- - Monday, August 26, 2013

By David Epstein
Current, $26.95, 338 pages

Why are some people more athletic than others? Why is it that many sports are dominated by players of specific ethnicities?

These are questions that occur to many of us, sports fans and non-fans alike. Unfortunately, academia and the media have stubbornly refused to deal with them in an honest manner, keeping to simple, feel-good answers.

David Epstein’s “The Sports Gene” is a welcome exception. While the book’s title is unfortunate — no single gene could explain something so complex as athleticism — Mr. Epstein provides a careful and nuanced discussion of how nature, nurture and sports interact.

Mr. Epstein proves that genes exert a powerful influence on athleticism, and that ethnic physical differences can affect performance in many sports. Yet he does not shortchange the effects of practice and culture. This is a significant accomplishment.

There’s been much discussion in the popular press about the “10,000-hour rule” — the argument, formulated by journalist Malcolm Gladwell, that one masters a task not by having the right genes, but simply by practicing it for a total of 10,000 hours. This theory does not survive a close inspection by Mr. Epstein.

For starters, the drive needed to practice something for 10,000 hours might itself be genetic. For example, it’s possible to breed dogs and mice that have an insatiable desire to run, and twin studies suggest that genes contribute to the amount of physical activity that people get.

More to the point, the “rule” is based on flawed statistical reasoning. Yes, on average, a person who achieves elite status in a field does so after practicing for about 10,000 hours — but an average is not a rule for individuals to follow. Some people achieve elite status in as little as 3,000 hours, while others take more than twice the average. Every one of these studies has found an immense amount of variation.

Mr. Epstein illustrates this concept by comparing two high jumpers. Stefan Holm of Sweden has had a lifelong love of the sport, and through training, he very gradually improved his performance. Donald Thomas of the Bahamas, meanwhile, managed to clear a seven-foot bar on his first day. At the 2007 World Championships, just a year-and-a-half after his first high jump, Mr. Thomas beat Mr. Holm.

Mr. Epstein details many of the physical differences that give some athletes an advantage. Mr. Thomas benefited from unusually spring-like Achilles tendons. Basketball players are tall and have wide wingspans. Baseball players, who must look at a ball leaving a pitcher’s hand at 90 mph and instantly know whether and how to swing, have amazing vision. And so on.

None of this means that training doesn’t matter. For example, in addition to having great vision, baseball players must build an elaborate mental database of how different pitches look. They’re useless without this database. In one anecdote, Mr. Epstein tells of a professional softball pitcher who easily struck out some of Major League Baseball’s finest hitters. All the time they’d spent watching overhand fastballs had not prepared them for an underhand pitch.

What this does mean is that genetic qualities matter in sports. Which raises a question: Are some of these qualities more common in some ethnic groups than in others?

Much of academia swears that the phenomenon we refer to as “race” is merely a “social construct” with no biological significance whatsoever, but actual genetic research reveals otherwise: As humans spread out across the globe and encountered widely varying environments, each population evolved a little differently.

One difference that emerged is body structure. For example, the Kalenjin — a Kenyan ethnic group that is dramatically overrepresented in long-distance running accomplishments — tend to have thin lower legs, which is an advantage because weight there dramatically reduces running efficiency.

Further, in general, Africans of a given height have longer limbs than Europeans, and also have a higher center of mass. There are differences in average height among ethnic groups as well.

As with Mr. Epstein’s arguments regarding individual athletic achievement, his arguments about racial differences don’t imply that environment and culture are irrelevant. As Mr. Epstein notes, sometimes an ethnic group can dominate simply because they care about the sport more than their competitors — see the (now fading) pre-eminence of Japanese sumo wrestlers, or the stellar German record in dressage. The Kalenjin, in addition to their physical advantages, are raised in an environment where constant running is the norm.

That is what makes “The Sports Gene” such a worthy read: While the book’s purpose is to push back against the widespread denial that genes matter, Mr. Epstein avoids taking too strident a stance in the opposite direction. Human reality, he explains, isn’t the result of nature or nurture. It’s the result of both.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy.com.

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