Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein has a new book out, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. The title strikes me as coarse and reductive, but I am aware that authors do not always have control over such things. I’ve corresponded with Epstein a bit over the past year, and he’s sent me some passages relating to human evolutionary genetics and paleoanthropology to me to make sure they don’t sound crazy. I haven’t had time to read the book, but judging from the interview I listened to on NPR it’s data rich and theory subtle. Though the title seems to imply that athleticism is a single gene trait where most of the variation in the population is due to genetic variation, Epstein denies this and instead presents the reality that athleticism is a complex trait which many dimensions, subject to numerous genetic and environment variables, and, interactions across those variables. That would make for a less sexy subtitle, but it would have had the attribute of being correct.
Epstein’s survey of the research touches on sensitive topics bound to be sensationalized (e.g., The Urgency—and the Challenge—of Connecting Sports, Race, and Genetics). But it seems likely that there are going to be plenty of “gee whiz” facts in the book judging from the interview. For example, he reports that 17 percent of men over the the height of seven feet (2.14 meters) between the ages of 20 and 40 in the United States are playing in the NBA! Obviously there is no gene which is guaranteed to make you an NBA star, but having the allelic profile which predisposes you to being seven feet tall obviously helps. It also illustrates the ridiculousness which the “10,000 hour rule” has been taken to in popular culture. Practice matters, and, talent matters. At extremely high levels of performance one often needs to have focus to engage in repetitive tasks over and over. But, one also likely needs a preternatural complement of genes. Most of the children of NBA players do not become professional basketball players, but the probabilities are far higher. Epstein outlines these sorts of facts in a breezy and concise manner in the interview, as well as dismissing the infantile disorder of genetic determinism which results in the purchasing of DNA kits which will tell you if your child is an athlete or not.
And yet despite the complexity one of the things that I take away from David Epstein’s description of his book is that there is a massive and robust scientific literature on what makes a great athlete. This seems reasonable because professional athletics is a profitable enterprise, and where there is money there is scientific inquiry. But it helps to reiterate the message now and then.
Addendum: A good place to mention James F. Crow’s 2002 essay Unequal by nature: a geneticist’s perspective on human differences