Thursday, July 17, 2003

Science Behind Dusty's Comments

By Scott Ostler

I hate unfinished business, and there might be two or three readers I somehow failed to rankle with my defense of Dusty Baker, so let's take another stab at it.

By the way, please refrain from e-mailing unless you bring something new to the party. "Dear Moron Sportswriter," though perhaps having scientific validity, is not new.

In an attempt to overcome my own limitations, I've got a real scholar on board today. He says Baker was correct, generally speaking, and was guilty of no crime against humanity.

In Jon Entine's book – Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It (2000, PublicAffairs) – he anticipates the question Baker asked after his comments hit the fan: "Why is everyone so afraid to talk about this stuff?"

One reason is the fear of where the talk might lead. Prior to '47, talk about this stuff led to widespread agreement among those who mattered (white guys who owned the balls and bats) that blacks weren't qualified to play major-league baseball.

The hope here is that we've evolved to a higher place, where these discussions have more academic grounding and loftier goals.

Anyway, Entine's book, though it had some critics, was well received and applauded by most black journalists, scientists and academics.

"No one seriously challenged my main thesis," said Entine, who is white, "that evolution has led to differences in morphology and physiology, and some of those differences group along population lines."

It's Anthropology 101, he says. Population groups vary in physical characteristics, on average. And success in some athletic endeavors can be linked to these characteristics. For instance, in the 100-meter dash, 494 of the world's 500 fastest times were recorded by runners of West African ancestry, including African Americans. This same general group is much less visible in the long-distance races, which are dominated by whites, Asians and East and North Africans.

Baker was off the mark originally in saying dark-skinned players handle heat better. Entine cites a noted anthropologist, David Brown, who said it's not the skin color: "The single most important factor in heat toleration is body proportion. . . . (T)hose with more skin surface area to overall body mass – those with longer limbs relative to their torsos–are more heat efficient."

So at least some learned folk agree with Baker that physical ability to handle heat varies from one population group to another. East and West Africans tolerate heat better than whites, and whites do it better than relatively stout and short Inuit Eskimos.

The question is whether heat-handling advantages translate to even minor athletic advantage, and Entine says that theory has not been tested, so Baker has not been proven wrong. Besides, he didn't say effective heat-handling translated to playing better ball.

A major criticism–mostly from the political right–of Baker and his defenders is that the old Double Standard was in play. Had Dusty been white, he would have been fired. And maybe that's true, but the firing would have been wrong.

"If we're going to deny utter common sense, like Dusty's remarks," Entine said, "God help us when we have to deal with the implications of population genetic differences in behavior."

One reason this stuff rankles some is the fear that if we say a certain population group dominates an athletic event partly because of evolutionary genetics, then we also are saying this group didn't work hard to excel. Sadly, some lunkheads indeed will embrace this illogical connection. These people, in a just world, would be sentenced to one week at hard labor: training alongside Jerry Rice or Barry Bonds or Terrell Owens, et al.

But please don't tell me whites shy away from sprinting because they are brainwashed to believe they can't run fast. Among kids, pure foot speed carries huge cachet. If you're the fastest kid on your playground, you have an aura. To theorize that thousands of white boys and girls simply walk away from this talent because of something they read or hear is absurd.

So can't we at least agree that, in terms of physique, Eskimos can, as a group, be distinguished from West Africans? And though we don't know everything about the sporting effects of those differences, that it doesn't do much good to deny the differences exist?

In the overall debate, Baker's comments seem relatively innocuous. Does anyone believe he or any other baseball people factor in heat adaptability when drafting or signing players?

"Let's be thankful Baker has the (courage) to shake off the hysteria," Entine said. "What you have to ask is whether what he said is plausible or reasonable. And he meets both standards.

"Baker may have been speculating, but he was not being silly, absurd or racist. Besides, to whom would Baker apologize, and for what?"

So back off the Bake. Or, as Joan Rivers said, "Oh, grow up!"

2003 San Francisco Chronicle