Surprisingly little evolutionarily informed research has been done on our species’ strange love affair with sports. Why do we care so much about such arbitrary and ostensibly functionless displays of physical and mental prowess? Although data derived directly from evolutionary hypotheses are scant, theories abound. In a recent issue of Perspectives in Biology and Medicine , for example, Andreas de Block and Siegfried Dewitte from the University of Leuven in Belgium seek to explain why our obsession with competitive athletics is such a predictable expression of human nature.
Some sports seem to get people more easily riled up than others. According to de Blocke and Dewitte, the most popular sports in a given culture are those that possess three characteristics of “signaling value.” First, for a sport to really catch on in a society, it must be informative . Sports that allow athletes to clearly showcase their most evolutionarily important attributes—strength, intelligence, endurance, speed and litheness, for example—attract the biggest following. This may be why, say, geriatric lawn bowling remains in relative obscurity compared to other sports.