Review by Kevin Orrman-Rossiter
Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance
by Christopher McDougall
This book is equal parts adventure story, speculative history, and folk-science. The adventure story focuses on a group of British resistance ‘dirty tricksters’ on German occupied Crete in 1943-4 and the kidnapping, disappearance, of the joint commander, General Heinrich Kreipe, on April 24, 1944. This adventure story is quite fascinating reading. Then with journalistic flair and little historical rigour, the author, McDougall, re-imagines the paths and methods he imagines the ‘dirty tricksters’ took to carry out the kidnapping. Where the book fails by being misleading is that McDougall then states that that the British ‘tapped into an ancient style of fitness: the lost art of heroes’ to survive and thrive on occupied Crete. The book becomes mythology, not history and the science can only be generously described as ‘folk-science’. This breathless “boys’ own” presentation is quaintly misleading at best, at worse possibly dangerous if taken as ‘truth’ by a gullible public rolling along on the next ‘secrets to a healthy life’ craze, too which McDougall is no stranger.
In 2010 Christopher McDougall published his other book: Born to Run: The Hidden Tribe, the Ultra-Runners, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. This came in on the worldwide craze for bare-foot running, benefiting by association and bringing it to the notice of a wider, possibly recreational running, audience. This natural running craze came to a shuddering legal halt in 2014 when the minimalist shoe manufacturer Vibram, was successfully sued in a US court. The initial claim, filed in 2012, accuses Vibram of deceiving consumers by saying that its shoes could “reduce foot injuries and strengthen foot muscles.” Unfortunately, Vibram appears to have pulled this out of thin air, really hoping it was true.
Adventure story aside Natural Born Heroes similarly rides the current discourse wave about the impact of diet in endurance sport. McDougall’s contribution is the claim to have uncovered the “modern fitness revolution”, just as “Born to Run got runners off the treadmill and into nature” so will Natural Born Heroes inspire you to dump the gym membership get into free-running and Greek martial arts. In both books he poses the question “what are their secrets?” and then goes on to expound the (his) solution. In Natural Born Heroes the author maintains the Cretans utilised a diet low on carbohydrates, using stored body fat, and relied on fascia, not muscle to give them their (famed) ‘springy’ running ability up the steep goat tracks of the Cretan mountains.
McDougall proposes the quite reasonable, but unsubstantiated, claim that the British insurgents mimicked their native hosts to survive in the wilderness of Crete and carry out their daring kidnapping. As a journalist we can allow him some licence to develop a good story. McDougall then takes this a step too far, presenting his story as scientific fact. He intersperses each ‘historical” claim with a visit to a lab, to talk about the elastic properties of the fascia (tissues that encase muscle and form their own cross-body network), to parkour (Free-running) and pankration (Greek martial arts) practitioners to link these modern practices with the ancient heroes of mythology. By association, not proof, McDougall leaves the reader with the strong impression that he has uncovered the strength and endurance secret of ancient heroes. The links are tenuous at best and wishful thinking (i.e. the Vibram natural running case) at best.
McDougall’s book is an interesting story with some very speculative ideas. If you want to read an interesting adventure story then by all means read this – but skip every second chapter. These chapters, in the manner, which they are presented, and the hype attached to the claims by the publisher, make this a book I would not recommend, and certainly not as a science book.
Kevin Orrman-Rossiter is a freelance science writer and reviewer. His writing has features in COSMOS magazine, Books&Publishing, and online on Australian Science lucid thoughts and dragon laughing . Originally studying physics, Kevin had a successful research career, reaching the heady heights of an ARC Queen Elizabeth II Fellow, then after being lured into the fascinating world of industry research, he ended up some years later, in marketing and strategy. When not writing, reviewing, or reading books to review, Kevin is now found; forming links between Australian industry and researchers at the University of Melbourne, reading (what a lovely quaint term) History & Philosophy of Science at University of Melbourne, and, in defiance of ageing gracefully, trail running .