Darwinism and the Cultural Evolution of Sports


This article outlines a Darwinian approach to sports that takes into account its profoundly cultural character and thereby overcomes the traditional nature-culture dichotomies in the sociology of sport. We argue that there are good reasons to view sports as culturally evolved signaling systems that serve a function similar to (biological) courtship rituals in other animals. Our approach combines the insights of evolutionary psychology, which states that biological adaptations determine the boundaries for the types of sport that are possible, and pure cultural theories, which describe the mechanism of cultural evolution without referring to sport’s biological bases. Several biological and cultural factors may moderate the direct effect that signaling value has on a sport’s viability or popularity. Social learning underlies many aspects of the cultural control of sports, and sports have evolved new cultural functions more-or-less unrelated to mate choice as cultural evolution itself became important in humans.