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Before We Were Born to Run, We Were Born to Fight

Posted by on Nov 11, 2013 | 11 Comments

Are we born to fight?

This question has popped up repeatedly over the last few days. I started with a horribly biased DailyMail story about kids mma that got A LOT of people riled up. My Facebook friends and I had some excellent discussions, which led to an unanswered question- why do people have the drive to fight?

The responses were divided into to broad categories: Those that actually did a combat sport (wrestling, karate, mma, boxing, judo, etc.) and those that did not.

Those that did not participate in any sort of fighting sport almost always assumed fighting was associated with violent tendencies which were learned. Our environment creates violence. This violence manifests itself in fighting, bullying, and gun violence. As such, fighting needs to be eradicated.

Those that did participate in fighting sports had a much wider range of answers presumably based on their personal experiences. Fighting could be done as a form of competition, it could be done for fitness, it could give a consensual outlet for violent tendencies, or it could simply be enjoyable. Most describe a deep, intrinsic joy that came from the act of fighting.

Paleo guru Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple recently wrote two posts on our primitive drive to fight. The first discussed the idea that violence is a primitive human drive. The next post discussed the possibility that fighting is good for you based on primal logic. Tucker Max also gave an excellent talk at the Ancestral Health Society Symposium about the same topic.

The take-away: The desire for violence may be art of our genetic makeup, and the fighting sports feed that desire.

Born to Run, Born to Fight?

I’ve spend close to a decade immersed in the world of long-distance running. It’s allowed me to meet thousands of runners from all types of backgrounds, careers, socioeconomic situations, races, and genders. Without exception, all shared one characteristic:

They ran because it satisfied something deep inside. Almost without exception, they felt as if they really were born to run.

During that same time, I also had the opportunity to meet thousands of people that weren’t runners. They fell into two categories: People that hated running and had zero desire to try it (they tended to be highly critical of running) and those that were running-curious.

Over the last year, I’ve experienced this exact same dynamic in the fighting world. Shelly and I have been training at an mma gym where we’re learning the individual disciplines of boxing, kickboxing and Brazilian jiu jitsu (ground fighting sort of like wrestling.) The people that participate report the exact same rationale as the runners.

Likewise, those that are non-fighters fall into the same categories as the non-runners: Those that have no interest (and are the most critical) and those that are fight-curious that want to try it but haven’t taken the plunge.

On a personal level, I find fighting to be eerily similar to ultrarunning. I get the exact same feeling running up and down a remote mountain as I do when rolling on the mat or sparring. I feeds some primal urge that is exceedingly difficult to put into words.

I can intellectualize parts of the experience for me. It’s not about winning. Like running, I’m just as happy when I lose as long as I push my opponent. Like running, there’s a puzzle-like element to the sport. Like running, its physically exhausting and the after-effect is pleasant. Like running, it’s a potentially deadly endeavor. Like running, there’s an “I’m a badass” element because not everyone is willing to try it. Like running, there’s a strategic element of reacting to your competition. Like running, there’s an element of self-reliance. If there’s some sort of disaster, I know I can run away if needed. Likewise, if I’m confronted by an attacker and cannot avoid confrontation, I know I can handle myself.

None of this, however, really gets to the original premise: Fighting is a primal urge. There’s an indescribable feeling associated with the experience.

Is It Possible to Discuss This?

This topic is nearly impossible to discuss because of the nature of the activity. People that don’t feel (thus understand) that primal fight drive really oppose the idea that we have a violence drive.


Violence is scary. It sets up a condition where you’re either a perpetrator or you’re a victim. Opponents, by default, are victims. It’s easier for the opponents to dismiss the idea and work to whitewash society of violence than it is to accept that a sizable chunk of the population has a primal drive for violence.

However, they fail to realize the difference between the primal drive toward violence and violent acts against innocent, non-consensual victims. Two people boxing is fundamentally different than one person mugging another. Furthermore, the former doesn’t increase the likelihood of the latter. The opponents believe this, however, because it makes our world a little more predictable. We want to believe we can make ourselves safe, and this is one such way.

Any discussion on the matter quickly devolves because both sides come from fundamentally different perspectives that cannot be congruent. People that feel a primal drive for violence cannot accept the possibility that this drive does not exist. Likewise, those that believe the primal drive does not exist cannot accept that it might because it makes our world a lot less controllable.

The Hunter-Gatherer Evolutionary Specialization

Like all of us, I like to try t make sense of our world. The “fight drive” is no different. Humans are social animals. It’s why we’re at the top of the food chain. We need each other, and there’s pretty decent evidence we seem to be more or less hard-wired to work in groups limited to about 150 members… our tribe. If we were part of a tribe of about 150 people, our survival would be predicated on specialization. Not everyone in the tribe could be a generalist; we couldn’t have 150 people that did everything poorly. We need people to be really good at particular tasks.

How do we develop this specialization?

Some of us have different drives, which is manifested in personality types. Some people have a drive to be nurturing to care for the young. Some people have a drive to wander and explore to find new resources. Some people have a patience drive to plant and grow foods. Some people have charisma and confidence to lead the tribe. Some people have a violence drive to hunt and protect the tribe.

When these personality types work together, they create a cohesive, successful tribe. Most evolutionary biologists and anthropologists would agree this interdependence defines our evolutionary history.

So what does that mean for us today?

Many of us like to fancy ourselves as being “civilized” in the sense that we’re able to deny our most basic drives. This is evident by the “abstinence-only” sex ed movement. Most of us really like sex. It feels fantastic and releases a cocktail of beneficial neurotransmitters in our brain. Few would argue that our sex drive is ridiculously powerful… yet we like to delude ourselves into thinking we can will ourselves to control it.

The same thing happens with sweet foods. We have a drive to eat sweet things, which seems to have developed to compel us to eat fruits to gain necessary nutrients. Unfortunately we developed candy, ice cream, and pastries. What was once a seasonal “treat” became an easy-to-acquire food that’s difficult to resist. Just like sex, trying to will ourselves to resist the drive is, for almost everyone, a recipe for failure.

Now lets consider a violence drive. If some of us possess this drive, why wouldn’t we accept it and try to find a socially-acceptable outlet? Wouldn’t that make a lot more sense than trying to extinguish it?

In Tucker Max’s video, he talks about the benefits to his well-being from mma training. I can totally relate. When I don’t train, I get antsy. My world doesn’t feel quite right. If enough time passes, depression start to set in. Interestingly, the exact same thing occurred when I ran ultras regularly. Both activities clearly fulfilled something I needed, and their absence had a profoundly negative impact.

It’s also interesting to note that most of us love watching violence, even if we don’t enjoy direct participation. Combat sports have always been popular. As Max noted, mma is the world’s fastest growing sport. Perhaps we also have a primal drive to observe violence, too.


There’s a very real possibility at least some of us are born to fight. I applaud Sisson and Max for addressing this issue, and sincerely hope the primal crowd begins discussing this in more detail. I’ve always been a huge proponent of fully understanding human motivation and sincerely believe we can solve a lot of our societal problems if we can unlock those motives. For example, I don’t think gun control will solve our mass-murder problems here in the U.S. Instead, we need to figure out why some people resort to those behaviors. Understanding how and why some of us seem to have this violence drive is really a key means to that end.

What do you think? Odds are good every single person that reads this will have a strong opinion for or against. I’m really curious what the running crowd thinks. Born to Run (McDougall’s book) made an excellent case for the drive to run developing via evolution. Does our drive to fight develop in the same way? Have you ever tried fighting? What was your experience? If not, have you ever wanted to try? What’s keeping you from trying?

Regardless of your perspective, share your thoughts in the comments.

Also, I want to get as many opinions as possible. If you find this topic interesting, please share via Facebook, Twitter… whatever.



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  1. Tess
    November 20, 2013

    Do you think that the drive to fight is different from the drive to be competitive in general? (Evolutionarily, competition would often have meant fighting — competition for territory, mates, etc.)

    Maybe once someone tries a fighting sport they find it’s a very natural way to satisfy the drive to compete, and those who haven’t tried it or don’t find it appealing have found other ways to satisfy that drive (competing in business or team sports, etc.)

  2. OneBiteAtATime
    November 18, 2013

    Born to fight? Absolutely.

    Think of unattended 2 year olds. Always rolling around with each other…. and for good reason, we’re conditioning each other to fight off sabretooth tigers, angry mama bears or tiger sharks. We’re creating the strength to handle the buck that decides to fight at the end of an eight hour persistence hunt. And, of course, the angry aggression needed to bloody the intruder who thinks he’d like to drag your wife to his cave.

  3. Barefoot TJ
    November 13, 2013

    Where’s the DailyMail story about kids MMA? Got a link? -TJ

  4. The Pooch
    November 12, 2013

    If anyone wants to read more in depth, I would highly recommend “The Blank Slate” by Steven Pinker. He argues (convincingly imho) for the existence of an innate human nature. Part of that human nature is likely an urge towards violence, at least for some of the population, some of the time.

  5. Corey S
    November 11, 2013

    I would agree to some extent that we are “born to fight,” but probably not in the sense that you seem to be exploring above. The notion that we are “born to run” comes from the running man hypothesis that endurance running was an evolutionary specialization that allowed us to overcome the fact that we are, from a comparative physiology perspective, NOT born to fight. No claws, no sharp teeth, not terribly strong, big, or fast, etc. However, I would posit that fighting is more basic that that, and we evolved to fight (and evolved a sense of when or who to fight) in the same way that our nearest evolutionary kin evolved to fight. That is, we fight over territory/resources and genetic survival. Apes and large primates will fight to defend territory or scarce resources, this is obvious and along the lines of some of what you suggest above. Perhaps a more primal drive however is rooted in the social nature of our species you touch on. We evolved to fight for heirarchical dominance, alpha-status and all that. Related to this, we also possibly evolved to fight in order to try to secure that our own genes get passed on rather than those of others. Gorilla and chimpanzees have been observed attacking and killing mating rivals as well as the offspring of mating rivals. Competitive sports, particularly those like fighting, likely allow people to tap into that primal drive to assert dominance over another individual in the tribe without, you know, actually having to kill someone. None of this in any way novel, but I think it is a far simpler explanation as compared to a more high minded or philosophical one. We have the urge to fight because once you strip away the society, laws, and language, we’re just animals, very nearly every animal has some instict to fight.

  6. Tom
    November 11, 2013

    Always been interested, never done it. Not sure why, to be perfectly honest – I think the fear of injury combined with a lack of desire to train really hard at one thing…I’m bad at spending enough time with a technical activity to really develop the skill base.

    Maybe I’ll have to check out a gym nearby – this grabs me more than CrossFit and I could do for a change from pavement pounding. But I this pretending like most (if not all) of us have a violent streak is nonsense.

  7. Bare Lee
    November 11, 2013

    It’s all good, clean fun until you get concussed.

    • Jason
      November 11, 2013

      The same is true of sex.

      • Bare Lee
        November 11, 2013

        Are we discussing consensual concussing?

        • Jason
          November 11, 2013


      • Bare Lee
        November 11, 2013

        Are we discussing sensuous consensual concussing?