September 3, 2013

Gladwell on human biological diversity in sports

Shaquille O'Neal and
comic Kevin Hart
In The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell reviews The Sports Gene by David Epstein. 

Epstein's book is structured around an attack on Gladwell's 10,000 Hour Rule, so Gladwell's irate initial response last month was to imply that his fans who are true believers in his 10,000 Hour Rule are deluded. They just didn't read Outliers closely enough to notice the fragments of sentences where he admits that innate gifts matter as well as training.

Now, Gladwell is back to say, well of course human biodiversity, including racial differences, matters hugely in sports. Who can't see that? Then, Gladwell focuses in on the weak spot in The Sports Gene: the impact of performance-enhancing genes. 

Gladwell goes on to say that sports should allow doping to make up for hereditary inequality. Why should Kenyans win most of the distance races just because they are born with advantages at running?

But he doesn't explain how that would make much difference. For example, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, PEDs mostly seem to augment racial differences. Up to 1989, East German chemistry wizardry made East German women competitive in the shorter races with women of West African descent. 

But since the end of communism freed Eastern European sports chemists to wander the world looking for work, it mostly seems to exaggerate previous racial differences. For example, EPO got to East African distance runners in the mid-1990s, making them even more dominant than they were since the 1960s.
MAN AND SUPERMAN 
In athletic competitions, what qualifies as a sporting chance? 
by Malcolm Gladwell 
SEPTEMBER 9, 2013

Élite sports is a contest among athletes with an uneven set of genetic endowments and natural advantages.  
Toward the end of “The Sports Gene” (Penguin/Current), David Epstein makes his way to a remote corner of Finland to visit a man named Eero Mäntyranta. ... What’s most remarkable is the color of his face. It is a “shade of cardinal, mottled in places with purple,” ... 

Judging from pictures of the Finn online, Epstein's description is a little over-the-top. [Update, now that I look at the picture from a different angle on screen, wow, that is red.]
Mäntyranta carries a rare genetic mutation. His DNA has an anomaly that causes his bone marrow to overproduce red blood cells. That accounts for the color of his skin, and also for his extraordinary career as a competitive cross-country skier. ... Mäntyranta, by virtue of his unique physiology, had something like sixty-five per cent more red blood cells than the normal adult male. In the 1960, 1964, and 1968 Winter Olympic Games, he won a total of seven medals—three golds, two silvers, and two bronzes ...
In “The Sports Gene,” there are countless tales like this, examples of all the ways that the greatest athletes are different from the rest of us. They respond more effectively to training. The shape of their bodies is optimized for certain kinds of athletic activities. They carry genes that put them far ahead of ordinary athletes.
Epstein tells the story of Donald Thomas, who on the seventh high jump of his life cleared 7' 3.25"—practically a world-class height. The next year, after a grand total of eight months of training, Thomas won the world championships. How did he do it? He was blessed, among other things, with unusually long legs and a strikingly long Achilles tendon—ten and a quarter inches in length—which acted as a kind of spring, catapulting him high into the air when he planted his foot for a jump. ... 
Why do so many of the world’s best distance runners come from Kenya and Ethiopia? The answer, Epstein explains, begins with weight. A runner needs not just to be skinny but—more specifically—to have skinny calves and ankles, because every extra pound carried on your extremities costs more than a pound carried on your torso. That’s why shaving even a few ounces off a pair of running shoes can have a significant effect. Runners from the Kalenjin tribe, in Kenya—where the majority of the country’s best runners come from—turn out to be skinny in exactly this way. Epstein cites a study comparing Kalenjins with Danes; the Kalenjins were shorter and had longer legs, and their lower legs were nearly a pound lighter. That translates to eight per cent less energy consumed per kilometre.

Thin calves was part of O.J. Simpson's explanation back in the 1977:
“We are built a little differently, built for speed—skinny calves, long legs, high asses are all characteristics of blacks.”

Gladwell continues:
... According to Epstein, there’s an evolutionary explanation for all this: hot and dry environments favor very thin, long-limbed frames, which are easy to cool, just as cold climates favor thick, squat bodies, which are better at conserving heat. 
Distance runners also get a big advantage from living at high altitudes... When Kenyans compete against Europeans or North Americans, the Kenyans come to the track with an enormous head start.
What we are watching when we watch élite sports, then, is a contest among wildly disparate groups of people, who approach the starting line with an uneven set of genetic endowments and natural advantages. There will be Donald Thomases who barely have to train, and there will be Eero Mäntyrantas, who carry around in their blood, by dumb genetic luck, the ability to finish forty seconds ahead of their competitors. Élite sports supply, as Epstein puts it, a “splendid stage for the fantastic menagerie that is human biological diversity.” 
The menagerie is what makes sports fascinating. But it has also burdened high-level competition with a contradiction. We want sports to be fair and we take elaborate measures to make sure that no one competitor has an advantage over any other. But how can a fantastic menagerie ever be a contest among equals? 

Games aren't really supposed to be a contest among equals since the idea is to find the best, not the most average. Almost all games have rules that inevitably make some animals more equal than other animals: disparate impact. The most egalitarian games, like state lotteries and slot machines, games where nobody has a natural edge, where hard work doesn't pay off, where strategies don't avail, are the most boring to people with three digit IQs and most exploitative of people with two digit IQs.

All games have to trade off various aspects against others. For example, most sports have separate divisions for juniors, seniors and women, as well as some kind of open division in which young men compete. Is it fair to the 128th best men's tennis player that he's not allowed to win the sizable women's first prize in the U.S. Open? Sure, just as male golfers get to make some more money when they hit 50 and can compete in senior tournaments. It may or may not be fair, but it's more interesting.

Successful games have rules that make the game sporting enough to be interesting. For example, basketball is immensely biased in favor of the tall. On the other hand, it's not simply a test of tallness.

Now, we could have a game consisting solely of players being measured for height and the tallest team wins (kind of like a State Fair contest to see who grew the biggest rutabaga).

In fact, in the 18th Century, King Frederick William I of Prussia saw himself as competing with the other kings of Europe to assemble the tallest soldiers, often having his agents kidnap tall men. His Potsdam Giants were the reigning champs at his chosen sport of being tall.

Large men make large targets, and Frederick William was content to obsessively drill his Giants on the parade ground rather than to risk them in battle. His son, Frederick the Great, didn't see much point in his father's game, preferring to play a more serious game on the battlefields of Europe, and let his father's Giants dissipate.

In interest, basketball falls in-between the father's hobby and the son's. The disparate impact of height on basketball is profound, but there's more to the game than just height.

Or, consider the America's Cup sailboat race (currently going on in San Francisco Bay), which has a rule that the winner of the last America's Cup gets to set the rules for this one. So, zillionaire Larry Ellison wrote the current rules to require new high tech catamarans so lively that they sometimes fly almost completely above the water for long distances. But Ellison's Rules are so expensive that few countries showed up for the 2013 competition. And one sailor has been killed so far.

Is this fair? Well, the America's Cup has always been a rich man's race, sacrificing access for a celebration of the extreme in big money sailing. But there is much concern that Ellison pushed the envelope too far this time. Will the exciting footage of boats skimming the waves in front of the Golden Gate Bridge make up for the thinness of the field? We'll see. No doubt, there will be intense arguments after this America's Cup is over concerning the rules for the next one.
During the First World War, the U.S. Army noticed a puzzling pattern among the young men drafted into military service. Soldiers from some parts of the country had a high incidence of goitre—a lump on their neck caused by the swelling of the thyroid gland. Thousands of recruits could not button the collar of their uniform. The average I.Q. of draftees, we now suspect, also varied according to the same pattern. Soldiers from coastal regions seemed more “normal” than soldiers from other parts of the country. 
The culprit turned out to be a lack of iodine. Iodine is an essential micronutrient. Without it, the human brain does not develop normally and the thyroid begins to enlarge.  ...
After the First World War, the U.S. War Department published a report called “Defects Found in Drafted Men,” which detailed how the incidence of goitre varied from state to state, with rates forty to fifty times as high in places like Idaho, Michigan, and Montana as in coastal areas. 
The story is not dissimilar from Epstein’s account of Kenyan distance runners, in whom accidents of climate and geography combine to create dramatic differences in abilities. In the early years of the twentieth century, the physiological development of American children was an example of the “fantastic menagerie that is human biological diversity.” 
In this case, of course, we didn’t like the fantastic menagerie. In 1924, the Morton Salt Company, at the urging of public-health officials, began adding iodine to its salt, and initiated an advertising campaign touting its benefits. That practice has been applied successfully in many developing countries in the world: iodine supplementation has raised I.Q. scores by as much as thirteen points—an extraordinary increase. The iodized salt in your cupboard is an intervention in the natural order of things. When a student from the iodine-poor mountains of Idaho was called upon to compete against a student from iodine-rich coastal Maine, we thought of it as our moral obligation to redress their natural inequality. The reason debates over élite performance have become so contentious in recent years, however, is that in the world of sport there is little of that clarity. What if those two students were competing in a race? Should we still be able to give the naturally disadvantaged one the equivalent of iodine? We can’t decide. 

While perfect clarity is impossible, it's not that hard to logically distinguish between curing goiters by iodine supplementation and shooting up with steroids or EPO. The first involves rectifying a clear problem. There are major benefits in going from a sub-normal level of dietary iodine to a normal level, and few if any disadvantages. Moreover, there are no known benefits to risking your health by taking massively extra levels of iodine, so few do. Mainlining iodine right before you go on Jeopardy won't boost your IQ enough to win. So, iodine in salt is the textbook example of a health intervention without troubling tradeoffs, which is why I've been endorsing its spread since 2004.

In contrast, screwing around with your level of red blood cells, as endurance athletes are wont to do, can kill you. EPO doping needs to be regulated to keep cyclists from killing themselves in death or glory bids: Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote in the NYT in 2004:
In hindsight we can date the clandestine arrival of EPO with grim accuracy. ... Between 1987 and 1990, no fewer than 20 Belgian and Dutch cyclists died from otherwise inexplicable nocturnal heart attacks. 

Gladwell continues:
Epstein tells us that baseball players have, as a group, remarkable eyesight. ... 
Eyesight can be improved—in some cases dramatically—through laser surgery or implantable lenses. Should a promising young baseball player cursed with normal vision be allowed to get that kind of corrective surgery? In this instance, Major League Baseball says yes.

Laser surgery on your eyes sounds pretty crazy, except that millions of people have had this operation by now. So, the negative tradeoffs are well-understood and fairly limited. On the other hand, at some point some mad surgeon might develop a technique that, say, offers a 95% chance of getting 20/5 eyesight at the risk of a 5% chance of permanent blindness. Would some jocks jump at this? Yes, so therefore we shouldn't assume that any and all eye surgeries will be okay for the rest of baseball history.
... Baseball is in the middle of one of its periodic doping scandals, centering on one of the game’s best players, Alex Rodriguez. ...
The other great doping pariah is Lance Armstrong. He apparently removed large quantities of his own blood and then re-infused himself before competition, in order to boost the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells in his system. Armstrong wanted to be like Eero Mäntyranta. He wanted to match, through his own efforts, what some very lucky people already do naturally and legally. Before we condemn him, though, shouldn’t we have to come up with a good reason that one man is allowed to have lots of red blood cells and another man is not? ... 

Perhaps because arms races in boosting the chance of sudden death should make us think twice?

Now, it could be that thanks to volunteer lab rats like professional cyclists, the medical profession will slowly learn more about safe dosing levels for various substances, which will generate advances in the general welfare.

Of course, secrecy in sports doping gets in the way of doctors learning from these maniacs. So, Gladwell endorses legalizing everything but requiring complete transparency. The New Yorker summarizes:
He argues that we should legalize performance-enhancing drugs and then regulate them, and imagines a world where athletes make their biological passports public: “What I really would like is to have complete liberalization and complete transparency. I would like to know about every single baseball player, track-and-field athlete, basketball player, precisely what they are on. And then I’d like to reach my own conclusions as a fan about how to evaluate their performance.”

But, the point of doping is not to advance medical science, but to get a leg up over the competition. So, secrecy is a competitive weapon, meaning that if cheating were legalized when it comes to taking drugs, athletes would continue to cheat when it comes to reporting drugs because they don't want competitors to know their secrets (nor would they want their mothers to be able to find out what hellish potions they are ingesting).

The testing system would quickly collapse if the goal was only to get the paperwork right. Imagine being the poor bastard who had to collect slugger Ryan Braun's urine, only to get publicly lambasted by Braun for purported incompetence in Braun's successful bid to weasel out of his first positive drug test. If the goal is not to catch the guy with the $100 million contract but instead simply to document whatever devil's brew he is imbibing, well, screw it. Life's too short.

Furthermore, the often suggested solution -- let the athletes cheat a little -- doesn't work. They already do get to cheat some because the sports' organizations incentives are more to avoid false positives than false negatives. Telling athletes they can now have X parts per million of MongoDynaRoid 9000Z in their urine but not X+1 parts just makes the testing process even shakier.

So, we'll stumble onward much like we do now.

61 comments:

Anonymous said...

Gladwell goes on to say that sports should allow doping to make up for hereditary inequality.

Just as there are pro and am competitions, senior and junior, male and female, etc., if we're going to have doping leagues and competitions, there should also be clean leagues and competitions. A particular sport or competition effectively becomes a different one once drugs are introduced on a major scale and will only become more different over time as the doping/body modification/genetic engineering etc. arms race goes on.

Anonymous said...

"In hindsight we can date the clandestine arrival of EPO with grim accuracy. ... Between 1987 and 1990, no fewer than 20 Belgian and Dutch cyclists died from otherwise inexplicable nocturnal heart attacks. "

Well noticed, and well remembered.

I'm reminded of Tommy Simpson, climbing back on his bike even as he was close to death.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Tom_Simpson

Anonymous said...

Shaquille O'Neal and Verne Troyer need to do a buddy cop comedy. Except - here's the curveball - using the magic of CGI, they make Shaq 3' tall, and make Mini Me 7'3". A two-headed Christopher Walken could play the villain.

Brett Ratner would direct it, of course.

Anonymous said...

Gladwell apparently got his 10,000 from a study The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance and The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports and Games.

So it would appear that 10,000 hours will make you an excellent ball player but not the forward for an NBA team.

The Beatles are a good example. Sure John, Paul and George had god given talent. Ringo on the other hand appears to have had 10,000 hours of practice. OK maybe George got lucky too.

(Asked by a reporter if Ringo Starr was the best drummer in the world): In the world? He`s not even the best drummer in The Beatles! - John Lennon.

But it seems that people who are trying to refute the 10,000 rule don't understand that it is a requirement for expertise, winning a gold medal at the olympics requires something more, the judicious use of steroids.

Anonymous said...

https://www.coursera.org/courses?search=duke

http://dukeforward.duke.edu/news/dukes-massive-open-online-courses-eight-months-after-the-launch-of-its-firs

Z said...

An interesting thing with basketball is that the sport has evolved to favor raw athleticism over practiced skill. Look at the game in the 1980's and compare it to today. Magic Johnson was a highly skilled player, far more skilled than LeBron James. On the other hand, James is a freak of nature physically.

TV ratings peaked in the Johnson - Bird Era. As the game shifted from skill to athleticism, viewership declined. The Jordon years brought ratings back up, but then they declined again, despite the attempts to game the numbers. Two lockouts and half the teams losing money indicates the shift was not a great idea.

Anonymous said...

https://class.coursera.org/thinkagain-002/class/index

Jokah Macpherson said...

The book says that Mantyranta's face has gotten redder over time, accelerating its pace in his old age. I don't know when the photo you have was taken but it is plausible that his face had gotten significantly redder by the time he met with Epstein.

CanSpeccy said...

Perhaps you already pointed it out, but the explanation of the 10,000-hour "rule" is surely the obvious fact that those with the greatest ability achieve the highest return on investment in practice, which naturally encourages more practice — as much as 10,000 hours in the case of those who go on to become world champions.

The corollary is that even ten million hours of practice won't make a good fiddler of someone who is tone deaf.

Anonymous said...

Another great takedown Steve, 2 points...I think we're in technical fall territory with your ongoing web brutalization of Gladwell.



Dan in DC

Anonymous said...

I have to admit I would tend to side with Gladwell on the issue of millionaire athlete's whose bodies are their professions being able to ingest whatever they want in the interest of cutting down their mile time, hitting more HRs, etc. The chances of world-class athletes under the scrutiny of the best medical minds money can buy dying due to overdose, unexpected complications, etc. would seem to be small. The real issue though is the downward pressure such use would generate on all competitors below the major leagues. I don't care if Jose Canseco is main-lining rhino testosterone, he is a millionaire whose life was dedicated to hitting a ball and he's an adult, presumably if he wants to risk a heart attack to hit the ball farther he should be able to. But the 19 year old kid in te A's farm system (to say nothing of the 15 year old kid who idolizes big leaguers) has neither the time, money, or expertise to do so. As such the best we can hope for (at least until science has created a side-effect free serum to make us all supermen) is to ban as much non-naturally occurring "liquid advantage" as we can possibly detect.

-SonOfStrom

Anononymous said...

Iodione was used as a dough conditioner in bread until 1980, when bromide started being used. Bromide is in the same halide group as iodine and competes with it for absorption. Also, flouride is a halide. And low-sodium diet is popular, causing less salt consumption.

peterike said...

It is truly amazing how some people will contort themselves to satisfy their Puritan leveling impulse. The northern Puritans went so far as to invade and decimate the South just so they could unseat the land-based aristocracy that so offended their leveling impulses.

Because I don't really care about sports, I tend to agree with Gladwell: let 'em take whatever they want. It's only going to make the better players better still. Unless they invent the Captain America potion, I could dope all day and night and I'm still not making the NBA. And so what?

What field do the levelers go after next? Isn't it terribly, terribly "unfair" that I can't sing like Sinatra? It causes me distress. So shouldn't I be able to have surgery or drugs or SOMETHING that will make me sing like Sinatra? It is my human right!! Or maybe since relatively few people can sing really well, we should perform destructive surgery on the good singers to make them mediocre singers, like the rest of us. That would only be "fair."

jody said...

i've been avoiding the epstein-gladwell posts because i don't want to wall of text isteve any more than i already do. i agree with some of the epstein-gladwell discussion, disagree with other parts of it. but i did need to say this:

gladwell seems to understand sports mainly from the academic's perspective. his ideal solution of allowing all sports drugs as being the most fair and correct way to handle the issue, won't lead to the 'most fair possible' circumstance and won't level the playing field 'as much as is possible for practical purposes.'

this is because some people respond better to sports drugs than others. while everybody will get some kind of positive boost, for some people it can be minor, while others can turn into superhumans from only moderate doses of sports drugs. and this, too, is genetic.

there's no way to control for this. and the effect is kind of random. you can give a field of 100 guys the same doses of drugs and 20 or 30 of them will only get slightly better, 50 or 60 of them will have the significant improvement you're looking for and expecting, while 10 of them turn into monsters who's peak performances far surpass the field.

when all 100 of them get off the drugs, the monsters go away rapidly, their peak performances mostly a product of their high genetic susceptibility to whatever substances were being put into their bodies.

Dahinda said...

"Successful games have rules that make the game sporting enough to be interesting. For example, basketball is immensely biased in favor of the tall. On the other hand, it's not simply a test of tallness.

Now, we could have a game consisting solely of players being measured for height and the tallest team wins (kind of like a State Fair contest to see who grew the biggest rutabaga)."

As manager of the Ag Products building at our local county fair I would like to say that it's not simply a test of of the largest rutabaga! Vegetables, unless it is stated in the rules, are usually judged by other qualities, including variety. A well seasoned county fair judge will take into account the variety of the vegetable as part of the overall judging. This is because he knows that there in a huge biodiversity among vegetable varieties and that to keep and even playing field other qualities common to all varieties of a particular vegetable are taken into account. So for example a rutabaga known for not being a large variety will be able to compete with a larger variety. This, of course, becomes a moot point if the only criteria in a category is just "Largest Ear of Corn" or "Largest Pumpkin" etc..

Paul Mendez said...

What happens when the running blade technology that enabled Oscar Pistorius to compete in the Olympics progresses to the point that runners with two natural legs cannot win? Will there be runners willing to amputate their healthy legs to have a shot a the gold? Will the IOC allow them to?

Anonymous said...

I'm really surprised they're using the term "human biological diversity." I thought that when HBD went mainstream they would use a different term for it so as not to be associated with that unperson Steve Sailer.

Modern Abraham said...

Baseball is in the middle of one of its periodic doping scandals, centering on one of the game’s best players, Alex Rodriguez.

Alex Rodriguez has got to be the biggest athletically elite creep in the history of sports. He's basically the Nixon of America's Game; his talent for violating the bro-code, abjectly boot-lickin' superiors while at the same time mercilessly kicking inferiors, exceeds even his eye for the strikezone.

Let's roll the high-light reel:

* tries sissy-slapping the ball out of the defenseman's glove as he's about to be tagged out on a slow roller during New York's epic collapse in the 2004 ALCS
* tried to get a fielder to drop a routine infield pop-up by shouting "Hey!" to break his concentration
* thought the guys in the locker room would think he's cool for dating Madonna like 10 years after she was already Dennis Rodman's sloppy seconds
* rats out other players when caught doping

Again, never seen this elite of a player (even w/o the dope he'd surely have hit 500+ dingers) with such a creep-o, weasel personality.

Contrast to Jeter, who busts up his face diving into the seats for a foul ball. BTW, anyone else notice how Derek looks exactly like the brother of "The Situation" from Jersey Shore?

Anonymous said...

The one good thing about Gladwell is that he seems to always bring out the best in Steve. This is such an excellent, wide-ranging post. I had never heard of the Potsdam giants. What you say about state lotteries and slot machines is spot-on.

Gladwell wrote:

This is a long way from the exploits of genial old men living among the pristine pines of northern Finland. It is a vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference.

Except for the fact that Mäntyranta self-admittedly used steroids (which weren't banned in those days).

Anonymous said...

Here's another way to get high red blood cell counts: become an asthmatic. Instead of blood doping, move to Staten Island. Use your inhaler only when training or competing. The rest of the time walk around wheezing. Your hematocrit and red blood cell count will go well above the normal range in about eight months.

FredR said...

I don't like the assumption in his article that personality traits like intelligence and 'sheer will' are less inherited, and more fair, than physical attributes.

Anonymous said...

Gladsell's math.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7VPsGLes_4

bbartlog said...

Gladwell's writing seems to be a pretty good example of what Schopenhauer said about the stages of truth:
'All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.'

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, it seems that Eastern European sports medicine did not make ComBlock sprinters competitive with West African men. About the closest was Valeriey Borzov in '72 100 meter sprints, when some American sprinters were late to the quarterfinals.

Anyway, Gladwell seems fundamentally confused about the nature of sports. It's not intended to be purely a measure of individual personal merit or will. The human biodiversity is is part of the attraction as well. In basketball, is quick better than tall? Is smart better than athletic? There are different routes to victory and it's not always clear which set of natural attributes will prevail.

Institute of Economic Understanding said...

Even Gladwell's New Yorker rebuttal that the 10,000 hour 'rule' is only applicable for cognitively demanding tasks such as chess or playing an instrument is easily refused with numerous conterexmaples. With a sufficiency high IQ (or other measure of ability of abstract thought) one need not require 10,000 hours to master even the most complicated of skills, such as modern physics. One example off the top of my head
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Moffat_(physicist)

Readily accessible information on the internet and falling costs of consumer technology is leveling playing field, further diminishing Gladwell's nurture centric argument.

Anonymous said...

Bashar al-Assad ... why does this Syrian dude have white skin and blue eyes?

GLS said...

I read Outliers and honestly it never occurred to me that Gladwell was making an argument that all you have to do is put 10,000 hours into whatever to gain mastery of it. There has to be some sort of reason that Bill Gates becomes interested in computers as an adolescent, and that reason has to be that he's getting some sort of feedback and positive reinforcement early on that encourages him to continue with it. Now, maybe Outliers doesn't spell that out as clearly as it should. I don't know. I would have to go back and read it again. But, it really never occurred to me that the examples he provided occurred in a vacuum.

Mr Lomez said...

The health of athletes is immaterial not only to the athletes but to the fans, too, so making the case that doping should be allowed insofar as it carries marginal health risks is not very persuasive.

The best argument is an aesthetic one. Doping is ugly, pure and simple. It undermines the very things we celebrate athletes for -- their combination of god-given natural abilities, and the hard work they put in to hone those abilities.

Replace "god-given" with "man-made" and it ruins the whole equation. Technology and athletics do not mix well -- never have, never will.

The more our athletes become creations of science, the more we will (and should) despise them.

Anonymous said...

Having read Gladwell's books and followed his career a bit, it seems most likely that this particular blindspot is tied up in his own personal history. He was a very good runner in high school, and when he alludes to that bit of personal trivia he always seem particularly proud of the effort he made to become a competitive runner.

I'm sure it was a formative experience. And I'm sure he did work incredibly hard at it. That's why sports are great for young people in particular - they teach the value of hard work.

But becoming even a modest success as a runner takes some genetic gifts.

Hearing that his lineage partially explains why he won some races must FEEL like it's invalidating the important life lesson running imparted to Gladwell: that effort is all we can control, and must be valued highly.

The understandable, if not commendable, EMOTIONAL response is to reject or diminish the genetic explanation for your own success. It feels like you're being relegated to a pile of DNA, and not given credit for the work you put in.

But to some extent we are piles of DNA. It's just rarely helpful to think of ourselves that way.

ScarletNumber said...

Hey, how about giving me a shout-out for tipping you off to this article?

Also, PTI just wished Gladwell a happy 50th birthday.

Bottledwater said...

Just the fact that the average NBA player is so tall shows the importance of innate giftedness over practice in basketball and presumably a lot of other fields. If practice were the dominant determinant, one would expect basketball players to come in all sizes.

Practice is obviously useful, but you only need so much before diminishing returns sets in. Some fields may require one to master an enormous amount of knowledge to be good, but other fields, you either have a knack for it or you don't.

When Martin bashir asked Michael Jackson if someone taught him to entertain so spectacularly as a child he replied "no, you can't teach that."

Double Standard Exposer said...

Neurodiverse persons are the freaks and geeks of society; so why not the physical specimens mentioned in this article?

Anonymous said...

Bashar al-Assad ... why does this Syrian dude have white skin and blue eyes?

More importantly, why does he look like a taller Charlie Chaplin?

annk said...

I have often said that Steve Sailer should have the fame of Malcolm Gladwell and James Lileks,of Garrison Keillor. Life's not fair!

sunbeam said...

Reading that article made me think that if you let all restraints come off of PED's, athletes are going to be like racecars or racing horses.

I can see specialists in PED's drifting from team to team like NASCAR engine builders.

Scouting programs and genetic screening to find kids who will respond the best to the juice. Why waste training on someone with limited ceiling?

I'm also struck by the possibility of doing weird things with kids. No, not what you are thinking.

But consider: take an athletic kid from a population that doesn't have a history of producing really tall people. Someone like Spud Webb or Muggsy Bogues, though I am thinking of orientals.

Now give them as much HGH as you can imagine. What is the limit on it after all? Is there some kind of genetic expression that limits the effect? I am under the impression that things that limit growth do so by limiting natural HGH, not HGH running into other limits.

Then you might try the other stuff. If the bones are through growing, use surgery to "uncap" the major bones of interest. Maybe their arms are too short? Let's see what we can do.

Risky? Well you want to be a champion right? Everyone else has their hands dangling at their kneecaps, if you want to play the game you need the same features.

And we can give them to you.

Anonymous said...

What happens when the running blade technology that enabled Oscar Pistorius to compete in the Olympics progresses to the point that runners with two natural legs cannot win? Will there be runners willing to amputate their healthy legs to have a shot a the gold? Will the IOC allow them to?

I remember watching the Olympics and wondering why Pistorius was allowed to compete in the regular competition. I mean it's a footrace and the man doesn't have feet. There was no explanation given.

Anonymous said...

Bashar al-Assad ... why does this Syrian dude have white skin and blue eyes?

Fair skin is not uncommon in the Middle East. Pure Arabs are not really much darker than Mediterranean Europeans. They're in the sun, and in much stronger sun, much more than southern Europeans, and that largely accounts for the darker sun.

Blue eyes are rare but not unheard of in the Middle East.

Anonymous said...

This discomfort with doping in sports actually originated before doping. It originated in the increasing professionalization of sports. Sports was originally about the amateur ideal, about ordinary men with ordinary lives in ordinary jobs playing sports as a hobby and competing for enjoyment and excellence, as opposed to for money or celebrity. Many professional soccer teams in Europe and old baseball teams in the US originated as amateur club teams. Increasing professionalization of sports removed sports away from the amateur ideal and made it more and more about money and entertainment. Similar thing happened in the ancient world, with sports in Greece being an amateur thing to the Romans turning it into a spectacle. Doping is just a further departure from the amateur ideal. Full time, professionalized athletes who are already freaks in terms of their lifestyles - they're not amateurs representative of the male citizen in the polity - and they're doping to turn themselves into bigger freaks, both physically and in terms of lifestyle and personality as their motivation for doping is primarily more money and celebrity.

gwern said...

> There are major benefits in going from a sub-normal level of dietary iodine to a normal level, and few if any disadvantages.

Well, there's the side-effect that the iodization can induce thyroid shock in old people with goiters and so iodization is accompanied by nontrivial death rates; I think the paper in question estimated the American death toll at somewhere upwards of a few thousand. Cheap at the price, but not free.

Anonymous said...

More importantly, why does he look like a taller Charlie Chaplin?

Assad looks French.

Average Man said...

SNL had a skit about doping in the early 90's:

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/update-all-drug-olympics/n9691/

The all-drug olympics.

jimbo said...

Ok, can't believe no one has linked to this yet:

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/update-all-drug-olympics/n9691/

Anonymous said...

The chances of world-class athletes under the scrutiny of the best medical minds money can buy dying due to overdose, unexpected complications, etc. would seem to be small.

Not really. Consider a cycling team. The doping was typically run by the team doctor and the team manager.

The interests of the team manager and the cyclist don't always coincide. The team manager wants wins so his contract will be renewed. If that means running certain unknown but significant risks with the short or long term health of the riders, well, there are a lot of replacement riders coming up. A typical 20 year old cyclist probably isn't as clued in to the risks of doping regime X as the team doctor that serves at the pleasure of the team manager.

Anonymous said...

Exactly anon it isn't Puritan to despise doping its down right Cavilier. I increasingly think libertarianism is the autistic face of Poujadhism. People who are comfortable but anxious without social polish who just can't understand that some prohibitions in life are aesthetically driven. I mean fine i give up on amateurizarion and the quasi-amateurizarion of dope testing etc. but to act like it was Puritanism not good breeding that inspired it is ridicolous.

Marlo said...

Off topic, but what do you guys think about these scores?

http://dailyhowler.blogspot.com/2012/12/fooled-about-schools-black-kids-beat.html

http://nces.ed.gov/timss/pdf/results11_Massachusetts_Math.pdf

Asians>Whites>Blacks>Finns??? Another huge blow to HBD, given that this test is pretty g-loaded.

SandroMenotti said...

Now, Gladwell is back to say, well of course human biodiversity, including racial differences, matters hugely in sports.

"Racial differences" don't matter "hugely" in sport, because there are no BIOLOGICAL "races", as credible scientists have shown numerous times (Templeton 2002, Armelagos 1998, et al). What matters is not "race" but a continuum of traits shared by athletes in varying proportions in all continents, that may or may not be advantageous for certain sports, at certain times. There was a time for example when long distance running or boxing was dominated by athletes of European descent. Not any more, and there is no guarantee that groups heavily participating now will retain that level in the future. Blacks were once almost one-third of pro baseball players. That has changed as Hispanics assume a greater role. There are numerous other factors at play besides "race" and that includes training, access to facilities and exposure to competitive opportunities to become better.

No, people from sweltering jungle will not gain an edge over people from grim cold in the Winter Olympics en masse anytime soon for obvious reasons of exposure and opportunity, but as individuals relocate to different environments and have good access and exposure to "reserved" sports, supposed "biological barriers" to high performance are not that at all. Thus West African descended speed skater Shani Davis could earn 2 gold medals in 2 Olympics (2006 and 2010), and cold climate Russian Valeri Borzov could beat all the US and Jamaican 100 & 200 meter sprinters in the 72 Olympics.

A continuum of traits varying in time and place is NOT the same as biological "race" though often cast as such by race-mongers. "Races' are ARBITRARY categories defined as such by some people, but these are artifical and do not use the same rigor that scientists observe in partitioning various subspecies of the animal world. And the degree of variation WITHIN reputed "races" is much more than among different "breeds." The notion of "races" among humans is primarily an ideological construct, sometimes established by sampling manipulation (Armelagos 2001).

Some claim to have discovered a "magic bullet" by using geographic clusters and calling them "races" but the self-same geographic clusters do not correspond to the rigor obtained in the rest of the sciences, and are themselves an arbitrary exercise. Where exactly does "Europe" begin for example, on what scientific basis, and why do numerous early Europeans, including some "Cro-Magnon" specimens show tropical adaptations akin to a certain range of tropical Africans? (Holiday 2000, 2001, Brace 2005, et al) Who gets credit for being the "true" EUropean "race"? Today's Euro-ideologues of course would impose their own preferred categories but let's call it for what it is, an arbitrary exercise.

And if "races" are supposedly self-evident the data of conservative scientists who believe in race indicate Europeans themselves are not a primary race but mixed breed hybrids- one third African, and two-thirds Asian (Cavalli-Sforza 1997).

Anonymous said...

A bit off topic, but a study that finds "... 23 percent of differences in parenting is due to a child's genetics."

"...boys' genetically influenced level of self-control affected the behavior of their mothers toward them..."

"... the child's genetic influence on parenting increases with age."


"Why Parenting Can Never Have a Rule Book: Children's Genetics Significantly Affect How They Are Parented", ScienceDaily, Sep. 3, 2013.

Of course parents probably knew this, but...

Anonymous said...

Here's another way to get high red blood cell counts: become an asthmatic. Instead of blood doping, move to Staten Island. Use your inhaler only when training or competing.

You're late to the game. Athletes have been training at low altitude (where more O2 lets them train harder) and resting at high altitude (where altitude acclimatization creates more red blood cells, resulting in better aerobic performance) for years. If there isn't a convenient mountain around they sleep in hypobaric chambers that simulate high altitude.

At the elite level most sports regulate asthma inhalers.

fredbhwi said...

what do you guys think about these scores?

Nothing new. When you start dis-aggregating scores, you find these things. It has been discussed here.

Anonymous said...

No, people from sweltering jungle will not gain an edge over people from grim cold in the Winter Olympics en masse anytime soon for obvious reasons of exposure and opportunity, but as individuals relocate to different environments and have good access and exposure to "reserved" sports, supposed "biological barriers" to high performance are not that at all.

This is something like a record for most nonsense in a single post.

I don't think anyone has claimed that Africans are innately unfit for winter sports qua winter sports. In fact, the Jamaican Bobsled Team long ago showed that West African sprinting speed is very useful in some events. A few Jamaicans take up bobsledding on a lark, and quickly reach elite levels of performance. Hmm, it's like their innate athletic strengths quickly overcame all sorts of cultural barriers.

I think it very unlikely that white Europeans will ever be present in significant numbers for the 100m sprint at the elite level. The fastest white European times are just a shade under ten seconds; it's happened about once. That's a winning time from about 1968. Bolt's currently at 9.58. And no, it's not the result of differing access to tracks. There are plenty of white farm boys in Texas that want to play wide receiver for the Cowboys.

Borzov won the 100m because the top two American sprinters (who were running over 0.05 sec faster at the time) were disqualified for missing their quarterfinals race. And because of or despite whatever differential there was in the US/USSR doping programs.

Anonymous said...

"Bashar al-Assad ... why does this Syrian dude have white skin and blue eyes?"

Mrs Assad is a nice redhead.

http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01875/Asma-al-Assad_1875573i.jpg

Gulf War SAS guy Chris Ryan, who walked out of Iraq to Syria, noted he number of red-headed Syrians he saw.

TH said...

Asians>Whites>Blacks>Finns??? Another huge blow to HBD, given that this test is pretty g-loaded.

Those results have been discussed here before. I'll repeat what I said before:

A big problem with these international comparisons is that from a purely psychometric perspective such comparisons are often invalid. This study showed that the TIMSS math test is frequently not measurement invariant across different countries, especially if cultural differences are large. This means that the test is consistently biased against some countries when compared to others, and it therefore cannot be used to show that there are real differences in math skills unless measurement invariance is tested and found to hold.

pat said...

I have been thinking about your earlier posting on black wingspan as a contributor to greater black basketball ability.

We were all blacks more or less until about 50,000 years ago when the races differentiated. The post cranial bodies of all humans have today are the tropical bodies that we got when the newly emerged Homo sapiens left Africa.

There has been a lot of controversy about the 'Out of Africa' hypothesis. The opposing multi-threaded viewpoint of Wiedenreich-Coon-Wolpoff had a lot of trouble believing that two strains of humanity could occupy the same territory for tens of thousands of years with no sex, or no viable progeny. Yet Sarich was driven to that very conclusion as recently as ten years ago.

More recently DNA from Neanderthal dental material seems to show that modern Europeans have about 2.5% Neanderthal genes. My own DNA scan shows my Neanderthal contribution to be 2.9%. What does this mean?

Isn't it true that humans and chimpanzees differ only about 2% in their respective genomes? If these are in any way comparable measures then 2.9% Neanderthal heritage is quite a bit.

I read today in a Rushton paper that blacks show a greater forearm to upper arm ratio than whites. This difference is present since before birth. It seems that the black wingspan advantage that may lead to greater dunking ability is present already in the black fetus.

So I'm wondering if my stunted white forearms are part of my Neanderthal heritage? Does anyone know the forearm/upper arm ratio of Neanderthals?

Cochran's model is that the Africans with the new slimmer body type picked up a few genes in Europe that were well adapted to local conditions. Shorter forearms presumably are better in colder climates since the forearms are one of the body's major heat dissipating elements.

Is that why blacks can dunk?

Albertosaurus

pat said...

I have been thinking about your earlier posting on black wingspan as a contributor to greater black basketball ability.

We were all blacks more or less until about 50,000 years ago when the races differentiated. The post cranial bodies of all humans have today are the tropical bodies that we got when the newly emerged Homo sapiens left Africa.

There has been a lot of controversy about the 'Out of Africa' hypothesis. The opposing multi-threaded viewpoint of Wiedenreich-Coon-Wolpoff had a lot of trouble believing that two strains of humanity could occupy the same territory for tens of thousands of years with no sex, or no viable progeny. Yet Sarich was driven to that very conclusion as recently as ten years ago.

More recently DNA from Neanderthal dental material seems to show that modern Europeans have about 2.5% Neanderthal genes. My own DNA scan shows my Neanderthal contribution to be 2.9%. What does this mean?

Isn't it true that humans and chimpanzees differ only about 2% in their respective genomes? If these are in any way comparable measures then 2.9% Neanderthal heritage is quite a bit.

I read today in a Rushton paper that blacks show a greater forearm to upper arm ratio than whites. This difference is present since before birth. It seems that the black wingspan advantage that may lead to greater dunking ability is present already in the black fetus.

So I'm wondering if my stunted white forearms are part of my Neanderthal heritage? Does anyone know the forearm/upper arm ratio of Neanderthals?

Cochran's model is that the Africans with the new slimmer body type picked up a few genes in Europe that were well adapted to local conditions. Shorter forearms presumably are better in colder climates since the forearms are one of the body's major heat dissipating elements.

Is that why blacks can dunk?

Albertosaurus

Anonymous said...

Some claim to have discovered a "magic bullet" by using geographic clusters and calling them "races"

They aren't geographic clusters. It's not like someone drew a circle around the International terminal at LAX at 2:30 on a weekend and started ascribing athletic traits to everyone inside the circle.

The point is that the group being described has genetic similarities because they are partially inbred.

SandroMenotti said...

We were all blacks more or less until about 50,000 years ago when the races differentiated.

^^This is questionable. The "races" did not "differentiate" 50,000 years ago. Population variants within Africa, and subsequently the OOA migrations do not equate to "races" supposedly "diverging".. As Templeton 2002, et al show, arbitrarily claiming that some point in a continuum of variation marks "racial divergence" is simply an arbitrary ideological exercise that does not meet the rigorous threshold for the divergence of animal subspecies normally held by mainstream science. In addition, studies of so-called "racial divergence" are themselves sometimes contradictory. One for example claimed such "divergence" but its "subSaharan" versus "Non-African" comparison saw that self-same "Non_african group" itself containing "sub-Saharan" Africans, undermining claims of "race" divergence (Keita and Kittles 1997).

In addition African populations have a deep ancient population substructure and built-in diversity and variation INTERNAL to and WITHIN that structure PRIOR to any OOA migrations. This variation does not rely on any "Race mix." Variation was ALREADY built-in to African populations as would be expected from a population that furnished anatomically modern humans. European genes are a more limited subset of this original African diversity (Gokcumen et al (2013), Tishkoff 2000, et al).


The opposing multi-threaded viewpoint of Wiedenreich-Coon-Wolpoff had a lot of trouble believing that two strains of humanity could occupy the same territory for tens of thousands of years with no sex, or no viable progeny.

They may have "a lot of trouble" and understandly so because but the Carleton Coon/Weidenrich/Wolpoff "race" approach has been credibly debunked for several years now by credible scholars.


More recently DNA from Neanderthal dental material seems to show that modern Europeans have about 2.5% Neanderthal genes. My own DNA scan shows my Neanderthal contribution to be 2.9%. What does this mean?

Some say it means today's Europeans are proud inheritors of Neanderthal genes. Others note that claimed "NEanderthal interbreeding" may not be that at all but echoes of a COMMON hominid ancestor reflected in both Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans. It looks like interbreeding, but it could well be nothing of the sort. (Gokcumen et al (2013).

Isn't it true that humans and chimpanzees differ only about 2% in their respective genomes? If these are in any way comparable measures then 2.9% Neanderthal heritage is quite a bit.

^^Your statement makes little sense. The 2.9% NEanderthal heritage would be an estimated Admixture. The correct comparison is how far apart NEanderthals and Humans are compared to humans and chimps, using a standard scale of relatedness.


It seems that the black wingspan advantage that may lead to greater dunking ability is present already in the black fetus.
Utter nonsense.

Cochran's model is that the Africans with the new slimmer body type picked up a few genes in Europe that were well adapted to local conditions.
^^How could a tropical body plan be "new" when ancient African migrants to EUrope (either directly across the Medit or via the Middle East) ALREADY had the said slimmer (tropical body plan)?

Truth said...

Dude, you couldn't dunk at 6-7?

JeremiahJohnbalaya said...

SandroMenotti, please continue to use this identifiable, ergo easy ignored, moniker. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

SandroMenotti: Do you believe there are any average genetic differences between those who identify as black and those who do not?

Anonymous said...

http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/15-funny-and-creative-exam

We lead in creativity.

Anonymous said...

But it seems that people who are trying to refute the 10,000 rule don't understand that it is a requirement for expertise, winning a gold medal at the olympics requires something more, the judicious use of steroids.



NO. FIRST it requires God Given Talent, sometimes known as genetics and having the right set for executing amazingly well a particular individual skill or talent. This is something that Gladwell appeared to blatantly overlook and hence the backlash.

"You can't put in what God left out". --Chariots of Fire