Racial differences in sporting success are undeniable. The races are somewhat stratified in different sports and we can trace the cause of this to differences in genes and where one’s ancestors were born. We can then say that there is a relationship between them since, they have certain traits which their ancestors also had, which then correlate with geographic ancestry, and we can explain how and why certain populations dominate (or would have the capacity to based on body type and physiology) certain sporting events. Critiques of Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It are few and far between, and the few that I am aware of are alright, but this one I will discuss today is not particularly good, because the author makes a lot of claims he could have easily verified himself.
In 2010, Ian Kerr published The Myth of Racial Superiority in Sports, who states that there is a “dark side” to sports, and specifically sets his sights on Jon Entine’s (2000) book Taboo. In this article, Kerr (2010) makes a lot of, in my opinion, giant claims which provide a lot of evidence and arguments in order to show their validity. I will discuss Kerr’s views on race, biology, the “environment”, “genetic determinism”, and racial dominance in sports (which will have a focus on sprinting/distance running in this article).
Since establishing the reality and validity of the concept of race is central to proving Entine’s (2002) argument on racial differences in sports, then I must prove the reality of race (and rebut what Kerr 2010 writes about race). Kerr (2010: 20) writes:
First, it is important to note that Entine is not working in a vacuum; his assertions about race and sports are part of a larger ongoing argument about folk notions of race. Folk notions of race founded on the idea that deep, mutually exclusive biological categories dividing groups of people have scientific and cultural merit. This type of thinking is rooted in the notion that there are underlying, essential differences among people and that those observable physical differences among people are rooted in biology, in genetics (Ossorio, Duster, 2005: 2).
Dividing groups of people does have scientific, cultural and philosophical merit. The concept of “essences” has long been discarded by philosophers. Though there are differences in both anatomy and physiology in people that differ by geographic location, and this then, at the extreme end, would be enough to cause the differences in elite sporting competition that is seen.
Either way, the argument for the existence of race is simple: 1) populations differ in physical attributes (facial, morphological) which then 2) correlate with geographic ancestry. Therefore, race has a biological basis since the physical differences between these populations are biological in nature. Now that we have established that race exists using only physical features, it should be extremely simple to show how Kerr (2010) is in error with his strong claims regarding race and the so-called “mythology” of racial superiority in sports. Race is biological; the biological argument for race is sound (read here and here, and also see Hardimon, 2017).
True genetic determinism—as is commonly thought—does not have any sound, logical basis (Resnick and Vorhaus, 2006). So Kerr’s (2010) claims in this section need to be dissected here. This next quote, though, is pretty much imperative to the soundness and validity of his whole article, and let’s just say that it’s easy to rebut and invalidates his whole entire argument:
Vinay Harpalani is one of the most outspoken critics of using genetic determinism to validate notions of inferiority or the superiority of certain groups (in this case Black athletes). He argues that in order for any of Entine’s claims to be valid he must prove that: 1) there is a systematic way to define Black and White populations; 2) consistent and plausible genetic differences between the populations can be demonstrated; 3) a link between those genetic differences and athletic performance can be clearly shown (2004).
This is too easy to prove.
1) While I do agree that the terminology of ‘white’ and ‘black’ are extremely broad, as can be seen by looking at Rosenberg et al (2002), population clusters that cluster with what we call ‘white’ and ‘black’ exist (and are a part of continental-level minimalist races). So is there a systematic way to define ‘Black’ and ‘White’ populations? Yes, there is; genetic testing will show where one’s ancestors came from recently, thereby proving point 1.
2) Consistent and plausible genetic differences between populations can be demonstrated. Sure, there is more variation within races than between them (Lewontin, 1972; Rosenberg et al, 2002; Witherspoon et al, 2007; Hunley, Cabana, and Long, 2016). Even these small between-continent/group differences would have huge effects on the tail end of said distribution.
3) I have compiled numerous data on genetic differences between African ethnies and European ethnies and how these genetic differences then cause differences in elite athletic performance. I have shown that Jamaicans, West Africans, Kenyans and Ethiopians (certain subgroups of the two aforementioned countries) have genetic/somatypic differences that then lead to differences in these sporting competitions. So we can say that race can predict traits important for certain athletic competitions.
1) The terminology of ‘White’ and ‘Black’ are broad; but we can still classify individuals along these lines; 2) consistent and plausible genetic differences between races and ethnies do exist; 3) a link between these genetic differences between genes/athletic differences between groups can be found. Therefore Entine’s (2002) arguments—and the validity thereof—are sound.
Kerr (2010) then makes a few comments on the West’s “obsession with superficial physical features such as skin color”, but using Hardimon’s minimalist race concept, skin color is a part of the argument to prove the existence and biological reality of race, therefore skin color is not ‘superficial’, since it is also a tell of where one’s ancestors evolved in the recent past. Kerr (2010: 21) then writes:
Marks writes that Entine is saying one of three things: that the very best Black athletes have an inherent genetic advantage over the very best White athletes; that the average Black athlete has a genetic advantage over the average White athlete; that all Blacks have the genetic potential to be better athletes than all Whites. Clearly these three propositions are both unknowable and scientifically untenable. Marks writes that “the first statement is trivial, the secondly statistically intractable, and the third ridiculous for its racial essentialism” (Marks, 2000: 1077).
The first two, in my opinion (the very best black athletes have an inherent genetic advantage over the very best white athletes and the average black athlete has a genetic advantage over the average white athlete), are true, and I don’t know how you can deny this; especially if you’re talking about AVERAGES. The third statement is ridiculous, because it doesn’t work like that. Kerr (2010), of course, states that race is not a biological reality, but I’ve proven that it is so that statement is a non-factor.
Kerr (2010) then states that “ demonstrating across the board genetic variations between
populations — has in recent years been roundly debunked“, and also says “ Differences in height, skin color, and hair texture are simply the result of climate-related variation.” This is one of the craziest things I’ve read all year! Differences in height would cause differences in elite sporting competition; differences in skin color can be conceptualized as one’s ancestors’ multi-generational adaptation to the climate they evolved in as can hair texture. If only Kerr (2010) knew that this statement here was the beginning of the end of his shitty argument on Entine’s book. Race is a social construct of a biological reality, and there are genetic differences between races—however small (Risch et al, 2002; Tang et al, 2005) but these small differences can mean big differences at the elite level.
The “environment” and biological variability
Kerr (2010) then shifts his focus over to, not genetic differences, but biological differences. He specifically discusses the Kenyans—Kalenjin—stating that “height or weight, which play an instrumental role in helping define an individual’s athletic prowess, have not been proven to be exclusively rooted in biology or genetics.” While estimates of BMI and height are high (both around .8), I think we can disregard the numbers since they came from highly flawed twin studies, since molecular genetic evidence shows lower heritabilities. Either way, surely height is strongly influenced by ‘genes’. Another important caveat is that Kenya has one of the lowest BMIs in the world, 20.7 for Kenyan men, which also is part of the cause of why certain African ethnies dominate running competitions.
I don’t disagree with Kerr (2010) here too much; many papers show that SES/cultural/social factors are very important to Kenyan runners (Onywera et al, 2006; Wilbur and Pistiladis, 2012; Tucker, Onywera, and Santos-Concejero, 2015). You can have all of the ‘physical gifts’ in the world, if it’s not combined with the will to want to do your best, along with cultural and social factors you won’t succeed. But having an advantageous genotype and physique are useless without a strong mind (Lippi, Favaloro, and Guidi, 2008):
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.”
Dissecting this, though, is tougher. Because being born at certain altitudes will cause certain advantageous traits, such as a larger lung capacity (and you will have an advantage in lung capacity when competing at lower altitudes), but certain subpopulations live in these high-altitude areas, so what is it? Genetic? Cultural? Environmental? All three? Nature vs nurture is a false dichotomy; so it is a mixture of the three.
How does one explain, then, the athlete who trains countless hours a day fine-tuning a jump shot, like LeBron James or shaving seconds off sub-four minute miles like Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, a four time Boston Marathon winner?
Literally no one denies that elite athletes put in insane amounts of practice; but if everyone has the same amount of practice they won’t have similar abilities.
He also briefly brings up muscle fibers, stating:
These include studies on African fast twitch muscle fibers and development of motor skills. Entine includes these studies to demonstrate irrevocable proof of embedded genetic differences between populations but refuses to accept the fact that any differences may be due to environmental factors or training.
This, again, shows ignorance of the literature. An individual’s muscle fibers are formed during development from the fusion of several myoblasts, with differentiation being completed before birth. Muscle fiber typoing is also set at age 6, no difference in skeletal muscle tissue was found when comparing 6-year-olds and adults, therefore we can state that muscle fiber typing is set by age 6 (Bell et al, 1980). You can, of course, train type II fibers to have similar aerobic capacity to type I fibers, but they’ll never be fully similar. This is something that Kerr (2010) obviously is ignorant to because he’s not well-read on the literature which causes him to make dumb statements like “any differences [in muscle fiber typing] may be due to environmental factors or training“.
Black domination in sports
Finally, Kerr (2010) discusses the fact that whites dominated certain running competitions in the Olympics and that before the 1960s, a majority of distance-running gold medals went to white athletes. He then states that the 2008 Boston Marathon winner was Kenyan; but the next 4 behind him were not. Now, let’s check out the 2017 Marathon winners: Kenya, USA, Japan for the top 3; while 5 Kenyans/Ethiopians are in the top 15 while the same is also true of women; a Kenyan winner, with Kenyans/Ethiopians taking 5 of the top 15 spots. The fact that whites used to do well in running sports is a non-factor; Jesse Owens blew away the competition in the Games in Germany, which showed how blacks would begin to dominate in the US decades later.
Kerr (2010) then ends the article with a ton of wild claims; the wildest one, in my opinion, being that “Kenyans are no more genetically different from any other African or European population on average“, does anyone believe this? Because I have data to the contrary. They have a higher Vo2 max, which of course is trainable but with a ‘genetic’ component (Larsen, 2003), while other authors argue that genetic differences between populations account for differences in success in running competition between populations (Vancini et al, 2014), while male and female Kenyan and Ethiopian runners are the fastest in the half and full marathon (Knechtle et al, 2016). There is a large amount of data out there that speaks about Kenyan/Ethiopian and others’ dominance in running; it seems Kerr (2010) just ignored the data. I agree with Kerr that Kenyanholos show that humans can adapt to their environment; but his conclusion here:
The fact that runners coming from Kenya do so well in running events attests to the fact the combination of intense high altitude training, consumption of a low-fat, high protein diet, and a social and cultural expectation to succeed have created in recent decades an environment which is highly conducive to producing excellent long-distance runners.
is very strong, and while I don’t disagree at all with anything here, he’s disregarding how somatype and genes differ between Kenyans and other populations that compete in these sports that then lead to differences in elite sporting competitions.
Elite sporting performance is influenced by myriad factors, including psychology, ‘environment’, and genetic factors. Something that Kerr (2010) doesn’t understand—because he’s not well-read on this literature—is that many genetic factors that influence sporting performance are known. The ability to become elite depends on one’s capacity for endurance, muscle performance, the ability of the tendons and ligaments to withstand stress and injury, and the attitude to train and push above and beyond what normal people can do (Lippi, Longo, and Maffulli, 2010). We can then extend this to human races; some are better-equipped to excel in running competitions than others.
On its face, Kerr’s (2010) claim that there are no inherent differences between races is wrong. Races differ in somatype, which is due to evolution in different geographic locations for tens of thousands of years. The human body is perfectly adapted to for long distance running (Murray and Costa, 2012), and since our capabilities for endurance running evolved in Africa and they, theoretically, have a musculoskeletal structure similar to the Homo sapiens that left Africa around 70 kya, then it’s only logical to state that African’s, on average, have an inherent ability in running competitions (West and East Africans, while North Africans fare very well in middle distance running, which, again, comes down to living in higher altitudes like Kenyans and Ethiopians).
Wagner and Heyward (2000) reviewed many studies on the physiological differences between blacks and whites. Blacks skew towards mesomorphy; black youths had smaller billiac and bitrochanteric width (the widest measure of the pelvis at the outer edges and the flat process on the femur, respectively), and black infants had longer extremities than white infants (Wagner and Heyward, 2000). We have anatomic evidence that blacks are superior runners (in an American context). Mesomorphic athletes are more likely to be sprinters (Sands et al, 2005; which is also seen in prepubescent children: Marta et al, 2013) Kenyans are ecto-dominant (Vernillo et al, 2013) which helps to explain their success at long-distance running. So just on only looking at the phenotype (a marker for race with geographic ancestry, proving the biological existence of race) we can confidently state, on average just by looking at an individual or a population, how they will fare in certain competitions.
Kerr’s (2010) arguments leave a ton to be desired. Race exists and is a biological reality. I don’t know why this paper got published since it was so full of errors; his arguments were not sound and much of the literature contradicts his claims. What he states at the end about Kenyans is not wrong at all, but to not even bring up genetic/biologic differences as a factor influencing their performance is dishonest.
Of course, a whole slew of factors, be they biological, cultural, psychological, genetic, socioeconomic, anatomic, physiologic etc influence sporting performance, but certain traits are more likely to be found in certain populations, and in the year 2018 we have a good idea of what influences elite sporting performance and what does not. It just so happens that these traits are unevenly distributed between populations, and the cause is evolution in differing climates in differing geographic locations.
Race exists and is a biological reality. Biological anatomic/physiological differences between these races then manifest themselves in elite sporting competition. The races differ, on average, in traits important for success in certain competitions. Therefore, race explains some of the variance in elite sporting competition.