Quarterly Review of Biology, book review of Taboo by Jon Entine

September 2001 Volume 76

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

Jon Entine. New York: Public Affairs, 2000, 387 pp.

A more appropriate title for this book would omit "why" from the first clause of the subtitle. The book deals with a taboo subject—racial science is viewed as the third rail by many academics–but the author fails to deliver a convincing answer.

Entine, an award-winning journalist, begins the book with an overview of the taboo: investigating (or even discussing) whether blacks are naturally superior athletes, a question linked historically with insidious stereotypes of intellectual and moral inferiority. In Part II, he provides copious, although selective, evidence for that superiority from professional and amateur athletics. The examples cited are certainly interesting, but not surprising. One need only be a fan of football, basketball, or Olympic sprinting events to realize that whites are vastly underrepresented. Unfortunately, many readers will conflate evidence of black/white performance differences with evidence of cause, and Entine e does nothing to discourage this. Indeed, given the porosity of later arguments, it may be that Entine himself was overwhelmed by the correlations he offers.

Parts III and IV deal with the history of eugenics, an overly simplified review of human evolution, and the transition from white to largely black domination of selected sports in the United States. It is not until Part V that Entine really tries to make his case favoring nature over nurture as the explanation for black superiority in sports. I suspect that Entine heard the hum of the third rail and needed the first 200 pages to bolster his resolve. Given this section's centrality to the book, it is unfortunate that it is the weakest (and most maddening) part.

Taboo falters primarily because it rests on the flawed but central premise that "race," as defined by skin color, is a meaningful biological and genetic construct. In this view, common sense reveals whether a person is black or white and that simple (and apparently qualitative) assignment tracks reliably with more complex traits such as running and jumping ability. Interestingly, Entine undermines his own argument by separating out blacks descended from Western versus Eastern Africa as having different athletic advantages over whites. Apparently, some blacks have no advantage, which would seem to eliminate skin color as the crucial determinant.

With every new population study of genetic variation, the biological basis for Entine's race premise becomes less and less tenable. The heavy reliance on anthropologists who support the race distinction does not strengthen the case and, indeed, serves only to highlight the pronounced and growing distance between mainstream genetics and anthropology. Much of the cited evidence derives from secondary and tertiary sources, and a fair amount of email, anecdotes, celebrity opinions, newspaper editorials, and unpublished communications masquerade as evidence. Many controversial statements, and often ones presented as summaries of weak arguments, are inadequately cited or completely uncited. For example, when trying to separate discussions of race-based athletic performance from discussions of race-based intelligence, Entine writes “it cannot be stated too strongly that the data that conclusively links [sic] our ancestry to athletic skills have little or anything (sic) to say about intelligence" (p 245, emphasis added). In fact, no such data are presented.

Entine acknowledges but remains unconvinced by compelling evidence that skin color may be merely a superficial trait, and that genetic variation between populations is too small to justify traditional race designations. He also avoids appearing antediluvian by admitting that environment plays a role in shaping phenotype. He is correct that "biology circumscribes possibility," but he dismisses arguments against “innate black superiority” as dogmatic and politically motivated. Entine betrays his disdain for those who disagree with him through his use of tendentious rhetorical devices such as conversation stoppers, non sequiturs, and ad hominem attacks. For example, in ridiculing a proposed experiment (identifying genes that enhance endurance and finding them at higher frequency among Kenyan runners) that would provide convincing evidence of genetically influenced, population-based performance differences, the author writes: “[i]ronically, the arguments advanced by Marks and Anderson echo the creationist attack on evolution" (p 289).

Although there is much to criticize, the book generally is well written and interesting, and makes a number of valid points. Entine acknowledges that, regardless of the contribution of biology to differences in athletic performance, economics, opportunity, coaching, and hard work are critical in realizing athletic potential. He also cautions that postmodern political correctness threatens to chill investigations into not only differences in athletic performance, but other areas of intellectual inquiry as well.

It is certainly true that many complex behaviors are rooted in biology, and with the completion of the Human Genome Project and increasingly detailed maps of genetic polymorphisms, we undoubtedly will determine even more links between genes and complex phenotypes. In fact, scientists may eventually discover biological causes for population. based differences in athletic performance. It is quite clear, however, that we will not find meaningful answers unless we ask the right questions. Framing those questions simplistically and inaccurately in terms of skin color only complicates the search.

Michael J. Dougherty, Biology, Hampden–Sydney

College, Hampden–Sydney, Virginia