Squash and Human Nature: Part 2 – Food, Sex and Gossip

In the first part of “Squash and Human Nature” we looked at three of the six characteristics that encapsulate what it is to be human: playfulness, scientific thinking and rule-making. Those characteristics, along with the three described in this article, have been identified by anthropologists as the ones that clearly set us apart from other species. Together, they offer a surprising insight not just into what we all do, but into the underlying nature of our relationships with each other and our shared passion for squash.

Women in Competition

It’s that passion which drives us in ways that, sometimes, we’re barely conscious of as we focus on the playing aspects of squash. But there are other aspects of our relationship with squash, and those who share our passion for it, which also have their origins in human evolution and pre-date such relatively recent developments as the acquisition of language. In this context, squash is not just a game, it’s a shared expression of human nature.

Participation in the game of squash is, of course, subject to the adherence of its players to a universal codified set of rules. But participation in the story of squash comes in many forms, and is influenced by a wide range of cultural, social, political and economic factors. What’s more, it’s not confined to those who play the game.

Whatever your view, one thing is clear. Woven into the fabric of squash are behaviours  which reflect human characteristics drawing on all of those senses we share with other mammals; sight, taste, touch, smell and hearing.

But not in the way you might think.

Being Epicurean – Squash Feeding

Where other animals just eat, we make a meal of things. And the main difference is down to one of humanity’s greatest inventions: cooking. “People of every culture cook at least some of their food,” says Richard Wrangham of  Harvard University. He’s made a very persuasive case that cooked food, which delivers more calories with much less chewing than raw food, was the key innovation that enabled our ancestors to evolve big energy-hungry brains and become the smart, social creatures we are today. In fact, humans (well most of us anyway) spend less than one hour a day chewing, all of which leaves plenty of free non-feeding time for other cultural activities, squash included.

Culinary culture includes the phenomenon of ritualised, familial, food-sharing, otherwise known as mealtimes. In every human society, people naturally gather in family groups at more or less regular times of day to eat what has been cooked. And, wherever you go, these everyday meals tend to be cooked by women. We don’t really know why, but it could originally have been in exchange for men’s protection, and because childcare kept women closer to home.

Individual participation in playing squash imposes its own feeding patterns. Eating and drinking before, during and after matches is typically influenced by rules of thumb which vary from culture to culture. Muslim players, for example, will fast from dawn to dusk during Ramadan; and their family mealtimes will also be subject to change.

Then there’s feasting. From sharing the spoils of a good hunt to celebrating a special occasion, every society does it. Here’s where you’re more likely to find men cooking. We even see this in our own gardens and backyards, where they do most of the barbecuing.

There are, of course, some similarities between feasting and the post-match meals sometimes  shared by participants in team squash or social squash events. But perhaps it’s in meals celebrating significant anniversaries or the formation of new squash clubs that the true parallel lies. “In all cultures,” says anthropologist Polly Wiessner of the University of Utah, “food is used to form social bonds.” Mealtimes are the centre-piece of family life, feasting bonds friends, colleagues and communities, and we also use food to consolidate more intimate relationships, such as  sharing a fancy meal with someone special, whether they love squash or not!

So food draws us together, but also sets us apart. Every culture has its own food traditions and taboos, which help define the boundaries between “us” and “them. They have distinctive cuisines too. “Ethnic differences are marked by what kind of food you eat,” says Weissner. “You are what you eat.”

All very tasty! But, just to heighten the sensual aspect of our relationship with other squash lovers, let’s focus on the intimate, shall we?

Being Clandestine – Squash Sex

Nothing reveals an animal’s nature quite as well as its sexual practices, and humans have some rather strange ones. Unlike other animals, women are continually sexually receptive and have concealed their ovulation; in other words, there is no external sign that they are in a position to conceive. Also, we’re the only monogamous primate to live in large mixed-sex groups. But nothing is quite as strange as our predilection for clandestine copulation. Why, across all human cultures, do we have sex in private? And what’s the connection to squash?

A hint comes from Clive Wynne of the University of Florida in Gainesville. “Sneaky mating occurs in species where there is a lot of inter-male competition and males control sex by controlling females,” he says. Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia agrees: “I think the origin of privacy [in humans] has to do with competition.” And not only between males. Women have been competing with men and with each other throughout human evolution. As a result, human sexual politics has become a lot more complicated, influenced not only by the need to survive and reproduce, but also by the emergence of culture.

For a start, women won some control from men by evolving concealed ovulation and continual sexual receptivity to confuse paternity. Then our ancestors did something completely different from other great apes; males and females started sharing parental care. And monogamy was born. “Infidelity among couples living in large groups became more risky than ever, with infanticide by males the ultimate price,” says Robin Dunbar of   the University of Oxford. So there was a need to strengthen relationships. “We have this odd thing called love,” he adds, suggesting that sexual privacy may also have emerged as a way of increasing intimacy.

David Buss of the University of Texas at Austin thinks that sexual privacy could actually be a benefit. “Humans are socially monogamous, not sexually monogamous,” he says. Infidelity is widespread in all traditional cultures and private sex allows it to occur without the loss of reputation.

So, the uniquely human characteristic of sexual privacy really has its origins in a combination  of three human behaviour patterns which will be familiar to all squash lovers: competition, culture and politics.

Which leaves us with a final characteristic which, some people say, actually makes the world go ‘round.

Including the world of squash.

Being Gossipy – Squash Communication

Well, I’ve always said that “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” OK, it wasn’t me, it was Oscar Wilde. But I agree with him anyway.

One of the defining characteristics of humans was once thought to be language, although nowadays we’re  more likely to regard it as part of a continuum of animal communication. Nevertheless, nobody doubts that it’s shaped our nature profoundly. Language is central to many human ‘universals’ ranging from education, folklore and prophesy to medicine, trade and insults. And, arguably, our way with words has reached its apogee in gossip.

A compulsion to talk about other people is only human. And it’s not nearly as frivolous as you’d think. Some anthropologists believe we gossip to manipulate the behaviour of others, which may help explain why gossip often takes place within earshot of the person being gossiped about. Says Polly Wiessner of the University of Utah, “A group of girls will gossip within earshot of the girl they gossip about, intending for it to be heard.”

But gossip doesn’t just serve to name and shame. When anthropologist Robin Dunbar eavesdropped on people gossiping, he found that barbed comments were relatively rare compared with innocuous ones. He believes that gossip is the human equivalent of grooming in primates. Our social relationships are too numerous to secure with time-consuming grooming, so we chat instead. “Gossip evolved for oiling the wheels of social interaction,” he says. Even the most powerful movers and shakers depend on it, though they may call it something else. After all, says Dunbar, most business could easily be carried out by phone or email, but people still prefer to meet face-to-face so that they can bond over casual conversation or a meal.

Wiessner observes that a juicy titbit of gossip is actually a gift and, co-incidentally, gift-giving is another human universal. She also goes so far as to assert that a society without gossip would simply dissolve. “People wouldn’t have any common interest to stay together.” In squash communities, as in other social groups, gossip is part of the cultural fabric which holds people together.

So it’s the human characteristics of play, scientific thinking, rule-making, sensual pleasure in  feeding, sexual privacy and gossip that uniquely encapsulate our nature and shape human culture. Underneath them all lie competition and the politics of survival.

In fact, whether we’re conscious of it or not, squash isn’t just a shared expression of human nature.

It’s a matter of life and death.

Acknowledgements

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

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