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July 23, 2005

Athletes: Genetic Freaks?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

There really are (in some cases) biologically-based differences between (some) people. Heavens, but it feels good to be living in a world where such a thing can be said out loud without everyone within earshot getting hysterical. So let me say it again: There really are (in some cases) biologically-based differences between (some) people.

Wow, the sense of relief and expansiveness that I feel! I wonder if younger people have any idea what it was like to get an education in the '60s and the '70s, those decades of extreme Blank Slate-ism. We're all alike; all differences are purely cultural ... If you were trying to move in circles that fancied themselves to be "educated circles," you were obligated to bow down before these two claims. Anyone Who Was Anyone simply knew that they were true, after all. And Anyone Who Disagreed, ipso facto, deserved to be treated as a Nazi until he/she proved otherwise.

So it's been fun -- and immensely satisfying -- to watch genetic and biological research pile up showing that biological differences can and do exist between individuals, as well as between population groups. God knows that it's a moment to be relished when scientific findings and common experience jibe. And an even more tasty treat when they contradict and confound the vanities and lies of privileged people. Great Steve Sailer quote:

There are lots of important and popular people who don't seem to mind lying, and, indeed, think better of themselves for lying in a fashionable cause. In fact, the more blatant the lie, they appear to believe, the greater the moral credit they deserve.

Some interesting data showed up yesterday in a good Wall Street Journal "On Sports" column by Sam Walker. It seems that, for a long time now, docs and researchers have been prodding elite athletes in order to determine if their athletic excellence has some biological bases. Answer: You betcha. As Walker writes: "While genetics is only one part of the formula for greatness, scientists agree that in order to be truly dominant, an athlete has to be -- to some degree -- a genetic freak."

Some of the findings Walker cites:

  • Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has flipper-like feet: size 14 monsters that are as flexible as a ballerina's.

  • Andy Roddick, who owns tennis' fastest serve, can arch his back 44% farther than can the average tennis pro.

  • The soccer star Mia Hamm produces half as much sweat as the average soccer player.

  • While it takes a typical civilian 300 milliseconds to make a reactive decision, the average race car driver is able to react and respond in 270 milliseconds -- a difference that means a lot when your car is going 200 miles an hour.

One of the most remarkable physical specimens in the world is the great bicyclist Lance Armstrong. Armstrong's heart is 20% larger than a normal person's, and his body produces one-third less lactic acid than do the bodies of other top cyclists. It's thought that each one of these physical attributes exists in only a few hundred people on earth. Walker quotes one doctor, who says of Armstrong that, in terms of his physical capabilities, "He's probably one in a billion."

And, yes, I have read Jon Entine's "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It." Fascinating stuff about why the winners of so many marathons are Kenyans, etc. Here's Jon Entine's website.

Like I say, it feels indescribably great to be able to think -- and to think out loud -- about these matters. Might some unappetizing and offensive situations arise from allowing free and open discussions to take place? Sure. But why not risk 'em? After all, it isn't as though a situation in which everyone's forced to ignore the elephant in the living room doesn't produce grotesque distortions of its own.

I have no solution to this quandary, of course. Does anyone? But I can humbly suggest what strikes me as a workable means of getting on with life in the face of such challenges. How about keeping the conversation open while also making reasonable and good-faith attempts to be appreciative and respectful? Also: How about being forgiving towards screwups? Cutting each other a little slack seldom hurts. We all make mistakes; we all need chances to experiment, to learn, and to grow. And yeah, sure, firm lines do need to be drawn -- sometimes. But those times seem to me to be relatively rare. (They sure do supply good plots for Westerns, though.)

Sometimes I wonder: If I were growing up today, surrounded by endless news about biological and genetic discoveries, would I be doing my contrarian best to assert the importance of culture? Or would there be no point? Has a more balanced -- and agreeable, in the sense of being-easy-to-live-with -- view of the culture/biology axis emerged? Perhaps the understandings we have now simply don't need to be quarreled with.

In any case: biology and culture -- not two opposing forces at war with each other, but two markers on the same lifeforce-manifesting-itself continuum, no?



posted by Michael at July 23, 2005


Differences between "ethnic" groups in athletic performance are understood by everyone (and I mean everyone) to exist. To see a white sprinter in the quarter finals of the Olympics (to be eliminated in that very round, of course) is to think immediately, "Whoa, token white guy!"

And remains taboo to even suggest that at least some of this "ethnic" phenotypic athletic variation might be due to "ethnic" genotypic variation.

And yet...everybody knows. Just as everybody knows what I meant by "ethnic" (you know, that R-word thing that's not supposed to exist). Everybody *knows* that genes affect athletic performance. Genes for height, weight, musculature, fast-twitch/slow-twitch muscle ratios, and on and on. And yet...

No one will admit it.


Posted by: PatrickH on July 23, 2005 6:09 PM

I had an opportunity to hear and to speak with John Entine at a Southern California Skeptics society conference and have to admit that I was underwhelmed. For example, he soft pedaled his own data that there is a small group of geographically related Ethiopians who dominate in distance running over their fellow Ethiopians (and everybody else) because it apparently conflicted with his larger theory of general black sports dominance. He also ignored the obvious point that a dominating talent for long distance running appears in Mexican, non-black North African, and East African runners among others, which is easily shown in track and field results. While it is obvious that there are biologically based differences between people, that these differences are tremendously significant or confer a consistent advantage is another matter altogether. A few musings:

I find it interesting that modern female gymnasts often all have the same squat body shape, without regard to the ethnicity of the gymnasts, because the coaches (many of whom are disciples of a small number of former Soviet country coaches) all have decided that this body type will get the best results.

Despite the absolute dominance of Chinese divers in Olympic and international competitions, no one has looked into or suggested genetic bases for this dominance. Similarly, despite the recent dominance of Latino baseball players, again no one is much looking for genetic explanations (even though these might be muddied by steroid use). Part of the reason here, I think, is because Americans, who engender much of the discussion in this area, have an obsession with supposed black-white differences, but less when it comes to other groups. The consistent high level of performance from large numbers of Chinese and Latino athletes also muddies any concept of specific individual genetic freakishness.

South Koreans are heavily represented in the ranks of lower weight divisions for boxing, but almost no Japanese are, despite the great degree of genetic similarity in the two groups. Here there are two easy explanations. Japan has a long and xenophobic tradition of athletics, and (my rule) any nation that does not have broad access to economic mobility and a strong social insurance system but a fairly developed economy may see significant numbers of people trying for prize fights and similar quick-wealth athletic activities. You don’t see large numbers of German or Irish Americans in boxing anymore in part because it is much easier and much more reliable to make it in the mainstream economy, no matter what the genetic endowments of these individuals might be.

We could also talk about how equipment changes impact athletic performance. The Fosbury Flop in high jumping was possible in part because of the creation of padded mats which allow that type of jump, which in turn soon selected out all athletes who could not make that rotating back twisting jump despite their other athletic talent.

Also, the Mia Hamms, Andy Roddicks and Lance Armstrongs are the freak of freaks. Knowing about them tells us little about the thousands of other athletes who compete at high levels. I recall reading a few years ago about the supposed physical advantages that the Williams sisters had over all other women tennis players, but I don’t see much about what kind of genetic freak Maria Sharpova might be (other than freakishly beautiful). I also wonder, what did race car drivers do before the invention of the automobile? This last part suggests that, as always, genes and environments interact, and that perhaps genetic freaks invent the athletic events in which they can excel which, in turn, suggests that there are new worlds for potential athletes to conquer and that the very definition of “who is an athlete” is subject to continual revision.

Posted by: Alec on July 23, 2005 7:19 PM

Knowing about them tells us little about the thousands of other athletes who compete at high levels.

i'm sorry, but this statement indicates to me that you don't know the field. What is VO2max? What is alpha-actinin 3? What are fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers?

Why is it that race performance can be predicted quite strongly by these variables via a standard regression analysis? If your statement was correct the VO2max distribution would be modeled by a discrete rather than a continuous random variable.

Freaks are just extremes. There are those in between freaks and the normal. Quantitative genetics is about continuous, not binary traits.

Posted by: genethug on July 23, 2005 7:25 PM

In a way, it's a wonder that race-related genetic and ability research has happened at all.

(BTW, in my sociology days, the discipline used "race" in the white-yellow-brown/red-black sense denoting visible characteristics, whereas "ethnic" has to do with cultural dustinctions such as "Hispanic" -- and don't ask me what the cultural overlap might be for a Filipino and and Argentine having the same last name. The Census Bureau has used this distinction in its questionnaires and tabulations, causing no little confusion to the general public.)

Anyhow, sociologists are forever overjoyed to slice 'n' dice race/ethnic groups by educational attainment, income, etc., but NEVER on something as sensitive as intelligence.

I recall a coffee shop conversation back in the 60s with a couple fellow grad-students (we were all white guys). One got almost apoplectic when the idea of possible differences in intelligence between races was raised. He dismissed the idea as a complete impossibility, end-of-story. I've always thought that he and those who think like him were frightened to death of the thought that actual research might prove them wrong. Solution: never ever research this.

And a couple years later was the huge stink over Berkeley psychologist Arthur Jensen's (hope I goot the name right) work. Thomas Sowell, of course, has his own thoughts on the matter. As for me, I figure the truth can't hurt.

True anecdote: a onetime coworker named Herskowitz once proclaimed "People think Jews are pretty smart, and maybe we are. But do you know who the REALLY smart ones are? It's the Armenians!" (I wonder how he researched that.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 23, 2005 11:28 PM

I think you are too optimistic. My humanities and sociology classes (required for graduation) were insanely left-wing. One quarter of humanities focused mostly on the (bad) experiences of blacks, Asians, and Latinos in the U.S. In another quarter emphasis was placed on the U.S. role in Nazi eugenics. Sociology was even worse--one of my profs (two were teaching the course) said right in the first class that all human differences are socially caused. The course placed huge emphasis on how bad women still have it--pretty loony stuff. Of course there was the usual whining about how unfair everything is to blacks and Hispanics, particularly the justice system. Blank slate-ism and hard leftism are alive and well at the universities.

Posted by: birch barlow on July 23, 2005 11:57 PM

What I also find very distressing is that even those who are thought of as "the good guys" are really pretty damn bad. For example, Tooby and Cosmides, who from what I gather are admired amongst the EP crowd, wrote some pretty egregious stuff about race, ranging from a thesis that could never survive peer review were it not for PC, to a discussion on race that is a mixture of semi-truths contorted beyond recognition and out-and-out lies (see "Cognitive Perceptions of Race"--it is one of the worst papers I have read, right up there with the more ideological/whiny stuff I read in sociology).

Posted by: birch barlow on July 24, 2005 12:08 AM

The race-does-not-exist egalitarian socialists predominate on campus, at least in the liberal arts. For a typical example of the popular mindset, see the comments following this article: (I think there's one reasonable guy battling NYC).

Alec asks: I also wonder, what did race car drivers do before the invention of the automobile?

-I bet successful gunfighters and swordsmen had fast reaction times. As for me, I'll kick your ass at foosball. I think I may be a freak of nature.

Posted by: Erik on July 24, 2005 12:28 AM

Count me as someone raised on the "new orthodoxy" about genes who thinks a contrarian emphasis on culture is useful. In 2500 BC, the Egyptians were the smartest people on earth and the Greeks were barbarians. In 500 BC the Greeks were the smartest people on earth and the English and Germans were barbarians. In 1900 AD the English and the Germans were the smartest people on earth and the Greeks and the Egyptians were squalid minor colonies. I'm supposed to think that genetics explains this? Frankly, that's stupid. Genetics is a truly lousy explanation for human diversity over time and across history.

Why do cultures in particular stages of social organization -- hunter/gatherer, primitive kingship, urban -- all look culturally somewhat similar whatever the genetic makeup of the people in the society?

Really, the issue should be looking at how genes and social organization / culture interact. Humans are social and cultural animals; we are actually genetically primed to be responsive to social and environmental cues. Understanding how that interaction works to create diversity is a much better route than setting culture and genes against each other as opposites.

Posted by: MQ on July 24, 2005 2:22 AM

Culture is an organic outgrowth of the people/race from which it arises.

It is not even comparable to a chicken/egg question.

Posted by: Luke the Drifter on July 24, 2005 3:44 AM

It's interesting how the culture side of the dispute over the causes of variation in athletic performance never has to come up with any specific ways in which culture produces this variation. The enormous dominance of athletes of West African descent in the sprints is rather airily said by some to be caused by culture, but no effort is made AT ALL to specify what element of culture is responsible. No research is referenced even into what cultural elements are *common* across groups of West African descent, no comparison is made of the 'force' or prevalence of this common element compared to other cultures that don't succeed in sprinting (effectively all cultures not composed of members of West African descent), no attempt is made to relate this element causally to sprinting performance, and not, say, distance running performance, etc.

When you write the rules of the discussion that way, it's no wonder that genetic explanations seem to go nowhere.

Posted by: PatrickH on July 24, 2005 10:01 AM

Crikey, genethug, it’s been a long time since someone tried the “I cannot answer your arguments and don’t agree with you, so you must not understand” stuff on me. It’s also interesting that you yanked my sentence about genetic freaks seriously out of context. Mia Hamm, for example, may produce half as much sweat as other soccer players, but what does that have to do with Pele or Beckham or other great soccer players? Or with muscle fibers and genes? Or with predicting who might be a good soccer player? Note that I can more easily see how Lance Armstrong’s attributes might give him an advantage over most of his other competitors. Also, note that I did not deny any connection between athletic performance and genes, it’s just that it doesn’t get me as hot and bothered as apparently it does others, nor does it answer as many questions as people think.

Erik, I can’t speak for swordsmen, but as for gunfighters, well, the notion that there were lots of fast draw gunfights in the Old West is largely a myth of novels and movies. By the way, you can hunt around on the net and find the recent obituary of stuntman and fast draw specialist Arvo Ojala, whose main claim to popular fame was appearing in the opening credits of the “Gunsmoke” TV show as the bad guy gunned down by Marshall Dillon. But his quick draw holsters and techniques were based on materials and ideas that were unknown to 19th century shootists.

Liked your bit about foosball.

Posted by: Alec on July 24, 2005 1:43 PM

I'm sure that not everyone in the Old West was a gunfighter, but, if a claim that 2 million rather than 6 million Jews were killed in WW2 can be characterized as "historical revisionism", then certainly the same can be said of a claim that there were hardly any gunfighters in the Old West.

Alec speculates that: "the very definition of “who is an athlete” is subject to continual revision"."

I agree, in the sense that words lose their meaning in the service of egalitarianism.

For example, (and I mean no offense), Special Olympics "athletes" are not athletic. They might be nice people, they might try hard, and they might get lactic acid buildup, but they are no more athletic than your grandmother.

What is an athlete? An athlete is athletic.

And I'll kick ALL your asses at foosball.

Incidentally, is foosball a sport?

Are those who play it athletes?

Posted by: Luke the Drifter on July 24, 2005 3:12 PM

Are you trying to insinuate that because of your great intellect and brawny physique that you are somehow genetically superior to all of us?

Posted by: Neil on July 24, 2005 7:11 PM

Didn't I hear something about Lance Armstrong sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber and/or training at high elevations, which basically has the same effect as blood-doping? IE, extra red blood cells, more hemoglobin, and more O2-carrying capacity?

Physiology's a bit fuzzy. Been a while.

Posted by: Peggy Nature on July 25, 2005 6:40 PM

PatrickH -- It's a good question. Seems to me to be easier to say, Hey, of course there are diffs between various groups in their tendencies, gifts, and tastes (many exceptions allowed for) -- how cool! What fun! And start from there. Starting (over and over again) from the premise that we must all be assumed to be equal in every possible way seems to me to be pretty hard on everyone, and to promote a general atmosphere of seething hysteria. Do you suppose the whole regime of denying-the-obvious -by- controlling-the-conversation is crumbling? I suspect it is, but I'm often fooling myself.

Alec -- Like you, I'm disappointed that more studies aren't made of diffs (and similarities) between the world's many population groups. People do over-fixate on the black-white thing, alas. Understandable, I guess, but finally boring and tedious. The more the merrier, sez I. And sports are an amazing phenom in so many ways. Why do some sports "take," and hook participants and fans? And why do others not "take" in the same way? Sports seem to create their own stars and freaks, in a way: suddenly, there are great athletes around of a kind we've never seen before, a little in the way that movie stars bring out physical and emotional types we either haven't noticed before or who maybe haven't had the confidence to push themselves into our consciousness before. Michelle Pfeiffer becomes a star, and in a year or so we start to notice a lot of Michelle Pfeiffer types around. It's as though they give us lenses through which to see humanity, or something. Very nifty, in any case.

Genethug -- Whatever it is that makes for a great athlete, I certainly don't have it. It's a funny question to think about, though, especially if you've been a bit of an OK athlete at some point. I was an OK public school athlete, for instance. Then I went off to a fancy private school (kids from all over, many with dough who'd gotten coaching), then off to a fancy college (the top level of athleticism getting ever further above my head), and then you meet a pro or two ... Are they just stronger? More determined? In high school there seemed to be just strength and determination that made the diff between me and the school's best athletes. If I just grew a couple of inches and tried harder, I could be as good as they were. But once in a world where the best athletes were really something, it was almost as though they came from a whole different gene stock than I did. No way could I ever dream of playing in their league. More studies, ever more studies!

Donald -- Time to assign some of life's more intractable problems to the Armenians, I guess. I wonder if the Armenians have developed fabulous art and philosophy and psychology. Come to think of it, I know nothing of Armenian culture. Is it impressive? How do these brainy Armnenians express their braininess?

Birch, Eric -- Thanks for the bulletins from the front lines. Sorry to hear the Blank Slaters are as rabid as ever. It can drive a person nuts. Or it did me, anyway. I wonder why they're so tenacious about it. They'd have you thinking the world would fall apart if their worldview didn't rule. Yet I think the world would be a more pleasant place if their worldview were vaporized.
Hmm: maybe it's best I didn't wind up in academia.

MQ -- That seems like a very sensible p-o-v. Yet, still, peoples have their ... I dunno, flavors, or something. I tend to think of cultures and population groups as resembling leafy greens. Sure, we're all leafy greens, and therefore very similar in many important ways. But only a clueless person can't tell the diff between spinach and arugala and Boston lettuce. Part of the fun of life is learning how to discriminate (in a good way) and appreciate flavors and mixtures of flavors. So why not enjoy? But your point about culture and genes interacting is well-taken.

Luke -- There are a lot of fuzzy edges, no? One thing I'm certain of, though, is that I'll never prevail in foosball. But will I be losing to athletes or ... something else? In any case, I wonder what physical/nerve/mental capabilities good foosball players have that I don't have ...

Neil -- Are you asking Luke? Me? If me, then I'm flattered and think we ought to go out on a date together so I can hear more.

Peggy -- Nice to see you again! I should know more about sports than I do. Haven't many speed-and-distance-type athletes been training at high altitudes for years? First I remember hearing about it was circa the Mexico-City Olympics of ... was it '68?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 25, 2005 7:44 PM

Hey, back to the economists. I had a Rand Corp economist come to my blog today and tell me a stat I got from a PBS documentary was "nowhere near reality." Then he told me we needed a study to evaluate something else I said.

Let's knock the economists some more, yeah, that's the ticket.

Posted by: john massengale on July 25, 2005 10:03 PM

Not just in people! Secretariat's heart was 20% bigger than the average racehorse's. Make you wonder what you'd find if you checked out Michael Jordan.

Posted by: annette on July 26, 2005 12:30 PM

Michael B: of course I would not disagree with your statement, it's really hard to take exception too. And genetic diversity obviously exists. But your kind of "let a thousand varieties of lettuce bloom" appreciation of genetic diversity is quite far from what genetic arguments have been used for over the past few centuries. All too often arguments about genetic differences are used to set up inflexible hierarchies of superior and inferior races, with perhaps a few patronizing bits of praise tossed to the "inferior" ones.

Note I am NOT necessarily talking about Hitler here, who was a madman. But in the 19th century the argument that Northern European races were innately superior to everyone else on earth was a very widespread and accepted opinion. Still today it is often a short route from the introduction of genetic diversity into a discussion to the claim of supposedly natural superiority for one's own race in key variables like IQ (which is clearly massively culturally influenced). In my opinion that kind of thinking actually quashes a real appreciation of diversity, because it stops you from seeing how cultural change over time alters the way people express (or don't express) their various gifts.

Posted by: MQ on July 26, 2005 3:42 PM

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