Why No Gather-Sport?

Male and female minds and bodies are optimized for somewhat different purposes. Our distant male ancestors tended to hunt and fight more, while females tended more to gather and care for kids. For example:

Researchers tracked men and women from a rural village in Mexico as they foraged for mushrooms. … Men were less efficient–they traveled farther, went higher, and exerted more effort than women for the same amount of mushrooms. Women also collected a greater variety of mushrooms from more sites. This pattern is consistent with the theory that, during the hunter-gatherer period of human evolution, women honed spatial skills needed for gathering while men honed spatial skills needed for hunting. (more)

Now sports let us show off many kinds of physically-expressed abilities. But it seems to me that most sports emphasize hunting skills, such as chasing, evading, throwing, and hitting, far more than gathering skills, such as visual search and fine finger control. Now it makes sense for men to prefer hunting sports, but oddly females also seem to prefer them; pretty much all sports emphasize hunting more than gathering skills. Why don’t women prefer sports designed to show off the skills for which female bodies were designed?

Now men do seem more keen to show off than women, who seem more keen to observe and evaluate. So we should expect to see more men than women doing sports. And if the fixed costs of creating a sport were high enough, there’d be only one or two sports to play, and they might all be tuned for men. But this hardly describes our world.

Men also seem in general to have more skill variance than women. So if only a small fraction of people, the very best few, played sports, we might expect most of them to be men, even in sports that emphasized gathering skills.  We might prefer sports that show off male skills best, if would be mostly men playing no matter what the sport was. But in fact most people, including most women, play sports, at least during their school years.

So why do both men and women prefer sports that emphasize male hunting type physical skills, over female gathering type skills? Looking for parallels, I notice that women are said to look good in male-style clothes (e.g., suits), far more than men are said to look good in female-style clothes (e.g., dresses). Women also earn more respect succeeding at male-dominated professions than men earn by succeeding at female-dominated professions.

The general pattern in all three cases is that we seem to respect women doing well at what mostly men do far more than we respect men doing well at what mostly women do. For better or worse, male abilities seem to more define which abilities count most for high status. Doesn’t seem fair to women, but there it is.

Added 12a: Yes there are activities that are like gathering.  But to be a sport, an activity must be scored and publicly ranked.

Added 5p: The main puzzle is school girl sports, as adult women do far less sport. The main alternative would be to make fem kids be physically active, but in some more fem like gathering way.  Perhaps this is part of how schools acclimate kids to being ranked – the quick and easy way to do that for girls was to make girls compete in male sports.   Inventing competitive gathering type sports would have taken a lot more work.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • Women have a gathering-based sport that they love. It’s called shopping.

  • Guy Srinivasan

    visual search and fine finger control

    The very first thing I thought of was Starcraft.

  • dWj

    Ironically enough, when I saw “visual search and fine finger control”, I thought hunting, which on this level seems very different in woods with modern firearms than on a savannah where you’re more or less planning to chase the thing to death.

  • David Rotor


    Let me suggest that many of the sports that are considered more accessible to woman (and attract a larger proportion of female to male fans) may have some of the “gatherer” of observing and evaluating skills you describe. I think of artistic gymnastics, figure skating, and my personal favourite, observing beach volleyball. OK, that last one might be more male-centric.



  • David Rotor

    Sorry for the typos – need to put my glasses on

    women not woman
    “gatherer skills” not “gatherer”

  • “visual search and fine finger control”,

    i do many crafts that actually mimic this. both counted cross stitch and needlepoint make you search out the either the minute symbols on the graph or the little painted junctures on the canvas and the creation of over 500 tiny stitches in a typical cross stitch chart is an exceedingly pleasing exercise of fine finger control. searching through and selecting out from the over 400 colors of silky floss available for embroidery would seem to satisfy something like scanning for edible berries and fruits

  • Nate

    I disagree with roughly the first half of this post. One must be careful not to mistake cultural narratives and social constructs for essential, biological characteristics. The study you cite is wholly inadequate evidence to support the still contentious claim that prehistoric Old-Stone age societies divided labor with men being hunters, and women gatherers.
    Even more contentious is the claim that these innate, biological characteristics are responsible for certain aspects of the sports we play. This is really stretching it. Evolutionary psychology lacks the data and the methodology to reach a scientifically valid conclusion on this point. Societies are just too complex, and our views on gender too close to our hearts to be able to make such a claim.
    Perhaps the traditionally accepted view of gender roles in prehistoric hunter gatherer societies is correct, and even that this division of labor has had direct effects on sports in contemporary society, however, the data is lacking to make a sound conclusion. The science just isn’t there to back up these claims.
    I do agree that male abilities count for high status. That being said, I ask you to consider that perhaps it is that things are first recognized as high status, and then deemed essentially male, and not the other way around.

    • vjl110

      “…the still contentious claim that prehistoric Old-Stone age societies divided labor with men being hunters, and women gatherers.”

      The idea that modern humans practice a sexual division of labor is not contentious.

      There is not a single ethnographic case that violates the sexual division of labor. There is variability. Some groups have less overlap in male and female economic behavior (like the Ache and Hadza), some have more (like the !Kung). But the sexual division of labor is not some western creation (if anything we are the closest that any society has come to doing away with it).
      Women rarely hunt in traditional societies, and when they do it is opportunistic rather than actively setting out to hunt (stumble upon a monkey and club it). There are examples of cultures were women hunt (see the Agta), but even within these societies it is a rarity, and due to extremely high group reliance on wild game. There is still a huge sexual division of labor in these societies.
      Men “gather” in nearly every forager group, but they target different resources in different ways (like the mushroom in the cited article), men typically target larger, more dangerous (like honey high in a tree filled with angry bees), more difficult to acquire (like tubers buried deep in the ground) food items that are farther away from camp.

      • Remember, gathering DOES include animals. Trapping, shellfish gathering, fishing, and netting are often counted as “gathering” by anthropologists. Either way, while men might be well-suited for hunting pronghorn out in the desert, in modern hunting in the US, skills like visual search and fine finger control are more important than being able to chase. I’ve seen persistence hunts in video and they do seem a bit like modern sports, but a whitetail deer hunt is more about patience and aim.

        What I’m trying to get at is that whitetail hunting is a perfect sport for the ladies. Plus you get good meat!

  • chesh

    The very first thing I thought of was Starcraft.

    Less facetiously, the high female audience (>50%, IIRC, I don’t have numbers at hand for female:male ratios for more traditionally “hardcore” video games) for PopCap games (Bejeweled, Peggle, Plants vs Zombies) certainly seems to support this hypothesis.

    • Norman Maynard

      Exactly, and I think we can add physical activities like Jacks to this list as well. Hunter activities receive the label “sport,” while gatherer activities receive the label “game.” In line with what Indy posted below, sports tend to occupy larger spaces and involve larger and faster movements than games do, so sports are conducive to having an audience while games are generally not.

      From this perspective, if we think of status as being conferred on whoever has the biggest audience, then it seems rather obvious that sports would convey more status than games. It has very little to do with which gender is better adapted to the activity, and much more to do with what is more attractive to more spectators.

      • adam

        Also the difference between gathering (especially at rich times like after an acorn mast) where everyone adds a to the total output vs hunting where a few very successful hunters add substantially to the output.

    • Farmville is another. As a female gamer my favorite games have always been the collecting variety: Harvest Moon, Dragon Quest Monsters, Pokemon, and Animal Crossing.

  • Indy

    An Easter Egg “Hunt” is, in fact, a gathering activity, and is beloved by children everywhere, and in a typically secularized modern environment, of all denominations. Scavenger hunts are fun and popular as well.

    The game of “Battleship” is essentially a kind of intelligent least-effort gathering. “Where’s Waldo” is also fun and is a mental activity akin to looking for truffles. So, we have plenty of gathering games – they’re just not “sports”, more competitive expression through “mental entertainment” than “physical exertion”.

    The difference is that mind games are simply never as interesting in terms of the perspective of spectator. Not enough visual, rapidly fluctuating, high-tempo drama.

  • Joe

    Regarding the point about “male” activities being given more status, isn’t it just possible that this sort of status has historically been a male concern to begin with? By “this sort of status” I mean global status that comes from objective accomplishments you can put on a CV. In the past, few women would have had much interest in these activities, and their own status-games would have been qualitatively more local and concerned with family and more intimate social relationships.

    I’m reminded once again of Is there anything good about men.

  • Geocaching is an example of an activity that men and women participate in together. It might be slightly male-dominated, but it’s much more balanced than many activities. It’s primarily searching and finding in the gatherer mode, though you don’t actually gather anything.

    Some people treat it as a competitive sport, while many others are happy to do it in a cooperative way.

  • Pingback: With Both Hands()

  • Buck Farmer

    Widespread sports playing for all members of society is a relatively recent and American phenomenon.

    Could it be that signalling cooperation and loyalty is more important for gathering-skill-type activities than signalling differential ability?

  • y81

    “To be a sport, an activity must be scored and publicly ranked.”

    And to be a craft, an activity must be displayed and publicly admired. The real sexual difference is that men are more likely to prefer the activities called “sports” and women are more likely to prefer the activities called “crafts.”

  • jb

    Gathering is boring and has little need for fast reaction time, Hunting is full of adrenaline and “twitch skills”. Literally, no one cares if it takes you an extra 10 milliseconds to pluck that mushroom, but it can mean the difference between success and failure, life and death, to take an extra 10 milliseconds to throw your spear.

    Women may be genetically less bored by gathering, but they are not competing on time or fine-grained skill. In fact, to some degree, absent the tragedy of the commons, they’re not competing at all – they’re cooperatively distributing a task

    Also, women may like to watch hunting games because it helps them identify good mates. They may want to participate in hunting games to meet eligible hunters. Some also find it more exciting than gathering, but then, a large number of women seem to find hunting games uninteresting, and would rather “go shopping”

  • I have always thought that a lot of this bleed over. If my genes content are good for men my female descendants may have some of those same abilities in women though they do not benefit in the females.

  • David, judges may have to evaluat figure skaters, but the skaters themselves are not judged on how well they judge.

    dana, Indy, Chris, yes crafts and hunts use gathering skills, but they are not much done as sports, with visible ranking.

    Nate, vj is right.

    Norman, seems audiences could watch knitting contests, search contests, etc.

    Joe and y81, but then why do women do so much sports now?

  • y81

    “why do women do so much sports now?”

    Do you mean adult women? I don’t think they do. Go to the local country club, or the local yacht club, or the local racquet club, and the competitors are overwhelmingly male.

    If you mean high school and college girls, I would say that it’s a way to burn off energy, spend time with your friends, and possibly improve your college admissions chances. That is at least how my high school daughter approaches it. So far as I can see, athletic excellence does not lead to popularity–with either sex–for girls the way it does for boys. Nor do I observe athletic obsession (of the type Prof. Hansen discussed in a previous post) in many girls.

  • matt

    Following the hunter-gatherer evolution idea, women still would have been forced to be able to defend the cave, correct? They would not have needed to be excellent hunters but rather competent defenders which seems to accentuate the same skills.

    Another thought is that gathering sports would not be even remotely commercially succesful. Women play hunter sports becuase men have already made the structure successful. Of course, this too could fit into the hunter-gatherer idea. I’m not sure how many men or women would pay to watch a woman pick berries for sport, but if a guy hunted down a boar with a crude spear I would watch it. How many events at the Coliseum or the Superdome feature the world’s greatest gardener?

  • Hunting is adrenaline fueled excitement. The excitement of the hunt makes it easier to enjoy vicariously. Fights always draw our attention.

    A theoretical gathering sport, lacking the element of excitement, would not find much of an audience.

    Why does modern hunting (sports) require rules and scoring? Without them they would be unintelligible, unless they were all out death matches, gladiator-style.

    “So why do both men and women prefer sports that emphasize male hunting type physical skills, over female gathering type skills?”

    Because gathering sports don’t exist, at least as we have defined the word sport. Clearly men enjoy sports overall much, much more than women do. If you don’t see that as obvious, you are living in a bubble.

  • Halfway between a sport and an activity are gameshows. There was one called Supermarket Sweep, which was shopping on steroids. Another was Finders Keepers, where kids had to search through cluttered rooms for objects while racing the clock.

    Those were popular enough back in the late ’80s, though not like The Price is Right. They also incorporated enough hunting movements to make it fun — sprinting, for one.

  • Mark

    Hunting game lends itself to open competition. You get bragging rights if you bring the mammoth down, but you need a large group to hunt it effectively. Likewise with smaller game — you need groups to flush out the game, pursue it, surround it, etc. Opportunities for the victors to share in a magnanimous and status-enhancing fashion follow.

    Gathering lends itself to secret competition. If you tip off the other gatherers as to where you are getting the good mushrooms or fruit — or if you even tip them off to the fact that you ARE getting them, they will follow and over-gather your spot.

    Secret competitions do not make for good sports.

  • I just added to the post.

  • Microbiologist

    Robin –
    If you ask me, women should sometimes display male skills even if they don’t really need to use those skills themselves. It makes them more desirable to men since they will bear sons with similar skill levels.

    • Microbiologist

      In other words I like a fierce chick even if I don’t actually want her to ever fight or even intimidate anyone.

      I used to know a bohemic babe who threw knives. Not spontaneously in inappropriate ways, I mean, but as a hobby using actual throwing knives. Turned me on (even more) but it could be my idiosyncrasy. I don’t really know how to do it, but the question is whether men prefer even *non-famous* sportswomen cet paribus. Like, a girl who could beat up in a local 10-miler but not actually approach winning, just place like 10th out of 500. Thus, she is at the 98th percentile for the whole population, exceptional but not enough so to gain status from it.

      By the way I think this may be why modern women pursue status. I find status mildly attractive but not very much. It may be that men want women with with genes such as would confer high status in males but don’t actually want the woman to be one to waste energy on status competition. Since the environment didn’t allow women to pursue status they evolved a general drive to display status; there was no need for them to evolve a drive to specifically display only their male relatives’ status. The non-specificity of this drive is now maladaptive vis-a-vis sexual selection because it causes women to spend intense effort becoming lawyers, hence Roissy’s constant sassing at not-highly-marraigeable female lawyers. Though I admit street observations from Roissy could always be specious in any particular case. And by the way I’m not speaking normatively in these posts.

  • Eric

    Do we really know that adult women participate less in sports? If we discount professional athletes (NFL, NBA, WNBA, etc.), is there any study indicating the number of women participating in sporting activities relative to men?

  • Albert

    By your definition, golf is more of a female sport than a male one, since beginners spend most of the time searching for a mushroom-sized ball in the middle of trees and bushes

  • Miguel Madeira

    Sports are a substitution for activities that we used to do and don’t do anymore.

    Most men don’t hunt in their daily lifes than they need to find a replacement; in compensation, women continue to do many activities that ressembe gathering, then they don’t need a replacement.

  • How about World of Warcraft or Diablo 2. The central attraction of these games is the loot and the status effects of same.

  • Could it be that the OP is taking gender-essentialist assumptions too far? Maybe some activities just happen to be fun for a large number of *humans*, as a function of our being, you know, human.

    Men and women have SOME differences, on average, to be sure, but good grief, sex is not so binary of an attribute that we should expect to be surprised when reality doesn’t conform to the standard ev-psych caveman narrative.

    (That aside, I am not sure what it means that I found the particular line of caveman reasoning indicated in the OP far less obnoxious than the whole “Mathematical Ability Lives In The Penis” thing that seems to be all over the internet these days. But I digress.)

  • Why don’t women prefer sports designed to show off the skills for which female bodies were designed?

    Our mate choice mechanisms don’t have to be so specific. For preference for a potential mate who is good in sports to be selected for, all you have to do is to be attracted to him. You don’t have to realize that being good at sports is an indicator of physical fitness or whatever. Evolution takes care of that for you. Male-type sports confer high status, so females play them.

    As for why most sports tend to show off more hunting type activities, I think there are 2 reasons.

    Firstly, our ancestral division of labor, plus male interest in showing off and competing with other males, led to hunting being the main sport. Then patriarchy made it so that the newer sports that got adopted were mainly male-dominated, and so reflected what males tend to already do. Then came equal rights for women, but unfortunately with status being somewhat bound up with what males already do. So when females seek status, they often end up doing male-type activities.

    Secondly, hunting skills are in general more conducive to having spectators and getting excited about.

  • William H. Stoddard

    Things that are based on gathering are called “games.” Consider, for example, the scavenger hunt, or the Easter Egg hunt, or for that matter rummy or mah jong, where you try to assemble sets of elements in defined useful configurations.

  • Perhaps the relevant skills that increased a woman’s value as a mate were performed in camp and thus easily judged without a distinct competitive activity. For instance everyone can see how well made your clothing or baskets are and everyone might be able to see how much you gathered by seeing how much you carried back into camp. However, a man’s particular contribution to a hunt, and thus the social status he gains with the other men, is less visible thereby requiring some more public kind of contest/ranking to advertise this to the women.

    Personally I would hypothesize that it has to do with the kinds of social behaviors that were valuable in men and woman. Women tend to gain status by being overtly cooperative while men tend to gain more status by overt competition. Why is this so? Maybe it’s because of what I said above.

    Another possible answer is that female kin are more certain than male kin (you might not know who your father is) thus making cooperation more genetically valuable to women since they could better predict who to cooperate with. This could be amplified then as a sex linked characteristic. Also it likely stems from differences in the activities undertaken. One can offer an almost limitless list of just-so stories.

    I’m comfortable with the fact that women seem predisposed toward a more overtly cooperative type of social hierarchy but as for why it seems this diverges too far from the strong pressures that allow one to make guesses educated in this area.

  • What about cooking, sewing and knitting?

    I believe these are ranked at county fairs and such, and these are traditionally female dominated competitions.

    Another thing to look at would be the talent component of beauty pageants.

  • Sports, as they are practiced in modern, adulatory society, strike me as bit “hunter” and a bit “gatherer.”

    “Sport,” in its intrinsic state, may express itself closer to the complete “hunter” profile, but as expressed amidst the plethora of cult of celebrity, endorsements, scores, standings, statistics, teams, ranks, awards, judges, medals, uniforms, colors, fandom, contracts, wealth, clownishness, strikes me as an activity torn between its hunter roots and modern gatherer tendencies.

    Imagine a football league in which scores are not tracked, teams are loosely knit and dynamic conglomerations of individuals competing in spontaneous spurts of non-publicized competition, in which there are no judges or referees or crowds or uniforms, and hence, no acclaim for the players involved…would this not more closely mimic the ideal of “sport” than its plastic show biz manifestation which I assert is a nothing but a glittery psychological form of “gatherer?”

  • I completely disagree with the major premise of this article. “Games” as played in modern life are not practice for hunting animals for food, they are practice for killing other humans in combat or war. Team sports especially.

    When I played high school football many years ago, every metaphor that the coaches used was a war-type metaphor. They were all euphemisms for defeating and killing opponents.

    The use of females in such games are as cheerleaders, scantily clad females; transparently representative of something to be fought over.

  • Pingback: More on “Why no gather-sports?” « This Sporting Life()

  • If anyone is still curious about Robin’s fascinating question after this great comment thread, I pursued it down the rabbit hole over two long posts on my philosophy-of-sport blog, This Sporting Life. There first post is here.

  • Pingback: Feminism: Why has feminism focused primarily on encouraging women into male-dominated activities but not men into female-dominated activities? - Quora()