Darwin and Baseball

Baseball is an incredibly complex game when you consider the physics involved, and I’ve often thought about Darwinian evolution in the context of baseball, and the other way around.

You’ve got the pitcher on the mound throwing that ball at 90+ miles per hour. This pitch is the culmination of decades of practice resulting in a trajectory that may go slow, go fast, curve in or out or drop suddenly as it approaches the plate. The particular trajectory of that ball is a combination of several factors; secretive communication between the the pitcher and the catcher, the circumstances of the game at that particular time, the strengths and weaknesses of the batter and the pitcher and other factors as well, including the weather at the time.

Then you’ve got the hitter and the split second data collection, analysis and decisions facing him as the ball approaches. First of all the batter must have three dimensional eyes capable of tracking a small object approaching him at a high rate of speed.  To be successful in hitting the ball he has to anticipate and predict where exactly the ball will or will not enter the strike zone. Then he has to coordinate the muscles of his entire body to place his bat in the path of the ball with the optimum force and impact angle. The batter is also faced with the almost instantaneous decision about where to hit the ball.  Most often he will fail in one or more of these decisions and miss the ball or hit it to an unintended place such as the center fielder’s glove.

Speaking of the center fielder, look at what he is faced with at the instant the ball is hit, and the seconds to follow. Assuming he places himself in a good position to get a jump on the ball, he must almost immediately analyze where the ball will go as it leaves the bat and  and launch his body to that anticipated location; a mistake here means the batter has the advantage. Let’s assume the fielder is near the extent of where he has to run in order to intercept the ball for an out; he has to continuously calculate his path in coordination with his analysis of the trajectory of the ball.

At the end of this attempted intercept, and depending on whether he is successful or not, the fielder is faced with yet another set of real-time decisions and actions. If runners are in play the fielder must instantaneously shift his attention to stopping or retarding the runners on base.  If the fielder does not catch the ball, and it bounces off the outfield wall, these decisions are further compounded.

It would seem the runners, including the batter have the easier task at this point, somewhat leisurely watching the play of the ball and fielder and running or not depending on what is seen. Nevertheless, observation, analysis and action are in play.

I’ve not mentioned other aspects of the game that on the surface seem even more intricate and complex such as a close double play and the glove work involved. Nor have I mentioned the work of the game officials in calling strikes/balls and safe/out.

So back to Mr. Darwin and his modern counterparts.  I offer this challenge:

Please explain in Darwinian terms how the complexities of baseball and all of the human systems involved came to pass.

Don Johnson – March 2012

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10 responses to “Darwin and Baseball

  1. Thehaymarketbomber

    And why exactly would anyone bother to do that?

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  3. So your argument is that God made humans with the direct intent for them to one day play baseball? No, you argue that because of the complexity, weather, gravity, and the law of physics were also created specifically to play baseball. Either way you look at your argument, it is stupid. If you follow evolution, the basic skill set we utilize and train to become baseball players (of which only an extreme minority of the human population can play to the level which you describe above) is the culmination of millions of year of evolution. The evolution of stereoscopic eyesight, bipedal posture, opposable thumbs, balance, dexterity and tool use can be understood by reading basic primate-human evolutionary literature. To my knowledge, none of the faculties we utilize in baseball are limited to baseball, however many of them were integral to our evolution, from our utilization of a dangerous 3d environment (living high up in trees), avoiding predation, or adapting to grasslands and nomadic lifestyles. These are obviously just a few examples, I leave it to you to do the basic reading needed to further understand your own evolution. Just like much of irreducible complexity, your bias is the very idea of purpose. If all of the physical and mental abilities (and physical laws) required to play baseball were not used in any other way, then yes, you would have an argument that their purpose was for playing baseball and there was no way they would evolve. That is not the case. That is equivalent to saying that because gravity brings the ball back down to the catcher, gravity was created for baseball. Which you do imply above.
    The other way to look at this is from the creationist’s point of view. Your question (in conjunction with the beliefs you have expressed in other posts) implies that people who are professional baseball players were created for the purpose of playing baseball, because those skill sets must not have any other use which would increase human fitness, because this would support their development through evolution. What you seem to be arguing is that because specialization and complexity of the activity, we must have been created. I think you would have a difficult time convincing anyone that humans, gravity, etc were created to play baseball. First off, the majority of people are terrible or unable to play, but they may have all of the same physiological mechanisms as an MLB player. So why would those people have the same skill sets (not to mention gravity, physics, etc.) Second, even the best players have skill sets which pail in comparison to much of the animal kingdom. Reflexes, strength, speed, eyesight, jumping coordination, etc., if we were created to play baseball, the creator must have run out of all the good parts. Three, depending on your view of the world, humans have been around for roughly 200,000 or 6000 years. Why did it take so long for baseball to be created, and what did we do with the abilities unique to baseball before this point? Finally, if there is a creator, there is a purpose for our existence, what is the purpose of baseball? Tailgating? So comcast has something to broadcast? Some desire to figure out the dumbest possible reason people will hate each other (Yankees-Socks)? To give the world one more reason to ridicule Americans?
    Ultimately, some people utilize the given physical abilities we possess and the inherent physical and chemical laws to play sports. This does not in any way enable us to critically think about evolution or the creation of everything we know.

  4. Thanks for your reply. I am not even that much of a baseball fan although it is one of the most fascinating games in terms of it’s many nuances such as the one on one matchups between pitcher and batter and the one vs. nine matchup between the batter and the defense.
    No, I’m not trying to claim baseball as the motivation behind creation, just thought it might be a useful rhetorical and intellectual framework for thought and discussion.
    In any case, again, thanks for your input.

  5. Another rhetorical and intellectual framework that could be used would be in the area of human intellect. For example music; how can/does evolution come to grips with the creative mind and spirit of a Beethoven or John Williams? Or how does evolution come to grips with the massive amounts of creative literature created through the ages? Or how does evolution come to grips with the creative search for the answers of the great questions of the ages?
    I suspect one day the scientists will come up with the “Theory of Everything”. But it will be lacking in at least one area, that being human intellect and creativity; that will have to be left to the theologians who can answer with “Let us make man in our image.” (Genesis 1:26)

  6. Am I missing something here or is this not a serious question? Baseball didn’t evolve through Darwinian natural selection. The complexities of the game of baseball doesn’t seem to hold any real relevance to Darwin. As for part two of the question – Is it not fairly obvious how natural selection lead to complex motor functions and the development of “muscle memory?”

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  9. Ronald Vander Griend

    Common sense is the best way to approach this. Our unique physical abilities over other species were from the earliest of time used for both good and evil. There is plenty of data to show games were part of early civilization. We also know the ability to use those abilities were used for war activities. The skill of throwing a projectile is even demonstrated in the famous Davis and Goliath story. As I person I enjoy baseball as a game ( leaving the politics of the game aside). However man has used it’s intelligence to create projectiles that can kill without any skill at all. This just proves that given enough time man will take something that is good like unique physical skills and mix it with the intelligence and create something evil. Try to find one thing God has given the ability for man to use our creative mind where someone will not eventually use it for evil. Like a new car that under natural laws will eventually turn to rust any thing created for the good of man will be used for evil purposes. As it is written “good shall be evil and evil shall be called good. Thank goodness this shall one day end.

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