Kristin Carignan, Borders.com Non-Fiction Book Editor
Taboo is the perfect title for Jon Entine's book about athletes and race. But instead of censoring potentially explosive ideas, Entine advocates reading both sides of an issue and then talking about it, with family, friends, co-workers. Recently I spoke with Jon Entine, and we had an interesting dialog about the book.
Jon Entine: Well, I don't believe it can be perceived as a racist book by someone who actually reads it. I think that there is a feeling that the very topic itself is racist and that all you're doing is fanning fears, anxieties, concerns about human differences. In our country, with a history of slavery and segregation, there are reasons to be concerned when race is an issue. The book can be perceived as explosive politically, but from a scientific perspective, it's not a controversial subject. Human biodiversity is probably the hottest subject in science today.
We are all very familiar with the fact that certain races have different medical issues, yet when it comes to sports, it's something totally different. Why do you think sports are treated differently?
JE: What shadows this book, of course, is the issue of intelligence. The reason it's an explosive subject is because in many people's minds there's an inverse relationship between physical ability and intelligence -- "dumb jock" syndrome. So, of course, when you have issues of intelligence and race together, you have a pretty combustible mixture.
Look at what we all went through with the public outcry and huge public interest in The Bell Curve. Some people have said this is the sport's version of The Bell Curve. Frankly, in some ways, I think it is because we're talking about human differences and that was one of the themes of The Bell Curve. But in other ways, [it's] not at all because intelligence is a very, very complex concept. We have 140,000 or so genes in the human genome, as many as 50,000 or more might be dedicated to one form of intelligence. Only one person crosses the finish line, but many, many people can have success in many, many different, special ways.
One of your critics is quoted as saying that what you're doing here is stating that blacks are closer to animals than to humans because they're more athletic and can run and jump faster.
JE: Just so you understand, the person who said that had not read the book. That was a comment made 11 years ago when Harry Edwards participated in the documentary that Tom Brokaw and I worked on for NBC News. Surprisingly, although Harry was very critical of the concept of black/white differences, he praised the documentary for its evenhandedness and willingness to talk about a complex subject in a very forthright way, and he feels the same way about the book. I think the concern everyone has, and a very reasonable one, is how is this information going to be used? Is it going to be used to justify prejudice, to justify social hierarchies in which, at least in our society, we see white males very much dominant and blacks and females and minority groups further down the totem pole of life? Or is it going to be a way to stimulate a debate about what are the social, cultural, and genetic reasons for some of the patterns that we see in society today and hopefully serve as a way to break through and change things for the better.
Since the documentary The Black Athlete 10 years ago didn't stimulate the response that you would have liked, do you really believe the book is going to stimulate debate?
JE: There's a major difference between the book and the documentary. The documentary was about sports' differences. This is really a book about race and about human differences, human biodiversity. It's formed by a decade of incredible developments in human biology, in human genome research that really throws the whole debate into an entirely different light. Two-thirds of my book really talks about the social history of the concept of race, how it has developed over time, how evolution impacted it. None of these issues were really addressed in the documentary, which was quite narrow and focused pretty much on the sports world. I really see sports as a metaphor, an access point to look at both human similarities and differences. That's a much broader, more encompassing subject. I think one of the reasons this book is being treated as a science book, sociology book, and an anthropology book as much as it is a sports book is because of its wider focus and changes in how we view these kinds of issues.
I'm not a sports person, but I really enjoyed this book. It's very much about the human condition.
JE: This is not a niche book. It's meant to synthesize a whole, wide range of things from human nature, genetics, science, sociology, anthropology. Sports is a very popular way to access these issues because a lot of us see what's going on in the sports arena and we scratch our head and we say, "Why?" Here's an explanation. Here's a way to try to make sense of what we see.
I thought it was also interesting how you separated out various smaller pockets of the population so that it isn't just white and black. For example, West Africa versus East Africa, and how their abilities differ.
JE: Well, the controversy at the heart of my book and even at the heart of The Bell Curve, actually, was the issue of the meaning of race. Is there such a thing as race? Are there blacks and whites? Is that a meaningful sociological, scientific, genetic concept? That's been a huge raging debate in science over the past 40 years. What we now know is that just the concept black and white is a lot less than we think.
One of the stories I tell in the book is about the Lemba Tribe, in Southern Africa, a very black tribe who for years had told stories that made it sound like they had some link to Judaism. They told scientists and anthropologists apocryphal stories about Jewish culture and they observed circumcision rites and kosher dieting and so forth. It was just generally believed that that was information passed to them by colonists 100 or so years ago and they just adopted it into the culture. But they've done some genetic testing and found out that, in fact, 60 percent of their genes are identical to Jews of Sephardic descent, the Mesopotamian Jews. Perhaps this tribe is one of the original 12 tribes of Israel and migrated down to Southern Africa 2000 years ago. So clearly here you have a tribe which is black and yet they're Jewish.
So to say someone is black, someone is white, really means a lot less. It's much more meaningful to talk in terms of populations. In fact, if you look at the genetic make-up of East Africans and West Africans, they're very, very different. The East Africans interbred with Arabs and Europeans, while the West Africans very much were isolated and have a different genetic make-up and that shows up on the playing field and it also shows up when you compare Africans to American Indians. Each part of the world, each population, grew up with different evolutionary forces and developed different body types and different metabolic structures and muscle fiber types, and it leads to a different personality, a different athletic potential.
Obviously there are lots of inter-marriages and people who travel, so, of course, we're blending all of these populations. Any speculation on what that's going to do to sports? Are we going to continue to see this trend of mostly blacks in the NBA and the NFL and mostly whites in golf and tennis and other "country club" sports?
JE: Well, speculation is for fools and mystics, but I will take a shot at it nonetheless. Actually, we blend cultures far less than perhaps it's assumed. There's a certain socioeconomic group in the United States and many countries that travel a lot and are not necessarily geographically centered. But, in fact, the overwhelming majority of the world population is quite parochial, it doesn't move very much. You're not going to have much movement out of many parts of Africa, many parts of Asia and so forth, so it's going to be quite some time before it's one world melting pot. In fact, we even find -- except in rare situations, and the United States is one of them -- that when one ethnic group moves from one country to another, they end up coalescing together in large measures. That's why the Jewish population, as an example, which has bounced around from one country to another for thousands of years, still remains a relatively homogeneous group. That is beginning to change a little bit, more a reflection of, again, socioeconomic issues involving the Jewish population than anything else. We're not about to see this dilution very, very quickly; you don't unwind 10 or even hundreds of thousands of years of evolution in a matter of 50 or a 100 years.
Why do you think that we have seen such a dramatic increase in blacks in athletic events of any kind, be it national sports or the Olympics, in the past 30 years?
JE: Well, you raise a very interesting point. The most interesting thing that I have found in my research is that over the past 30 years, as sports [have] become more democratic and the socioeconomic barriers have fallen making it quite a level playing field, the results on field have become less democratic. What we see is various ethnic groups -- whether it's East Asians in gymnastics or Eurasian whites in weight-lifting or West African blacks in sprinting or basketball -- we're seeing certain specific populations essentially dominating in areas in which their body types and physiological structures really are at a premium. I find that a fascinating development. Obviously, social barriers are much, much lower in sports than they were 50 years ago when blacks were excluded from many sports and frankly many athletes found that they couldn't widely participate because of one reason or another. Those barriers are now very, very low. We're even seeing in certain sports like running, which is truly an international sport, a huge influx of African athletes that just wasn't possible because of poverty as recently as 20 or 30 years ago. As conditions have begun to improve and opportunities are increasing there, the dominance of African athletes in running is increasing exponentially. You might have caught this in reading the book, but every single major running event from 100 meters to the marathon is held by a black of African descent.
Yes, I did. That's amazing.
JE: It is amazing. And it's not just a black/white issue. Again, as you see, the shortest distances in sprinting -- 100 meters, 200 meters, 400 meters, hurdles -- those are all held by West Africans or people of West African descent. And then they hit a wall. There's not one West African of note who competes in middle distances or longer distances because they don't have the body type; they don't have the physiology for it. On the other hand, Kenya has poured millions of dollars into trying to develop sprinters at the same level that they have developed long-distance runners, and they've been an utter failure at it. But again they don't pour a lot of state resources into long-distance running and yet Kenya is the middle and long-distance running capital of the world. Extraordinary achievement and a real indication that this is an issue not of black and white, but of population.
Let me just raise this. In sports like ice skating, like swimming, like golf, that require a huge amount of training and in some cases a huge investment by parents or family members in training, culture and environment play as much or more a part in who becomes the star athletes. You can be the best natural, innate skater in the world, and if you live in Somalia it doesn't matter. You're not going to have the opportunity to do well. And so, you don't want to suggest that socioeconomic issues don't play a role. They play a huge role. They play a huge role even in sports like running and basketball because opportunity is everything. There's a lot of Michael Jordan wannabes, [but] the breaks of their life didn't go in a certain way, and so they never had the opportunity to even flourish in college or the pros. I would never say that someone's an athlete purely because of their genetic endowment. People are individuals, and there are all kinds of issues of motivation and training and opportunity and luck.