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 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. 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” 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).
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.
 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]