Why the NCAA tournament is a metaphor for human evolution

Illustration for article titled Why the NCAA tournament is a metaphor for human evolution

The same handful of college basketball teams always seem to do well in March Madness, and the deeper reasons behind that might actually tell us something profound about human evolution.


That's the idea put forward by Duke University's Adrian Bejan, who developed the constructal law 15 years ago to explain how flow systems work. A natural example of a flow system is, unsurprisingly, the formation of a river bed, which over time erodes away imperfections and rough areas to reduce resistance. The same forces are at work in college athletics.

The logic is simple enough. The best basketball recruits will be attracted to the best programs, which means those programs send more players to the NBA, which in turn means even more of the best players will want to play for those programs. It's a simple pattern, one sustained in part by the rational economic self-interest of the players, and soon enough a flow system is established.

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It takes less effort for the elite programs to bring in top recruits than lower-ranked programs, and the difference between the haves and the have-nots only becomes more extreme over time. This doesn't mean the elite teams will inevitably prevail - you only have to look at Butler's Cinderella run last year to see what smaller programs can do - but it does mean, more often than not, the team with built-in advantages will find ways to reinforce those advantages, and the best way to do that is to just keep winning.

Indeed, this study categorically isn't about picking specific winners in a given year, but explaining why, over the long haul, certain programs will be more successful than others...not unlike how one should think about the evolutionary process.

In any event, this isn't really a surprising finding, and there's plenty of evidence for it elsewhere in college life. Bejan says the same forces influence top engineering students to choose places like MIT or CalTech over less-respected institutions, and the top schools need to expend less effort to attract the best applicants. It's a circular argument, but it's still a powerful one - the best engineers want to go to MIT because it's MIT, and the sterling reputation it established decades ago does all the work.

Illustration for article titled Why the NCAA tournament is a metaphor for human evolution

So what does this have to do with human evolution? Bejan says these flow systems are all over the story of human evolution. An obvious example is increased biological fitness to environment, as humans grow more and more adapted to their specific environmental niche over time. He also points to the spread of early humans out of Africa as another area where a flow hierarchy was established in the other direction, as certain areas became more conducive to human migration over time and thus facilitated more and more movement by later human migrants.


Indeed, Bejan argues that sports is one of the few places where we can actually see evolution in real time. In the last 100 years, athletes have become bigger, taller, and faster at a rate that's three times faster than the average person during that same period. In this case, the selection pressure isn't determined by survival to reproductive age. Instead, the success or failure of a team exerts pressure for athletes to maintain the greatest possible competitive edge. Because a person's athletic "lifespan" is so short - for a college athlete, it's only four years - this "evolution" takes place over a much shorter time-frame than its more orthodox biological equivalent.

Now, obviously, this isn't evolution in a strict biological sense. But the examples offered by college basketball and other sports can reveal some of the biological and structural mechanisms that underpin human evolution. Although it does lead us to a most disturbing realization: humanity is the Duke basketball of hominids. I'm not sure I like this metaphor after all.


Original paper via the International Journal of Design and Nature & Ecodynamics.


James T Quirk

Will there be a corresponding sci-fi post on deadspin?