Baseball and Chimpanzees

A couple of headlines caught my eye in the Saturday morning news feed. One of them, in the sports section, noted that Max Scherzer became the first pitcher to start the baseball season with 12 wins and no losses in 27 years. A little further down the column, under Science, was a Los Angeles Times article on why chimps can’t throw a baseball at 90 mph.
I love baseball. I don’t have any connection to the Detroit Tigers, but I was interested to see that pitcher Max Scherzer “is the only one who has produced an unblemished record through 12 decisions in 2013, a first for any hurler since Roger Clemens with the Boston Red Sox in 1986”.
I grew up listening to Hall of Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean call games on CBS and watching Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford pitch in Spring Training where I grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida. There are plenty of hard throwers in baseball these days and many of them have reached the hundred-mile-an-hour club, but according to sports writer Red Smith, “Whitey Ford could throw a lamb chop past a hungry wolf”.
Which brings me back to the animal connection. An article in the June 27 edition of Nature with the daunting title, “Elastic Energy Storage in the Shoulder and the Evolution of High-speed Throwing in Homo”, notes that “Some primates, including chimpanzees, throw objects occasionally, but only humans regularly throw projectiles with high speed and accuracy”. According the authors, Darwin noted that the unique throwing abilities of humans, which were made possible when bipedalism emancipated the arms, enabled foragers to hunt effectively using projectiles. The authors used experimental studies of humans throwing projectiles to show that our throwing capabilities largely result from several derived anatomical features that enable elastic energy storage and release at the shoulder. These features first appear together approximately 2 million years ago in the species Homo erectus. Taking into consideration archaeological evidence suggesting that hunting activity intensified around this time, the authors conclude that selection for throwing as a means to hunt probably had an important role in the evolution of the genus Homo.
Of course, that makes perfect sense when you think about it. If early humans could throw a rock or a spear accurately and with force, they were much more likely to be successful food gatherers – a perfectly reasonable adaptation.
When I was a young zookeeper starting my career at Busch Gardens, I had to undergo an initiation of sorts in the chimp house. Our legendary and fearsome male, Bamboo, had once escaped, attacked a keeper, and bitten the man’s calf muscle off. When Bamboo went into a threat display, it was terrifying. And to make matters worse, he liked to throw his poop as a finale to his act. The poop came flying with force and accuracy as he scooped it off the floor and let fly in one smooth motion. But, now that I think about it, he always used an underhand motion. I never saw him pick it up and throw it overhand from a wind up or the stretch. Now, after more than 40 years, I finally know why.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: