I have a bit of an obsession with why people push limits in particular sports. Although I am far from a big limit-pusher myself, I do enjoy the more dangerous forms of skateboarding, bicycling, and snowboarding. Of late I have taken up rock climbing, although I have only once made it out of the gym. Trying to understand my own interest in these sports has inspired me to think about how our evolution has produced people who are willing to put their lives on the line in order to push the previous limits of human accomplishment. A topic I explore in my Evolution of Play course, so-called “extreme sports” present a real paradox to anyone who believes that human behavior has been shaped by the forces of evolution.
Of course paradoxes often yield the most insightful and innovative scientific discoveries, so it is important to lay out the “extreme play” paradox clearly. To the average person this paradox is not hard to understand: an innate “why in the world would someone do that?” sensibility illuminates the fact that on the face of it there is no reason to risk very much for sport. Sport is by definition without direct consequence: it is something that we do in our free time, when we have excess safety and resources to allow us to divert ourselves. Of course there is risk in all of our activities, even the most mundane, so it need not surprise us that people are willing to take on some risks for sport. But what about sports that can kill you? What about sports that are ostensibly about eluding death with skill or guile? If our goal is to survive and reproduce, why would anyone engage in a sport that could kill you in an instant? Can we call a behavior “play” if the wrong move results in death?
In my eyes, no athlete puts these questions into better focus than Dean Potter [1, 2, 3]. Almost forty years old and showing no sign of slowing down, Potter has been at the edge of three undeniably extreme sports: free-solo climbing, BASE jumping, and high-elevation slacklining (aka “highlining“). For those who are not familiar with these sports, they all involve the potential for sudden death. In free-solo climbing, the climber does not use any form of safety rope, so a fall of any distance will result in certain death. In highlining a tight rope or cable is strung between two points at a sufficient elevation that if you fall off, well, you die. Basejumping is a lot like skydiving, except that the relatively short elevations (usually around 600 meters) leave little room for error. There is no point in carrying a back-up parachute, because if your first one fails you will be dead on the ground before you could deploy the second chute. The clear common denominator in Potter’s favorite activities?: they all have the potential to kill him in a moment. I have been checking out various media on Potter for the last few months, and I recently watched an episode of the British series Daredevils that featured Potter (see below for this episode in five sections).
It should be said that all of the sports within which Potter is so famous for pushing limits come in much safer versions. The convention for modern climbing is to climb with ropes, which if used properly should at least prevent death should a fall occur. The vast majority of people climb with top ropes and a belay partner, severely limiting the potential for injury; most climbing is done in indoor gyms where controlled conditions, carefully-monitored equipment, and abundant padding make the risk of fall even lower. Similarly, most people slackline on lines that are only a few feet off the ground and risk is comparable to mainstream sports. Skydiving and bungee-jumping each involve some of the core components of BASE jumping, but are far less risky.
So the question is this: what is the fascination with importing activities that can be done safely in other contexts into the realm of sudden death? Here is where many people may be plenty satisfied with a “just plum crazy” explanation for the likes of Dean Potter. But regardless of whether or not Potter is “psychologically abnormal” (which he undeniably is if you compare him to most people), I believe that there is more to the story than simply calling him a crazy daredevil. As the Daredevils episode points out quite well, what Potter is really pushing the limit of is his mind. Putting BASE jumping aside for a moment, it is clear that Potter is fully capable of walking an incredibly long slackline or climbing the most difficult of routes up a cliff face without making a single mistake. The boundary he likes to flirt with is not about his skill at dealing with these challenges, but whether he can perform at his normal level of expertise when a mistake could cost him his life. To most of us the question is “why in the world would you remove the safety provisions from a dangerous activity?”. But it is in fact the removal of these provisions that allow Dean Potter to test new limits. It is interesting that Potter is known to be an avid practitioner of meditation, which can be practiced to gain control of one’s mind and quiet some of the more basal subconscious reactions that rule the behavior of most people in the face of danger. Potter’s accomplishments are probably a greater testament to his development of techniques for controlling his mind than his innate or acquired physical skills.
It is undeniable that we are designed to avoid most risks. Most of us become queasy as we approach the edge of a cliff, fleeing away as quickly as we safely can. Even those who seek out these risks have come face-to-face with the very strong instinct for self-preservation that evolution has selected for. There’s a great section of the Daredevils episode about Potter that features Scott Balcom, the first person to cross a highline (using a safety leash) at Yosemite’s 880-meter-high Lost Arrow Spire. Voicing over footage of his 1985 feat, Balcom made it clear that the vast majority of his conscious and subconscious brain was urging him not to step onto that line. He even makes a passing allusion to evolution in explaining why we are not meant to accomplish such feats. Balcom showed that in spite of all the built-in fear that we have evolved to keep us alive, we are capable of overriding that fear if we can attain the right mental state. That Potter chose to do this same crossing without a tether shows that he is willing to push the boundaries of fear one step further.
This is an amazing feat, but what is its value? To really pull apart why Potter does what he does, I want to consider the various hypotheses that might explain his high-risk behaviors. While each of these hypotheses says something different about our evolution, they all take an evolutionary approach to explaining Potter’s behavior and the behavior of so-called “daredevils” as a group.
“Is Dean Potter playing?” is the first question that I would ask in considering hypotheses that explain his high-risk behaviors. Why ask this question? It is helpful to make this distinction because evolutionary hypotheses that assume that a behavior is a form of play are fundamentally different from hypotheses not involving play. And Dean Potter’s feats seem like they could go either way: while he is clearly involved in a sport — and sports are certainly included in the province of play — there is also something very serious about what he does. To sort this out, we need a decent working definition of play. In his book The Genesis of Animal Play, Gordon Burghardt (2005) lays out five criteria for identifying play behavior, which are:
- “the performance of the behavior is not fully functional in the form or context in which it is expressed; that is, it includes elements, or is directed toward stimuli, that do not contribute to current survival” [Limited Immediate Function];
- “the behavior is spontaneous, voluntary, intentional, pleasurable, rewarding, reinforcing, or autotelic” [Endogenous Component];
- “it differs from ‘serious’ performance of ethotypic behavior structurally or temporally in at least one respect: it is incomplete, exaggerated, awkward, or precocious; or it involves behavior patterns with modified form, sequencing, or targeting” [Structural or Temporal Difference];
- “the behavior is performed repeatedly in a similar, but not rigidly stereotyped, form during at least a portion of the animal’s ontogeny” [Repeated Performance];
- “the behavior is initiated when an animal is adequately fed, healthy, and free from stress or intense competing systems. In other words, the animal is in a ‘relaxed field’” [Relaxed Field]
Based on this definition, we can see that play behaviors can evolve by very different pathways than non-play behaviors. The most critical difference is that play behaviors generally have indirect payoffs: the benefits of play are only realized well after the behavior has been performed and in a very different context. It is also important to note that while play behaviors do come with some costs, high costs are avoided by only performing the play behaviors in a safe space (Burghardt’s “relaxed field”).
Potter’s behaviors certainly do lead to an indirect payoff: although some of his stunts have lost him sponsorship, the fame he gains from pulling off these feats provides him with income. But is that enough to make his behaviors “play”? When we consider how dangerous his stunts really are, it is difficult to categorize them as playful: the potential costs are just too high. Although Potter is an exceptional climber, plenty of other accomplished climbers have died free soloing without safety gear [1, 2]. Other stunts that are analogous to Potter’s highlining and BASE jumping have gotten equally-skilled climbers killed. I just cannot justify categorizing Potter as “playful” because what he does is so damn dangerous.
So if Potter is not playing, what motivates his extreme behaviors? A second explanation would be that Potter is demonstrating his fitness and prowess to potential mates through his incredible feats of skill and bravery. Those familiar with the most orthodox version of Darwin’s sexual selection theory will recognize this as the “strutting peacock” explanation for Potter’s behavior. I suppose this hypothesis is not completely unworkable, but there are several reasons for potentially rejecting it. While there is no doubt that Potter is demonstrating substantial skills in doing what he does, he is also demonstrating questionable judgment by taking the risks involved. I personally hold the female half of the human species in too high regard to believe that most women would overlook the clear foolhardiness of Potter and fall for his athletic prowess alone. My doubts are supported by Potter’s real relationship history, which seems to have been less than successful (at age 40, he has no children and has not maintained a successful relationship).
Okay, so those first two hypotheses do not seem to provide adequate explanation for Potter’s phenomenal feats. So what else is there to consider? Two of the remaining hypotheses are interrelated and somewhat inseparable (in other words, they are not mutually-exclusive). I will call these the “outlier hypothesis” and the “cultural parasite hypothesis”. The outlier hypothesis suggests that we should not really look for an evolutionary explanation for Potter’s extreme traits at all. If individuals like Potter are so rare that our population contains almost no other individuals like him, we can satisfy ourselves by explaining his behavior as an extreme outlier. This is analogous to explaining other rare mutant traits that do not provide fitness benefits, but can still occasionally be observed in nature. If this is true, we should expect that traits such as those possessed by Potter should remain rare because they are being constantly selected against by our environment (for instance, when daredevils take themselves out of the gene pool during one of their stunts). Based on the number of other climbers and BASE jumpers who have died, this outlier explanation seems reasonable.
The related cultural parasite hypothesis puts an extra twist on the outlier hypothesis. While the outlier hypothesis suggests that the behavioral motivations of people like Potter are too extreme to survive, the cultural parasite hypothesis suggests that our current cultural environment selects against people like Potter. Perhaps Dean Potter would have been a daredevil 200 years ago, but he would not have had the access to technologies and ideas that would have pushed him to his current-day extreme stunts. Perhaps in the absence of the material and social culture of today, the risky behavior displayed by Potter would have been beneficial in some way: he might have been an exceptional explorer who discovered new resources for his tribe, or great warrior who allowed his tribe to conquer new lands. Under the cultural parasite hypothesis, Potter’s behavioral predispositions towards risk are only dangerous when paired with a “cultural infection” provided by sports like climbing and BASE jumping. Given how few people do the things that Potter does, the outlier and cultural parasite hypotheses might be enough to explain him.
But suggesting that Dean Potter is an outlier does not mean that his personality type is doomed to the scrapheap of evolution. A number of fields have begun to consider the role that behavioral diversity may play in the success of social organisms. Employing very technical-sounding terms like “behavioral syndromes” and “social heterosis”, these fields may sound obscure, but they share in common a pretty clear hypothesis: living in groups may favor a diversity of personality types rather than a single monolithic optimal personality. Nested in this idea is the concept of frequency-dependent selection: whether a particular behavioral type is successful in part depends on the mix of other personality types in a particular social group. This kind of social dependence is well understood in the field of game theory (Axelrod 1984), but is often ignored by the optimality-obsessed mainstream of evolutionary biology. A society composed entirely of people like Potter would be a mess, but is a society with a few Dean Potters better off than a daredevil-free society? Can we understand Dean Potter by considering his personality in the context of the overall society in which he exists?
There are some compelling reasons to consider the possibility that Potter’s personality type makes the most sense if we consider it as part of a larger complement of different social personalities. First of all, we should note that part of Potter’s support comes from people who would never do the things he does. These people, with more “risk averse” personality types, are willing to pay money to read about or watch his escapades. What benefit – if any – do spectators get from watching Potter risk his life? I feel that I can answer this in part based on my own experience. As I indicated above, I like to do some of the same activities that Potter takes to an extreme, only I perform these activities in a safe space that makes them more playful in nature. Nonetheless, I get a lot more out of my own play thanks to Potter. How? Well, Potter shows me what is possible through practice, particularly practice at controlling one’s own mind. Based on his extreme demonstration of mental and physical control, I am inspired to hone my own skills. Now granted, my prospects for directly turning slightly-improved skills at slacklining or climbing into any direct benefit are slim-to-none. But this is the point of play: to learn something in an environment in which there is little at stake so that that newly-acquired skill can be brought to bear in situations where it is truly valuable. Inspired by Potter, my play is optimized.
That is great for me, but what is in it for Potter? The answer may be “nothing”. We have already noted that Potter may devote so much to his passions that he forgoes reproductive success. So much for his genetic fitness! Under this view of Potter’s behavior, we might even call it “altruistic”: Potter is doing something that has potentially extreme costs to himself but that provides a greater benefit to other members of the society in which he lives. Like a lot of other forms of human altruistic behavior, Potter’s “self-sacrificing risk taking” could only be maintained if groups that contain at least a few individuals like Potter fare better over the long term than groups that do not contain his kind of extreme personality type. Beyond his inspiration to other playful climbers and slack liners, there are other generalized benefits that come from extreme personalities like Potter’s. Beyond being an athletic and psychological innovator, Potter is also a technical innovator. He is among a small number of adventurers who have created “flying squirrel suits” that allow BASE jumpers to soar through the air for minutes at a time [1, 2]. While this invention is not in of itself socially valuable, spin-off technologies that come from this invention could be. Another way of looking at it would be to say “if not for crazy risk-taking explorers we probably would not have a whole host of socially-valuable inventions”. It is possible that some level of risk-taking by some proportion of society increases the overall success of that society.
Below are fives sections of the British television series called Daredevils that featured Dean Potter. The episode is called “The Sky Walker”:
There’s also an interesting video here from National Geographic Adventure that shows some of Potter’s other exploits including basejumping in flying squirrel suits and footage of him avoiding death by using a parachute on a climb: