Spot the differences
In my last article I wrote about how aesthetic forces lead to a shift in the appearance of things that can impede their original function.
It’s time to revisit the wonder of the natural world and see how and observe how environmental conditions and needs take things from across time, space and culture and make them look similar.
I’m going to start with one of my favourite examples. Take a look at the two pictures of snakes below. I’m not just showing them to you because they are pretty.
One of them is a python - internally it has two lungs, it lays eggs and it lives in South East Asia - Indonesia, New Guinea and a little bit of Australia. The species is Morelia viridis, usually known as the Green tree python.
The other one is a boa has a single lung and has live babies and lives in South America. It’s name is Corallus caninus - commonly known as a the Emerald tree boa.
These two animals live half the world apart and are not closely related. But they both live in tropical rainforests, where they chill out on branches in the day and ambush prey at night. They both have good length teeth (the boa has the longest teeth proportional to head size of any non-venomous snake). You can see they have a similar iconic resting posture, colour pattern, head shape and build.
Not only that, some snakes go through colour changes between being tiny cuties and elegantly adult. It’s not unusual, but it’s not that common either.
In the case of the both the the Emerald boa and the tree python it’s pretty striking and very similar can you tell which is the python and which is the boa?)
They live in similar environments and as they evolved similar forces acted on them so that their size, shape, behaviour etc converged. Seeing this kind of thing makes my head spin with wonder. It’s actually pretty common and the ability to sequence DNA has led to many more instances being discovered. It may be common but it's less amazing to me, and is known as convergent evolution.*
Now if you look at martial arts you will see something very similar. It doesn’t matter where an art comes from, or what period when people fight with each other the forces in play are very much the same. Martial arts are usually based on two or more combattants with two arms, two legs one head and similar vulnerable zones using those tools to attack those zones. As a result you find convergent techniques across culture and history. Many people have pointed this out before me.
The reasons that you find similar techniques again and again and again is because fighting is basically similar. The human body hasn’t changed much. Sports vary because the rules change. There is variation because arms, armour and terrain change, but basically a fight looks like a fight. Never pretty, sometimes long and chaotic sometimes confusingly short.
Genuine martial arts always have an aspect of this chaos, and have similar ways to deal with it. Genuine martial may appreciate the elegance of ideal efficiency, which can often be demonstrated in cooperative or restricted circumstances - but they do not consider elegance a criteria of quality or efficacy in a fight.
Basically if aspects of the training look and feel like a fight it’s likely to be a genuine martial art. It doesn’t mean that the art is the best adapted for a person, or a situation but it has its feet on the evolutionary ground so to speak.
The converse to this is that pseudo martial art tend to converge as well. The forces that take a genuine martial training method and turn it into comforting wishful thinking are often similar.These are a desire to believe or a willingness to cater to the belief that action of fighting is inherently noble. A reason to fight might be noble, the act itself not so much.
Another is the willingness to cater to the desire to be invulnerable. If in training despite your best efforts you never realise, never viscerally feel that you could have been broken or killed either your partners suck, or the practise is fantasy. One of the key parts is ‘despite your best efforts’. If you take turns winning and losing that is fantasy. If you do your best to pull something off, or stop something, or both and you never find yourself twisted, cut or beaten then delusion will creep in (when I say cut I mean with training weapons).
Over time this turns genuine technique into cultish weirdness which do not look anything like fighting. Doesn’t matter if it’s Asian cultish weirdness or more Westerny cultish weirdness. I've put a selection of videos at the bottom - you don't need to watch them. They are basically faintly amusing, and sad. Take any few seconds of most of them and you will see similar stuff.
Now there may be some believers in this stuff out there who will apply the platypus defense**. What's the platypus defense you ask? In this case it is an exception to divergence. The defense goes 'Admittedly dolphins have similar body shapes to sharks and icthyosaurs, thylacines look like dogs, tenrecs look like hedgehogs but what about the platypus? Nothing looks like a platypus. Our martial art is the platypus of martial arts, when scientists first saw a preserved platypus in 1799 they thought it was fake too.'
It's true the platypus is both real and extraordinary. It's also true that scientists assumed it was a fake cunningly stitched together from different animals by skilled Chinese craftsmen selling expensive oddities. Apparently they spent hours looking for the stitches. The difference is with the platypus style*** the stitches are easy to find. When it gets tested with people who have fighting skill and experience it falls apart at the seams. That's why platypus stylists often go to amazing lengths to avoid testing.
Now obviously this piece has been about me enjoying biology and martial arts
There is something else though. it is interesting to look at the context of the fake martial arts. Do not focus much on the ridiculous techniques - but the body language and atmosphere, how the teacher behaves and how the class reacts. You'll find some common points in fake classes that you will not often find in a genuine martial arts training environment. I could make a list but it would be better if you made your own observations to see if you can spot the differences.
I've studied snakes so I can look at a snake species I'm not familiar with and have a pretty good idea from its shape and behaviour what kind of environment it lives in, its lifestyle, habitat and diet. I won't always be correct, but I'll probably be close. I think its possible to do the same with martial arts teachers and classes even before anyone gets bitten.
(the baby boa is top, the python below)
*Obviously if this article was a cunning attempt to convince creationists of the extraordinary unfolding of natural selection on our planet I’ve probably started off on the wrong foot. Creationists tend not to like snakes. Is being disliked better than being ignored? I don’t know. I guess would have to ignore kangaroos because they were never described on the ark. You’d have to try pretty hard not to notice a kangaroo if you were from the Middle East, had never visited Australia and shared a boat with two kangaroos.
** If you are a male platypus your defense is venomous spurs on your hind legs.The venom is not known to be lethal to human, but extremely painful with effects lasting for days and lingering for weeks or months.
*** I was reluctant to use the term platypus style. Yes the animal has a comic appearance to us, but it deserves more respect than to be associated with martial arts fantasies.