Squash and Human Nature: Part 1 – Playing by the Rules

Believe it or not, like all animals, we humans (and I’m including squash lovers here) display  idiosyncrasies and quirks that clearly set us apart as a species. In fact, anthropologists have identified hundreds of so-called human universals, characteristics shared by all people everywhere which make up a sort of parts list for our species.

A visiting alien, of course, wouldn’t have any trouble categorising us as a kind of clever, talkative, upright ape with a love of material possessions (or ‘stuff’ as it’s more commonly known.) But being human ourselves, it’s tricky for us to try and pin down the essence of our own ‘humanness.’ What is it that really sets us apart?

The Evolution of Squash

Now, scientists have used our human universals to look at the human animal in much the same way as they would study any other. What’s emerged is a unique suite of characteristics that encapsulates our nature. And a rather peculiar one it is. If you thought you knew what humans were like, then think again.

The suite is made up of six characteristics which together offer a surprising insight not just into what we all do, but into the underlying nature of squash.

Being Playful – Squash Skills

Humans aren’t nature’s only fun-lovers. All mammals play, as do some birds and a few other animals. But no other species pursues such a wide variety of entertainment or spends so much time enjoying themselves. The list of universals includes such diverse pleasures as music, games, jokes, hospitality, hairdressing, dancing, art, tickling and, last but not least, sports.

“What sets us apart is the fact that we play both with objects and with language,” says Clive Wynne from the University of Florida. And we can go beyond the literal. “What revolutionises human play is imagination,” says Francis Steen from the University of California.

“We’re a playful species,” says primatologist Frans de Waal from Emory University in Atlanta, “and we retain our juvenile sense of fun right into adulthood. Human society is also relatively relaxed,” notes de Waal, “and we’ll happily congregate with unrelated individuals, a situation that would leave chimpanzees and bonobos tearing strips off each other.”

“Play isn’t simply for fun,” states Marc Bekoff at the University of Colorado. He identifies four primary purposes: physical development, cognitive development (“eye / paw  co-ordination” as he calls it), social development and training for the unexpected. “Playing is an evolutionary adaptation for learning,” agrees Steen. “Mammals are born inept but can adapt, and playing helps us do that.” Noting that human social and physical environments are particularly complex, he sees playing as a sort of simulator that allows us to imagine and try out different scenarios with little risk. “In play we are most fully human,” he says.

Bekoff believes that social development is the most important purpose of play for humans, not least because it underpins morality. “Young children will not become properly socialised without it,” he says. For Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford, playfulness is a mainstay of social cohesion. “Play often involves laughter, which is a very good bonding mechanism,” he says. “And physical play, especially coordinated team sports, produces feel-good endorphins.” “Sports also provide a release for competitive urges,” says de Waal. “If people watch others playing, that actually improves their own skills,” adds Steen. Even entertainment for sheer pleasure has benefits. “It’s fun, so it’s really good for mental health,” says Bekoff.

So, perhaps not surprisingly, squash seems to be a typical expression of human nature. It’s certainly a  vehicle for human play, allowing us to use and interact with objects and to use our imagination; think visioning, strategy and tactics. It also helps us to develop physically  and socially in a low risk way. And it’s helps us to meet and bond with others in situations which are good for our physical and mental health.

But what about its learning effect on our cognitive development? The answer, at least to a scientist like me, is unexpected.

Being Scientific – Squash Knowledge

From earliest infancy, humans are constantly sorting the world into categories, predicting how things work, and testing those predictions. This kind of thinking is the essence of  science and shows up in a range of human universals from time, calendars and cosmology to family names and measurement.

“Science is basically working at understanding the world around us,” says Edward Wasserman at the University of Iowa. But it’s not just confined to humans. All animals need scientific thinking to survive although no other animal ‘does’ science to quite the extent that we do. So what sets us apart?

One likely candidate, as any parent will tell you, is our drive to ask “Why?” Daniel Povinelli at the University of Louisiana taught both children and chimpanzees to stand an L-shaped block on its end, then secretly substituted an apparently identical block that would not stand up. “The chimps just kept trying,” he says, “but the kids would stop and turn the block upside down and feel the bottom of it. They’d shake the block, try to figure out what was inside it. They would do all kinds of things in an attempt to diagnose why it wouldn’t stand up”

Another unique feature of humans is our ability to grasp abstract concepts. Chimps struggle with this. For example, while they quickly learn that heavy rocks are better for smashing nuts, when it comes to grasping the concept of weight, they falter. “If they hear two objects drop and one goes ‘bam!’ and the other goes ‘click’ they can’t infer that one of those objects will be good for cracking a nut and the other won’t,” says Povinelli, “whereas we can.”

Crucially, this kind of understanding allows us to use what we have learned in one domain to make causal predictions in another. So, for example, we can predict that something that goes “bam!” will sink, whereas something that goes “click” may well float. Our nimbleness at abstract causal reasoning is tied up with our facility with language and probably underlies many of our other social skills, such as rituals and rules of behaviour too. Povinelli believes that this is what really sets humans apart from even the brightest apes.

But there’s one more trait that distinguishes us from less-scientific animals: an eagerness to share what we’ve discovered. Once we figure something out, we announce it to the world, which is why all scientifically minded humans, not just Isaac Newton, are able to Stand on the Shoulders of Giants.”

So maybe the science of squash, or the science in squash, shouldn’t be that unexpected. Categorising, predicting and testing are part and parcel of learning the game. “If I stand on the ‘T’, I should be able to reach all four corners of the court it a few strides. Let’s check it out. If I hit the ball down the middle of the court, my opponent will be able to intercept it and maybe play a winning shot. Oops! He just did.” Do’s and don’ts are learned quickly. Experiments are carried out (sometimes repeatedly), experiences gained and habits formed, whether good or bad!

But there’s a third characteristic which certainly shouldn’t be surprise to any follower of squash. And it’s all to do with our behaviour, on court and off.

Being Legislative – Squash Behaviour

The question of whether every human society has formal laws is far from settled, but they do all have rules. This is a peculiarly human trait. Our closest relatives, the chimps, may stick to simple behavioural rules governing things like territories and dominance hierarchies, but we humans, with our language skills and greater brainpower, have developed much more elaborate systems of rules, taboos and etiquette to codify behaviour. Though every society has different rules, they always involve regulating activity in three key areas, a sure sign that these are fundamental to human nature.

For a start, we are all obsessed with kinship, which brings rights, in particular to inheritance of goods and status. “There are always rules about who counts as kin, and what obligations you have to kinfolk,” says Robin Fox at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The rules may favour maternal or paternal links, or treat both equally. Every society recognises the uniquely human concept of kinship by marriage, as well as believing that kinship entails duties to family members – for which there are rules. And all have incest taboos, usually prohibiting sexual intercourse between immediate family (though royalty are sometimes exempted).

After who’s who, everyone worries about safety, so every culture also has rules about when one person can kill another. “I don’t know of any society that doesn’t condemn murder,” says Sally Engle Merry at New York University. “However, what constitutes an illegitimate killing is complicated.” In some societies, any stranger is fair game. Others allow killing to avenge the murder of kin, and many allow the group to kill someone who violates its norms. But every group draws the line somewhere.

Every society also has rules governing the use of objects. The notion of private property is by no means universal but people everywhere do have rules that stipulate who is entitled to use certain things at particular times. These vary widely from a simple ‘first come, first served’ to the elaborate system of private ownership in industrialised societies.

Kinship, safety, stuff. Across the whole range of human cultures this is what our rules say we care about. But perhaps there is a deeper part of human nature that underlies all these concerns: a desire for rules themselves. “Rules help us navigate the hazardous waters of interpersonal relationships and provide a framework for knowing how to act,” says Justin Richland at the University of Chicago. That makes them an essential part of us. “It’s the most basic feature of human nature,” agrees Fox. “We’re the rule-making animal.”

So there we have it. Rules about what constitutes acceptable and ethical behaviour both on and off court. Arriving for matches on time. Wearing appropriate clothing, eye protection  and footwear.  Warming up. Keeping score. Rules for playing squash matches in leagues or tournaments. Asking for lets or strokes. Squash club membership rules. The list goes on. No rules about favouring kin, killing people, incest or other sexual activities, of course, but that’s typically where formal laws come in.

And, besides, we’re only halfway through our exploration of squash and human nature. Somewhere in the third game I’m guessing.

I hope you’re keeping score…

Coming Next…

In the second part of “Squash and Human Nature” we investigate the final three characteristics which encapsulate our human nature as we look at food, sex and a uniquely human form of communication. Now I’m not one to talk, but…


Thanks to Bob Holmes and Kate Douglas for their series of articles on “Six Things We All Do” in New Scientist magazine.