Scientist Identifies Evolutionary Basis of Love for Golf

Sri Dūngargarh Ur-golfers, working on their short game.

In his new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, the retired Harvard sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson writes about the “innate affiliation” that humans feel with landscapes that resemble “those environments in which our species evolved over millions of years in Africa.”  That is to say, golf courses.

“Studies have shown,” Wilson writes, “that given freedom to choose the setting of their homes or offices, people across cultures gravitate toward an environment that combines three features, intuitively understood by landscape architects and real estate entrepreneurs. They want to be on a height looking down [tee boxes], they prefer open savanna-like terrain [fairways] with scattered trees and copses [rough], and they want to be close to a body of water, such as a river, lake, or ocean [hazards].” For a good example of just such a landscape, you need look no farther than the photograph at the top of this page, which I took last spring at Royal County Down Golf Club, in Newcastle, Northern Ireland. Here’s another, from Cruden Bay Golf Club, in Scotland:

Cruden Bay Golf Club, Scotland, April, 2008.

And the game itself is biologically resonant. Part of its addictiveness, for those of us who are hooked, arises from the thrill of effecting action at a distance—a form of satisfaction that must also have been known to our spear-throwing ancestors. A golfer is a hunter. Stiffing it on a par 3 and felling a woolly mammoth are parallel thrills. We are as nature made us.

Women don’t necessarily feel the same way about golf, and there’s an evolutionary explanation for that, too: men are chromosomally predisposed to doing virtually anything their wives don’t want them to do. (My first literary agent, an enlightened woman, provides ironic support for this hypothesis. For many years, she has tried to persuade her husband to take up golf—“I want to be a golf widow,” she told me once—but he has refused.) Such innate contrariness must have given our humanoid ancestors a powerful evolutionary advantage. A possible scenario: Female cave people implored their mates to spend more time around the cave, picking up saber-tooth tiger bones and entertaining the children; those who complied watched their families slowly starve to death, while those who ignored their mates and went hunting instead survived. In such beneficent behavior we may be seeing evidence of the forerunner of the modern golf gene.