The Unexpected Downsides of Bipedalism


The decision to stand up on two feet was one of the – if not the – most influential in the course of our evolution. It freed our hands to do a whole slew of things we couldn’t before, directly setting the stage for all the events of what we know as ‘human history’. 

It’s a unique trait, too, as no other animal – before or since – has ever figured out that just walking on two foot instead of four can unlock a whole world of complex tools, bigger brains and – eventually – complex civilization. While bipedalism has always existed in some form or the other – from dinosaurs to intelligent apes – it was always partial bipedalism. Full bipedalism – to the extent that walking on all fours is considered to be a very weird thing to do in all human societies – is a uniquely human thing, and we’re not even sure why we developed it in the first place.

Whatever the reason, standing upright fundamentally changed our evolutionary blueprint, for good and for worse. It may have freed our hands to make complex tools and give rise to the entirety of human civilization, but it also doomed us to a life of problems we never had before. Problems like…

8. Hemorrhoids

There’s no doubt that walking on two feet provided an immense boost to our overall health. Because of the steady development of complex medical tools throughout our history, we can now treat a variety of illnesses we couldn’t even dream of before. The average human is much healthier than any of the intelligent apes, which is directly because of our decision to walk upright.

On the other hand, though, it came with a whole set of health problems that would probably never go away. One of them is hemorrhoids, which is so common that around half of all people have some form of it by the time they’re 50

While most of them would assume that it’s a normal evolutionary problem to have, it’s really not. It’s a direct result of the abnormal pressure exerted by the body’s upright structure, and is only one of the many digestive diseases we’ve to deal with because of walking on two feet.

7. Back Pain And Other Spinal Problems

The digestive system is hardly the only health casualty of the bipedal era, if we could call it that. Another health problem that we never had before standing up on two feet is back pain. 

According to some estimates, around 65 million people in America alone are reported to have experienced some back problem recently. Even more striking is that 16 million of them – around 8% of the entire population – is suffering from chronic back issues, rendering them unable to do even everyday tasks.

It begs the question: did we ever do anything to deserve this?

The quick answer? Yes. The evolutionary decision to get up on two feet provided us with some irreplaceable tools – literally – to climb the evolutionary hierarchy, though it also made our backs much more prone to injury, as this is not our natural state of being. Almost everyone reading this will go through some kind of back pain at least once in their lives, and you can thank bipedalism for it. 

6. It’s Too Much Work

Most of the problems associated with bipedalism come from our bodies just not being used to the new lifestyle. While some would say that four million years is enough time to adapt to the new order, on an evolutionary scale, it’s not long at all. 

Because of that, walking on two feet still requires consistent attention from a lot of important parts of our body, spending energy that could be spent in a better way elsewhere. All of our senses have to work together to support our upright posture, with muscles constantly re-adjusting themselves to accommodate the weird weight distribution. All of that information goes into maintaining orientation and balance whenever we stand up, as our bodies are still not instinctively used to it. 

5. We Lost Our Opposable Toes

If we count all the awesome things we’ve been able to achieve because of our decision to stand upright, we’d probably run out of space pretty soon. Freeing up our hands to create tools gave an unprecedented cognitive boost to our brains, as different tasks required different levels of dexterity to perform. It allowed our bodies to develop efficient ways to use the extra energy freed up from walking on all fours, making us much better at hunting and exerting force for longer periods of time than any predator alive. The list goes on.

Of course, we also had to give up on quite a few amazing abilities to be able to say that, primarily our opposable toe. That’s right, much like opposable thumbs, pre-humans and apes had opposable toes, too. Of course, they were still no match for the ridiculously versatile functions of the opposable thumbs, but they still provided us with some pretty cool abilities, like easily climbing trees. As we lost our ability – and will – to walk on four limbs, the opposable toes gradually became obsolete, and eventually disappeared from our species altogether. 

4. It Made Us Easier To Spot By Predators

Of course, it’s no breaking news that bipedalism has proven to be a beneficial deal for us, given everything we’ve accomplished as a species since that point. Entire books have been written on why it was an irreplaceable turning point in the course of our evolution, and correctly so, too. The problem is, though, that we can only say all that in hindsight. While we know that bipedalism has proven to be generally good for us over time, its immediate advantages for early humans aren’t that clear. 

The most glaring drawback of walking on two feet in a world full of predators is that it makes you unnecessarily visible on top of the grass, which seems to be a definite disadvantage. It would have made early humans much more susceptible to animal attacks, raising a general question on why we evolved this ability at all. 

3. It Made Us More Prone To Foot Injuries

Much like our backs, our feet are particularly prone to injury, too, as proven by how easy it is to twist our ankles doing normal, everyday things. It does make you wonder: do animals go through this, too? Are apes also always twisting their feet while walking around in the jungle, like us?

While we’d need data to definitely say that they don’t, science suggests that it’s not a problem for any other animal, and there’s a good reason for it. While we gave up our four-legged lifestyle, our feet weren’t able to evolve as fast, and still contain vestiges of flexible muscles and ligaments from that time. Except that now, the function of the feet is limited to being a rigid support base for the heavy standing structure of the body. Obviously, it regularly fails at that, as it’s still a bendable, agile limb that can twist and turn in ways it doesn’t need to anymore.

2. Our Extraordinarily-High Labor Pain

Ever looked at the animal kingdom and noticed a peculiar but glaring difference? Animals that are about to give birth don’t look to be in any pain or discomfort at all, except when the delivery doesn’t go according to plan. Usually, most animals deliver babies as if it’s a regular part of their day, though it’s not the same for us at all. Ask anyone who has gone through the whole process, and they’d tell you all about how it’s one of the worst kinds of pain you can go through. So, what gives?

As you’d have guessed, the answer is bipedalism. The exceptionally high pain we go through during childbirth is a direct result of our evolutionary decision to stand up on two feet, as it required our pelvises to grow narrower to accommodate it. While that’s helpful in a number of ways, it also makes childbirth that much more difficult for our women.

1. It Made Us Slower

When it comes to speed, humans fare worse than most animals we know of. Even the most docile herbivores around us are capable of running faster than us, even if we’re supposed to be the top species on the planet. While standing upright on two feet gave us many tools to efficiently manage our energy – like the extraordinary ability to cool ourselves down during physical exertion – it did so by making us give up on sheer speed and agility.

Thanks to that, humans are perhaps one of the slowest mammals on the planet. Of course, no one can argue that modern humans do not require speed to increase the chances of our survival, though the same can’t be said for the earliest bipedal humans. Back then, the lower speed would have been a clear disadvantage, as being able to run away from dangerous predators was still one of the few ways we could survive and reproduce.

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