Summer 2000

Population and Environment

Review of Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It
by Jon Entine. New York:

Public Affairs, ix+397 pp., ISBN 1-891620-39-8, $25.00.

By Henry Harpending

Department of Anthropology

University of Utah

This well written book is mostly about the superior athletic performance of Black people. I say ``mostly'' because the author juggles three themes throughout the book. The central theme is Black athletic ability and achievement, the second is a history of popular views on race and race differences in ability, and the third is an account of current knowledge of human evolution and the development of biological diversity in our species. In a way reading Taboo is like reading three books at once. It is a worthwhile trick. I enjoyed themes two and three while theme one went right over my head.

Theme one, about the performance of Black athletes and its history, is a series of narratives and vignettes about great Black athletes. The short version is that there was an early (19th century and early twentieth century) rise of elite Black athletes, then a reversal of the trend in the face of racism, then a second winning push so that many sports today are dominated by people with a lot of African DNA. Exceptions are "country club sports'' like golf where there have been steeper economic obstacles.

Unfortunately this reviewer could not keep his attention through all of it and cannot do justice to this central theme. Some of us love sports and some of us are free of the affliction. As I am writing this I can hear a television announcer telling us how many wins a local basketball team has had in the last ten years in game three of five game road trips. Members of my own family are listening intently and nodding. The author's love of sports and his appreciation of athletic achievement is apparent in these parts of the book. I expect that readers who appreciate sports more than I do, like my unfortunate family members, will enjoy these chapters a lot.

The conclusion is that Blacks enjoy a natural superiority in sports and that this superiority is based on heritable differences. The evidence is simply Black achievement when opportunities are present, differences between Blacks and Whites in body composition, anatomical details, and muscle anatomy. The evidence is, of course, not ironclad but it is quite convincing. Such an assertion is, depending on one's politics and sensitivities, somewhere between obvious and well known on the one hand and racist and necessarily false on the other.

According to Entine the natural athletic advantage of Black people has been well known and accepted for many years. A book about this ability would have caused little controversy in, say, 1960. Professional athletes, the real experts, take it for granted. The topic only became controversial with the publication of a famous article by Arthur Jensen in 1969 that summarized evidence that while the average IQ of white populations was 100, the average IQ of the American Black population was about 85. The evidence suggested that the difference was caused by gene differences rather than differences in the environment of Black and White people.

Jensen's essay generated a lot of controversy among academics and journalists. For decades an ideology had spread in American universities that posited that genetic differences among humans were inconsequential. Accordingly cultural differences among groups and even behavior differences among individuals were supposed to be the result of learning and other aspects of the environment. This was the fundamental paradigm of most social science departments. Early on there was a push in the social sciences to emulate the natural sciences, that is to generate models and to test hypotheses, but in the subsequent decades the original environmentalist hypothesis became an item of faith and the disciplines developed strong political stances. Jensen said, in a very prominent place, that this environmentalist Emperor had no clothes on at all, that there were no credible environmental effects on IQ, and that differences between Blacks and Whites were probably the result of gene differences.

The reaction was fevered as many competed to denounce Jensen and what his work implied. There were two such implications that especially outraged academics and journalists. The first was that there were no identifiable environmental effects on intelligence, denying the social science model that posited that any such differences must be the result of environment differences. (The quantitative genetic analysis that Jensen and others use yields a term that is called "environment'', but this term includes non-additive gene effects, measurement error, and other effects that do not correspond to what most social scientists consider to be environments.) The second implication was that the socio-economic problems of the American Black population were due to biological factors not easily amenable to remediation by Head Start, better curricula, and school lunch programs.

The net result of the Jensen publication was that the level of proclamation and recitation of social science ideology went way up. "IQ'' became a loaded word that was hardly even spoken aloud. In industry the power of IQ tests to discriminate among potential hires led to their widespread use, but their name was changed to "ability tests." Any discussion of race and race differences became taboo, although the topic had been mildly loaded since the place of race in Nazi ideology and mass murder during World War II had become well known. In particular any discussion of race differences in athletic ability became unacceptable in public discourse. This is the taboo of the book's title. Entine thinks that group difference is an interesting topic, worthy of public discussion, and it took some bravery for him to write this book. I appreciate his forthrightness and his efforts to confront the taboo.

Even while there has been strenuous denial of any biological differences among us by social scientists, other university faculties like English departments, and journalists, race has become a national obsession. Dominant public ideology these days is that race is a "social construct'' and that there are no meaningful biological differences among human groups. In a similar way Marxism was the dominant public ideology behind the Iron Curtain until the fall of the Soviet empire, after which it became apparent that no one really believed it.

What do Americans really think about race, race differences, and the public position that there are no races? My own informal impression is that there are three widely shared viewpoints about the issue of race and human differences. No one really knows: a poll about views of race would be like a poll about Marxism in East Germany in 1980. Everyone would lie. What I see in my own informal survey is probably as good as anything available.

Viewpoint one is that the public ideology, that races don't exist, is just another absurd fantasy to which intellectuals are prone. This viewpoint is shared by most of my own rural family, neighbors, and non-academic friends. Most professionals familiar with the literature on human differences and most natural scientists seem to share this view.

The second viewpoint is shared by a large fraction of university undergraduates fresh from high school. They have heard a lot of the public ideology in their education and many of them believe it, in a way. Their view of the non-existence of race is like my view of, say quarks: it makes no apparent sense but the high priests of science deserve credibility so it must be true.

The third viewpoint is, of course, that the public ideology is correct. Some fraction of social scientists seem to believe it, a larger fraction of university humanities faculty believe it, and most journalists espouse it. It is the only view that is "safe'' to admit in public.

What, in all this, is the truth? What are human races, what is their history, and why do they apparently differ in economically and socially important traits like job performance, family organization, and prosperity? Is there any truth to the dominant public ideology that there are no races, or is this ideology indeed just a fantasy of irrelevant intellectuals? Surprisingly the "scientific'' answers to these questions are not very complete. I will try here to summarize current knowledge from the viewpoint of anthropology and human population genetics.

The easiest way to understand race differences is with an analogy. Most of us work with personal computers and are familiar with them, so let us think about race, race differences, and public policy as applied to personal computers as we think about the same things as applied to humans. The last twenty years of personal computers offer many parallels with the last two million years of humanity.

Of the several species of our relatives two million years ago only one, our own species, remains. Neglecting Apple, IBM-PC clone is the dominant species of personal computer today. Personal computers are divisible into major races–Compaq, Dell, Gateway, Micron–as well as many minor populations. These computer races are like human races.

Are there deep essential differences between X and clone Y? Hardly. Take the cases off and we can barely tell them apart. The components of PC's are commodities that are completely interchangeable. The important differences among PC races are the labels on the outside of the box.

Human race differences are like that. We identify the race of individuals by visible exterior markers--skin color, hair form, eye and nose morphology and the like. These are apparently like the labels on the outside of the box in a non-trivial sense. They vary over the face of the earth much more than do internal invisible traits. Large samples of DNA markers from human populations show that about ten percent of diversity is between populations and the rest within. But sixty percent of skin color diversity is between populations: between population differences are six times greater when we look at the label that when we look inside.

Why should this be?

Visible human traits, "racial traits'', seem to owe their origins to a process of sexual selection. I prefer to mate with someone who looks like me or like some ideal type. Selection maintains this preference because then my children will look like the ideal type and potential mates will want to mate with them, and so on. This kind of selection amplifies differences between groups, even in the face of low level gene flow, accounting for the disparity between labels and internals in our species. Darwin proposed this mechanism of the genesis of differences, and its most articulate recent advocate is Jared Diamond in The Third Chimpanzee. We have computer races for similar reasons: my colleague down the hall has a good experience with brand X so I buy brand X because "do what works for the next guy'' is a reasonable rule of thumb. Success generates more success.

Are some brands of PC better value than other brands? Are some human races "superior?'' I can indeed do careful research and identify the best PC to buy for my lab. I don't usually bother because my finding will be invalid in a month, and at any rate the differences are small. If twenty years of PC evolution corresponds to two million years of human evolution, then a month of PC evolution corresponds to about fifteen thousand years of human evolution. Today, if I am deciding where to build my high tech factory then evidence suggests I should build it somewhere where there a lot of people with northeast Asian ancestry. Fifteen thousand years ago most northeast Asians probably became extinct as the last major glacial advance froze them out. Environments, like the PC market, are transient.

This is the important truth hidden in the "races don't exist'' ideology. Just as there is no deep difference between brand X and brand Y PC's, there are no deep essential differences among human groups. Nevertheless the labels and brand names are real enough, but they come and they go. There are no Northgate computers in my lab, because Northgate went extinct even though it was, in its time, the best on the market. Major human races, in the same way, may be brands that have only been successful for a few millennia.

Fifteen thousand years ago may have been a few major races, but they were almost certainly very different from what we identify as major races today. For example there are not very many Khoisan speaking small yellowish skinned people in sub-Saharan Africa but there may have been a lot of them fifteen thousand years ago. There has been a lot of treatment in the North American press recently about the ``Kennewick'' fossil, an early inhabitant of North America who does not look at all like contemporary American Indians. Many early fossils from this continent do not look like the contemporary inhabitants, and, interestingly, the early modern inhabitants of Europe do not look Europeans, the early moderns in Asia do not look Asian, and several of the early modern humans in Africa do not look African. Races are transient.

It is easy to fall into essentialist thinking about race as well as about brand names. For example there is a genetic disease, sickle cell anemia, that is a public health problem in North America primarily among Black people---it is a "Black disease.'' It is found in sub-Saharan Africa where there is a close association with the local intensity of Falciparum malaria. The disorder is a member of a class of mutations that harm the individual but harm the parasite (malaria) more. When we look at the distribution of skin color and of the sickling gene in Africa there is a clear pattern: Black people extend more or less continuously from the Sahel to the Cape Province of South Africa but there is no sickling gene south of the Zambezi river. The dynamics of the spread of the gene are different from and independent of the spread of people with black skin, and this historical pattern leads to the association of the anemia and being Black in North America but not in South Africa. The sickle-cell/malaria complex is not about race and the association is accidental.

What then is the import of Taboo? There is, it seems, an unambiguous statistical athletic superiority of Black people in North America but we don't know much about the mechanism (i.e. the genes) nor the evolutionary history of the superiority. Similarly there is a statistical superiority of northeast Asians on IQ tests, and again we don't know the mechanism nor the evolutionary history. These statistical associations have important consequences at the population level. If you want to be the coach of a winning university athletic team, pick a university with a lot of Black students. If you want to build a high-tech factory pick a location with a large population of northeast Asian descent.

On the other hand these associations are weak enough that they are poor proxies for designating individuals. If you are choosing between Mr. X and Mr. Y for your basketball team, choose the one who plays the best basketball, not the one with darker skin. Similarly if you are hiring an engineer take the trouble to find out who is best at engineering.

The lesson is that labels are not a very good guide to value and so race is not a very good criterion for choosing personnel. There are differences in group means that are real enough but you will always do better ignoring the brand labels. These are simple points, and the knowledge on which they are based has been well known and part of folk wisdom for a long time. This knowledge has been lost among many journalists and intellectuals who badly want the differences to disappear and, it seems, believe that if they say there are no differences, loud enough and long enough, they will in fact disappear.

There remains the troublesome question of whether behaviors and popular stereotypes associated with race are true, and if they are true whether they are parts of the brand name or are accidental and incidental associations like sickle cell anemia. No one has any idea. No one even has any idea how many brands of human there are, nor how new brands become established, nor whether brands ever mix like neutral genes mix over long time intervals.

Because the topic is indeed taboo, few study human racial differentiation these days. There is a lot of work being done that examines world patterns of neutral markers, but it is becoming apparent that these don't tell us much about ancient human history, before the end of the last ice age say. Whatever evolutionary process generates strongly marked regional differences in physical appearance it is not the same process that generates world patterns in neutral markers.