Sunday Book Review
April 16, 2000

Nobody Does It Better

A journalist looks at the sensitive issue of how black athletes came to rule American sports.


t is pretty obvious that certain racial and ethnic groups are naturally gifted at playing certain sports. Take basketball. That's a Jewish sport. So, at any rate, people thought in the 1930's. After all, the star captain of the original New York Celtics, Nat Holman, was Jewish, as were four of the starters among St. John's famed ''wonder five,'' who ruled college basketball in the late 20's. Jews were believed to have a genetic edge, being endowed by nature with superior balance, greater speed and sharper eyes -- not to mention, in the words of one sportswriter, a ''scheming mind'' and ''flashy trickiness.''

Oddly, though, Jews soon vanished from the top ranks of basketball. Did evolution suddenly rob them of their natural advantage? A more likely explanation is that basketball has always been an inner-city game, and in the early 20th century New York and Philadelphia teemed with Jewish immigrants, whose children saw the sport as a ticket out of the ghetto. By the late 40's their place was being taken by blacks migrating out of the agricultural South, and basketball's ethnic profile began to change.

So it is culture, not nature, that explains the onetime Jewish dominance of basketball. Ditto, presumably, for the continuing Canadian dominance of ice hockey, the Japanese dominance of sumo wrestling, the English dominance of . . . um . . . darts. But the case of black athletes seems somehow different. They are pre-eminent in such a broad range of sports today. African-Americans make up 65 percent of the N.F.L. and 80 percent of the N.B.A. The world's top sprinters and marathoners nearly all trace their ancestry to Africa. Blacks have excelled even in sports where, for reasons of culture or geography, they are unlikely competitors -- bobsledding, for instance. Could it be that they have some sort of physical advantage, one that evolution encoded in their genes?

This conclusion has been embraced, more or less recklessly, by sports figures ranging from Al Campanis and Jimmy the Greek to O. J. Simpson and Carl Lewis. It has also been promoted by a somewhat marginal group of scientists, who have accumulated a body of genetic and physiological evidence that, they claim, lends it support.

In ''Taboo,'' Jon Entine, a journalist, brings this evidence together to make a painstaking case that race and genetics are indeed ''significant components'' of the ''stunning and undeniable dominance of black athletes.'' The book, a highly readable blend of science and sports history, had its origins in a 1989 NBC television documentary on black athletes that Entine wrote with Tom Brokaw. That show drew charges of racism when it was broadcast, and Entine clearly expects that ''Taboo'' will do the same, judging from all the space he devotes to defending his decision to write it.

Why should it be taboo even to raise the hypothesis that evolution has given people of African ancestry an athletic edge? There are several reasons. On the one hand, the idea rankles white racial chauvinists, who until the last century clung to the myth that Africans were inferior to Europeans not only mentally but physically too. On the other, it seems to diminish black sports achievement, making it a matter of biology rather than of training, drive and heart.

Entine, for his part, could not be more admiring of the courage black athletes have shown in triumphing over barriers put in their way by the white sports establishment. He gives stirring profiles of figures like Jack Johnson, the flamboyant heavyweight who won the world title in 1908, and of lesser-known ones like the black jockeys who dominated horse racing after the Civil War. Yet just talking about people of African ancestry having ''innate'' athletic aptitudes, as Entine does, seems to legitimize race as a natural category and hence to play into the hands of racists. And there lurks a more unsettling implication. If there really are genetically based physical differences between the races -- differences that go deeper than skin color -- then there might be genetically based psychological differences too. Compounding this is the disagreeable notion, drawn from 19th-century race science, that brains and brawn must be inversely correlated. As the sportswriter Frank Deford put it, ''People feel if you say blacks are better athletically, you're saying they're dumber.''

It would be nice, of course, if there were no innate differences of any kind among racial groups, at least besides the obvious cosmetic ones. A lot of modern science has seemed favorable to the view that traditional notions of race are biologically meaningless. Research in the 1970's, for example, suggested that genetic variation among European, African and Asian populations was minuscule compared to differences between individuals within those populations. DNA studies in the 1980's indicated that the human species emerged less than 100,000 years ago, insufficient time for significant physical or mental differences among the races to have evolved.

More recent discoveries in molecular biology, however, have muddied matters a bit. The split between African and non-African populations is now estimated to have occurred more than 200,000 years ago, and genetic variation between population groups looks as if it may be greater than previously thought. ''The claim that there are no functional differences between populations or ethnic groups appears increasingly passe,'' Entine declares.

The alleged ''functional differences'' are in physique, musculature, metabolic efficiency, hormone levels and reaction time. Entine cites credible research, for example, that blacks of West African ancestry (which would include most African-Americans) have a higher ratio of ''fast-twitch'' muscle fiber than whites do, which gives them an edge at leaping and sprinting. East African blacks have more energy-producing enzymes in their muscles and seem to process oxygen more efficiently, which translates into greater aerobic endurance.

But why conclude that such differences are encoded in the genes? Mightn't there be an environmental explanation? It is true that Kenyans have won every Boston Marathon since 1990, but these runners come from a mountainous region whose altitude is perfect for building aerobic capacity.

Hoping to bolster his case that athletic superiority is at least in part genetically based, Entine notes that some racial differences are apparent from birth. Black babies mature faster on average than their white counterparts, even when they are poorer and eat a less healthy diet; they show better hand-eye coordination and walk earlier by about a month. Suggestive though such data may be, the claim of genetic innateness remains completely speculative. Geneticists today hardly understand how traits like size and weight are inherited in fleas, let alone how athletic aptitudes are passed along in humans.

Still, it seems wise to keep an open mind, as Entine urges. The explanation for why every men's world record at every standard track distance belongs to an athlete of African descent may turn out to be purely sociological -- hard work, a dearth of opportunities elsewhere. But the possibility that genetics has something to do with it should not be ruled out a priori for political reasons.

That said, there remain three caveats to make. Entine gets partial credit for making two of them. First, as he observes, the competitive nature of sports magnifies even the tiniest physical differences. (In the 100-meter dash, one-hundredth of a second can separate the gold medalist from the also-ran.) Second, as Entine also observes, the genetics of sports ability has nothing to tell us about the genetics of intelligence. Differences in endurance or reaction time, which depend on relatively few genes, can evolve quickly among population groups; not so differences in intelligence, which are rooted in an organ -- the brain -- that is the product of nearly half the human genome.

A third needed caveat is missed by Entine: any genetic differences that may exist between racial groups are, in the long run, utterly swamped by environmental influences. This has become obvious for I.Q., which, in defiance of genetic determinists, has been rising by an average of three points a decade over the last half-century. A similar phenomenon can be observed in the sports world. Does anyone doubt that a decent college basketball team today, whether predominantly black or white, would clobber the best pro team of 50 years ago?

Anyone who writes a book like ''Taboo'' can expect to have his motives questioned. When Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein published ''The Bell Curve,'' which also dwelt on interracial differences, they did not attempt to disguise their antiliberal political agenda. Entine, by contrast, disclaims any political agenda at all; nor is it obvious how the thesis of his book, if true, would support one. Then why go on about how, genetically speaking, ''white men can't jump'' if it has no practical effect other than to deepen our sense of racial separateness? Because, Entine replies, science itself is ''on trial.'' That may be. And considering its highly fallible record on matters of race, science should be assumed guilty until proved innocent.

Jim Holt writes about science and philosophy for Lingua Franca and The Wall Street Journal.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company