March 31, 2000

Interview by David W. Miller

In sports that place a premium on leaping, sprinting, or endurance running, writes Jon Entine, a journalist, athletes of African ancestry rule. They hold the world track records at every distance, they have run the 200 fastest times in 100-meter races, and they constitute 90 percent of NBA players and 70 percent Of NFL players. Mr. Entine lays out the scientific evidence that genes give those athletes a physiological edge: People of West African origin tend to have less body fat, longer calves, and more "fast-twitch muscles" than other population groups; East African distance runners have slimmer builds, larger lungs, and more "energy producing" enzymes, Unfortunately, he writes, many people interpret comments about "natural ability" as racist: More brawn must mean less brain.

Q. Is the link between genes and athletic performance controversial among scholars? A. It's controversial among sociologists and anthropologists. It's not controversial among hard scientists, geneticists, who understand that there is a biological component to almost every aspect of what it means to be human.

Q. What do you make of the idea that, as President Clinton recently suggested, our racial differences are insignificant because human beings have 99.9 percent of DNA in common? A. What he was attempting to say was that, scientifically, it's not significant, and that's naive. The significant difference between populations and people is not the overall percentage of the human genome, but the regulatory genes that really matter. In fact, we share 98.4 percent of our genome with chimpanzees, and 95 percent with dogs, and 57 percent with microscopic flatworms. It's not really important how many genes make up the difference, but how critical those genes are, and do they affect certain functional parts of being human. In the case of physiology and body type, it's absolutely critical.

Q. You don't seem concerned that pointing to racial differences in physiology opens the door to considering racial differences in intelligence.

A. It's not that I'm not concerned, I just don't think the slope is so slippery. I don't think the science says that you can look at intelligence the way you look at crossing the finish line. We know that when an athlete crosses the finish line first, he's the winner; everyone else is not as good. But intelligence is a far more complex, amorphous subject, and I don't think it necessarily breaks down by population.

Q. Are socioeconomic issues irrelevant to explaining why black people dominate professional sports? A. No one would suggest that socioeconomic factors don't play a huge role in professional sports. There are very few white Mississippians and Alabamans playing in the National Hockey League. That's a social and a cultural barrier as well. You can only play sports that you have an opportunity to play, that you have the economic wherewithal to play. There is a racist tendency by well-meaning people, black and white, to suggest that black success can be explained largely by a desire to dribble one's way out of the ghetto. Most black athletes, as most athletes, are successful because of who they are, not where they came from. There are a tremendous number of incredibly successful middle- and upper-middle-class black athletes, and white athletes, and Asian athletes.

Copyright Chronicle of Higher Education Mar 31, 2000