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Explaining African Running Success Through a Systems View

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Denis Noble

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Last year I bought The Genius in All of Us: New Insights Into Genetics, Talent, and IQ (Shenk, 2010) and while the book is interesting and I agree with a few things he says, he gets it horribly wrong on athleticism and ethnicity. Some of it I may be able to forgive since the book was written in 2010, but he does make some glaring errors. Chapter 6—pages 100-111—is titled Can White Men Jump? Ethnicity, Genes, Culture, and Success. 

In the beginning of the chapter, Shenk writes that after the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, many articles were written about the Jamaican women who took the top three spots in the 100 and 200m races, with the emergence of Usain Bolt and his record-setting performance. Shenk (2010: 101) writes:

The powerful protein [alpha-actinin-3] is produced by a special gene variant called ACTN3, at least one copy of which is found in 98 percent of Jamaicans—far higher than in many other ethnic populations.

An impressive fact, but no one stopped to do the math. Eighty percent of Americans also had at least one copy of ACTN3—that amounts to 240 million people. Eighty-two percent of Europeans have it as well—that tacks on another 597 million potential sprinters. “There’s simply no clear relationship between the frequency of this variant in a population and its capacity to produce sprinting superstars,” concluded geneticist Daniel MacArthur.

I have written about MacArthur’s thoughts on the ACTN3 variant—that he helped discover, no less—in an article on Jamaicans, Kenyans, and Ethiopians and the explanatory factors in regard to their success in running competitions. Though, the article from MacArthur was written in 2008 and Shenk’s book was written in 2010, considerable advances have been made in this field. It was found that “combined effects of morphological and contractile properties of individual fast muscle fibers attribute to the enhanced performance observed in RR genotypes during explosive contractions” (Broos et al, 2016). Of course when talking about sprinting and morphology, you must think of the somatype. The somatype that is conducive to running success is a tall, lanky body with long limbs, as longer limbs can cover more distance. So European runners don’t have the right somatype, nor are the XX genotype for the ACTN3 variant high in Jamaicans (this genotype is present in ~2 percent of the Jamaican population; Scott et al, 2010). This—among other reasons I have laid out in the past—are why Jamaicans excel in sprinting competitions compared to other ethnic groups.

Shenk (2014: 10) further writes that sports success seem to come in ‘geographic clusters’, and the field of sports geography has been developed to understand it. “What they’ve discovered is that there’s never a single cause for a single cluster,” Shenk writes. “Rather, the success comes from many contributions of climate, media, demographics, politics, training, spirituality, education, economics and folklore. In short, athletic clusters are not genetic, but systemic.” Shenk then discusses the fact that these explanations are not good enough and that some ‘sports geographers’ have transformed themselves into ‘sports geneticists’ and then cites Jon Entine’s 2002 book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It where Shenk quotes Entine who quotes geneticist and physiologist Claude Bouchard who says that “these biological characteristics are not unique to West or East African blacks. These populations are seen in all populations, including whites” (Shenk, 2010: 102). Of course they’re not unique to one population and I don’t think that anyone has ever claimed that. Though the frequencies of these biological, morphological and physiological characteristics are not distributed evenly amongst populations and this explains how and why certain populations excel in certain sports when compared to others.

Shenk (2010: 102) also quotes Entine (2002), writing: “Entine also acknowledges that we haven’t actually found the actual genes he’s alluding to. “These genes will likely be identified early in the [twenty-first century],” he predicts.” We have ‘found some genes’ that aid in athletic performance, the ACTN3 genotype combined with type II fibers and the right morphology, as mentioned above for one. (Though a systems view—one of holism—makes much more sense here than a reducionist view. You must look at the whole system, not reduce things down, but that’s for another day.) That, in my opnion, is a large driver for ethnic differences in sports like this, because you need certain traits if you want to excel in these types of competitions.

He then discusses the success of the Kenyans in distance running—stating that 90 percent of Kenyan runners come from a small subset of Kenyans called the Kalenjin. He cites a few stories of some Kalenjin who talk about their experiences with no running water in their homes and that they had to “run to the river, to take your shower, run home, change, [run] to school . . . Everything is running” (Keino, a Kalenjin boy, quoted from Shenk, 2010: 104). Of course this is attributed to a multitude of factors, all of which have to work in concert to get the desired effect. For instance, sports psychologists have found that strong cultural achievement and the ability to work hard, compete, outdo others and seek new challenges drives their running dominance.

Shenk (2010: 106-107) then writes:

1.DESPITE APPEARANCES TO THE CONTRARY, RACIAL AND ETHNIC GROUPS ARE NOT GENETICALLY DISCRETE.

Skin color is a great deceiver; actual genetic differences between ethnic and geographic groups are very, very limited. All human beings are descended from the same African ancestors … [blah blah blah] … By no stretch of the imagination, then, does any ethnicity or region have an exclusive lock on a particular body type or secret high-performance gene. Body shapes, muscle fiber types, etc., are actually quite varied and scattered, and true athletic potential is widespread and plentiful.

Of course, I don’t think I have ever read anyone who denies this. However, as I’ve noted too many times to count, certain body types and muscle fiber distributions are more likely to be found in certain populations due to where their ancestors evolved recently, and so the fact that ‘actual genetic differences between ethnic and geographic groups are very, very, limited’ does not mean much when talking about dominance by a few populations in elite sporting competition. It just so happens to be the case that the somatypes and muscle fiber distributions that are conducive to running success are more likely to be found in populations of West and East African descent. This is an undeniable fact. (Also note how these ‘appearances to the contrary’ show how race is real.)

2.GENES DON’T DIRECTLY CAUSE TRAITS; THEY ONLY INFLUENCE THE SYSTEM.

Consistent with other lessons of GxE [Genes x Environment], the surprising finding of the $3 billion Human Genome Project is that only in rare instances do specific gene variants directly cause specific traits or diseases. …

As the search for athletic genes continues, therefore, the overwhelming evidence suggests that researchers will instead locate genes prone to certain types of interactions: gene variant A in combination with gene variant B, provoked into expression by X amount of training + Y altitude + Z will to win + a hundred other life variables (coaching, injuries, etc.), will produce some specific result R. What this means, of course, What this means, of course, is that we need to dispense rhetorically with thick firewall between biology (nature) and training (nurture). The reality of GxE assures that each persons genes interacts with his climate, altitude, culture, meals, language, customs and spirituality—everything—to produce unique lifestyle trajectories. Genes play a critical role, but as dynamic instruments, not a fixed blueprint. A seven- or fourteen- or twenty-eight-year-old is not that way merely because of genetic instruction. (Shenk, 2010: 107)

Nothing really wrong here. He is correct, which is why you need to look at the whole biological system, which also includes the culture, climate, environment and so on that the biological, developmental system finds itself in. However, Shenk then gets it wrong again writing that Jamaicans are a ‘quite heterogenous genetic group’ due to being a transport between North and South America. He states—correctly—that Jamaicans ancestry is about equal to that of African-Americans, but the individual variation in ancestry varies by “46.8 to 97.0 percent” (Shenk, 2010: 108).

Shenk gets a lot wrong here. For example. African-American and Jamaicans—despite both being descended from slave populations—have differing maternal ancestry which somehow influences athletic success. Deason (2017) found that 1) modern Jamaicans are descended from slaves and, who had considerable selective pressure on the population; 2) maternal ancestry could either influence sports success or be a false positive; 3) maternal lineages were different in Jamaicans and African-Americans, implying that the same maternal lineage is not distributed evenly between both sprinting populations; 4) some evidence exists that the genetic histories of Jamaicans and African-Americans are different based on their maternal haplotypes; 5) low SES and low access to healthcare—classic indicators of high African ancestry—were not directly linked to elite athletic success; 6) comparisons of the genomes of African-Americans and Jamaicans did not significantly differ since the estimated number of generations since admixture occurred, which implies that controls were not more likely to have more recent European ancestry than athletes; and 7) the regions of the genome that influence sprinting performance may be different in both populations. This is the best evidence to date against Shenk’s simplistic notions of the genetics between Jamaicans and African-Americans.

Differences in fast twitch fibers between Europeans and West Africans explain a large amount of the variance between Europeans and West African descendants in regard to sprinting success, while those with more symmetrical knees and ankles tend to run faster in the 100m dash (Trivers et al, 2014). This would also imply that Jamaicans have more symmetry in their knees and ankles than Europeans, though I am not aware of data that makes this comparison.

Shenk finally discusses the psycho-social-cultural aspects behind the phenomenon, stating that Roger Bannister, the first person to break the four minute mile, stated that while “biology sets limits to performance, it is the mind that plainly determines how close individuals come to those absolute limits” (Shenk, 2010: 110-111). Numerous psychological factors do, indeed, need to combine in order for the individual in question to excel in sports—along with the requisite anatomical/physiological/morphological traits too. Sasaki and Sekiya note that “changes in physiological arousal and movement velocuty induced by mild psychological pressure played a significant role in the sprint performance.” (See also Bali, 2015.)

Lippi, Favaloro, and Guidi, (2008) note how “An advantageous physical genotype is not enough to build a top-class athlete, a champion capable of breaking Olympic records, if endurance elite performances (maximal rate of oxygen uptake, economy of movement, lactate/ventilatory threshold and, potentially, oxygen uptake kinetics) (Williams & Folland, 2008) are not supported by a strong mental background.” I have argued this for months, even if the beneficial somatype is there in the athlete in question, if he/she does not have the will to win they will not succeed in their goals. Psychosocial factors, of course, matter just as much as the physical but all of these factors work in concert to get the outcomes that occur in these sports.

Attempting to pinpoint one or a few traits—while it may help us to understand better physilogic and anatomic processes—tells us nothing about the entire system. This is why, for instance, the whole athletes system needs to be looked at—call it the ‘systems view of the athlete’, where all of these aforementioned variables work in concert to express elite athletic performance, with no one variable being higher than another as an explanatory factor in sports success. Though Shenk gets a few things right (like his point on genes not causing traits on their own, they just influence the system, and I’d take it a step further to note that genes are passive in their relationship to the physiological system as a whole and are only activated by the system as needed, not being ’causes’ on their own; Noble, 2008), he’s largely misguided on how certain aspects of Jamaican ancestry and morphology help propel them to running success in comparison to other ethnies.

When explaining elite athletic performance in certain areas of sports, you must take a view of the whole system, with each known variable influencing the next in the chain, if you want to explain why certain ethnies or racial groups do better in a given sport than other groups. A systems view is the only view to take when comparing populations in different athletic competitions. So the influence of culture, psychology, social effects, morphology, ancestry, anatomy, physiology, muscle fibers, etc all work in concert to produce elite athletic phenotypes that then excel in these sports, and reducing this down to certain variables—while it may help us understand some of the inner mechanics—it does nothing to help advance the hows and whys of elite success in sports competition when comparing different populations.

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