University of Gloucestershire
There is little that lends itself to satire or parody more than the essentially trivial elevated to the excessively serious, making sport a prime target. Yet there is surprisingly little written that satirises sport, in part probably because of the excess of seriousness to which it has been elevated, its place in the social and cultural marking of nationhood, masculinity and local vigour, and its fetishization as a sign of social, moral, public and personal health. The potential for satire and parody is enhanced when we look at the scientization of sport, at the intensity and cost of research and development that goes into minuscule margins of athletic success and the sporting discourse that relies on the disaggregation of athletes’ bodies with the effect that they become anatomical, biomechanical, physiological, neurological and psychological processes often treated and discussed as if they are independent of the complexity that is the athlete’s functioning body.
Alongside the at times absurd discussions we hear when these discourses of sport shift outside their specialist scientific settings during which the scientific caution of the plausible explanation subject to further inquiry becomes a truth statement (we’re a cautious breed, although should also often be more reticent about our claims), there are all too often social and historical claims made for sport that become absolutes. Consider rugby having been invented by William Webb Ellis whose disregard for the rules meant that he picked up the football and ran (an event for which there is no evidence whatsoever). Consider also the origins football lying in Ancient China, the Mayan Empire, Pancake Tuesday and Florentine calcio with ardent advocates for each, when all can legitimately claim to have independently played games where a spherical object was kicked, handled and physically manipulated in a playing space. This is the world of the overly serious, the excessively scientistic, the dogmatic, and the narrowly linear that Mike McInnes’ engagingly uneven parody plays with and satirises.
McInnes states quite clearly in his second sentence that this book “is not to be taken seriously” (p xi), but he also makes clear that it is underpinned by some principles of cultural and evolutionary study that could, arguably, substantiate his hypothesis. The hypothesis is that human bipedalism exists so we can play football (a view that seems, in some settings, to be widely enacted in practice). This hypothesis is then shored up by two support systems. The first is the evolutionary idea of neoteny, where humans’ physiological development is delayed in comparison to non-human primates – a idea championed by Steven Jay Gould, although he manages to resist the racist and sexist elements of the theory as it developed in the early 20th century. The second underpinning system is drawn from Johan Huizinga’s cultural historical work on play in Homo Ludens where his notion of ludeny holds that all human activity is a form of game playing – and what else is sport but over-regulated, disciplined and therefore unsuccessful play?
The argument is as inventive as much pseudoscience: the premise is that humans developed in the way we have so as to play football – we are not originally homo sapiens but are instead homo passiens, with a sibling form femo passiens: in this world football is not just for chaps. This premise means that homo passiens must be the original form, with homo sapiens (we non-footballing types continue to exist) as a subspecies. McInnes makes his case for bipedal, neotenous football as the origins of humanity, and the pastime for which we are genetically established. He cites the key role of flat feet as essential for kicking and the hips and elbows as having developed in the way they have to allow us to negotiate the football field.The discussion of Easter Island/Rapanui football culture as centred on heading skills, hence the Moai, is particularly entertaining as pseudoscientific parody.
In the early stages of the book, the hypothesis is developed in a witty and sharply parodic manner, for instance stating that “Huizinga has been consistently underestimated by evolutionary biologists of the Homo sapiens mindset, due to their inability to understand the role of adult game-playing in the genus Homo, and its role in the cognitive, emotional homeostatic, and cultural evolution of Homo sapiens and Homo passiens.” (p8) The parody here is multi-layered: at least part of the sentence is true in that adult play is widely ignored by scholars of many disciplines, while the sentence’s certainty is at odds with its passive voice – a characteristic of scientific writing. He then goes on to push the claims just beyond their limits. Many would accept that human bipedal walking is actually interrupted falling, but for McInnes “walking and running is actually bipedal kicking” (p9) and the opposable thumb, while being useful for toolmaking and use is “engineered perfectly for … bipedal football goalkeeping.” (p9)
The thesis is advanced through a series of conversations between ‘Mike McInnes’ and ‘Professor Gordon P McNeil’ of St Andrews University’s Departments of Anthropology and Palaentology, and expert in ‘passienic studies’. These discussions take place over the course of a year in assorted passienic-related pubs around Edinburgh, during which McNeil holds forth on a series of physical anthropological evidence for homo passiens as the founder species. The discussion of Easter Island/Rapanui football culture as centred on heading skills, hence the Moai, is particularly entertaining as pseudoscientific parody. ‘Mike’ seems well versed in medical and physiological aspects of passienic studies, much of which is carried out in entertainingly named passienic research centres, where McNeil seems to know everyone (I suspect we all know academics of that ilk); McNeil also seems to either have written on all the key issues or has a book due soon on emerging issues – he soon becomes a character worthy of David Lodge or Laurie Taylor.
Some of the discussions are delightfully witty – spectatorship becomes a form of narcolepsy, a “super-REM wake lucid dream” state (p34) which is accompanied by an absurdist discussion of the neuroscience of dreaming and the quantum mechanics of time dilation during football, a discussion in which the Higgs-Bosun particle finds a football specific cognate in the form of the Mession, binding the foot to the ball. Games are experienced as “neo-narcoleptic super-lucid wake-REM dream-enacted manifestations” (p134) allowing for time dilations overseen by football crime detectives (otherwise known as referees): this is gobbledegook as sharp parody.
As engaging as the development of the hypothesis is, in places and as the book develops it relies on a series of puns that can become tiring: I found this in the discussions of the endocrinology of Homo passiens. It is a book best read in segments, as if a series of irregular columns, rather than in one. Otherwise it becomes a little overwhelming, and in places a little repetitive. Also, watch out for a layout error: two lines from pp100-1 have been transposed to p112.
Neither the sport obsessed nor overly egotistic sport scientists and other academics come out of this unsullied – it is sharp satire of the sector in which many of us work and, despite McInnes’ instruction that it should not be taken seriously, ludeny-awareness makes it a playfully serious comment on much of our sporting world.
Copyright © Malcolm MacLean 2018