September 20, 2000

DEMYSTIFYING GENETICS:
WHAT SYDNEY CAN TEACH US ABOUT SCIENCE

By Jon Entine

The Olympics celebrate character and courage. But at the 2000 Games, science is also on display, even on trial. What unfolds in Sydney offers a welcome chance to ease acceptance of the revolution in genetics that is overturning traditional notions of what it means to be human.

Genetics frightens people. Activists contend that genetic technology may lead to discrimination based on "race" in employment and insurance coverage. People worry that researchers are trying to isolate "violence genes" to target teenagers based on their perceived potential to commit crimes in the future. In his State of the Union Address last January, in an attempt to quell jitters about the impact of the Human Genome Project, President Clinton noted that “we are all, regardless of race, 99.9 percent the same.” In effect, he was implying that there are no meaningful differences between populations.

That belief is wrong, and dangerously so. We share 98.4 percent of our genes with chimpanzees, 95 percent with dogs, and 74 percent with microscopic roundworms. Only one chromosome determines if one is born male or female. There is no discernible difference in the DNA of a wolf and a Labrador retriever, yet their inbred behavioral differences are immense. Clearly, what’s meaningful is which genes differ and how they are patterned, not the percent of genes. A tiny number of genes can translate into huge functional differences.

Of course the flash word is not genetics so much as race, a concept much like a Dagwood sandwich, layered with hundreds of years of sometimes-racist mythology. But limiting the rhetorical use of that problematic word, an admirable goal, is not going to make the patterned biological variation on which it is based disappear. Although people share a common humanity, we are different in critical ways such as our genetic susceptibility to diseases. For instance, blacks are genetically predisposed to contracting colo-rectal cancer; Eurasian whites are genetically prone to multiple sclerosis – and Asians are by and large victims of neither. The problem with Clinton’s pandering to political correctness is that it threatens confidence in the life-saving aspects of the genetic revolution.

It’s in that context that the Olympics are so opportune. Consider the most international of sports, track and field. If as socially-acceptable wisdom has it, success is solely a product of cultural factors – desire and opportunity – one might expect to see winners drawn from all parts of the globe. In fact, blacks, but one eighth of the world population, hold the record in every men’s running distance from the 100 meters to the marathon.

This is not to say that all blacks are “naturally superior” athletes. Sports performance owes little to skin color, but much to the genetics of populations. All of the top sprinters challenging for gold are of primarily West African origin, including African Americans. They hold 494 of the top 500 times in the men’s 100 meters. But blacks from this region are notoriously poor distance runners, in part because of their naturally smaller lung capacity – about 15 percent on average when compared to whites – and a dearth of slow twitch muscle fibers critical for endurance sports.

In a mirror image, East Africans, Kenyans, who have evolved in the highlands of the Great Rift Valley, dominate distance running but are mediocre sprinters (the fastest Kenyan 100 meter run is 10.28 seconds, ranking about 5,000 on the all-time list, and almost a half second slower than the best from West Africa. East Asians, who are not very good at jumping and running (except ultra long races such as marathons) because of naturally high levels of body fat and predominance of slow twitch fibers, are prominent in diving and gymnastics. When flexibility is key, East Asians shine (hence the term “Chinese splits” in gymnastics).

Although no white (or Asian or East African) has ever cracked 10 seconds in the 100 meters, whites are competitive, if generally second class, at distance running. Whites of Eurasian ancestry, who have, on average, more natural upper-body strength, predictably do best at wrestling, weightlifting, and field events such as the shot-put and hammer (whites hold 46 of the top 50 throws).

Of course, neither culture nor genes alone determines who become great athletes. The popular debate over nature and nurture is scientifically na´ve, for genetic variation is grounded in environmental adaptations and genes are “expressed” by environmental triggers. My book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It, documents the wholly uncontroversial fact that different body types have evolved in differing environments over thousands of years: Inuit Eskimos are biologically programmed (with individual exceptions) to be shorter than European whites. Genetically linked, highly heritable characteristics such as skeletal structure, muscle fiber types, reflex capabilities, metabolic efficiency, and lung capacity, are not evenly distributed among populations and cannot be explained by known environmental factors.

Though individual success is about fire in the belly, genes set possibilities. In running, elite athletes are born and not made. "Differences among athletes of elite caliber are so small," notes Robert Malina, Michigan State anthropologist and editor of the Journal of Human Biology, "that if you have a physique or the ability to fire muscle fibers more efficiently that might be genetically based ... it might be very, very significant. The fraction of a second is the difference between the gold medal and fourth place."

Those who seek to deny what we see with our own eyes in Sydney threaten to throw a dangerous and racist perspective cloud over health research, the soul of the Human Genome Project. Scientists are just beginning to isolate the genetic links to some 3,000 biologically-based disease. "I believe that we need to look at the causes of differences in athletic performance between races as legitimately as we do when we study differences in diseases between the various races," declares geneticist Claude Bouchard, director of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University, who studies obesity and athletic performance. "In human biology ... it is important to understand if age, gender, race, and other population characteristics contribute to the phenotype variation," he writes in the American Journal of Human Biology. "Only by confronting these enormous issues head-on, and not by circumventing them in the guise of political correctness, do we stand a chance to evaluate the discriminating agendas and devise appropriate interventions.”

That’s the science. The politics of race are more precarious, however. Fascination about black physicality has been part of the dark side of the American dialogue on race for hundreds of years. It is feared that some might conclude that if blacks are faster on average then they must, as part of zero sum reasoning, automatically be weaker mentally. But that's a conclusion supported by neither science nor my book. "Taboo is both provocative and informed," writes John Walter, African American, professor of ethnic studies at the University of Washington. "Entine has provided a well-intentioned effort for all to come clean on the possibility that black people might just be superior physically, and that there is no negative connection between that physical superiority and their IQs."

Why do we so readily accept that evolution has turned out blacks with a genetic proclivity to contract sickle cell, Jews of European heritage who are one hundred times more likely than other groups to fall victim to the degenerative mental disease Tay-Sachs, and whites who are most vulnerable to cystic fibrosis, yet find it racist to acknowledge that blacks of West African ancestry have evolved into the world's best sprinters and jumpers and East Asians the best divers?

Geneticist Bouchard for one sees the Olympics as a way to educate people about human diversity. "I have always worked with the hypothesis that ignorance fosters prejudice. [Critical inquiry] is the greatest safeguard against prejudice."

Indeed, if we do not welcome the impending genetic revolution with open minds, if we are scared to ask and to answer difficult questions, if we lose faith in science then there is no winner; we all lose. The question is no longer whether genetic research will continue but to what end. "If decent people don't discuss human biodiversity," writes George Mason professor Walter E. Williams, "we concede the turf to black and white racists." Let’s start with Sydney.

copyright 2000