MYTH: FOOTWEAR ARE FUNCTIONAL AND
SAFE AND EFFICIENT MOBILITY
REALITY: FOOTWEAR ARE AESTHETIC RATHER A FUNCTIONAL
AND THEIR USE COMES AT A HEALTH AND MOBILITY COST
In societies where footwear use is the norm, they all follow mainly an aesthetic rather a functional tradition with only one exception. The inhabitants of the far North required footwear for survival. A multilayered foot covering probably came into use thousands of years ago. It is thought to have started as a multilayered sack composed of animal hides trapping air pockets so as to provide foot insulation. Refined examples took a form of the modern day “mukluk” (“kamik”). As all footwear worn by humans, locomotory efficiency was and is poor with their use compared to bare foot, but this was a modest cost for survival.
Aside from the above groups, footwear use originated as an aesthetic tradition of body art through foot decoration that predates historical record. For example, the use of henna for body decoration (particularly feet) is ancient and was already in widespread use in the earliest epochs of the nascient civilizations in Egypt and India. Later objects objects such as toe rings and ankle bracelets tended to be attached to foot and ankle, which transition to coverings of the plantar surface later. India provides the clearest example of the transition from body decoration to shoe. The anklet and toe ring were added to henna painting in ancient times. Widespread sandal use subsequently appeared probably as a consequence of colonization and European cultural imperialism, with the anklet and toe ring modified to attach shoe sole material to the plantar surface. The sandal appears earlier in Egypt. In all cases the sandal was made with fragile materials and undoubtedly interfered with locomotion. Some extant Egyptian footwear examples are highly embellished such as those worn by pharaohs, but also simpler ones probably used to distinguish the minority of free Egyptians from the majority slaves.
The European Renaissance began with an elite minority wearing footwear of the aesthetic tradition and ended with footwear use becoming essentially a social norm for the first time in human history.
MYTH: BAREFOOT ACTIVITY OUTDOORS IN UNHYGIENIC.
REALITY: DISEASES ARE RARELY ACQUIRED NOR
TRANSMITTED THROUGH BARE FEET
It is uncertain why footwear transitioned in Renaissance Europe from an article of fashion that inferred high status and worn by a minority to near universal use - becoming a social norm - but it may have resulted from hysteria regarding devastating disease. The Renaissance coincided with a pandemic form of bubonic plague called the “Black Death,” which commenced near the beginning of the fifteenth century in states bordering the Mediterranean Sea. In southern Europe most scholars estimate the “Black Death” accounted for a population loss approximating 50 percent over a four year period. In Venice, where detailed population records were kept, the number was closer to 70 percent. Labor scarcity in urban settings resulted in a migration of impoverished rural serfs for urban paid jobs, therefore the lower social classes had funds for the first time to purchase shoes. Also leather, the main material in shoe construction, became cheap through oversupply because bubonic plague killed humans but not animals. But factors other than desire for body art and prestige must have accounted for footwear use becoming near universal in Renaissance Europe.
Hellenistic notions of health returned with the Renaissance which emphasized visible body contamination ("filth") acquired typically outside of the home as the cause many diseases. The uncovered plantar surface probably was considered a potential source of acquiring and transmitting disease, therefore footwear which had been of the aesthetic tradition acquired a pseudo-functional purpose of prevention of disease acquisition and transmission. These false notions regarding communicable disease prevention through footwear use remained for hundreds of years, only to be discredited by “germ theory,” first contemplated by Semmelweis in 1847, and proven by Koch in 1890. The myth of disease transmission through bare foot contamination is not totally lost in contemporary society as many consider the bare foot outside of the home to be unhygienic.
MYTH: EVEN IF FOOTWEAR DO NOT ADVANCE HYGIENCE, THEY MUST
BE NEEDED BY HUMANS BECAUSE EVERYONE WEARS THEM.
REALITY: NEAR UNIVERSAL FOOTWEAR USE OUTSIDE OF THE HOME IS MAINTAINED ESSENTIALLY THROUGH THE POWER OF IMPLICIT AND EXPLICIT SOCIAL NORMS.
The obstacle that discouraged barefoot activity outside of the home was eliminated with Koch in 1890, but the social norm of footwear use remained in part to lingering notions about foot hygiene. Also, by this time the footwear norm had been present for centuries therefore many had forgotten why humans began to wear footwear in the first place. People assumed that footwear must play some functional role in human locomotion simply because everyone wore them - ignoring the power of social norms in creating conformity.
MYTH: THE FOOT IS INJURED FREQUENTLY THEREFORE IT IS BE DELICATE AND REQUIRES ADDITIONAL PROTECTION AFFORDED BY SHOES.
REALITY: MOST CONTEMPORARY FOOT PROBLEMS ARE CAUSED BY FOOTWEAR.
The high prevalence of foot disorders in shod populations have created the impression that foot is inherently delicate therefore unable to withstand the rigors of being shoeless. This contradicts a vast number of reports the deal with population that have never worn shoes. The most common foot disorders causing disability appear rare in those that have never worn shoes. The list is extensive. Osteoarthritis of the metatarsal-phalangeal joints is much less common in barefoot population and hallux valgus and rigidus are unknown. Plantar fasciitis seems rare in barefoot populations and ankle inversion injury is so rare so as to be non-existent. Patello-femoral disorders are caused by excessive stride length associated with footwear use therefore are essentially non-existent in barefoot populations.
MYTH: FOOTWEAR AND SHOE INSERTS PROMOTE HEALTH THROUGH MAINTAINING AN IDEAL FOOT SHAPE AND PROPER GAIT
REALITY: THE ABOVE NOTIONS ARE SELF-SERVING PSEUDO-SCIENCE
Additional contemporary pseudo-science in the form of chiropody (podiatry) has advanced the myth that shoes promote health. The first society of chiropodists was formed in 1895 in New York City - five years after Koch refuted the notion that communicable disease emanates from bare feet. Podiatry has created a pseudo-science about feet that portrays them as having an ideal foot shape and arch height. According to these false notions, pain and discomfort follow loss of this ideal conformation. There has been no scientific data to support these ideas and many report refuting them, yet they continue to remain prevalent. Though pseudo-scientific, they offer an explanation of why most humans continue wear shoes, without resorting to the importance of the power of social norms alone. Many insurance companies pay for podiatric services which helps foster the public impression that there is scientific basis for these practices. Few podiatrists must actually believe that shoe inserts and other form of "corrective footwear" improve health. They must be motivated by personal gain which they prize over public good.
MYTH: BIOMECHANISTS HAVE SHOWN THAT HUMANS NEED
SPECIALIZED SHOES FOR PROTECTION DURING RUNNING.
REALITY: BIOMECHANISTS DEALING WITH GAIT HAVE BECOME SIMPLY
AN EXTENSION OF PODIATRIC PSEUDOSCIENCE.
While many may dismiss the pseudoscience of the podiatrist perhaps in part because of the inherent silliness of their notions, and that they not typically associated typically with academic universities, it is harder to dismiss similar ideas advanced by university based biomechanists. For the past 40 years biomechanists have examined the mechanics of "normal and pathological gait" in shod populations based on the notion advanced by podiatrists that shoes protect humans from injury rather than than the scientifically sound thesis that they are the source of injury. They have failed to serious examine subjects whose gait and feet are free from footwear produced artifact. From their research has come the pseudo-science such as excessive pronation and supination causes injuries, and that there is a gait in shod individuals which is safe and injurious (pathological). Many biomechanists maintain that these pseudo-scientific notions have been, or seek funding from the athletic footwear industry, which brings into question the independence of their inquiry and their ethical standards. For example, in 1992, in response to my report which suggested increase in bare foot mobility should be considered as a remedy of frequent injury in shod individuals, prominent investigators in gait biomechanics, Cavanagh and Frederick, researchers heavily funded by the athletic footwear industry, wrote in a letter to the editor-in-chief in a scientific journal, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (MSSE) in which my work was published stating:
"we are troubled by his outrageous allegation that manufacturers of athletic footwear are "irresponsible" for representing their products as offering improved protection."
"Dr. Robbins makes the outrageous and untenable recommendation of "barefoot activity where practical and socially acceptable."
Their lack of objectivity probably caused by their conflicts-of-interest probably created fear in the legal departments of athletic footwear manufacturers because since that time, with few exceptions, the footwear industry has significantly reduced its support of academic research into footwear, have avoided making claims about increased protection afforded by their products and has stayed clear of rejecting the notion of safe barefoot mobility. VIBRAM failed to follow the careful approach of most major footwear manufacturers with regard to health claims. They advertised their FiveFingers products as offering the inherent protection of being barefoot (they do not offer significant protection through plantar sensory feedback), and further suggested, without a datum to support their claim, that FiveFingers shoes offer the protection intrinsic to barefoot locomotion. A class-action law suit was brought against them in 2009 which was settled in 2014 with the reimbursement of 150,000 users and a statement that they would no longer make these false and misleading claims. They see their products as fashion promoted by endorsement of athletes, which is not subject to risk of litigation as is claims of safety. Cavanagh, Frederick and the like seem to have disappeared from public view. Most of their research into human gait biomechanics has been discredited because it does not account for artifacts produced by prolonged footwear use.
MYTH: HUMANS WORE FOOTWEAR FOR A SIGNIFICANT PART OF THEIR EVOLUTIONARY HISTORY, THEREFORE ARE WELL ADAPTED AT LEAST TO SANDALS, MOCCASINS AND "BAREFOOT SHOES."
REALITY: HUMANS WERE BAREFOOT FOR ESSENTIALLY ALL OF THEIR EVOLUTIONARY HISTORY, THEREFORE ARE POORLY ADAPTED TO ALL FOOTWEAR INCLUSIVE OF SANDALS, MOCCASINS AND "BAREFOOT SHOES."
While many now realize that barefoot mobility may be safe and efficient, pseudo-evolutionary biology is being used to promote "barefoot shoes." Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist from the Department of Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, published a report in Nature in which he stated:
“For most of human evolutionary history, runners were either barefoot or wore minimal footwear such as sandals or moccasins with smaller heels and little cushioning relative to modern running shoes.”
He did reveal that his research was funded by VIBRAM, an Italian footwear company, and manufacturer of Vibram FiveFingers shoes which tend to have smaller heels and little cushioning as he suggested humans may be adapted to using. No one would question the notion that humans were barefoot for essentially all of their evolutionary, and therefore are probably well adapted to this condition. However, H. sapiens have existed for perhaps 300,000 years. Small numbers of humans have worn shoes with civilizations commencing perhaps 5,000 years ago. The use of footwear by large numbers of humans first occurred with the European Renaissance perhaps only 600 years ago and spread beyond Europe mainly through European colonization and cultural imperialism not much more than 150 years ago. A truthful analysis by an evolutionary biologist properly should suggest that shoes have been worn for essentially a moment in human evolutionary history, therefore it is extremely unlikely that they have adapted to them at all.
If Lieberman actually believes footwear were used for a sufficiently long period in humans' evolutionary history to allow significant adaptation to them through natural selection, then one might question his competence as a biologist. On the other hand, if he knowingly mislead both the academic press and the public to support the sales of products of a corporation that funds his research, he might be considered guilty of scientific misconduct perhaps on the scale of Marc Hauser, also a professor of Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and colleague of Daniel Lieberman, until he was found guilty of serious scientific misconduct and dismissed.
Ironically, perhaps the publications by Daniel Lieberman which were supported by VIBRAM that dealt with their FiveFingers product emboldened VIBRAM to make safety claims about their FiveFingers footwear that resulted in the class action suit regarding with false and misleading advertising associated with the marketing of this product.
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