Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

What can Dean Potter teach us about evolution?

Posted 02 Aug 2011 / 2

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:

  1. “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];
  2. “the behavior is spontaneous, voluntary, intentional, pleasurable, rewarding, reinforcing, or autotelic” [Endogenous Component];
  3. “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];
  4. “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];
  5. “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”:

Section 1:

Section 2:

Section 3:

Section 4:

Section 5:

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:

If you want to read more about climbing and some of its extremes, I also recommend a recent National Geographic article entitled “Daring. Defiant. Free.“.

Articles, Cultural Evolution, Film, Television, & Video, Happiness, Memetic Fitness, Play, Psychological Adaptation

2 Comments to "What can Dean Potter teach us about evolution?"

rob 31st July 2013 at 2:14 pm

Obviously an ‘Adrenalin Junkie’ – thrills derived from dangerous activities due to the inherent and very palpable danger of these activities, providing a thrill/rush coupled with a following often calming and reflective sense of accomplishment when pushing new boundaries.

Chris Jensen 1st June 2015 at 8:48 am

The above post would be a whole lot less meaningful if I did not report the sad news that Dean Potter died on May 16th, 2015. During a BASE-jump with wing-suit-wearing comrade Graham Hunt, both men died after separately striking rock features before deploying their parachutes. There is good coverage of this event on the webpages of Time, Outside, the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Journal, and The Daily Mail. A piece by Freddie Wilkinson in the The New York Times puts Potter’s accomplishments — and risks — in perspective. There have also been some good biographical profiles of Potter by Cedar Wright in Time and Andrew Bisharat on National Geographic’s Beyond the Edge blog.

Potter’s death has provoked an international dialogue about risk and the meaning of risky sports (the very focus of the post above!). It is easy to find perspectives that suggest that Potter was suicidal, as well as other risk-takers defending the importance of Potter’s work. It was clear that Dean Potter was well aware of the risks of BASE-jumping, and that a large part of his “art” was facing that danger.

A fascinating sub-debate has emerged regarding the cause of Potter’s death: did Dean Potter die because he was doing dangerous things, or did he die because those dangerous things are illegal? Caty Enders produced a provocative op-ed in The Guardian suggesting that Potter’s death might have been avoided had he not been jumping at dusk, a choice influenced by the legal risks associated with being caught BASE-jumping in Yosemite National Park. Enders’ piece suggests that restrictions on activities like BASE jumping in national parks are unnecessary, because these park users create little risk for anyone but themselves. This is a kind of leave the visionaries to their vision, however risky attitude towards BASE jumping. Others, such as Patrice Ayme, have gone further, suggesting that “risk takers have to be respected: they are animated by the essence of what makes us humans”. This attitude suggests that the work of people like Potter — however personally risky it is — is important for society. In a similar vein, professional wingsuiter Jeb Corliss responded to the following post on Facebook by Terence Gray:

Yes it’s sad that someone has died but extreme sportsmen and women are selfish self absorbed idiots who don’t care about what they put their loved ones through or the people who have to risk their lives to rescue them when they get themselves into difficulty.”

Gray’s contention — which seemed to be echoing in the ears of extreme athletes across a variety of social media platforms — was countered by Corliss by appealing directly to an evolutionary argument for extreme sports:

That may be the single most ignorant comment I have ever seen in my entire life. Risk takers are what drive evolution. They are the people that got in little wooden boats and crossed oceans to find new lands. They are the ones that got in metal rockets and shot them selves in to space to visit the moon. They are the ones that risk them selves to push the human species forward. You chose to have children and you have people that rely on you for survival. For you it would be extremely selfish at this point to risk your life because you made a choice to bring other life onto this planet that you are responsible for. But people like Dean made other choices. He did not have children. He made sacrifices so he could help the human species evolve into something new. You obviously do not understand what he was doing and that is ok, you don’t have to. But to express such harsh views shows how small you think and says way more about you than it does him. I get it, you think jumping from cliffs is pointless and crazy but how crazy were the first squirrels that tried to fly? How crazy must they have been to jump from one tree trying to make it to the next? How many of them must have died trying? Over time they evolved and now they can fly. Dean Potter and people like him are those early squirrels evolving, growing, pushing the human race forward into new territory. You have kids and you are willing to die for them I am sure. Dean had him self and he was willing to die to push the human race forward.

Corliss is struggling (and more than just a little bit!) in his post with the distinction between biological and cultural evolution. He suggests that the human species needs boundary-pushers like Potter in order to progress, a progression that clearly has to be cultural rather than biological; after all, the only thing that Dean Potter left us with were his ideas, as he had no offspring of his own. That pretty clearly makes the analogy with the “first flying squirrel” totally faulty, as presumably the early squirrels that leapt out of the trees — most likely to avoid a predator, not for the adventure of it — were those with enough extra skin between their limbs to survive and produce offspring. But I do not want to beat up on Corliss’ idea simply because it is not informed by a basic understanding of how evolution works, because what he has to say is extremely important.

Basically, the question is this: do “extreme” athletes like Potter play an important role in human cultural evolution? Do we — or at least did we — benefit as a species from having a certain number of “innovators” who pushed the boundaries of what humans know how to do, eventually creating new culture in the form of knowledge and material technologies? And is that why we still have people like Dean Potter in our gene pool? If so, that is a remarkable characteristic of humans as a species: it would suggest that societies with individuals who dedicate themselves to cultural rather than biological reproduction might do better than those without such individuals. Those of you who are well-versed in evolutionary theory can see that essentially Corliss is making a group-selectionist argument, one that could only be true if in our evolutionary past societies that harbored more risk-takers suffered more loss of individuals from risk (the direct costs of risk-taking) but were more prosperous overall because they contained a significant fraction of risk-takers (the indirect benefits of risk-taking). Perhaps too many rules restricting risk-taking of this sort would be bad for society. We cannot decide what is acceptable risk until we better understand the role of risk-taking in human societies.

If societies that encourage risk and exploration do better than those who do not, what produces that risk-taking behavior? What is the influence of culture and of genetics? It might be easy to say that Potter was a “victim” of the “extreme sports industry”, which profits by disseminating the exploits of daredevils worldwide. This is a purely cultural argument. But was Dean Potter just more infected by the culture idea “throwing yourself off of cliffs is cool”? I don’t think so. Dean Potter is also clearly a genetic outlier, both in his physical and mental abilities and in his life motivations. Most of us were born not to be Dean Potter. There is a lot more for us to learn about risk-taking and its role in our evolution.

To be frank, I am not surprised that Potter died wingsuit BASE-jumping. Of all the seemingly-crazy activities in which he engaged, BASE-jumping was the one that was least within his control. What made Potter remarkable was his ability to control his mind in life-or-death situations. Alone up on the rock or on a lonely highline, there was only one thing that could kill him: his own thoughts and the missteps they might lead to. But BASE-jumping in a wingsuit, Potter left himself exposed to the errors of others and the dangers of natural variation. It is really early-days in the investigation of the death of Potter and Graham, but initial speculation points to the possibility of katabatic wind (an uncontrollable natural variation) or mid-air near collision (human error, perhaps by Graham, who hit rock first). Although not implicated in this incident, Potter was also dependent on the designers of his wingsuit. There is just too much that can go wrong — factors beyond Potter’s control — for him or any other wingsuiters to survive numerous jumps by anything beyond “good luck”.

That reality really leaves the question of how to interpret the meaning of Potter’s life in the balance. Was he a cultural innovator who was willing to take risks in order to push the boundaries of human civilization? Or, was he a person infected with ideas that would inevitably lead to his death? I am not sure, and I would not trust anyone who says they are.

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