August 6, 2013

Epstein: The Sports Gene(s)

Here's a level-headed sounding new book by a Sports Illustrated writer:
The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance
by David Epstein 
In high school, I wondered whether the Jamaican Americans who made our track team so successful might carry some special speed gene from their tiny island. In college, I ran against Kenyans, and wondered whether endurance genes might have traveled with them from East Africa. At the same time, I began to notice that a training group on my team could consist of five men who run next to one another, stride for stride, day after day, and nonetheless turn out five entirely different runners. How could this be? 
We all knew a star athlete in high school. The one who made it look so easy. He was the starting quarterback and shortstop; she was the all-state point guard and high-jumper. Naturals. Or were they? 
The debate is as old as physical competition. Are stars like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and Serena Williams genetic freaks put on Earth to dominate their respective sports? Or are they simply normal people who overcame their biological limits through sheer force of will and obsessive training? 
The truth is far messier than a simple dichotomy between nature and nurture. In the decade since the sequencing of the human genome, researchers have slowly begun to uncover how the relationship between biological endowments and a competitor’s training environment affects athleticism. Sports scientists have gradually entered the era of modern genetic research. 
In this controversial and engaging exploration of athletic success, Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein tackles the great nature vs. nurture debate and traces how far science has come in solving this great riddle. He investigates the so-called 10,000-hour rule to uncover whether rigorous and consistent practice from a young age is the only route to athletic excellence. 

He cites Donald Thomas, a basketball player from the Bahamas, who took up high-jumping in early 2006 and won the World Championship in the summer of 2007. Still, for more complicated sports, the 10,000 hour rule seems reasonable. Of course, as Epstein emphasizes, 10,000 hours of practice is not sufficient. LeBron James is going to be better at you than basketball no matter how much you practice.
Along the way, Epstein dispels many of our perceptions about why top athletes excel. He shows why some skills that we assume are innate, like the bullet-fast reactions of a baseball or cricket batter, are not, and why other characteristics that we assume are entirely voluntary, like an athlete’s will to train, might in fact have important genetic components. 
This subject necessarily involves digging deep into sensitive topics like race and gender. Epstein explores controversial questions such as: 
Are black athletes genetically predetermined to dominate both sprinting and distance running, and are their abilities influenced by Africa’s geography? 
Are there genetic reasons to separate male and female athletes in competition? 
Should we test the genes of young children to determine if they are destined for stardom? 
Can genetic testing determine who is at risk of injury, brain damage, or even death on the field? 

Epstein claims there's a high correlation between football players getting brain damage and one allele of one gene. If true, it would make sense to have your son genetically tested before allowing him to play football.
Through on-the-ground reporting from below the equator and above the Arctic Circle, revealing conversations with leading scientists and Olympic champions, and interviews with athletes who have rare genetic mutations or physical traits, Epstein forces us to rethink the very nature of athleticism.

Here's an interview with Epstein.

It sounds rather like Jon Entine's 2001 book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We're Afraid To Talk About It, but recast somewhat for the self-help genre.

He says that in a test of simple reaction times, slugger Albert Pujols, three-time National League MVP, only scored at the 66th percentile compared to Washington U. of St. Louis undergrads. I don't know exactly what to make of this, but I've always found Arthur Jensen's work on reaction times doesn't map all that well to what's observable in sports. Clearly, there must be some complicated wrinkles to fully understanding reaction times that I've never managed to get clear in my head.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Why do I suspect that Amazon won't be carrying a book about "Why White Men Dominate Intellectual Pursuits And Why We're Afraid To Talk About It" anytime soon?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thank you. It sounds intriguing. I have certainly wondered how much the "voluntary" attributes of perseverance, teamwork, and all the Chip Hilton virtues were as heritable as fast-twitch fibers. As for learning reflexes, I will take a lot of convincing before I go to that. My mother remarried us into a family of athletes, including a 4-year-old brother (I was 13) who had phenomenal reflexes and complete ambidexterity (pitched with either hand until age 14) from the moment I saw him.

Still, memory deceives us and I would like to see the numbers.

sunbeam said...

The older I get the less I care about things like this.

Somewhere or another I read some story about Buddha being asked about Gurus or Fakirs or whatever they are called in India.

You know the ones that do stuff like sleep on beds of nails or who suck liquids into their system from a tube stuck up their ass.

Anyway supposedly Buddha told the questioner that the only thing that showed was that the Gurus were really good at sucking things up their ass through a straw.

Probably got it wrong, but I'm not googling it.

Basically if you are good at sports, you are good at sports. There aren't too many things in life that need the physical attributes of an NFL player.

Basically what makes it a big deal, is that people make a big deal of it.

If people quit paying attention to it, this kind of thing isn't really very useful for anything else.

I think McArthur had a different take on things, but he has always seemed to me to be the Timmy Geithner of the military set.

He looked like a general. Had executive hair. And action figure accessories (shades, pipe, and hat).

DPG said...

I've long thought that athleticism is the best analogy for g.

If the same people tend to be good at sports as disparate as football, basketball, lacrosse, baseball, soccer, etc., and we describe it with a general term known as athleticism, then doesn't it make sense to have a general term for people who are good at subjects as disparate as language, math, music, geometry, memorization?

Anyone who went to a normal high school will find it impossible to disagree with this analogy, because it is tantamount to denying the existence of jocks and nerds.

Gilbert Ratchet said...

Interesting. In his book _The Game_, the famed Montreal Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden claimed that his wife's reaction times were faster than his.

Anonymous said...


If people quit paying attention to it, this kind of thing isn't really very useful for anything else.


Not quite, Sunny. As Steve as noticed most sports are preparation for war. Many team sports were created during victorian era as preparation exercises for warefare. The NFL has often been called a war on the gridiron.

SOme of the NFLers could easily fit into the infantry and marines, just would have to be retrained. Or they could easily be trained as assassins

secretariat the exception said...

I don't know anyone who knows anyone who is at the very highest levels of sport (the guys who are discontinuous with the next best guys - i.e. not run of the mill hall of famers, or guys who were the very best for three or four years, but the equivalents of Babe Ruth in their respective sports) but I have read that every single one of them is (or was)either spectacularly boring or distressingly childish. (This is not true of the very best generals and soldiers, musicians, writers and scientists, as far as I know). If this is not just envy talking, there obviously comes a point where sports talent crowds out other desirable human traits. Or else the group of super-talented children splits up at some point in life into those who are fine with spending their life playing by someone else's rules, and those who are not fine with that. If Epstein addresses this issue, pro or con, I would want to read the book.

Matra said...

He was interviewed on the BBC tonight. When asked why scientists shy away from this topic he gave two reasons: 1) talking about genetics and race could lead to talk of differences in intelligence between races but that, he said, has absolutely no connection to sports; and 2) no one wants to take away credit from these athletes who have trained so hard.

sunbeam said...

"Not quite, Sunny. As Steve as noticed most sports are preparation for war. Many team sports were created during victorian era as preparation exercises for warefare. The NFL has often been called a war on the gridiron.

SOme of the NFLers could easily fit into the infantry and marines, just would have to be retrained. Or they could easily be trained as assassins"

I've seen this kind of thing stated before. But other than being in excellent shape (at least some of them, nose guards need not apply) I'm not sure how much of these abilities translate into being a "warrior."

Even in an age when battle was pretty much guys poking each other with spears, organization and discipline mattered more than sheer size or athleticism in battle.

David and Goliath is a Mary Sue story. The way things actually happen is you do everything you can to avoid a fair fight, and make it as uneven as you can in favor of yourself. In real life Goliath would have been swarmed by a lot of tinier men. It wouldn't have been a sling stone from one guy, but a fusillade from many that felled him.

Guys that are too tall have another problem with combat (or at least I've heard). It's harder to hide.

And there is the fact that someone that sticks out so much from the group, and is such a big meaty target is going to draw bullets like flies. It's like "There are many targets in the world. But that guy, that big guy, he is my target. I'll tell stories to my kids, I'll tell stories over in bars, about just how big he was."

Like throwing red meat to a dog.

Mr Lomez said...

"If people quit paying attention to it, this kind of thing isn't really very useful for anything else."

Among other things, both playing sports and rooting for a local team, allows young men to exercise their instincts for tribalism without resorting to actual violence (most of the time, anyway). Sports are useful for channeling all sorts of aggression.

Also consider that top athletes are considered among our culture's Great Men. They are true alphas. In many respects, they represent the ideals of masculinity. It's only natural to ask what exactly it is that we're worshiping. Just as we look at great paintings or pieces of music and ask what are the underlying components that make these things "beautiful." The answer could very well be that athleticism, like beauty, is irreducibly complex, but the questions seem well worth asking.

Anonymous said...

Are they gonna apologize for firing and blacklisting Jimmy the Geek?

Anonymous said...

Kudos to Mr. Epstein for his examination of the subject, but it seems he's still spooked and still not quite thinking clearly:

"I was not happy to be told that people were not publishing data that they had because they were worried it would be extrapolated into intellectual differences between races. Which has nothing to do with the work that they're doing! Nothing."

Really?

A Wiser Man Than I said...

I don't know exactly what to make of this, but I've always found Arthur Jensen's work on reaction times doesn't map all that well to what's observable in sports.

In baseball, it would seem to be more important to be able to pick up on the type of pitch. A player with average reaction time, who can identify, say, a curve ball at a higher rate than a player with an above average reaction time, might very well be a better hitter.

Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer is an incredible athlete with very quick reaction time. But he's also seldom fooled by pitches, which helps quite a bit.

Anonymous said...

Michael Johnson's documentary "survival of the fastest" about his geneology was interesting... I saw it on a Jet from Frankfurt to Calgary a few days ago.

Talk about controversial if a white person said this, but.....Jamaican doctor/researcher and Jamaican track coach state that the toughest slaves survived to Jamaica and are genetically faster. I did not finish it, but it even played the famous Jimmy the Greek line about blacks prowess being bred during salve times. Sailer must have commented on this at some point

Truth said...

"then doesn't it make sense to have a general term for people who are good at subjects as disparate as language, math, music, geometry, memorization?"

We do; Nerd.

Truth said...

"Why do I suspect that Amazon won't be carrying a book about "Why White Men Dominate Intellectual Pursuits And Why We're Afraid To Talk About It" anytime soon?"

Well, probably because one doesn't exist. They might if you write one. Oh, wait, I forgot you're a complaining, lazy-bastard

james wilson said...

There are no great shortstops who are not great athletes, but most great athletes are quite as lost lost in the batters box as the rest of us. Some great hitters have average athleticism. It is also amazing to see great athletes who cannot throw, and visa-versa. But baseball is a game explointing many peculiar talents.

Anyway, it's an abundance of nature that brings on the nurture. No gain, no pain. Why I didn't pursue mathematics.

Allison said...

The 10k hour rule was garbage to make elite academics feel that they *could have been* geniuses if they had only worked at it. A "necessary but not sufficent" condition for greatness. No 10k hours turns any ol pianist into Mozart. No 10k hours turns a physicist into Newton. No 10k hours turns me into Michael Jordan.

The reaction time issue seems to be the wrong question.
Baseball players aren't "reacting" consciously at all. They are swinging before their conscious brain could even tell their arms to move, and any test where you are consciously reacting to an inout is measuring something else.

My guess is fabulous athletes have brains that damp out actual reacting, so those systems don't interfere with their "instincts".

Anonymous said...

Where does doping fit in?