Sorry Rabbit, but Even Scientists Agree: Slow but Steady Always Wins the Race

New research suggests in the marathon that is life, the tortoise (or turtle, in this case) clocks more miles. TigerStock's/Shutterstock

When you think of the greatest races of all time, a few postcards from the past probably flash through your mind. Maybe a horse named Secretariat who won it all at the Belmont Stakes in 1973? Or that thundering Formula 1 duel between James Hunt and Niki Lauda a few years later? How about those Boston Marathon battles between Dick Beardsley and Alberto Salazar in the early ‘80s?

Who recalls that barn-burner between the tortoise and the hare? Sure, that race only took place in the mind of an ancient Greek who went by the name Aesop, but while the great modern races can teach us a lot about dedication, perseverance and the virtues of having a rather large engine, "The Tortoise and the Hare" may tell us everything about animals and even vehicles on this planet.

In a study published this week, Adrian Bejan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University, concludes that no one should be surprised that the tortoise triumphs over the seemingly speedier hare.

In fact, after analyzing the reported speeds of land-, air- and water-based animals, Bejan concludes that the world's much-hyped speedsters are actually among the slowest when their movements are averaged out over the course of a lifetime.

"The fable of 'The Tortoise and the Hare' is a metaphor about life, not a story about a race," Bejan notes in a press release. "We see in animal life two starkly different lifestyles — one with nearly steady feeding and daily sleep and another with short bursts of intermittent feeding interspersed with day-long siestas. Both of these patterns are the rhythms of living that Aesop taught."

Those animals that sprint in short bursts, like the hare in the fable, use that talent inconsistently. It's zoom, zoom ... then take a nap. While the more consistent animals, like the slow-and-steady tortoise, keep on trucking — likely clocking many more miles over a lifetime than the boom-and-bust crowd.

The study builds on Bejan's previous research showing that an animal's speed increases with mass. The frequency of strides for an animal running on land, for example, would have the same relationship to that animal's mass as the rate at which a fish swims.

Speed and mass go hand in hand, regardless of species. And that principle can also be extended to non-living things. Like aircraft.

Fighter jet taking off against a blue sky
A fighter jet may have no equal when it comes to short sprints, but it spends most of its life in a hangar. Keith Homan/Shutterstock

After studying data from historical airplane models, Bejan noted the speed of each model increased with its size, too. Except, of course, that doesn't sound right. What about the modern jet fighter? How is that relatively small craft not faster than a lumbering cargo plane?

Again, Bejan harks back to the tortoise. That cargo plane spends a lot of time in the air, moving regularly across long distances. The fighter jet, on the other hand, may streak across the sky on occasion, but — like the hare — it's often found snoozing in its hangar.

The slow and steady cargo plane wins the marathon of life.

But like so many good fables, Aesop's tale offers even more than a lesson in perseverance.

At one point, the hare asks the tortoise how he expects to win a race when he's dawdling along at such a glacial pace.

The tortoise — ever focused — doesn't respond. But it's the hare's own words that provide the moment to reflect on, especially in modern times.

"There is plenty of time to relax." Until there isn't.