplace)[5].

Learning how to be aggressive enough to run up to — and catch — a fly ball hit to you playing centerfield instead of letting it drop for a hit offers a concrete example (from baseball or softball) where team-level interests (advanced partly by a coach or manager) can facilitate relatively harm-less risk-taking through which a child might learn important life lessons about things like self-confidence and calculated, on-the-fly (pun intended) decision-making.

These kinds of “inside baseball” examples — in the literal sense, in this case — might be unfamiliar to some of the people who have studied flour beetles, fruit flies, ….  One hopes, though, that such juxtaposition of highly diverse “model environments” reaches (and passes) the bar for fun and useful study — and demonstration — of evolutionary mechanisms in relatively familiar environments.

References
[1] Buchanan, J. M. (2000). Group selection and team sports. Journal of Bioeconomics, 2(1), 1-7. [link]

[2] Kniffin, K. M., & Wilson, D. S. (2005). Utilities of gossip across organizational levels. Human Nature, 16(3), 278-292. [pdf]

[3] Kniffin, K. M., & Wilson, D. S. (2010). Evolutionary perspectives on workplace gossip: Why and how gossip can serve groups. Group & Organization Management, 35(2), 150-176. [pdf]

[4] Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press. [link]

[5] Kniffin, K. M., Wansink, B., & Shimizu, M. (2015). Sports at work anticipated and persistent correlates of participation in high school athletics. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 22(2), 217-230. [pdf]

Published On: March 17, 2016

Kevin Kniffin

Kevin Kniffin

Kevin Kniffin, This View of Life’s Sports Editor, is an applied behavioral scientist at Cornell University who teaches and researches the mechanisms that facilitate cooperation within groups.  He has contributed research papers to outlets including Evolution & Human Behavior, Human Nature, and Evolutionary Psychological Science and his work has been covered by popular media including The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, and The Atlantic.  Kniffin has conducted research in diverse field settings, including firehouses, gyms, and new automobile dealerships.  He is active on Twitter @KevinKniffin.

6 Comments

  • Aaron Blaisdell says:

    Nice introduction. As a naturalist nerd, I know much more about beetles, fruit flies, and the like, than I do about sports (bleh). Never been interested in sports. But clearly a lot of interesting principles of evolution can be gleaned from the study of sports. I remember the fascinating work you were doing with the rowing team at Binghamton back in grad school.

    It occurred to me you need to turn gossip into an acronym. How about: Gossip = group organizational social signaling indoctrination process?

    • Kevin Kniffin says:

      Hi Aaron — great to hear your feedback (and only saw these comments very recently). Your GOSSIP acronym is very creative and fun. Thanks for sharing your thoughtful feedback!

  • Peter B Gray says:

    As someone with Darwinian propensities who also enjoys sports, this is a nice piece. Darwin would surely have enjoyed Gottschall’s “Professor in the Cage” (fighting, with academic and evolutionary spins) as well as evolutionary-minded research on sports like this: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0049168

    You have an interesting set of posts ahead, no doubt.

    • Kevin Kniffin says:

      Thanks, Peter! Your feedback is much appreciated! If anyone reading this is unfamiliar, I’m assuming (from your name) that you’re the same Peter Gray who is famous for your work on “play” — with a TED talk online at
      In regards to the link that you posted, I can preview that Robert Deaner is among those planning to write on this thread for TVoL in the not-too-distant future. Thanks again for your feedback.

  • Jim Vaughan says:

    Very interesting article. I think the sports field is a fruitful Petri dish seen from an evolutionary perspective.
    My only gripe is your characterisation of Dawkins “selfish gene” model as “advancing the view that selfishness rules the day”. As you will know, Dawkins theory is that “selfish genes” give rise to altruistic behaviours at the “vehicle” level eg, Kin selection, reciprocal altruism, mutualism etc.
    A lot of heat bur sadly little light has been generated by misunderstandings between “group” versus “gene” selectionists. It’s time we saw them both as valid, but different perspectives.

    • Kevin Kniffin says:

      Thanks, Jim. I’m happy to agree that too much ink and time has been spent on the debates that you highlight. Re “selfish,” though… I’m a fan of _Unto Others_’ sentence that “selfishness is a mansion with many rooms” (meaning that it’s used for lots of meanings). Along those lines, I approached Bob Trivers a while ago after he gave a plenary talk for HBES and asked him, basically, “if genes are selfish, then what is meiotic drive — really selfish?” He didn’t have an answer and certainly the Q&A mirrors Dawkins’ own recognition about the “really selfish” bits of chromosome… that he describes in The Selfish Gene. Anyhow, I’d say that there’s not a conflict — that The Selfish Gene itself recognizes multiple levels of selection (in re “selfish” versus “really selfish” genetic components). Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and Best regards.

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