Book Review

Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It.

Jon Entine. New York: Public Affairs. 2000. 400 pp. ISBN: 1-891620-39-8.

Barry Bogin
Department of Behavioral Sciences University of Michigan-Dearborn

     This is an important book for biological anthropologists. It is a sports book, written by journalist and former television producer, which treats issues that have plagued our discipline for more than a century. Taboo tackles three themes: 1) the history of racism in amateur and professional sports, 2) the genetic basis of "race," biological variability, and human performance in spotsport, and 3) a critique of "The environmentalist case against innate Black superiority in sports" (the title of chapter 20).

     On balance, I recommend this book for use in biological anthropology classes and students of Sciences of Sport in general -- ranging from introductory survey courses to graduate level seminars on human genetics, human adaptability, and theory in human biology. The clarity, thoroughness, and humor that characterize Entine's history of racism in sports will captivate students and their professors. That part of the book, 129 pages out of 338 pages of text, covers "The origins of race science" (the title of chapter 9) to "Sports and IQ" (chapter 18). The whole of this section of the book presents a cogent argument for the social selection of top athletes in sports.

     I was particularly taken with the chapter, " The 'scheming flashy trickiness’ of Jews." This chapter covers the history of Jewish domination of basketball. Entine writes, that, "From 1918 to 1950, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, better known as the SPHAs, barnstormed across the East and Midwest, playing in a variety of semiprofessional leagues that were precursors to the modern game." Basketball was, and still is, an urban game, and a way out of the ghetto. For the Jewish superstars of the SPHAs, and many other teams, basketball was freedom from ethnic prejudice, including quotas in education and employment. Jewish boys became basketball stars the same way all sports heroes excel, practice, practice, practice. The Jewish community idolized these basketball "mavens". My mother has two cousins who were part of the Jewish basketball mythology of Philadelphia in the 1940s. For many years, their mother, my beloved Aunt Sarah, kept 8 by 10-inch photographs of each of them, in uniform and dribbling down court, on a table in the entryway to her house. The title of this chapter in Entine's book comes from the 1930s statement by sports writer Paul Gallico that Jews excel in basketball because of "…an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness." This opinion was popular throughout the period, as my mother's cousins were informed by an anti-Semitic spectator that Jews were good in basketball because they were "short and wirery" and could get under the taller gentile players to make shots.

     Today African-Americans dominate basketball. To explain this fact need we go any further than the social selection hypothesis that explains Jewish domination until 1950? That question leads to Entine's second theme. Entine tries to show that the domination of basketball, American football, both short and long distance running, and several other sports by African Americans and other people with some African roots is due to a combination of a genetic advantage coupled with social selection. Entine also points out that athletes of Asian and European origin dominate in other sports. Europeans, for example, dominate sports that emphasize upper body strength, and they do so because of an innate genetic advantage coupled with social selection and training.

     Few biological anthropologists will argue that human phenotypes and human performance are the result of some combination of genes and environment. My discomfort with Entine’s presentation is that he applies the gene-environment interaction unevenly. Entine never ascribes a genetic advantage to the Jewish, or to the Irish, sports stars that he writes about (including baseball and boxing in addition to basketball). But he does explain the superiority of African derived sports stars in basketball, American football, and running in genetic terms. Moreover, he says that the genetic advantage of black elite athletes is a population characteristic, rather than just the genetic good luck of the individual athletes.

     Entine does so [beginning on page 4] when he rejects an exclusively social explanation for black superiority in sports by stating, "The decisive variable is in our genes – the inherent differences between populations shaped over many thousands of years by evolution." This statement implies that human populations can be segregated into biologically distinct group, that is "races," although Entine states [page 113] that the "race" concept is fuzzy at best because, "human populations are continually subdividing, expanding, declining, and disappearing along genetic and cultural tracks." But the very next sentence reads, "Although there is considerable disagreement, the three major racial groupings – Caucasian, Mongoloid, Negroid – split from 100,000 years ago to as recently as the end of the last ice age, some 14,000 years ago."

     Yes, there is "considerable disagreement" with everything that sentence states and implies. Quite a few biological anthropologists have written at length to discredit the idea of three, or five, or any number of major racial groupings. More to the point of Taboo, there is a fundamental difference between the distribution of genes in populations and individuals. Entine cites some of our colleagues on this point, for example Robert Malina is quoted: "Elite athletes are by definition rarities; they are statistical aberrations" (p. 271). Entine seems to reluctant to accept that elite athletes are not representative of the biological or social populations they come from, for he states on the same page that, "…all the hard work in the world will go for naught if the roulette wheel of genetics doesn’t land on your number. And the unassailable truth is that the genetic pool of potential champions is a lot wider and deeper in Africa than anywhere else."

     The following chapter is titled, "The environmentalist case against innate black superiority in sports." In this chapter, Entine states several times that a proper environment is necessary to make a sports star. But, he always places the importance of environment second after the primacy of innate (meaning genetic) advantages. In a brief two-page section, Entine tries to support the genetic argument with comparisons to dog breeding. This is an unfortunate section, for Entine writes, "Like in humans, some dogs diseases are ‘breed specific" (p. 280). The section concludes with, "Although any one athlete may bootstrap himself to stardom, the pattern of athletic success is circumscribed by the biology of human evolution" (p. 281).

     I also find that a kind of ambivalence pervades the whole of the book with regards to the role of genes in sports performance. This is made most clear in first and last chapters. The last two sentences of chapter one reads, "After all, in the end, for all our differences, we are far, far more similar. That’s Taboo’s only real message" (p. 10). The last sentence of the final chapter reads, "It’s time to acknowledge and even celebrate the obvious: It’s neither racist nor a myth to say that ‘white men can’t jump’ " (p.341). It is hard to imagine that Entine wrote both lines as a characterization of the same book.

     The third theme of Taboo is a critique of those people Entine calls "environmental determinists." In addition to several people writing today, Entine critiques the work of Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, and Ashley Montague. They are chastised for embracing, "…the nurture argument with the zeal of fundamentalists" (p. 215). Entine describes accurately the historical and scientific environment of racism and genetic determinism that Boas and his followers were fighting against. Unfortunately, Entine does not present a balanced case in favor of the biocultural theory that motivated Boas, Mead and Montague, and still motivates many others. I have written that, "The newer, expanded biocultural view of the last decade is that there is a recurring interaction between the biology of human development and the sociocultural environment. Not only does the latter influence the former, but human developmental biology modifies social and cultural processes as well. It is now understood that environmental forces, including the social, economic, and political environment, regulate the expression of DNA as much, or more so, than DNA regulates the growth process" (Bogin, 1999, p. 397). My chapter goes on to describe several examples of environmental regulation of DNA expression.

     Entine’s book Taboo may help to further develop and spread knowledge of the new, expanded biocultural view of human biology and performance. The book will engender debate (perhaps an understatement), and it will force readers to think more clearly about the usefulness of the "race" concept, about racism, and about the nature of both science and sport as social and cultural processes.

Literature Cited:

Bogin B. 1999. Patterns of Human Growth, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Copyright 2001 Wiley-Liss, Inc.