Science Questions

Is there a limit to human performance?

Sun, 29th Jan 2012

Part of the show Are any viruses good for you?


Pete Inchaust asked:

Hello there, Naked Scientists!


I am aware of Moore's law, and hope technology can find a way around it when the time comes. What about physiology? I am not a big sports fan, but when I do get a chance to watch talented athletes, it is always so close! They train to beat their best opponents (fighting, golf, tennis, football, etc.) almost feeling random to a point (amazing people). Do we as humans hit an athletic capability wall sometime soon? Our brains seem to be overtaking our bodies pretty quickly. Invention and silicon is, and has been setting more records than muscles for some time now. Are we built to be crafty, brawny, or both? (Performance enhancing drugs, genetic engineering, and CPU overclocking are all fair game!)


G'night guys!


Kat -  In terms of evolution, itís really hard to see because, being able to run a race really fast isn't actually that important for our survival as a species unless we start killing people who can't run fast enough, that might work.  I think just in terms of the physical human body, there may well be Ė and this is assuming weíre not talking about any invention of wonderful drugs which might make people go faster, or manipulating our biology because that might be considered to be cheating.  I think that unless you can actually start breeding people significantly taller or stronger, we are possibly going to reach a limit.  People like Ray Kurzweil and a lot of the futurists say, well there's just going to become a point where weíll have to transcend our biology and start mixing our own tissues with technology and then probably, weíll see another leap in people going faster.  But again, is that cheating?  I don't know.

Dave -  I guess the one kind of evolutionary thing which might work is if effectively we end up selectively breeding people to run faster.  If the fastest runners start breeding with each other then on average, their children will be faster and some of those might be even faster than their parents.  So I guess the only way it might carry on improving, is if athletes keep breeding with each other and not with the rest of us.

Chris -  I suppose to a certain extent, that's kind of already happened Ė this selective breeding. Because if you look at who wins the London marathon every single year, itís always a wiry Kenyan, because they generally have over generations, growing up in a high mountainous area where the environment has put enormous selective pressure on them to be exceptionally geared up to run long distances very fast.  I mean, they run a marathon in the time it took me to do half a marathon and they were sort of able to do that and not look too bad after, but I'm not even close.  I mean, Kat you did the Race for Life and stuff, don't you?

Kat - Yeah, I've done my share of half marathons actually, very, very slowly.  I am tiny and stumpy, but again, itís interesting because marathon running and the kind of sport as a discipline, itís very rarefied so I don't know how much of a real selective pressure there is in daily life which therefore you would have to have a special athlete breeding programme to really get many significant more improvements, I think.

Chris -  I also wondered to what extent it comes down to cheating because what do we define as cheating? At what point do you call eating a diet which is informed by science in a training regimen informed by science and having footwear which has been built informed by science -  to what extent does that constitute cheating? If you had those gadgets compared to people who were doing those races 50 years ago, they would I think justifiably answer or say that you had a number of advantage?

Kat -  Yeah and you've got all these interesting things like a kind of blood doping and stuff like that, and even a lot of athletes will go to high altitude to train because it makes more haemoglobin, more red blood cells in your body, so you can use oxygen more efficiently and is that cheating?  Itís certainly considered cheating when people start injecting themselves with chemicals that make more red blood cells.  So, very interesting to see where sports medicine is going to go and where performance is going to go, and especially if thereís such widespread use of pharmaceuticals to help improve performance.


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Good question.
Certainly with athletes, one can for example have a 1-mile race.  The elite athletes run a sub-4 minute mile, and finish within seconds of each other.  And, then there are all the rest of us who struggle to do a 6 minute mile.

Mentally, the field seems to be much more varied, but perhaps there are still limits.

Chess Grand Masters are well paired with playing chess, and no grand master is too far ahead of the rest of the field.  But, it is obvious that there is also a limit to their skills, and computers can now be made that are better than the Grand Masters.

There are the Savants and Asperger's syndrome individuals that seem to be able to perform amazing feats, in very narrow fields, yet have troubles in more general situations.

In fact, I would imagine if that if one found an individual that could ace one kind of intelligence test, it would not take much to find another intelligence test that they would abysmally fail. CliffordK, Mon, 30th Jan 2012

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