Home » Culture » Black-White Differences in Anatomy and Physiology: Black Athletic Superiority

Black-White Differences in Anatomy and Physiology: Black Athletic Superiority

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Denis Noble

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3000 words

Due to evolving in different climates, the different races of Man have differing anatomy and physiology. This, then, leads to differences in sports performance—certain races do better than others in certain bouts of athletic prowess, and this is due to, in large part, heritable biological/physical differences between blacks and whites. Some of these differences are differences in somatotype, which bring a considerable advantage for, say, runners (an ecto-meso, for instance, would do very well in sprinting or distance running depending on fiber typing). This article will discuss differences in racial anatomy and physiology (again) and how it leads to disparities in certain sports performance.

Kerr (2010) argues that racial superiority in sport is a myth. (Read my rebuttal here.) In his article, Kerr (2010) attempts to rebut Entine’s (2000) book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It. In a nutshell, Kerr (2010) argues that race is not a valid category; that other, nongenetic factors play a role other than genetics (I don’t know if anyone has ever argued if it was just genetics). Race is a legitimate biological category, contrary to Kerr’s assertions. Kerr, in my view, strawman’s Entine (2002) by saying he’s a “genetic determinist”, but while he does discuss biological/genetic factors more than environmental ones, Entine is in no way a genetic determinist (at least that’s what I get from my reading of his book, other opinions may differ). Average physical differences between races are enough to delineate racial categories and then it’s only logical to infer that these average physical/physiological differences between the races (that will be reviewed below) would infer an advantage in certain sports over others, while the ultimate cause was the environment that said race’s ancestors evolved in (causing differences in somatotype and physiology).

Black athletic superiority has been discussed for decades. The reasons are numerous and of course, this has even been noticed by the general public. In 1991, half of the respondents of a poll on black vs. whites in sports “agreed with the idea that “blacks have more natural physical ability,“” (Hoberman, 1997: 207). Hoberman (1997) of course denies that there is any evidence that blacks have an advantage over whites in certain sports that come down to heritable biological factors (which he spends the whole book arguing). However, many blacks and whites do, in fact, believe in black athletic superiority and that physiologic and anatomic differences between the races do indeed cause racial differences in sporting performance (Wiggins, 1989). Though Wiggins (1989: 184) writes:

The anthropometric differences found between racial groups are usually nothing more than central tendencies and, in addition, do not take into account wide variations within these groups or the overlap among members of different races. This fact not only negates any reliable physiological comparisons of athletes along racial lines, but makes the whole notion of racially distinctive physiological abilities a moot point.

This is horribly wrong, as will be seen throughout this article.

The different races have, on average, differing somatotypes which means that they have different anatomic proportions (Malina, 1969):

Data from Malina, (1969: 438) n Mesomorph Ectomorph Endomorph
Blacks 65 5.14 2.99 2.92
Whites 199 4.29 2.89 3.86
Data from Malina (1969: 438) Blacks Whites
Thin-build body type 8.93 5.90
Submedium fatty development 48.31 29.39
Medium fleshiness 33.69 43.63
Fat and very fat categories 9.09 21.06

This was in blacks and whites aged 6 to 11. Even at these young ages, it is clear that there are considerable anatomic differences between blacks and whites which then lead to differences in sports performance, contra Wiggins (1989). A basic understanding of anatomy and how the human body works is needed in order to understand how and why blacks dominate certain sports over whites (and vice versa). Somatotype is, of course, predicated on lean mass, fat mass, bone density, stature, etc, which are heritable biological traits, thus, contrary to popular belief that somatotyping holds no explanatory power in sports today (see Hilliard, 2012).

One variable that makes up somatotype is fat-free body mass. There are, of course, racial differences in fat mass, too (Vickery, Cureton, and Collins, 1988; Wagner and Heyward, 2000). Lower fat mass would, of course, impede black excellence in swimming, and this is what we see (Rushton, 1997; Entine, 2000). Wagner and Heyward (2000) write:

Our review unequivocally shows that the FFB of blacks and whites differs significantly. It has been shown from cadaver and in vivo analyses that blacks have a greater BMC and BMD than do whites. These racial differences could substantially affect measures of body density and %BF. According to Lohman (63), a 2% change in the BMC of the body at a given body density could, theoretically, result in an 8% error in the estimation of %BF. Thus, the BMC and BMD of blacks must be considered when %BF is estimated.

While Vickery, Cureton, and Collins (1988) found that blacks had thinner skin folds than whites, however, in this sample, somatotype did not explain racial differences in bone density, like other studies (Malina, 1969), Vickery, Cureton, and Collins (1988) found that blacks were also more likely to be mesomorphic (which would then express itself in racial differences in sports).

Hallinan (1994) surveyed 32 sports science, exercise physiology, biomechanics, motor development, motor learning, and measurement evaluation textbooks to see what they said racial differences in sporting performance and how they explained them. Out of these 32 textbooks, according to Wikipedia, these “textbooks found that seven [textbooks] suggested that there are biophysical differences due to race that might explain differences in sports performance, one [textbook] expressed caution with the idea, and the other 24 [textbooks] did not mention the issue.” Furthermore, Strklaj and Solyali (2010), in their paper “Human Biological Variation in Anatomy Textbooks: The Role of Ancestry” write that their “results suggest that this type of human variation is either not accounted for or approached only superficially and in an outdated manner.

It’s patently ridiculous that most textbooks on the anatomy and physiology of the human body do not talk about the anatomic and physiologic differences between racial and ethnic groups. Hoberman (1997) also argues the same, that there is no evidence to confirm the existence of black athletic superiority. Of course, many hypotheses have been proposed to explain how and why blacks are at an inherent advantage in sport. Hoberman (1997: 269) discusses one, writing (quoting world record Olympian in the 400-meter dash, Lee Evans):

“We were bred for it [athletic dominance] … Certainly the black people who survived in the slave ships must have contained the highest proportion of the strongest. Then, on the plantations, a strong black man was mated with a strong black woman. We were simply bred for physical qualities.”

While Hoberman (1997: 270-1) also notes:

Finally, by arguing for a cultural rather than a biological interpretation of “race,” Edwards proposed that black athletic superiority results from “a complex of societal conditions” that channels a disproporitionate number of talented blacks into athletic careers.

The fact that blacks were “bred for” athletic dominance is something that gets brought up often but has little (if any) empirical support (aside from just-so stories about white slavemasters breeding their best, biggest and strongest black slaves). The notion that “a complex of societal conditions” (Edwards, 1971: 39) explains black dominance in sports, while it has some explanatory power in regard to how well blacks do in sporting competition, it, of course, does not tell the whole story. Edwards (1978: 39) argues that these complex societal conditions “instill a heightened motivation among black male youths to achieve success in sports; thus, they channel a proportionately greater number of talented black people than whites into sports participation.” While this may, in fact, be true, this does nothing to rebut the point that differences in anatomic and physiologic factors are a driving force in racial differences in sporting performance. However, while these types of environmental/sociological arguments do show us why blacks are over-represented in some sports (because of course motivation to do well in the sport of choice does matter), they do not even discuss differences in anatomy or physiology which would also be affecting the relationship.

For example, one can have all of the athletic gifts in the world, one can be endowed with the best body type and physiology to do well in any type of sport you can imagine. However, if he does not have a strong mind, he will not succeed in the sport. Lippi, Favaloro, and Guidi (2008) write:

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.

Any athlete—no matter their race—needs a strong mental background, for if they don’t, they can have all of the physical gifts in the world, they will not become top-tier athletes in the sport of their choice; advantageous physical factors are imperative for success in differing sports, though myriad variables work in concert to produce the desired effect so you cannot have one without the other. On the other side, one can have a strong mental background and not have the requisite anatomy or physiology needed to succeed in the sport in question, but if he has a stronger mind than the individual with the requisite morphology, then he probably will win in a head-to-head competition. Either way, a strong mind is needed for strong performance in anything we do in life, and sport is no different.

Echoing what Hoberman (1997) writes, that “racist” thoughts of black superiority in part cause their success in sport, Sheldon, Jayaratne, and Petty (2007) predicted that white Americans’ beliefs in black athletic superiority would coincide with prejudice and negative stereotyping of black’s “intelligence” and work ethic. They studied 600 white men and women to ascertain their beliefs on black athletic superiority and the causes for it. Sheldon, Jayaratne, and Petty (2007: 45) discuss how it was believed by many, that there is a “ perceived inverse relationship between athleticism and intelligence (and hard work).” (JP Rushton was a big proponent of this hypothesis; see Rushton, 1997. It should also be noted that both Rushton, 1997 and Entine, 2000 believe that blacks’ higher rate of testosterone—3 to 15 percent— [Ross et al, 1986; Ellis and Nyborg, 1992; see rebuttal of both papers] causes their superior athletic performance, I have convincingly shown that they do not have higher levels of testosterone than other races, and if they do the difference is negligible.) However, in his book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, Epstein (2014) writes:

With that stigma in mind [that there is an inverse relationship between “intelligence” and athletic performance], perhaps the most important writing Cooper did in Black Superman was his methodological evisceration of any supposed inverse link between physical and mental prowess. “The concept that physical superiority could somehow be a symptom of intellectual superiority became associated with African Americans … That association did not begin until about 1936.”

What Cooper (2004) implied is that there was no “inverse relationship” with intelligence and athletic ability until Jesse Owens blew away the competition at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. In fact, the relationship between “intelligence” and athletic ability is positive (Heppe et al, 2016). Cooper is also a co-author of a paper Some Bio-Medical Mechanisms in Athletic Prowess with Morrison (Morrison and Cooper, 2006) where they argue—convincingly—that the “mutation appears to have triggered a series of physiological adjustments, which have had favourable athletic consequences.

Thus, the hypothesis claims that differences in glucose conversion rates between West African blacks and her descendants began, but did not end with the sickling of the hemoglobin molecule, where valine is substituted for glutamic acid, which is the sixth amino acid of the beta chain of the hemoglobin molecule. Marlin et al (2007: 624) showed that male athletes who were inflicted with the sickle cell trait (SCT) “are able to perform sprints and brief exercises at the highest levels.” This is more evidence for Morrison and Cooper’s (2006) hypothesis on the evolution of muscle fiber typing in West African blacks.

Bejan, Jones, and Charles (2010) explain that the phenomenon of whites being faster swimmers in comparison to blacks being faster runners can be accounted for by physics. Since locomotion is a “falling-forward cycle“, body mass falls forward and then rises again, so mass that falls from a higher altitude falls faster and forward. The altitude is set by the position of center of mass above the ground for running, while for swimming it is set by the body rising out of the water. Blacks have a center of gravity that is about 3 percent higher than whites, which implies that blacks have a 1.5 percent speed advantage in running whereas whites have a 1.5 percent speed advantage in swimming. In the case of Asians, when all races were matched for height, Asians fared even better, than whites in swimming, but they do not set world records because they are not as tall as whites (Bejan, Jones, and Charles, 2010).

It has been proposed that stereotype threat is part of the reasons for East African running success (Baker and Horton, 2003). They state that many theories have been proposed to explain black African running success—from genetic theories to environmental determinism (the notion that physiologic adaptations to climate, too, drive differences in sporting competition). Baker and Horton (2003) note that “that young athletes have internalised these stereotypes and are choosing sport participation accordingly. He speculates that this is the reason why white running times in certain events have actually decreased over the past few years; whites are opting out of some sports based on perceived genetic inferiority.” While this may be true, this wouldn’t matter, as people gravitate toward what they are naturally good at—and what dictates that is their mind, anatomy, and physiology. They pretty much argue that stereotype threat is a cause of East African running performance on the basis of two assertions: (1) that East African runners are so good that it’s pointless to attempt to win if you are not East African and (2) since East Africans are so good, fewer people will try out and will continue the illusion that East Africans would dominate in middle- and long-distance running. However, while this view is plausible, there is little data to back the arguments.

To explain African running success, we must do it through a systems view—not one of reductionism (i.e., gene-finding). We need to see how the systems in question interact with every part. So while Jamaicans, Kenyans, and Ethiopians (and American blacks) do dominate in running competitions, attempting to “find genes” that account for success n these sports seems like a moot point—since the whole system is what matters, not what we can reduce the system in question to.

However, there are some competitions that blacks do not do so well in, and it is hardly discussed—if at all—by any author that I have read on this matter. Blacks are highly under-represented in strength sports and strongman competitions. Why? My explanation is simple: the causes for their superiority in sprinting and distance running (along with what makes them successful at baseball, football, and basketball) impedes them from doing well in strength and strongman competitions. It’s worth noting that no black man has ever won the World’s Strongest Man competition (indeed the only African country to even place—Rhodesia—was won by a white man) and the causes for these disparities come down to racial differences in anatomy and physiology.

I discussed racial differences in the big four lifts and how racial differences in anatomy and physiology would contribute to how well said race performed on the lift in question. I concluded that Europeans and Asians had more of an advantage over blacks in these lifts, and the reasons were due to inherent differences in anatomy and physiology. One major cause is also the differing muscle fiber typing distribution between the races (Alma et al, 1986; Tanner et al, 2002Caesar and Henry, 2015 while blacks’ fiber typing helps them in short-distance sprinting (Zierath and Hawley, 2003). Muscle fiber typing is a huge cause of black athletic dominance (and non-dominance). Blacks are not stronger than whites, contrary to popular belief.

I also argued that Neanderthals were stronger than Homo sapiens, which then had implications for racial differences in strength (and sports). Neanderthals had a wider pelvis than our species since they evolved in colder climes (at the time) (Gruss and Schmidt, 2016). With a wider pelvis and shorter body than Homo sapiens, they were able to generate more power. I then implied that the current differences in strength and running we see between blacks and whites can be used for Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, thusly, evolution in differing climates lead to differences in somatotype, which eventually then lead to differences in sporting competition (what Baker and Horton, 2003 term “environmental determinism” which I will discuss in the context of racial differences in sports in the future).

Finally, blacks dominate the sport of bodybuilding, with Phil Heath dominating the competition for the past 7 years. Blacks dominate bodybuilding because, as noted above, blacks have thinner skin folds than whites, so their striations in their muscles would be more prevalent, on average, at the same exact %BF. Bodybuilders and weightlifters were similar in mesomorphy, but the bodybuilders showed more musculature than the bodybuilders whereas the weightlifters showed higher levels of body fat with a significant difference observed between bodybuilders and weightlifters in regard to endomorphy and ectomorphy (weightlifters skewing endo, bodybuilders skewing ecto, as I have argued in the past; Imran et al, 2011).

To conclude, blacks do dominate American sporting competition, and while much ink has been spilled arguing that cultural and social—not genetic or biologic—factors can explain black athletic superiority, they clearly work in concert with a strong mind to produce the athletic phenotype, no one factor has prominence over the other; though, above all, if one does not have the right mindset for the sport in question, they will not succeed. A complex array of factors is the cause of black athletic dominance, including muscle fibers, the type of mindset, anatomy, overall physiology and fat mass (among other variables) explain the hows and whys of black athletic superiority. Cultural and social explanations—on their own—do not tell the whole story, just as genetic/biologic explanations on their own would not either. Every aspect—including the historical—needs to be looked at when discussing the dominance (or lack thereof) in certain sports along with genetic and nongenetic factors to see how and why certain races and ethnies excel in certain sports.


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