Christopher Ryan Ph.D.

Civilized to Death

The Naturalistic Fallacy Fallacy (Part I)

How running shoe manufactures profit by subverting human nature.

Posted Jun 22, 2016

Any critique of civilization triggers mention of the “naturalistic fallacy.” “Remember,” someone will say, “is doesn’t imply ought.” And they’ll be right. Just because something exists in nature doesn’t make it necessarily healthy or wonderful. There are plenty of lethal snakes, poisonous berries, and infectious microbes in any jungle. Nature is no place for carelessness, ignorance, or delusions of immortality. Despite the impression you may get in the grocery store, “All Natural” doesn’t necessarily mean better, safer—or anything at all, really.

But the naturalistic fallacy is only fallacious up to a point, after which the whole thing collapses. Consider shoe design. Now, we can certainly choose to ignore what “is” (the natural shape and function of the human foot) in arriving at what “ought” to be a great shoe design. But if we do, we’ll end up with shoes that may look interesting enough to qualify as art and justify a hefty price, but forget about walking or even standing in them for long. And running is out of the question.

In 2013, Nike, Adidas, and Puma respectively made $14.5 billion, $9.4 billion, and $1.9 billion from their footwear divisions.  That’s an awful lot of money for an industry based on shoes that largely ignore the feet within them. In Born to Run, his 2010 bestseller, Christopher McDougall pulls no punches in telling the story of how Nike essentially convinced a generation of joggers to ignore the evolved bio-mechanics of the human body and run in an unnatural, debilitating way that required the purchase of their overpriced, utterly unnecessary products. This was great for their bottom line but ultimately resulted in tens of thousands of running injuries and incalculable indirect costs to human health. McDougall quotes a financial columnist describing Nike’s plan as, “brilliant.” “[They] created a market for a product and then created the product itself. It’s genius, the kind of stuff they study in business schools.” You may think it’s unfair to focus on Nike, but McDougall disagrees. “Blaming the running injury epidemic on big, bad Nike seems too easy,” he writes, “but that’s okay, because it’s largely their fault.”

Nike was founded by two men: Phil Knight, who basically set up the manufacturing and sales side of the business, and Bill Bowerman, the track coach at the University of Oregon who designed and made Nike’s first running shoe in his basement (poisoning himself in the process, by the way). “Bowerman’s deftest move,” McDougall writes, “was advocating a new style of running that was only possible in his new style of shoe [which] allowed people to run in a way no humans safely could before: by landing on their bony heels.” McDougall doesn’t think that Bowerman advocated this heel-strike running style with the intention of causing injury to anyone; he just thought competitive runners could get a bit more speed by extending their legs further out in front of them, and his new shoe would cushion the impact on the joints of the leg. But once it became clear that casual American joggers would pay high prices for Nike’s cushioned running shoes manufactured of cheap materials in low-cost foreign sweat-shops, the money train was rolling down the tracks, and there was no stopping it. Eventually, Bowerman regretted what he’d helped put in motion. In a letter to a colleague, he complained that Nike was all about making money, and “distributing a lot of crap.”

There were good reasons for Bowerman’s second thoughts. By accepting the legitimacy of the naturalistic fallacy, Nike had rejected what is (the evolved design of the feet, the knees, the spine, etc.) in proposing a new way that human beings ought to run. The results have been disastrous for everyone but shoe manufacturers, for whom they’ve generated billions of dollars. McDougall quotes Daniel Lieberman, professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University, “A lot of foot and knee injuries that are currently plaguing us are actually caused by people running with shoes that actually make our feet weak, cause us to over-pronate, give us knee problems. Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented by Nike, people ran in very thin-soled shoes, had strong feet, and had much lower incidence of knee injuries.”

When Lieberman says, “until 1972,” he’s referring to the hundreds of thousands of years human beings have been running around just fine without cushioned shoes. Our species is replete with evolved traits that demonstrate that our ancient ancestors were highly efficient long-distance runners. We ignore the inherited design of our bodies at our own peril. As Lieberman puts it, “Humans really are obligatorily required to do aerobic exercise in order to stay healthy, and I think that has deep roots in our evolutionary history. If there’s any magic bullet to make human beings healthy, it’s to run.” But not the way Nike taught us to run.

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