147 Maximum Ape

Contingency is a fundamental concept in evolution. Chance events and the vagaries of history set animals along evolutionary trajectories that are less optimal strategies, and more strategies that make the most of a bad situation.  As the immortal Christopher Hitchens so simply put:

Even with all the advantages of retrospect, and a lot of witnesses dead and gone, you can’t make your life look as if you intended it or you were consistent. All you can show is how you dealt with various hands.

We know from experience the role contingency plays in each of our lives. At times*, it can outweigh the relentless driving force of adaptive evolution. Indeed, chance events may be our best explanation for why there are so many different types of animals and plants on this planet; without contingency we would likely be looking at a much more depauperate, uniform world.

For one thing we would not have snooker. For those US readers, snooker is basically gentleman’s pool. Matches can last several days, waistcoats and bow-ties are compulsory, and a butler is present to polish the balls. Do yourself a favor and google it. I spent my undergraduate days in Sheffield, the home of world snooker. Aptly named ‘the Crucible’, Sheffield’s premier snooker hall is filled with as much drama and intrigue as any theatrical show. The city comes alive during world championship season, with the excitement on the streets reaching fever-pitch levels. Frankly, to see that many people take something so silly, so seriously, is life-affirming. I like all sport for that reason, but as an evolutionary biologist, snooker lends a special appeal to me as it is the the most perfect physical embodiment of primate evolution.

No other animals on earth could even attempt snooker. Only several key innovations, unique to the history of primates, make snooker possible. Most obviously, in order to reach the table, one must affect an upright posture. This is not trivial. Most animals require all limbs for balance. Bears and horses can rear up on their hind legs temporarily, but certainly not for the 72 hours required to make it through the grueling 35 frame final in South Yorkshire.

Not only does an upright posture allow us to see the table, it also frees up our hands to hold the cue. Incidentally, freeing up the hands is our best guess for why we stood up in the first place, although then it was for picking berries off the forest floor, rather than phenomenal break-building. Of course, being upright is necessary but not sufficient. In order to deftly sink colors and control the cue ball, one also requires precision grip. The opposable thumb is another adaptation that arose to improve our ability to manipulate food, but again we can co-opt that adaptation (very common in evolution by the way) to different purposes.

So now we have the tools to physically play the game, but we have several adaptations to go before we can actually comprehend what we are doing, i.e. be any good at the game. For instance, it would behoove us to know what balls we were aiming at, and thus color vision seems a rather important prerequisite for snooker**. Even in pool, when the balls are numbered, the issue is not circumvented because the ability to count requires the final primate adaptation we will discuss.

We are a self-aggrandizing bunch, and our species will take any opportunity to laud it over the rest of the animal kingdom with our big brains. It is true that our cognitive abilities are the primary trait that set us apart from other species, and certainly without such processing power, we would not be tearing up the pool halls anytime soon. The main power that our big brains bestow upon us is that of foresight. Very few animals can look past the here and now, to predict future outcomes, or make plans. In order to be even remotely competent at something like snooker requires being able to at least guess where the balls are going to end up after you hit them. This seems pretty easy to us, but as I say, most animals do not have such clairvoyance. In addition, as alluded to previously, big brains are required for counting to any substantial number. With 147 points available on the table at the start of a frame, mathematical skills are as important for snooker as they are for darts. The games we play…


*mass extinction events are the most obvious example

**having said this, I have fond memories of my maternal grandparents glued to the professional snooker on a black-and-white television set! Adds an extra challenge for the spectator I guess, but it didn’t make any sense to me then, and it doesn’t make any sense to me now. 

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