Western Journal of Black Studies

July 2000 Volume 24 #2

Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It. Jon Entine New York: Public Affairs, 2000. Pp. 1x + 387.

Reviewer: L. Keita

Ever since individuals from different geographical regions of the globe began meeting each other in an extensive way since the sixteenth century, the idea of race was conceived of and henceforth employed in the analysis of human beings. The reason for this is that humans from different geographical regions of the world can be easily distinguished phenotypically. Thus it is claimed, persons from Africa can be distinguished visually from persons originating from East Asia and Europe, for example. The fact that humans appear phenotypically differentiable led early anthropologists such as Linnaeus and Blumenbach to develop some rather naive (in retrospect) systems of human classification. The idea of racial classification was not only employed to differentiate racially according to the principle of gross phenotype but also on the basis of behavioral characteristics such as temperament, ethical disposition, and cognitive abilities.

But racial classification according to behavioral characteristics proved to be more problematic than classification according to gross phenotype because there was always the question of how much of behavioral characteristics derived from environmental circumstances and how much was due to genetics. The essentialist position was that all human characteristics derived principally from genetic endowments while the environmentalists argued that most forms of human behavior spring from environmental conditioning.

In recent years liberal social science has adopted, in general, the belief that "race" as a scientific concept is problematic and that it is preferable to view the designated human races as social constructs. It is argued that genetic differences between the so-called races are not of great significance and, in fact, are less than intraracial differences. Although there is firm scientific evidence to support the above thesis what has really been at the base of this thesis is the unfortunate usages to which race was put during World War II. The implementation of racial theories by the Nazis during that period led to genocidal efforts against the Jews, Gypsies, and others of Germany and Poland. Thus talk of racial differences and their social implications is not openly encouraged in some quarters.

But this does not mean that individuals do not think about racial differences as evidenced by phenotypical traits. And in some quarters the racial debate continues openly. The question is whether there are distinct races each with identifiable racial characteristics explainable by different genetic endowments.

One area in which the issue of race is unavoidable is that of athletics. Jon Entine's text Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It attempts to examine and explain why athletes of African origin dominate those sports in which running and jumping are maximized. For example, Entine raises the question "why, for example, is every finalist in the elite Olympic 100-meters dash (or 400 meters for that matter) of African origin?" (p. vii). Entine also provides evidence for the fact that all the world records in track events are held by Africans of West, East, and North African origin (p. 30). We are also informed that only persons of African origin have broken 10 seconds in 100 meters races at least 10 times (p. 35).

In the area of long distance running Entine discusses the seemingly unassailable dominance of East Africans, especially Kenyans and Ethiopians and speculates why this is so. What is interesting about the Kenyan prowess is that a majority of the Kenyan elite runners all come from the Nandi district of the Kalenjin area of Kenya. The explanation offered is both genetic and environmental with more influence ascribed to the genetic. Add to this the overrepresentation of blacks in basketball, baseball, and soccer and one is led to wonder why.

Entine's thesis is that although humans are genetically quite similar there are sufficient differences in microscopic genetic and macroscopic body types for the so-called different races to excel in different sports (p. 282-284). As the author put it: "Indeed there are persuasive physiological and genetic reasons that explain why blacks don't do as well in some sports and why whites, Asians, and Amerindians dominate others" (p. 282). Entine's argument here is that blacks should not expect to do well in swimming because of their bone density (p. 283). This thesis cannot be sustained because blacks are not drawn to swimming as their white counterparts are. What we have here is another instance of the old stereotypical argument that the lack of a black presence in some field of endeavor derives from some natural incapacity. Blacks are not drawn to swimming for the same reasons that they are not drawn to sports such as tennis, ice hockey, and gymnastics. Such sports require specialized training and are not by any means as popular with the American public as football, baseball, and basketball. Given the proven genetic diversity among blacks in Africa and the wide range of body types found on the African continent, it is quite possible that given the right conditions, Africans could compete effectively in all sports.

Entine's text relies heavily on the research done by physical anthropologists, geneticists, and physiologists, all of different persuasions. There are references not only to traditionalist anthropologists such as Coon and Cavalli-Sforza, but also to more modernist geneticists such as Richard Lewontin. In this connection, Entine seeks to explain the dominance of West African descent sprinters by appeal to the ideas of fast twitch and low twitch fibers (p. 254). As Entine puts it: "if an athlete does not have a certain portion of fast twitch muscles, he or she can't hope to be a champion sprinter or jumper. In practical terms, this detail suggested that sprinters are born, not made" (p. 256). The same principle seeks to explain East African dominance in the long distances: low twitch fibers and above average lung capacities.

But the problem with these genetically based arguments is that explanation is lacking in a number of instances. I doubt very much that muscle fibers or lung capacity is involved in boxing, a sport dominated at weightier levels by persons of African descent. A similar argument applies for soccer: on a population per capita basis persons of African descent dominate this sport. Soccer does not necessarily require special running and jumping abilities. Note too that basketball players and sprinters are not equally proficient in soccer. The sport seems to rely more on physical coordination, quick reflexes, and geometric or spatial thinking.

Judging purely by the statistics, it is evident that those sports in which persons of African descent participate there is a tendency for them to dominate. I should want to explain this in the following way. The tropical and sub-tropical climates of Africa required that the Paleolithic ancestors of homo sapiens Africanus be always engaged in physical activities such as hunting large and swift animals for survival purposes. And there was need to compete for resources with a wide variety of animals. When humans first left the African continent 40,000-50,000 years ago after living on that continent for approximately 80,000 years, some of the migrants moved to areas of the world where the temperatures were quite cold for a major portion of the year. Perhaps, too, the hunting of animals was not as difficult. The results of this was that the physiological characteristics that maximized survival possibilities in Africa fell into some minimal disuse. This could explain those athletic advantages that African athletes enjoy over athletes from other regions. But it should be noted that these athletic advantages are of minor import and apply mainly to athletes.

Entine argues that the subject of African athletic dominance is one, which is treated as a kind of taboo and that the spirit of free inquiry militates against this. This is not really true since Entine's text is replete with references to past and present research on the very topic.

In terms of general quality, one must admit that Entine's text contains statements that are problematic, no doubt reflective of the different tendencies and theories now current in contemporary paleoanthropology and human genetics. I will discuss them in turn. For example, Entine accepts Cavalli-Sforza's thesis on racial classification that is none other than the old fashioned and problematic paradigm of Africans, Caucasians, and Mongoloids. The racial notions of Caucasian, African, and Mongoloid are not only outdated but also false and are not consistent with any rational system of empirical taxonomy. Citing the research of Nei and Roychoudhury (1972 and 1974) Entine argues that these researchers "provided a genetic basis for the classic folk groupings of Caucasoids, Negroids, and Mongoloids (along with the much smaller population of Australian Aborigines or Australoids)" (p. 107). This is not totally true.

Nei and Roychoudhury do argue in 1993 ("Evolutionary Relationships of Human Populations on a Global Scale," Molecular Biology and Evolution, 1993) that "African populations are genetically quite different from the (non-African populations" (p. 938). Yet in their 1972 essay (Science, Vol. 177) "Gene differences between Caucasian, Negro, and Japanese Populations" both authors argue that the genetic differences between the three groups are insignificant and that the so-called Negroids are not "quite different" from Caucasoids and Mongoloids. In fact, the authors argue that the genetic distances between Africans and Japanese, and Africans and Europeans are approximately the same as that between European and Japanese. Nei and Roychoudhury write the following:

from the results mentioned above, it may be concluded that the genes in the three major ethnic groups of man are remarkably similar, although the phenotypic differences in such characters as pigmentation and facial structures are conspicuous. It seems likely that the genes controlling these morphological characters were subjected to stronger natural selection than "average genes" in the process of racial differentiation. The results of our preliminary studies of blood group gene frequencies also support this conclusion. (Science, Vol. 177, 435)

It is evident that Nei and Roychoudhury's shift from their 1972 position to that of 1993 is ideological.

Entine's persistent usage of the term "Caucasoid" is problematic since it refers only to gross phenotypical appearances, the genes for which cannot be used as a basis for racial relatedness. in this regard, his claim that 40% of the genes of East Africans are Caucasian is just unscientific thinking. What exactly is a "Caucasian" gene? On the same basis, one could argue that the San people of Southern Africa are 60% African and 40% Mongoloid or that the Hereo people of Namibia are 70% African and 30% Caucasian.

A further complication is the fact that the genetic diversity in African is greater than elsewhere. This would mean that the practice of grouping all Africans together is erroneous. Yet much of Entine's analysis is based on this assumption. Given that interracial genetic differences approximate those of the intraracial, it is highly plausible that the genetic distance between white athletes and other whites would be greater than the genetic distance between white and black athletes in the same sport. This observation would make Entine's thesis interesting from a statistical point of view but one could not draw any firm conclusions of a strictly racial nature from it.

I believe that the problematic concerning racial analysis is this: the issue of attributing certain characteristics that apply only to some members of a group to the group as whole. A necessary condition for the ascription of any characteristic to any group is that the group must first be identified. And membership in the group requires certain necessary and sufficient characteristics. But if it so happens that a certain percentage of the members of the group possess a certain characteristic then should that characteristic be generalized to the whole group? For example, the Twa people of the Congo certainly carry the trait for diminutive height but should we generalize this to include all Africans? We cannot, since the vast majority of Africans do not possess the dominant genes for diminutive height. Furthermore, the genetic traits for diminutive height are found elsewhere in the non-African world. It would seem that the only way we could attribute with reservations a particular trait to a group is if and only if that trait is found exclusively among some members of the group. But again wouldn't that fact constitute sufficient grounds for the creation of another evolutionary branch on the human taxonomic tree?

For example, only a minority of Europeans possesses the traits of blond hair and blue eyes. Would geneticists be justified in classifying this group as a separate racial population? If so, would we also be justified in classifying as separate populations those individuals of West African and East African origin who possess the proven characteristics of athletic superiority? The ultimate and real question is that of establishing the basis for establishing taxonomic branches on any human evolutionary tree. This is the challenge for those who study phenotypic differences including those that distinguish outstanding athletes from the rest of the human population.

Entine's text should be viewed principally as presenting summaries of the different views on human evolutionary genetics and their possible relation to athletic performance. It is for this reason that the book though presenting interesting data about interracial athletic performance leaves many questions unanswered. Because of the questions it raises and its eclectic references, this text is recommended for any academic course on the sociology of sport.

Copyright Washington State University Press Summer 2000