Summer 2000

Blood, Sweat, and Fears: Why Some Black Athletes Dominate Some Sports and What It Really Means

Michael Shermer

In An Essay on Man, the 19th century English poet and essayist Alexander Pope elucidated the pitfalls of speculating on ultimate causes derived from immediate events:

In vain the sage, with retrospective eye,
Would from th' apparent what conclude the why,
Infer the motive from the deed, and show
That what we chanced was what we meant to do.

Pope's wise words were in the back of my mind as I began writing this essay on March 5, 2000, a miserably cold and rainy Sunday morning, simultaneously watching the elite runners in the Los Angeles Marathon—just a handful among the 23,000 weekend warriors who braved the elements—cross the finish line. Although I have run the LA Marathon, and even once completed a marathon after first swimming 2.4 miles in the open ocean and riding a bike 112 miles in the Hawaiian Ironman triathlon, I would not have given the results a second glance were it not for a book I had just read that called my attention to a characteristic shared by the top five finishers. They were: (1) Benson Mutisya Mbithi, 2:11:55, (2) Mark Yatich, 2:16:43, (3) Peter Ndirangu Nairobi, 2:17:42, (4) Simon Bor, 2:20:12, and (5) Christopher Cheboiboch, 2:20:41.

It was not the times of the top five finishers that stood out in this year's race, since they were well below both world and course records (understandable considering the conditions). What was startling was their country of origin. All were from Kenya. Coincidence? Hardly. Meaningful? To some, yes; to others, no; to science, maybe. That is the subject of the book I had just read, Jon Entine's controversial Taboo: Why Blacks Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It.

I will not dissemble and pretend that I was not aware of the controversy surrounding claims that blacks are better athletes than whites due to heredity and being closer to the origin of humanity in Africa. I've been an athlete and sports fan all my life and recall the vitriolic reaction to Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder's 1988 off-the-cuff remarks at a restaurant about black slaves being bred for superior physicality (on Martin Luther King Day, no less, with a camera crew present): "The black is a better athlete because he's been bred to be that way. During slave trading, the slave owner would breed his big woman so that he would have a big black kid, see. That's where it all started." Blacks, Snyder explained, could "jump higher and run faster" because of their "high thighs and big size."

I even saw live the now-infamous 1987 ABC Nightline show (occasioned by a celebration of Jackie Robinson's shattering of the color barrier in baseball) when Ted Koppel asked Los Angeles Dodger baseball executive Al Campanis why there were no blacks in upper management. Campanis said that blacks "may not have some of the necessities" for such positions. "Do you really believe that?" Koppel rejoined. "Well, I don't say all of them," Campanis demurred, "but they certainly are short in some areas. How many quarterbacks do you have, how many pitchers do you have that are black?" After continuing with his folk lesson in sports physiology, Campanis noted why blacks do not compete in elite swimming: "because they don't have buoyancy." Whites are floaters, blacks are sinkers.

Campanis's attempts to explain himself opened the gates into the largely unspoken but pervasive attitudes held by many whites about blacks, even whites who would not consider themselves racist. "I have never said that blacks aren't intelligent, but they may not have the desire to be in the front office," Campanis continued. "I know that they have wanted to manage, and many of them have managed. But they are outstanding athletes, very God-gifted and they're very wonderful people. They are gifted with great musculature and various other things. They are fleet of foot, and this is why there are a number of black ballplayers in the major leagues." Blacks are fast around the bases, slow around the boardroom.

As University of Texas Professor John Hoberman explained in his 1998 book Darwin's Athletes, even many blacks embrace part of the thesis (to their cultural detriment, he believes). Dallas Cowboys all-star player Calvin Hill, a Yale graduate, opined: "On the plantation, a strong black man was mated with a strong black woman. [Blacks] were simply bred for physical qualities." San Francisco Ž49ers wide receiver Bernie Casey explained: "Think of what the African slaves were forced to endure in this country merely to survive. Black athletes are their descendants." Even the liberal champion of cultural determinism, Jesse Jackson, in a 1977 CBS 60 Minutes segment on his P.U.S.H. program for black school kids, made a case for heredity over environment when he stated (in response to sociologists' environmental explanations for black's poorer school performances) that "If we [blacks] can run faster, jump higher, and shoot a basketball straighter [than whites] on those same inadequate diets÷" then there is no excuse. It is time, Jackson argued, for blacks to start living up to their potentials in the classroom as well as the gym.

With such comments from both blacks and whites it is understandable why some blacks, such as the noted U.C. Berkeley sports sociologist Harry Edwards, respond so strongly, and usually wrongly, going to the opposite extreme of environmental determinism. On a March 8, 2000, radio show I hosted with Entine, Edwards, and Hoberman as guests, Edwards actually made the argument that the only reason blacks dominate NBA basketball, despite more than equal opportunity for whites to make it to the top, was that at this period of time the "black style" of basketball happens to be popular instead of the "white style" prominent in the 1950s, and that neither "style" was in any way superior. My co-host Larry Mantle and I, both enthusiastic LA Laker fans, gave each other a knowing glance of acknowledgement that this was, of course, utter nonsense.

Somewhere between Edwards's extreme environmental determinism and the Greek's radical biological determinism lies the truth about the cause and meaning of black-white differences in sports. But the Campanis episode was the most enlightening because these were not the remarks of a rabid bigot spewing racial epithets; rather, Campanis had spent decades in close proximity and in tight friendship with some of the greatest black ballplayers of the 20th century. So his comments were emblematic of the common attitudes shared by many, perhaps most, lay people and sports enthusiasts who know just enough to speculate in a social Darwinian mode about how and why blacks dominate in some fields but not others, and what these differences tell us about the human condition.

What do these differences mean? The answer depends on what it is you want to know. I shall address this subject neither to embrace the theory nor to debunk it; rather, the question itself raises a number of other questions and problems in this field of research that makes reaching grand and sweeping conclusions problematic at best.

 

From the Particular to the General: Do Black Athletes Dominate Sports?

If you are a basketball, football, or track-and-field fan, the black-white differences are obvious and real. You'd have to be blind not to see the gaping abyss any given day of the week on any one of the numerous 24-hour a day sports channels. Further, there are quantifiable within-race differences in some of these sports. Kenyans dominate marathon running, but you'll likely never see one line up for the 100-meter dash. On the other hand, blacks whose origins can be traced to West Africa own the 100-meter dash but will not likely soon be taking home the $35,000 automobile awarded to the LA Marathon winner. And it could be a long while before we see a white man on the winner's platform at either distance. As Entine carefully documents, at the moment "every men's world record at every commonly-run track distance belongs to a runner of African descent," and the domination of particular distances are determined, it would seem, by the ancestral origin of the athlete, with West Africans reigning over distances from 100 meters to 400 meters, and East and North Africans prevailing in races from 800 meters to the marathon.

But my first quibble with the debate is how quickly it shifts from Kenyans winning marathons or West Africans monopolizing the 100-meter dash to, as stated in Entine's subtitle, "why black athletes dominate sports." I understand a publisher's desire to economize cover verbiage and maximize marketability (the actual text of Taboo is, appropriately, filled with qualifiers, caveats, and nuances), but the simple fact is that black athletes do not dominate sports. They do not dominate speed skating, figure skating, ice hockey, gymnastics, swimming, diving, archery, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, biathlons, triathlons, ping pong, tennis, golf, wrestling, rugby, rowing, canoeing, fencing, strong-man competitions, auto racing, motorcycle racing, and on and on.

In my own sport of cycling, in which I competed at elite ultra-marathon distances (200 miles to 3,000 miles) for 10 years, there are almost no blacks to be found in the pack. Where are all those West African sprinters at velodrome track races? Where are all those Kenyans in long-distance road races or ultra-marathon events? They are almost nowhere to be found. In fact, in over a century of professional bicycle racing there has been only one undisputed black champion—Marshall W. "Major" Taylor. And Taylor's reign was a century ago! He started racing in 1896 and within three years he became only the second black athlete to win a world championship in any sport, and this was at a time when bicycle racing was as big as baseball and boxing. Since there were few automobiles and no airplanes, cyclists were the fastest humans on earth and were rewarded accordingly with lucrative winnings and more than 15 minutes of fame. Major Taylor was the first black athlete in any sport to be a member of an integrated team, the first to land a commercial sponsor, and the first to hold world records, including the prestigious mile record. He competed internationally and is still revered in France as one of the greatest sprint cyclists of all time. The fact that outside cycling circles he is completely unknown in America tells us something about the influence of culture on sports.

By the theory proffered by Entine and others, there is no reason blacks should not be prominent in cycling since the physical requirements are so similar to running. The reason they are not, in fact, is almost certainly cultural. Although there are no longer racial barriers (as witnessed by the wide range of colors and nationalities that fill out the pelotons throughout Europe and the Americas), the reason blacks are not in cycling is obvious, says Dr. Ed Burke, a sports physiologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder: "No money, no publicity, no grass roots program. Why would gifted American athletes, with so many lucrative opportunities in other sports, choose cycling?" In Europe working class fathers introduce their sons to the sport at an early age where they can be nursed through junior cycling programs until they turn professional and permanently bootstrap themselves into the middle classes. But there are not that many blacks in Europe, and in America no such social structure exists. Bottom line: in cycling culture trumps biology.

(After Major Taylor, many cite the black sprinter Nelson Vails, since he took the silver medal on the track in the 1984 Olympics. But this is problematic because the East Germans boycotted that Olympics, and they were dominating the sport in those years, having thoroughly trounced both Vails and the 1984 gold medalist, Mark Gorski, in the world championships the year before. After Vails, Scott Berryman was a national sprint champion, and 19-year old Gideon Massie recently won the Jr. Worlds on the track and is an Olympic hopeful for 2004. The few other isolated cases—Shaums March in downhill mountain biking and Josh Weir on the road—only further call our attention to the dearth of blacks in cycling.)

Would blacks dominate cycling ceteris paribus? The problem is that all other things are never equal so it is impossible to say until the natural experiment is actually run. There is no reason why they should not, by the arguments put forth by Entine, since track cycling is much like sprinting, and road cycling is similar to marathon running in terms of the physical demands on the athlete. But we simply do not know and thus it would be unwise to speculate. For that matter, the ceteris paribus assumption never holds true in the messy real world, so this whole question of race and sports is fraught with complications, making it exceptionally difficult to say with much confidence what these differences really mean.

 

The Hindsight Bias: Did Evolution Shape: Black Bodies Best For Running?

Tiger Woods may very well be the greatest golfer of all time. Although he is not "pure" black, he is considered to be black by most people, especially the black community. Thus, he very well could inspire other blacks to go into the sport. What if this were to happen on such a scale that blacks came to dominate golf as they have football and basketball? Would the explanation for this dominance be role modeling coupled to cultural momentum, or would we hear about how blacks are naturally gifted as golfers because of their superior ability to swing a club and judge moving objects at a distance due to the fact that they are closer to the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (or EEA, as evolutionary psychologists call the Pleistocene period of human evolution)?

In cognitive psychology there is a fallacy of thought known as the hindsight bias, which states that however things turn out we tend to look back to justify that particular arrangement with a set of causal explanatory variables presumably applicable to all situations. Looking back it is easy to construct plausible scenarios for how matters turned out; rearrange the outcome and we are equally skilled at finding new reasons why that particular arrangement was also inevitable.

Consider professional basketball. At the moment blacks dominate the sport and it is tempting to slip into the adaptationist mode of Darwinian speculation and suggest that the reason is because blacks are naturally superior at running, jumping, twisting, turning, hang time, and all the rest that goes into the modern game. Then it is only a step removed from suggesting, as does Entine and others do, that the reason for their above average natural abilities is that since humans evolved in Africa where they became bipedal, populations that migrated to other areas of the globe traded off those pure abilities through adaptations to other environments—e.g., colder climates led to shorter, stockier torsos (Bergmann's Rule) and smaller arms and legs (Allen's Rule)—thereby compromising the ability to run and jump. African blacks, however, are closer to the EEA and thus their abilities are evolutionarily less modified.

For basketball, however, I would point out the remarkable range of skin tone one sees on the court. Are these black players all equally "black" in this racial sense? I grant that races may exist as fuzzy sets where the boundaries are blurred but the interiors represent a type we might at least provisionally agree represents a group we can label "black" or "white." But when I see a range of "black" skin tone on the court—from Manute Bol's dark chocolate to Dennis Johnson's sandy beige—I cannot help but question the validity of allowing a single category to represent so many shades. The fuzzy boundaries of the "black" set are so wide and the overlap with the "white" set so great that it seems scientifically untenable to draw the same conclusions about basketball that are made for track and field.

I also find it interesting that individuals with a small percentage of "black" genes are always classified in the "black" set, whereas whites are not accorded an equally broad latitude. In other words, if we were to graph the range of skin tones in so-called blacks and whites as two bell curves, the overall width of the black curve would be much greater, and the standard deviation for the black curve would be considerably greater than it would be for the whites. Why is this? The answer is clearly cultural, I suspect, having to do with the eugenics notion of a "pure" white race being contaminated with the blood of other, lesser races. A fuzzy-logic solution to this problem is to have just one set with fractional numbers assigned. For example, just as we might label the early morning sky as .3 blue/.7 orange, the midday sky as .9 blue/.1 orange, and the sunset sky as .2 blue/.8 orange, we could label Manute Bol as .9 black/.1 white and Dennis Johnson as .2 black/.8 white. Better still, we could just not label people by skin color at all.

Finally, the step from racial group differences on a basketball court to racial evolutionary differences in the Paleolithic is a significant one, and it is here where the hindsight bias is especially obvious. Let's go back in time and see how—not to the Paleolithic, but just to the earlier part of the 20th century. It may come as a surprise, especially to younger readers, to hear that at one time Jews dominated basketball. What sorts of arguments were made for their "natural" abilities in this sport? In the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s basketball was an east coast, inner-city, blue-collar immigrant game largely dominated by the oppressed ethnic group of that age, the Jews. Like blacks decades later, the Jews went into professions and sports open to them. As Entine so wonderfully tracks this history in Taboo, according to Harry Litwack, star player of the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association (SPHA), "The Jews never got much into football or baseball. They were too crowded [with other players] then. Every Jewish boy was playing basketball. Every phone pole had a peach basket on it. And every one of those Jewish kids dreamed of playing for the SPHA's."

The reason why is obvious, right? Cultural trends and socio-economic opportunities set within an autocatalytic feedback loop (where variables operate on each other to drive the system forward) led more and more Jews to go into the game until they came to dominate it. That is not what the scientific experts of the day said. As Entine shows, according to the wisdom of the time the Jews were just naturally superior basketball players.

Writers opined that Jews were genetically and culturally built to stand up under the strain and stamina of the hoop game. It was suggested that they had an advantage because short men have better balance and more foot speed. They were also thought to have sharper eyes, which of course cut against the other stereotype that they suffered from myopia and had to wear glasses. And it was said they were clever. "The reason, I suspect, that basketball appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background," wrote Paul Gallico, sports editor of the New York Daily News and one of the premier sports writers of the 1930s, "is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness."

By the late 1940s Jews moved into other professions and sports and, Entine notes, "the torch of urban athleticism was passed on to the newest immigrants, mostly blacks who had migrated north from dying southern plantations. ÷ It would not be long before the stereotype of the Žscheming÷trickiness' of the Jews was replaced by that of the Žnatural athleticism' of Negroes." If Jews were dominating basketball today instead of blacks, what explanatory models, in hindsight, would we be constructing? If, in 30 years, Asians come to control the game would we offer some equally plausible "natural" reason for their governance?

Does this mean that blacks are not really better than whites in basketball? No. I would be shocked if it turned out that what we are witnessing is nothing more than a culturally dominant "black style" of play. But because of the hindsight bias I cannot be certain that we are not being fooled and that the reasons for the differences we witness today are far more complex than we understand.

The Confirmation Bias:

Why Asians Dominate Ping Pong and Why No One Cares—Sports in Black and White

Why, it seems reasonable to ask, are we so interested in black-white differences in sports? Why not Asian-Caucasian differences? Why has no one written a book entitled Why Asians Dominate Ping Pong and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It? The reason is obvious: because no one cares that Asians are the masters at ping pong. This is America, and what Americans care about are black-white differences, especially within high visibility activities. By way of analogy, no first-century Egyptian would have wondered if Cleopatra was black, but 20th-century Americans have debated that very question.

The confirmation bias holds that we have a tendency to seek confirmatory data that support our already-held beliefs, and ignore disconfirmatory evidence that might counter those beliefs. We all do this. Liberals read the paper and see greedy Republicans trying to rig the system so that the rich can become richer. Conservatives read the same paper and see bleeding-heart liberals robbing the rich of their hard-earned dollars to support welfare queens on crack. Context is everything and the confirmation bias makes it very difficult for any of us to take an objective perspective on our own beliefs.

Yes, there are black-white difference in sports, and there may even be good physical reasons for some of these differences. But, as noted above, the vast majority of sports are not dominated by blacks. Why don't we hear about them? Because they don't interest us, or they do not support our preconceived notions about the importance of black-white race questions. Out of the literally hundreds of popular sports played in the world today, blacks dominate only three: basketball, football, and track-and-field. That's it. That's what all the fuss is about. (At 15 percent they don't even dominate baseball.) Why do we focus on those three? Because we live in America where the black white issue has bedeviled our experiment in democracy from the beginning, and where basketball, football, and track and field are the big sports that pay the big bucks.

I am not arguing that it is scientifically untenable or morally corrupt to focus on these differences, but I am curious why those particular differences are of such interest to some people. Is it nothing more than some people like chocolate pudding and others tapioca? I doubt it. I suspect the confirmation bias directs our attention to differences most likely to support already held beliefs about race differences. This would explain why it is almost always the same people, regardless of the particular trait or characteristic under study, who are interested in looking at racial group differences, and why Americans are interested in black-white differences but not others, and why non-Americans have little or no interest in this difference question.

Let's consider another case of evolutionary adaptation for the ability to run, and of within-species differences in this ability—thoroughbred race horses. Here we find rather disconfirming evidence that the underlying genetic variability of thoroughbreds long ago ran out despite the vigilant efforts of highly motivated horse breeders with millions of dollars at stake for a horse who could knock off a second or two.

The Kentucky Derby is the most prestigious of all thoroughbred races and has been run since 1875 when, by the way, 13 of the 15 jockeys were blacks. In fact, black jockeys dominated the Derby for the first 30 years, winning half of all races. The first race was 1.5 miles and was won in 2:37. In 1896 the distance was lowered to its present length of 1.25 miles and was won by Ben Brush in a time of 2:07. As evident in the table below (given in five-year increments with variation mostly accounted for by track surfaces being either "fast" or "slow"), since 1950 the horses are just not getting any faster.

1900 Lt. Gibson 2:06

1905 Agile 2:10

1910 Donau 2:06

1915 Regret 2:05

1920 Paul Jones 2:09

1925 Flying Ebony 2:07

1930 Gallant Fox 2:07

1935 Omaha 2:07

1940 Gallahadion 2:05

1945 Hoop Jr. 2:07

1950 Middle Ground 2:01

1955 Swaps 2:01

1960 Ventian Way 2:02

1965 Lucky Debonair 2:01

1970 Dust Commander 2:03

1975 Foolish Pleasure 2:02

1980 Genuine Risk 2:02

1985 Spend a Buck 2:00

1990 Unbridled 2:02

1995 Thunder Gulch 2:02

The greatest thoroughbred race horse of all time, Secretariat, is the only horse to break the two minute barrier at 1:59.2. If million dollar purses and stud fees have not been able to break the bounds of genetic variability, one wonders just how much genetic variability there is or just how much hypothesized adaptations like changes in body build in response to climate change could be achieved.

 

Blood or Sweat?

The Nature-Nurture Debate in Sports

In the middle of the 1985 3,000-mile nonstop transcontinental bicycle Race Across America I was pedaling my way across Arkansas when the ABC Wide World of Sports camera crew pulled up alongside to inquire how I felt about my third place position—way ahead of the main pack but too far behind to catch the leaders. I answered: "I should have picked better parents."

The quote comes from the renowned sports physiologist Per-olof Astrand and was made at a 1967 exercise symposium: "I am convinced that anyone interested in winning Olympic gold medals must select his or her parents very carefully." At the time I regretted repeating it because I meant no disrespect for my always-supportive parents. But it was an accurate self-assessment for I had done everything I could do to win the race, including training over 500 miles a week in the months before, observing a strict diet, employing weight training, utilizing massage therapists and trainers, and more. My body fat was 4.5 percent, and at age 31 I was as strong and fast as I had ever been or would be. Nevertheless it was apparent I was not going to win the race. Why? Because despite maximizing my environmental nurture, the upper ceiling of my physical nature had been reached and was still below that of the two riders ahead of me.

This vignette is symbolic of the larger discussion in sports physiology on the relative roles of heredity and environment. In 1971, the exercise physiologist V. Klissouras, for example, reported that 81-86% of the variance in aerobic capacity, as measured by VO2 uptake, is accounted for by genetics. In 1973 he confirmed his findings in another study that showed that only 20-30% of the variance in aerobic capacity can be accounted for by the environment—i.e., training can only improve aerobic capacity by that amount.

Randy Ice, the sports physiologist who has been testing Race Across America cyclists for the past 18 years, estimates that 60-70 % of the variability between cyclists in aerobic capacity is genetically determined. Others estimate similar percentages for anaerobic threshold, workload capacity, fast twitch/slow twitch muscle fiber ratio, maximum heart rate, and many other physiological parameters that determine athletic performance. In other words, the difference between Pee Wee Herman and Eddy Merckx (the greatest cyclist of all time) is largely due to heredity.

Now, let's be clear that no one—not Jon Entine on one end nor, hopefully, Harry Edwards on the other—is arguing that athletic ability is determined entirely by either genetics or environment. Obviously it is a mixture of the two. The controversy arises over what the ratio is, the evidence for that ratio, and the possible evolutionary origins of the difference. What surprised me in reading Entine's book, and other arguments for evolutionary origins of biologically-based racial group differences in athletic ability, was the dearth of hard evidence and the need to draw questionable inferences and make sizable leaps of logic.

Although Entine's book is promoted as if it were a polemic for the hereditary position, he confesses that even in his best case examples of the Kenyan marathon runners, we cannot say for certain if they are "great long distance runners because of a genetic advantage or because their high-altitude lifestyle serves as a lifelong training program." It's a chicken-and-egg dilemma, Entine admits: "Did the altitude reconfigure the lungs of Kenyan endurance runners or was a genetic predisposition induced by the altitude? Is that nature or nurture÷or both?"

It is both. But proving a particular percentage of each is tricky business. "Most theories, including those in genetics, rely on circumstantial evidence tested against common sense, known science, and the course of history," Entine explains. "That scientists may yet not be able to identify the chromosomes that contribute to specific athletic skills does not mean that genes don't play a defining role÷." Clearly that is so. But the real debate is not if; it is how, and how much. It is here where the science is weak and our biases strong.

What do we really know, for example, about the genetic coding for running? On the one hand it can be argued that this is a very simple activity compared to, say, a complex gymnastics routine. Even so, running ability depends on a host of variables—fast twitch/slow twitch muscle fiber ratio, VO2 uptake capacity, lung capacity, maximum heart rate, anaerobic threshold figures (that determine the level one can sustain work output), measures of strength versus endurance, etc. We can estimate that these variables are half or three-quarters determined by genes, but we haven't a clue as to how they are coded, or even how genes and environment interact in the development of the ability under question. Autocatalytic feedback loops are powerful mechanisms in physical, biological, and social systems, and we are discovering them in nature-nurture interactions as well. Some genes are turned on or turned off by environmental stimuli. It may be possible that some human populations with a genetically-encoded ability to run fast never have these genes turned on by the proper environment, or during a critical period of development. And perhaps other groups, like the Kenyans, have both the genetic propensity plus the cultural drive, high-altitude training, and so forth. Further, we have no idea if different human groups code for such variables in different ways as they interact with their environment; thus their autocatalytic feedback loops may be different. We just do not know.

Finally, while we can agree that different human characteristics are coded by differing genomic complexes—from simple to complex—we do not know enough genetics to say with any confidence that, for example, the ability to run a 100-meter dash is coded by n genes, the ability to slam dunk in basketball is coded by 2n genes, and that the ability to negotiate a complex gymnastic routine is coded by 8n genes. And this is just for physical abilities. Cognitive skills are another subject entirely, and we have even less knowledge on, say, how spatial reasoning or verbal skills are genetically coded, or autocatalytically determined through gene-cultural co-development.

All of this makes conclusions drawn about racial differences in sports problematic. No doubt some black-white differences in some sports are heavily influenced by genetics and might possibly even have an evolutionary basis of origin. But proving that supposition is another matter entirely. As it is, to be fair, for the extreme environmental position. Harry Edwards, for example, argued on my radio show that Kenyans are tenacious trainers, rising at 5:00 a.m. every morning to run mountains at high altitude. But that's just the hindsight and confirmation biases at work again, where we examine the winner of a race to see what ingredients went into the winning formula. It ignores all the other hard-working jocks who also got up every morning at 5:00 a.m. (oh don't I remember it so painfully well?) but didn't take the gold. Or the other winners who slept in until 8:00 a.m. and went for a leisurely jog on the flats. Training alone won't get you to the finish line first. Neither will genetics. Neither will luck. To be a champion you need all three.

 

Master of My Fate

We are all products of an evolutionary history of biological descent. Paraphrasing Astrand, our parents have been very carefully chosen for us—by natural selection. Yet as philosopher Michael Ruse notes:

We are what we are because of our biology in conjunction with the environment. Dogs are friendly; if you beat and starve them, they are vicious. Scotsmen are as tall as Englishmen; if you feed them simply on oats they are runts. As well-known, long-term study has shown÷thanks to improved nutrition, the height and physique of the Scots has improved dramatically.

The philosopher Karl Schmitz-Moormann also explained that such statistical percentages as those used in describing the relative influence of heredity and environment are descriptive for large populations, not individuals. Even the most complete knowledge of a person will not allow us to predict the precise future of this individual, because the laws for making such predictions are built around populations. Schmitz-Moormann calls this thinking "conditionalism." He writes: "At all levels of the evolving universe statistics might be understood as the description of freely evolving elements within more or less narrowly defined ranges of possibilities created by past evolution. Instead of being determined, the universe appears only to be conditioned on all levels."

The key element here is the range of possibilities. Behavior geneticists call it the genetic reaction range, or the biological parameters within which environmental conditions may take effect. We all have a biological limit, for example, on how fast we can ride a 40k time trial or run a 10k. There is a range from lowest to highest that establishes the parameters of our performance. In the diagram on the left, athlete A has a higher genetic reaction range than athlete B. But there is overlap of the ranges, and this is the key to where such environmental factors as nutrition, training, coaching, and desire take effect. A may be more "gifted" than B, but this does not mean he will always or even ever beat B. If B performs at his best and A is only at 50 percent of his potential, then the genetic advantage is negated. Inheritability of talent does not mean inevitability of success, and vice versa.

Why do some black athletes dominate some sports? For the same reason that some white athletes dominate some other sports, and some Asian athletes dominate still other sports—a combination of biological factors and cultural influences. We do not know for sure how to tease apart these variables, but we've got some reasonably good indications and Entine's book is a good place to start, as is Hoberman's Darwin's Athletes. What do the differences really mean? My answer is a consilience of both positions: We are free to select the optimal environmental conditions that will allow us to rise to the height of our biological potentials.

In this sense athletic success is measured not just against others' performances, but against the upper ceiling of our own ability. To succeed is to have done one's absolute best as measured against the high mark of one's personal range of possibilities. To win is not just to have crossed the finish line first, but to cross the finish line in the fastest time possible within the allowable genetic reaction range. The poet William Ernest Henley expressed this concept well in his stirring Invictus:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my sou
l.

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Special Skeptic Issue on Race & Sports
Summer 2000

Special Skeptic Symposium on Race & Sports, with an Introduction by Frank Miele
Breaking the Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We’re No Longer So Afraid to Talk by About It, by Jon Entine
Totem and Taboo: The Myth of Race in Sports, by John Hoberman
The Final Taboo: Race Differences in Ability, by Vincent Sarich
Blood, Sweat, and Fears: Why Some Black Athletes Dominate Some Sports and What It Really Means, by Michael Shermer
Check out the details of the special SKEPTIC Society/CalTech symposium on TABOO on Sunday, September 17


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