The introductory chapter for Man the Footballer: Homo Passiens, available to order today from our online bookshop.

A spectre is haunting the university corridors, the libraries, the classrooms and lecture theatres, the journals, the laboratories, the field stations, the professors, the academics, and students of evolutionary biology. A spectre that challenges and revises, and yet simultaneously upholds and maintains the fundamental principles of evolutionary science, originally outlined by Charles Darwin in his famous book On the Origin of Species published in November 1859.

Evolutionary science is having a nervous breakdown. A new evolutionary discipline has emerged in recent years, one that threatens to challenge and defeat some of the most basic notions of what it is to be Homo– or human – and of why the human brain is shrinking for the first time in our evolutionary history. This discipline is known as bipedal neoteny, as discovered and articulated by Professor Gordon P. McNeil at the University of St Andrews in Scotland; it states that the species known as Homo actually consists of two species, or subspecies – not one as previously taught in all disciplines that inform evolutionary science – and that Homo sapiens is the subordinate and not the nominate, or founder, species. The nominate species is Homo passiens (perhaps better termed, Man the Footballer), which predates sapiens by millions of years, and falls under the category “superspecies”. Our ancestor primates descended from the trees around 5 million years ago, became fully functioning bipeds from around 2.5 million years ago, and thereafter their brains grew steadily until some 200,000 to 100,000 years ago. However, sapiens may be dated to only around 200,000 years ago. The growth of the large human brain predates sapiens by more than two million years, and is directly correlated to the earlier appearance of Homo passiens in the record.

In early 1992, Professor Gordon P. McNeil and his team from St Andrews, working in East Africa, announced the discovery of an almost complete skeleton of a young man, dating back to 0.9 million years ago. In his statement to the press, Professor McNeil said that this young man had the physique of an athlete, that he was certainly right-sided, and that his athletic stature and the injuries he had received during life reminded him of a young professional footballer in his prime. “Homo passiens,” he smiled. “Man the Footballer”. He named him Gordon, not after himself but after his favourite footballer, Gordon Smith of Hibernian and Scotland, the famous right-winger of the great 1950s team.

The joke was quickly passed around the world’s media: that humans had evolved bipedalism to play football. But it was soon forgotten. Professor McNeil did not immediately follow up his suggestion that the bipedalism expressed in football had played a significant role in evolution, or indeed that football was the initiating and driving force of language, civilisation, culture and everything that we associate with being human. In fact, it was another decade before news of this astonishing discovery and its implications for the science of evolution began to gain traction in the various fields of evolutionary science, and to attract a new generation of scholars to the hypothesis that Homo sapiens was merely a subspecies of the genus Homo, and that H. passiens was actually the original founder and nominate species.

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Artist’s impression of athletic, right-sided “Man The Footballer” based on skeletal remains from 0.9 million years ago, unearthed in East Africa.

I was introduced to the Professor by friends in the winter of 2010. They were involved with a group of radical journalists, musicians, writers, scientists, poets and ageing fanatics of Hibernian Football Club who regularly met in the Albert Camus Tavern in George Street, Edinburgh, to talk about football brains, football genes, football hormones, football anatomy, football metabolism, football glands, football history, football philosophy, football economics, football politics … and everything else football, including Football Man – H. passiens. The Professor was legendary among this loquacious and bibulous crew, who told me that he was both an anthropologist and palaeontologist, who had studied the evolution and history of football at St Andrews University. Of course it was well known that the game of football began in China, although the modern version was forged in England.

Gordon P. McNeil, however, had proved beyond doubt, during his lifetime of meticulous evolutionary research, that football was far more ancient than that – indeed it had developed much earlier in our prehistoric and evolutionary past. The fact that he shared his name with the greatest right-winger in the world, Gordon Smith of the wonderful Hibernian team of the 1950s may have been coincidental, but he was happy to let many people, when the occasion allowed it, to assume that he was the other footballer. (Readers may be interested to know that the Author remembers the Hibs team as a schoolboy, and was present when they thrashed Manchester United 5–0 at Easter Road before 40,000 fans. Yes, these were the Busby Babes. Smith was unstoppable that floodlit evening and scored a brilliant goal.)

I explained to the Professor at our first meeting that I was interested in the growth and evolution of the human brain (and its recent contraction – the shrinking human brain) and that his work was not unconnected to mine, because the initial growth was from 2.5 million years ago, when humans were well established as upright and bipedal – the key to expansion of the human brain. I asked him if I could interview him about his work.

Gordon: Of course, Mike. Let’s see where it may lead. The key moments or steps – or better still, kicks – are upright bipedalism and the narrow pelvis that forced our ancestors to exit the birth canal after nine months of pregnancy. This in turn resulted in the growth of the brain and, more importantly, its development for three decades after birth – a potent forcing ground for the growth of cognition, language and culture during an extended childhood. It’s not found in other primates. Johan Huizinga quite brilliantly noticed this – the role of play in all human culture – not only as a function, but rather as the key generating influence. Only the genus Homo preserves play into adulthood, and this brings us to neoteny – the preservation of embryonic forms into the fully formed adult, which goes hand in hand with early birth, big brains, extended childhood and juvenilia, long legs, domed head, flat face. They’re all aspects of development that are lost in primate adults, but retained in humans. We are essentially bipedal primate infants grown large and breeding as adults.

Mike: I know about this, Gordon. The Mexican axolotl, my favourite species, comes to mind, a beautiful example of neoteny. It is born as a fish and transmutes into a salamander. If there is no iodine in the lake, the juveniles fail to form thyroid-stimulating hormones and cannot therefore metamorphose into the adult salamander form. But they solve this brilliantly by activating sexual maturity and developing into large breeding adult versions of the embryonic form. Humans express this quite beautifully. If you look at any primate infant you can see the face of your local bank manager! Exactly like the adult Homo sapiens. Later the chin develops forward and the brow angles backward to form an adult. Essentially the Homo species is that of a foetal primate that expresses a form of arrested development, that does not metamorphose into the adult form. In our case it seems that it is bipedalism and the narrow pelvis that is decisive.

Gordon: Well said, Mike. Homo species is in denial of its true heritage as a large breeding bipedal primate infant. It is also in denial that its brain is an embodied bipedal organ, and that it is simply a quite recent offshoot of the founder species, H. passiens – and one with a questionable future. Homo sapiens has arrogated to itself the notion that it is the only, and full, expression of an intelligent Homo species, and it seeks to take credit for all the aspects that we associate with being truly human. Far from it – not only has sapiens denied its evolutionary origins – Homo passiens – but it denies its juvenility, and playfulness, as the foundation of all human culture. You only have to attend a football match to negate this ridiculous notion – the fans have no such illusions.

Mike: You mean the dream-game.

Gordon: Yes I do. Fans watching a football game enter a state of lucid dreaming. Call it a state of emotional homeostasis associated with, and ‘activated by’, rapid eye movements, or REM, in the passienic region of the hippocampus – a kind of lucid dream enactment behaviour expressed by gamma-wave frequency and dopamine activation – along with motor-affective resonance, generated by the mirror neuron system. A dream-game, not dissimilar to aboriginal dream-time experiences. Emotion-specific dream-enacting behaviours correlate positively with mirror behaviour emotive expression – in particular anger or joy, the pain of losing, or the pleasure of winning. Only play, and in particular bipedal football, can demonstrate this ancient and prehistoric expression of the embodied collective unconscious, which is both bipedal and Passienic, and articulated collectively in the dream-game, by players and fans.

Mike: Is this cultural epigenetics?

Gordon: Yes indeed! Generated by and articulated in play – and profoundly influencing gene expression. Play is one of the highest expressions of emotional–cognitive regulation. It’s how a child uses emotional expression as a survival strategy to learn just what works, and what does not work, in relation to obtaining the necessary social armour – like parents and other people – to survive. To get food and be nurtured. At any football game you will invariably find a much higher ratio of Jungian psychologists to Freudian psychologists. Jung himself said: “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity”.


The Cernes Abbas Giant as it appeared in 990 A.D., created to celebrate Cernes Abbas F.C. winning the cup for the tenth time. The trophy in the giant’s hand was later removed and replaced with a giant club – the version we are more familiar with today.

Mike: Is this associated with the fanabbinoid hormones, close relations of the cannabinoids? The hormones in the system are fanandamide-1 and fannandamide-2. Fanandamide-1 is for reward and pleasure, and fanandamide-2 is for anger and fear.

Gordon: That’s right. They’re located in the nucleus accumbens, one in each cerebral hemisphere. Only recently discovered, of course, by the brilliant team at the Passienic University of Socrates and Pele in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Mike: That’s interesting. The same region also correlates with reward and reinforcing stimuli, and to addiction? That is, to learning and dopamine pathways. May this in any sense be connected to the universal culture of drug taking in all ancient and modern societies?

Gordon: You bet. Let’s follow this up later.

Mike: Thank you, Gordon. Where can we meet to continue this discussion?

Gordon: May I suggest the Homo Ludens Bar, in George Street?

Mike: Okay. Until then …

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