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Did Mankind Evolve from Martial Arts Instructors?

By Herb Borkland

Did mankind evolve from martial arts instructors? Or, to put it another way, why do traditional masters begin by teaching new students how to stand correctly?

Martial arts are the oldest unbroken chain of human learning, of an incalculable antiquity stretching back into the dark predawn of human consciousness. The original link in this chain got forged a couple million years ago. One day a monkey discovers how to use that sensational new evolutionary gimmick “the opposable digit”, his thumb, to grab a stick and clobber an attacker. And his tribes watches this happening like it was YouTube.

Afterward, the victor chatters and shrieks and mimes bashing bad chimps until his sons pick up clubs of their own; and they, in turn, will teach their sons, and so on. Never leave home without it. Other generations of males in the tribe also get the idea, so this one particular tribe prospers and grows when others, less defended, fall prey, are killed and dispersed. “Survival of the fittest”, in action.

What’s crucial is not the first monkey’s discovery of club-fighting in Pre-Human Earth Time. No, what counts is the very first student to learn the art from an old silverback, thus marking the birth of martial arts instructors. Flourish of trumpets! Oh, yes, a little something else is also going on. At that same instant of destiny, the infinite implications of being able to grab and hold useful objects of all kinds becomes the future of the emerging “tool-bearing animal” named homo sapiens.

There was, however, a truly planet-altering price to pay for the advent of simian club-fight stylists. Monkeys walk mostly on all fours. A monkey cannot carry his club and locomote as usual. The club gets in the way unless… Unless the monkey stands upright and walks on his hind legs. Then, as he covers daily ground, the club, too, becomes conveniently mobile. Otherwise, he must take an iffy chance on another good stick being close at hand the next time he gets attacked.

What a discovery! This is terrific for our self-esteem. Humanity owes its very existence to the earliest martial arts instructors. Okay, laugh it up, but I partially believe my own gag. And, anyway, all this is only a set-up, because…

Meanwhile, something goes wrong as you take the “Great Moments in Evolution” theme park ride. Immediately after that Moment when Old animatronic Monkey passes the club to Young animatronic Monkey, the lights go out, the ride clanks to a halt. Soon it starts up again, but now we see a family of cave-dwellers in animal skins teaching junior how to start a fire. There’s been a skip in the action, a gap in the story.

And that’s because science doesn’t know what happened to make monkeys into men, men who use fire to cook food, speak a basic language, can reason a little, know they must die and who already sense being surrounded by higher forces, spirits, gods. Paleontology has never been able to establish the existence of the so-called “missing link” between monkeys and man. Instead, evolutionary theory offers “gradualism” as an explanation – these characteristically human attributes just sort of started showing up.

Perhaps that’s how it happened. After all, we’re talking about millions of years. But the fact remains, despite all our proud science, there remains this fabulous central mystery about the Coming of Man, which begins, poetically, with our monkey martial artists learning to stand up and walk so they can fight like men.

And 21st century masters instruct students how to stand up so they can fight like men. Yes, yes, good balance is necessary for winning. But there is never just one reason for anything that happens. So, here’s the big question: Could the master’s first lesson also somehow be a living but forgotten echo from our pre-human beginnings?

I see skeptical looks on your faces. Starting off by not slouching in class is nothing so very grand, is it? It just looks better – but, of course, that fact by itself is an important clue to the truth. Good posture has always been valued in every culture and clime. Do we not admire and trust “an upstanding citizen” who “holds his head high” and will “show some spine” to adversity and “grow a backbone” if trouble comes?

So, a sense of posture as being an ethical virtue survives instinctively in people. But, dude, that’s… amazing! Clearly, much more than merely the convenience of tool-bearing was influencing the magic monkeys to become human beings. Something else, a mysterious force of aspiration, at some point in time began to pluck us upward – and this lies at the root of all we mean by Goodness.

And if the racial memory of this mystery survives in our sensibilities, why not in our equally-ancient martial arts? What the master begins by teaching new students invokes the origins of human aspiration, the force, as it were, from the sky, from the heavens above, which drew us up to stand erect, to become men.

Still don’t believe it? Think I’m just spouting poetry or religion or some-such jive? Does anything else suggest all this argy-bargy is really anything more than an ego-boosting martial arts day-dream?

Two bits of evidence. In both tai chi and yoga – the most profound mind/body teachings ever systematized – a point of vitality exists above the crown of the head: in tai chi, “the golden thread” from which the entire body is hung like a puppet; and in yoga, the highest charka is located overhead in the air.


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About The Author:

Washington, D.C. native Herb Borkland has been called "a martial arts pioneer" because he was an original student at the first taekwondo school in the United States. After taking his degree at The University of Virginia, Herb went on to become a closed-door student of the legendary Robert W. Smith, author of the first English-language book about tai chi. An Inside Kung-Fu Hall of Fame writer, he was the first journalist ever invited to train in SCARS, the Navy SEALs fighting system. Herb scripted "Honor&Glory" for Cynthia Rothrock, featured on HBO, as well as winning the first-place Gold Award at the Houston International Film Festival for his Medal of Honor soldier screenplay "God of War." For three years he hosted the national half-hour Black Belts cable-TV show. Herb and his wife, the Cuban-American painter Elena Maza, live in Columbia, Maryland. He is also a regular columnist for

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