February 27, 2000

Sports and Genetics

by Jon Morgan

In "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It" (Public Affairs, 400 pages, $25), author Jon Entine sparks an athletic version of the debate that ensued from the publication a few years back of "The Bell Curve," which alleged the intellectual inferiority of blacks.

Entine, a white journalist, appeals to some of the same instincts, though his thesis is that blacks are athletically superior, due to evolutionary migration, an abundance of fast-twitch muscle fiber and other biological and cultural factors. This, he says, explains why America's football fields and basketball courts, but not baseball diamonds, are overwhelmingly black.

Entine attempts to distance himself from "The Bell Curve," even taking a few swipes at that controversial book. Moreover, Entine argues that athletic and intellectual excellence are not mutually exclusive.

Given the state of American race relations, just about any thoughtful discussion is better than none. But is replacing one set of canards with a new one -- that white boys can't jump -- progress?

Entine asserts, wrongly, that resistance to his thesis is rooted in "political correctness." Actually, there is good reason to be skeptical of broad-brush racial grouping. It has been used to justify everything from the Holocaust and slavery to separate whites-only water fountains.

The burden, then, is on Entine to make his case, which he attempts through a review of scientific literature and anecdote. Happily, he dismisses the Jimmy the Greek argument about selective breeding of slaves (a notion that doesn't hold up to historical or biological scrutiny).

At some key junctures, however, Entine jumps ahead of the research, noting that more work needs to be done on, say, the overwhelming overlap of genes among humans.

He notes research showing humans share 99.8 percent of genes. But, he says, humans and chimps share 98.4 percent. Scientists are now sifting through the gene pool, sorting meaningful elements from evolutionary dead ends. The matter is vital to understanding the contention of many scientists that racial differences are such a small part of the human genome as to be biologically insignificant. Race, they say, is a sociological, not genetic, construct.

One would need to be blind not to find some tug in the notion that the Kenyan domination of running may have a biological root. At the elite level, even tiny differences in biology can separate winners from losers.

But then what? Human bloodlines are hopelessly and blessedly crossed. Variations among individuals are far greater even than the most ardent "race scientist" would argue they are between racial groups.

What, then, does it matter to a black kid in Pittsburgh -- whose lineage may contain strains from Mozambique, Monticello or Nairobi -- that West Africans dominate middle-distance running? Is that any more significant than the domination of ice hockey, for rather obvious reasons of geography and climatology, by Canadians and Russians? Or the French of baking?