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The first thing I do each morning when I wake up is go for an all-out heavy workout. No dicking around. No breakfast. Just get up and go. Some mornings it’s a 3-mile run, others it’s weightlifting. I love the feeling of the hot, rich blood coursing through my body. A couple of nights a week I go to the boxing gym and work on my striking precision and hitting harder than I have before. It’s in these moments of fully exerting myself that I feel I’ve reached the highest pleasure possible – that I am using my body in the manner it was built for.
Why does exercise have this effect? If you were to ask me, my best guess is that exercise is a modern surrogate for our love of conquest. In the words of one of ancient history’s greatest moral philosophers, Genghis Khan, “The greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him. To ride their horses and take away their possessions, to see the faces of those who were dear to them bedewed with tears, and to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms.”
This is where I lose the average reader. Humans are prosocial and rational creatures, my detractors say, they are most fulfilled doing activities like caring for others and critically examining their lives and the world around them. They are not apex predators, and therefore do not derive their highest pleasure acting barbaric and predatory.
For close to 2000 years now, it has been the consensus that man is the rational animal, the social animal, etc. In modern biology, we have named ourselves Homo sapiens, which roughly translates as “wise guy”. Since Plato’s day, we tend to think of ourselves as a rational spirit trapped in a body. The body is something lesser than the mind. I believe this hierarchy has it backward. We are a body that contains a brain, which is meant to serve the body.
Below is an image of the motor homunculus. It represents how the human body would be proportioned as a 1-to-1 correspondence to how much cortical area in the brain is devoted to that body part. Notice that each hand is larger than the rest of the body. As far as the brain is concerned, all that so-called intellect of Linnaeus’s “wise guy” is wired for the fine motor control of his hands. Perhaps a better name for us is Homo manus. In fact, have you noticed how people sometimes “talk with their hands”? The way they gesture towards nothing at all or use articulate hand movements to illustrate even the most abstract concepts? The circuits involved in thinking about geometry and politics, or telling others what his plans are for tomorrow are reapportioned from areas in the brain that existed long before man was doing any of these things.
Brains and central nervous systems are built in the service of coordinating the movements of bilaterally symmetric and other higher-order creatures. It is only in the last hundred thousand years that the superficial regions of the brain have been swelling. A little bit of extra growth in the cortex was helpful to us in the struggle for our existence. More recently, about the last few thousand years, the growth continued unchecked as a species-wide cerebral edema. It continued as we successively divorced ourselves from the struggle for our existence.
The brain – moreso the intellect – developed well beyond what was necessary for the aid of our survival and became a parasite. It now uses our bodies as a host for achieving its own desires – desires for stimulation, experience, for solving abstract problems in philosophy and politics thanks to the absence of any substantial concrete problems we may face.