I’m not a total science geek, but I do take an interest in certain scientific fields, including evolutionary biology. My brother Josh, who is a total science geek, being aware of my more casual interest, suggested recently that I check out a book called Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society. Written by natural philosopher Daniel Milo, the book is a critique of certain dominant interpretations of evolutionary theory.
Milo’s fellow philosopher (and fellow Daniel) Daniel Dennett has referred to this theory as “Darwin’s dangerous idea,” and with good reason. After all, it is a theory based on concepts that are inherently squishy, hence open to—indeed, requiring of—interpretation. What’s more, these concepts have deep relevance to our lives, and can influence or values, decisions, and policies for better or worse depending on our preferred interpretation. The great cautionary example of an unfortunate interpretation resulting in a damaging application of evolutionary concepts is eugenics, that equal parts vile and idiotic policy aiming to “improve” humanity by exterminating particular segments of it.
The particular interpretation of evolutionary theory that Milo goes after in his book is not nearly so vile and idiotic—merely wrong, in his view. He argues that our prevailing interpretation of evolutionary theory has placed too much emphasis on notions of fitness and function, an overemphasis that in turn is rooted in an inflated understanding of the importance of natural selection, which in turn is rooted in the excessive attention Darwin devoted to the phenomenon of domestication in developing his theory. What gets lost amid these biases, Milo contends, is the degree to which biological features that serve no useful function or confer no survival advantage are retained through sheer accident in the evolutionary process. In order to avoid getting weeded out, a given phenotype need not be better than others; it need only be good enough—and lucky.
The purpose of this article is not to provide a full description of, much less to defend, Milo’s critique of evolutionary theory. It is, rather, to hint at its relevance to endurance training. Because that’s exactly where my brain went as I started reading Good Enough. If you’ve read books of my own including 80/20 Running and The Endurance Diet, you know that I look at endurance sport as a self-organizing system, where competition operates as a ruthless selection mechanism causing training methods and other methods of improving fitness and performance to evolve toward optimum. The point I keep making over and again in my work is that the various major endurance sports have existed long enough, and the competitive stakes have become great enough, that training methods utilized at the elite level have evolved nearly to the point of full optimization, which is to say, to the point where there is very little room for further refinement.
But Milo’s book has shifted my perspective somewhat. Why have world records come down slowly and gradually, for the most part, over many decades? The current men’s world record for 10,000 meters, for example, set last year by Uganda’s Joseph Cheptegei, is 26:11.00. By definition, it is humanly possible to run 10,000 meters this quickly. Cheptegei proved it. Why, then, was Emil Zátopek’s 10,000m world record of 28:54.2 lowered by just 14 seconds in 1956 and not all the way down to where it currently stands? Part of the reason, of course, is that Sandor Iharos, the Hungarian runner who bested Zátopek’s mark, was himself not capable of running 26:11. But what Daniel Milo would point out is that it was surely also because elite endurance athletes are always, in ways they don’t entirely recognize or control, endeavoring not to achieve the limit of human possibility but to be good enough to win today. It can’t be any other way, because endurance sport is subject to the same natural laws that govern all self-organizing systems.
Which makes me think that perhaps there’s a little more room for innovation in training and other methods than I had previously assumed. In fact, this possibility had already been suggested to me by the manner in which the COVID-19 pandemic shook things up within the elite stratum of endurance sport. In a previous blog post, I wrote about how the constraints imposed by this crisis all but forced elite coaches to try different things, some of which led to breakthrough performances and are likely to be retained in the future, long after the limitations that gave rise to them have relaxed. These occurrences showed me just how much complacency and conformity exist in the methodologies used even at the highest level of sport at all times, lockdown or no lockdown.
Let’s not get carried away. Becoming aware of the fact that the Law of Good Enough governs progress in endurance sport does not empower us to operate outside that law and start making giant leaps forward. A law is a law. But for me, at least, I hope this shift in perspective allows me to become a bit more creative and experimental in my coaching. Indeed, I believe it already has.