The Five Finger Fallacy

Fitness blogs and forums are flooded with harsh debates over Vibram Five Fingers, and barefoot running in general. Inspired by Born to Run, some argue that barefoot is the only reasonable way to run simply because humans evolved for it. However, this conclusion is false, or put more bluntly: romanticized wishful thinking. Here’s why.

When optimizing for multiple functions at the same time, no single part will likely be the best possible. The cost to make one part optimal is unproportionally high for other parts and therefore not worth it. This applies to anything, also to evolution.

An eye can see far distances and up close, wide and focused, in bright light and low. Evolution balances these properties based on the environment and other properties of the species. Since no function is perfect, a human can see further with binoculars and closer with a microscope, even if she has “perfect” vision. One could probably make a pair of binoculars even for falcons, that would let them see further.

The human foot has evolved to stand, walk, run, kick, balance, jump and many other, more or less specific, tasks. Similar to the eye, it is reasonable to expect that the foot is not optimal for either task. The fact that world records are set and championships are won with shoes, indicate that technology can improve on nature also in running.

Not that the need to balance matters. Even if the foot evolved only for running, it wouldn’t nescessarily be the best possible. In nature, running doesn’t matter; safe, long, quick, energy efficient and accurate transportation does. Despite this, evolution stumbled over bikes, cars and aeroplanes only a hundred years ago. Evolution isn’t perfect.

There are many examples where technology improves on nature. Glasses help bad eyes. Microscopes improve even perfect ones. Similarly, technology can likely improve on the function of feet.

Is running barefoot better than running with shoes? I don’t know, and neither does science. Whatever the case, arguing that barefoot running is good because it is natural, or because humans evolved for it, is wrong. Barefoot may be the Holy Grail of running, but scientific research and personal experience should determine that, not romanticized fairy tales.