The Gene for Running Fast or Far

Jamaican sprinters make people who are not really thinking about this jump, like pole vaulters, to the conclusion that there must be a gene for running fast that somehow evolved … like Olympic Beach Volley Ball seemingly from sterile sand … despite the numerous hurdles for such an event to happen. Such is the nature of amateur science.

As much as I’d like to make a contribution to this discussion right now, I’m engaged in other activities that preclude a knee-jerk reaction. So for now, I offer this repost of an earlier piece on running and genetics. As a wet blanket. Enjoy the wet blanket.

At this point, I’ll add only this one question: Why are we not writing about the Romanian gene for long distance running in women? I know there was only one Marathon winner, but she won by a LOT of distance. Does that not make it more likely to be genetic, because moreness = geneticness? What about the gene in Americans for gymnastics? Or Beach Volleyball?

The answer to these absurd questions is also absurd, yet true: When black people run, white people take notice. When black people run fast, white people, alarmed, find naturalistic (= as in animals) explanations. But when a group of white people excel (beach volley ball or gymnastics) personal stories of heroics are used to explain the result. Shame.

image

African Lynne Simpson, 2001 winner of Augrabies Ultra-Marathon in South Africa
On one hand, everyone knows that the differences between humans that are often categorized as “racial traits” are either overstated or irrelevant. All humans have essentially the same basic potentials, and the genetic differences that do exist between people are not sorted out by the usual racial categories. Not even the differences that are foundational to those racial categories sort out by racial categories particularly well. By and large, racial categories are cultural fictions vaguely supported by quirky historical circumstances. On close examination they are not real.

On the other hand, it has become fairly common to attribute a select few true racial traits to certain races. The most common is the obvious genetic superiority of Africans in areas of sports. This belief is widespread among people of all sorts of political orientations, and is often considered benign because it is a “good thing” and not a bad thing (like racial tendencies to be sub intelligent, or to exhibit criminal behavior would be).

The fact that these “benign” traits are just as fictitious as the other traits, and that they are not at all benign, has not stopped people from believing them.

A newly released study in Nature Genetics MacArthur et al. 2007. Loss of ACTN3 gene function alters mouse muscle metabolism and shows evidence of positive selection in humans. Nature Genetics Published online: 9 September 2007 | doi:10.1038/ng2122 relates to this issue. According to the study, an allele of a gene that is involved in the development of muscle occurs in some human populations, conferring on those individuals an exceptional ability to run.

From the abstract of this paper:

More than a billion humans worldwide are predicted to be completely deficient in the fast skeletal muscle fiber protein alpha-actinin-3 owing to homozygosity for a premature stop codon polymorphism, R577X, in the ACTN3 gene. The R577X polymorphism is associated with elite athlete status and human muscle performance, suggesting that alpha-actinin-3 deficiency influences the function of fast muscle fibers. Here we show that loss of alpha-actinin-3 expression in a knockout mouse model results in a shift in muscle metabolism toward the more efficient aerobic pathway and an increase in intrinsic endurance performance. In addition, we demonstrate that the genomic region surrounding the 577X null allele shows low levels of genetic variation and recombination in [certain groups of people], consistent with strong, recent positive selection. We propose that the 577X allele has been positively selected in some human populations owing to its effect on skeletal muscle metabolism.

So, now we have it. The gene, how it works, what it does. This must explain why all of those Africans win all those races, and why so many elite American athletes are African-American.

The social and economic explanations are no longer as needed. The fact that almost all African elite long distance runners were born and raised one or more miles above sea level and thus developed tremendous lung capacity is no longer as important. Finally, we have a benign race gene for … well, racing.


BBBZZZZZZEERRRRKKKKKK

Huh? What? Oh, that was the “no, that’s wrong” buzzer going off….

The frequency of this gene is nowhere high enough in any population to be a “racial” trait, even if such traits actually existed. And it is prevalent mainly among Europeans and Asians. The slow ones have the fast genes.

Back to the paper:

The frequency of the 577X null allele differs between human groups: it is approx 10% in Africans but approaches 50% in Eurasian populations. Two independent studies have reported associations between R577X and elite athlete status; the frequency of the 577XX null genotype is lower in sprinting and power athletes and higher in endurance athletes.

Eat your heart out, Philip Rushton.

You can read more about it on ScienceNOW (may need a subscription). The original paper is cited below, and I’m sure you need to be special to get a copy of that.

Comments

  1. #1 natural cynic
    August 23, 2008

    The frequency of the 577X null allele differs between human groups: it is approx 10% in Africans but approaches 50% in Eurasian populations.

    So THAT explains all those Tour de France cyclists.[/snark]

    The existence of performers like Phelps and Bolt might be attributed, in part, to one of the important ideas about evolution – genetic variation. They may start off with “better material” due to unique combinations of genes involved in neurological, skeletal and muscle growth, metabolism and repair. And then they train to take advantage of their gifts. And then they win. Variation & selection.

  2. #2 Theo Bromine
    August 23, 2008

    Here’s a question that I heard posed a while ago: Why is it that the relative increase in speed by human runners over the past century or so is much smaller than the increase of speed for racehorses, despite the fact that the horses are being bred for speed, while the humans presumably are not.

    (I don’t recall that the question was asked with an axe to grind, and I can think of a number of plausible explanations. but as I am just an engineer, not a scientist, I would like to hear what biologists and anthropologists think.)

  3. #3 Brian
    August 23, 2008

    Another thing to consider is that we take for granted how rare athletes like Phelps and Bolt are. I refuse to believe that Phelps and/or Bolt, and others like them, are so physically unique as we like to make them. Rather, isn’t it possible that it’s just relatively unlikely, and the real unlikely part is that they gravitate toward their respective sports?

  4. #4 pradeep
    August 23, 2008

    I thought that there was a genetic discrepancy between whites and blacks in the amount of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers, which gives blacks, who have a higher prevalence of fast-twitch muscle fibers, the ability to run faster at the cost of tiring quickly; whereas, whites tend to have a higher amounts of slow-twitch muscle fibers, which allows them to endure longer, but don’t have quite the burst of speed and energy that a person with fast-twitch muscle fibers can produce.

    Or can the amount of each type of muscle fiber be influenced by training?

  5. #5 greg laden
    August 23, 2008

    As an anthropologist I would be inclined to start off by questioning the premise. Race horses and humans run somewhat under one order of magnitude difference in speed, and way more than one order of magnitude difference in endurance (“order of magnitude being itself a cultural premise). So, when one says “more” or “less” change one has to demonstrate that there is a way of comparing these numbers.

    Then there is the population size factor, and as part of that, genetic variation. What are the pools we are picking from?

    On top of that there is the limit effect. Race horses and humans are both being run, it seems, to the point where their legs break (each in their own comparable way … with horses it’s the bones, with humans, connective tissue) but is that to the same degree?

    I’d like to see the data, it would be interesting.

  6. #6 greg laden
    August 23, 2008

    Pradeep: Both and neither. The big number one problem is that “white” and “black” are sociological categories. If “black” means “African” then we are truly in absurd-ville because the genetic variation among Africans is way way greater than, say, the genetic variation among Europeans. In fact, if you look at this from a phylogenetic point of view, “Europeans” are mostly either subsets of Africans or hybrids of Africans and “Asians” (and from there it gets complicated)

    If you were doing real science, you would get fired for using such categories as sampling units. But because we sometimes get racist-thinking supporting conclusions (and when we don’t we can ignore the results) then, because we are always (it would appear) are trying to be racists (I guess because it feels good or something) we use them.

  7. #7 toby
    August 23, 2008

    Jamaicans are ancestrally West African, and I think you have to go back to 1972 for a 100m Olympic winner of non-West African descent. In fact, at that games I think the American athletes arrived late at the stadium and missed the race because of some cruel mix-up. Moscow 1984 does not count because of boycotts (I think a Scot won, with a Cuban second.)

    However, why are West African descendants better than the West African themselves? Nigeria produces good sprinters, but there seems to be a correlation with a national tradition of athletics, probably expressed best in a school emphasis on sport. This does fit the Anglo-Saxon school tradition better than the French (which also has many West African colonies & therefore citizens of West African descent, but few sprinting goal medals).

    In long-distance and middle-distance running, there is an almost-similarity. Kenya dominates middle-distance running, and Ethiopia long-distance. Both are elevated countries where the top athletes are optimal at running under oxygen debt. Kenya has a British school sports tradition, and Ethiopia has a powerful local tradition since Abebe Bikele became the first African to win a gold medal (Marathon, 1960).

    Why do we never see Peruvians and Tibetans winning distance races: No facilities, no tradition, no interest.

    Peruvian Indians, descendants of the Incas, have legendary endurance. I read recently that the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Sierra Madre regularly send competitors to super-marathons in the USA, where they show very well. But they are also wildly undsciplined, mixing training with massive beer drinking sprees. They also use beer as refreshment during races. Peruvian Indians chew the coca leaf to improve their endurance at high altitudes, so not much point in bringing them to the Olympics just yet.

    You can notice as well that at track events, Scandinavians excel at javelin and high-jump, Eastern Europe at weights & shot-put, discus etc. It has to do with the raw material of genes first of all, but then there is tradition, coaching, facilities, will & discipline (which you will expend more readily on a sport admired in your culture).

    Not just nature, but nurture too.

  8. #8 pradeep
    August 23, 2008

    Greg, you are right. White and black are sociological distinctions. You will have to forgive me because I don’t have a background in biology. How about if we ask the same questions about the prevalence of fast and slow twitch muscle fibers in caucasians and negroids? Is there enough of genetic variation to give people who draw a majority of their gene from those races an advantage in high speed/low endurance and low speed/high endurance athletic events?

  9. #9 greg laden
    August 23, 2008

    Jamaicans are ancestrally West African

    I think, actually, mostly Central African.

    Pradeep: No, that’s just changing one word for another. Neither of these ideals … which are two of the standard five races into which humans are often divided … makes any sense at all biologically.

  10. #10 Anne Gilbert
    August 23, 2008

    Gargle, gargle, gargle! I’ve heard this claim so(about African runners having some “gene” that makes them superrunners or sportspeople, that is), that it ‘s running out of my ears! As you pointed out, most Kenyans or whatever, in that part of Africa don’t have that particular genetic trait. But of course “we” all know that sub-Saharan Africans aren’t much on brain power, so they must instead, have a lot of ‘muscle” power to make up for it, and therefore, no environmental factors need be considered.
    Anne G

  11. #11 Science Avenger
    August 23, 2008

    “By and large, racial categories are cultural fictions vaguely supported by quirky historical circumstances. On close examination they are not real.”

    By and large, this sort of idealistic-sounding nonsense is a big part of what damages science’s reputation in society writ large. The initial thrust of the argument is sound enough: obviously the black = fast simplistic racist notions are inaccurate, and the racism in the general attitude of attributing black success to genes and white success to hard work is something that still needs a lot of work.

    But the idea that racial categories are not real is a ridiculous notion. Obviously what we think of as races are genetic clusters around a somewhat arbitrary point in the genetic matrix the same way that different species are. To pretend this isn’t so is to sacrifice reality for the sake of political notions of sameness, and that won’t do at all. After all, we couldn’t argue that blacks still face discrimination in our culture if we deny that “black” has objective meaning. We can effectively make the argument that race doesn’t mean nearly what racists would claim it means without going off into La La Land.

  12. #12 greg laden
    August 23, 2008

    Are you making the claim that “black” is a “race”? Or what? Are you making specific claims about the boundaries between the races? What are the races you are claiming exist called, what are their parameters, what are the genetic markers for them, how are the boundaries maintained for more than a century her or a generation there?

    No, I’m afraid that the claim that races are essentially useless categories is not a sociological or political claim denying the science. The claim that such entities exist … or should I say the assumption … is little more than an assertion wanting of supporting evidence.

    Cite something. Let’s have some evidence, not just “bla bla bla” please.

  13. #13 Phil
    August 23, 2008

    What about the swimming gene? Or the diving gene? Is there a racial component to this? Why are people only interested in the gene for sports where white guys used to win but now black guys win? Are we going to have a theory for why the Chinese are so much faster than blacks twenty years from now?

    Check back in twenty years to see.

    Really I’m quite open. There’s evidently a tendency for certain body types around the world which have an advantage in certain sports (small body for gymnasts, tall for basketball). But having been burnt by the racial (genetic) hypothesis of white superiority in sports from the 1800 right up to the 1950s, I’m willing to wait for more data.

  14. #14 Science Avenger
    August 23, 2008

    I am saying that when I point to a group of people in a bar and say “My friend is the black guy over there”, no one with functioning sensory apparatus has any difficulty knowing who I mean, the same way no one has any difficulty determining what I mean when I say “doberman” and “chihuahua”. The idea that this is some sort of deception is frankly, absurd, and the burdon of proof is on those claiming so. Sematic games about boundaries is no more compelling here then it would be in claiming that “green” and “blue” have no meaning simply because I cannot detail exactly where on the color spectrum the two are discerned.

    Really, this is preposterous. It’s as if you are all playing a big game of let’s pretend. Well, the next time you hear someone dismiss science because “there’s book learning and there’s real life”, look no further than this emperor-with-no-clothes idea that it is just some sort of social construction that discrimination against blacks is still a rampant problem in American society. Bla bla bla indeed.

  15. #15 Matt Springer
    August 23, 2008

    I am saying that when I point to a group of people in a bar and say “My friend is the black guy over there”, no one with functioning sensory apparatus has any difficulty knowing who I mean

    I agree. Define black and white however you want – though there’s obviously no sharp boundary, if I show 100 people a picture of Ward Cleaver and George Jefferson, none of them will have problems in classifying them.

    Sure socialization, nurture, and culture affect an athlete’s performance. But biology does too – a white person hasn’t won the 100 meter Olympic event since the Carter administration. I’m not sure, but I don’t think any white person has even run the 100 meters under 10.0 seconds ever. Obviously this has nothing whatsoever to do with any racial “superiority”, just that certain body types can be better at certain physical activities, and those body types can correlate somewhat with what the average person calls race.

  16. #16 Theo Bromine
    August 23, 2008

    Quoth Matt Springer:
    …if I show 100 people a picture of Ward Cleaver and George Jefferson, none of them will have problems in classifying them.

    At those extreme endpoints it is easy to make a distinction. On the other hand, it was only after several months of news stories that I realized that Colin Powell was African American. (Admittedly, I am in Canada, and perhaps our news reports were less likely to report “race” where it was not directly relevant.)

  17. #17 heather sf
    August 24, 2008

    Races such as black and white are obviously “real” as in they have significance as social constructs at this moment in time, particularly here in America.
    I believe what was being pointed out is that it is difficult to find any biological basis for these constructs. As in, there are no discrete catagories of races into which humans can be divided based on measurable differences.
    Skin color? White people and many Asians have the same skin tone. Beyond that, skin color is just a geographically varied trait that doesn’t really correlate with anything else. Even classically “black” disease, like sickle-cell, is not correlated by skin color, but rather by geographical region and is present in the Mediterranean region and parts of India.
    Skin color is like height, it’s a cline. If you go north to south across the globe it’s pretty much an even gradient, which doesn’t really correspond to any other traits. Each population is blended into their neighbors.
    Racial categories are fictitious in a biological sense. Yet obviously it’s different to be black than white in America.
    That there is no biological basis for ‘race’ doesn’t make the social consequences of historical and present-day racism less real.

  18. #18 noniger
    August 24, 2008

    Cuando los negros nadan?

    cuando los negros nadan, los blancos se lanzan a su rescante.

  19. #19 Tony Jeremiah
    August 24, 2008

    When black people run, white people take notice. When black people run fast, white people, alarmed, find naturalistic (= as in animals) explanations. But when a group of white people excel (beach volley ball or gymnastics) personal stories of heroics are used to explain the result. Shame.

    Yes. And it’s interesting how the whole thing reverses when the subject switches to intelligence (i.e., white intelligence = genetic; black intelligence = work hard; white speed = work hard; black speed = genetic).

    So presumably, when one encounters individuals who happen to have above average speed and intelligence (a good portion of Olympic athletes are also university students with above average GPAs–especially track athletes if memory serves), presumably that predicts they should either be biracial or dropped off from the last interstellar spaceship that flew past earth.

  20. #20 greg laden
    August 24, 2008

    no one with functioning sensory apparatus has any difficulty knowing who I mean, the same way no one has any difficulty determining what I mean when I say “doberman” and “chihuahua”. The idea that this is some sort of deception is frankly, absurd,

    wow. and do you also believe in astrology? Seriously. I ask for citations and I get “a black guy and a white guy are sitting in a bar….”

    You and Matt (and others) are using a method to assay the precise allelic makeup of people or populations that has been tried and shown to be truly faulty.

    Matt, you should know better. Go back and read your own posts about what a person who thinks they have a new theory of physics should do. Then go do that with your old theory of race.

  21. #21 Stephanie Z
    August 24, 2008

    Ask Tobias Buckell how easy “race” is to spot.

    http://www.tobiasbuckell.com/2007/08/01/what-does-it-mean-to-be-this-caribbean-writer/

    Do take a good look at all the pictures.

  22. #22 Robert
    August 24, 2008

    I don’t remember Allan Wells being black when he won the Gold Medal 100m in Moscow 1980.

  23. #23 Colugo
    August 24, 2008

    Below the species level groupings (demes, subspecies, races) are often problematical. Actually, even species can be fuzzy (ring species, superspecies etc).

    I think that the word “race” should be retired as a scientific term (note I do not say as a cultural, social, or even legal term – e.g. defining genocide) solely because of its ugly historical and sociological baggage.

    Population clusters, from village-level to continental, have a biological reality (as dynamical statistical entities) as well as social salience. This combination is subjected to the human mind’s tendency for typological thinking, which leads to a lot of problems. Including sloppy and simplistic analysis of group differences.

    A photo gallery of black women and their “white” biological children.

    http://teamsugar.com/gallery/view/751724

  24. #25 ferdinand bardamu
    August 24, 2008

    Since you asked for references, here’s a very nice and highly-cited (~ 300 times in under 6 years) paper by Risch et al. (for what it’s worth, Risch is one of the most highly-respected statistical geneticists around):

    http://genomebiology.com/2002/3/7/comment/2007

    It sets out an ironclad case for the genetic reality of different races and the importance of these categories to biomedical science. There are many, many, other articles making a similar (though, IMO, not as eloquent) case; you need only do a cursory Google Scholar search. Are you unfamiliar with these arguments, or are there specific concerns you have about their validity? (I ask because I don’t see any substantive criticism in the post, just a lot of snark.)

  25. #26 genesgalore
    August 24, 2008

    one gene alone a runner does not make. function follows form.

  26. #27 JimFiore
    August 24, 2008

    It is misleading to compare distance runners to beach volleyball players or swimmers. Why? Because distance running is very high on conditioning but low on technique whereas the other two require very highly refined technique (and that points to proper coaching and facilities). No matter how good your body type and mental conditioning, you will never become a world class swimmer without top coaching and good (i.e. relatively expensive) facilities. The same is not true for distance running. The requisite “facilities” and equipment are minimal.

    While it is true that through history there seem to be pockets of “national/regional” greatness in distance running (such as the Finns of the early-mid 20th century), one cannot deny the utter dominance of a group of men (and more recently, women) from a relatively small area around the horn of Africa. Just look at the top performances in the 3000 meter steeplechase, 5000m, 10000m, half and full marathons, and world cross-country. And it’s not just the peak performances, but the depth as well. The only thing preventing complete dominance are some excellent performances by Moroccans (or former, such as Khalid Khannouchi) and a few outliers from other nations (such as Paula Radcliffe’s stunning marathon record).

    I would certainly not explain this on the dubious concept of race, but I’m not going to rule out some genetic factor (or combination) just yet and say it’s all about culture. Who knows, it may be some odd little thing such as the ratio of tibia to femur length that gives the edge (and which is more prevalent in one population than another). At the limits of human performance, very, very small differences can make all the difference between gold and fourth.

  27. #28 greg laden
    August 24, 2008

    Ferdinand. Don’t be a dork. Yes, I’m familiar with the literature. I am simply not the tutor or baby sitter for individuals who want to clam that something they see before their eyes is an iron clad scientific fact when it is not. Sending people off to get the literature is my way of telling you to do your homework.

    The paper you mention is an important one in the history of this discussion. It makes a plausible but nothing even a tiny bit close to ironclad case that referencing self reported or indirectly indicated ‘ethnicity’ is better than a “race blind” approach in medicine, treating patients, and medical research. This paper has also been effectively criticized. Read more.

    The best this paper can do is to state that there is a suspicion of a genetically important factor that can be estimated by racial identity in some cases, but the only evidence … in fact the key model … proposed (by inference) to support this is what I snarkily referred to above. SES and race both have an effect, and sometimes race has a stronger effect, thus, race = more “alotness” in the data an thus race = genetic.

    The same exact data patterns can be explained if we introduce on more concept: Racism. If race begets racism, which is a reasonable hypothesis, then that can in turn interact with SES and other variables to produce medically visible results.

    Send more references/citations. Not good enough yet.

  28. #29 Tony Jeremiah
    August 24, 2008

    If race begets racism, which is a reasonable hypothesis, then that can in turn interact with SES and other variables to produce medically visible results

    From my cursory knowledge of recent work in biology and genetics, this is in line with contemporary thinking (i.e., epigenetics). This is especially in light of completion of the human genome project, which indicates that humans have far less genes (~20,000; about the same as the worm, c. elegans) than previously predicted (~100,000), consistent with the more general idea that genome variability alone cannot account for phenotypic variability. And in watching a NOVA program on epigenetics a few days ago, it was particularly interesting that phenotypic variability in identical twins (who share identical genomes) have been identified as a consequence of epigenomic variability (e.g., variations in DNA methylation and histone patterns, if I’m recalling those terms correctly), which are primarily due to differential experiences with the environment.

    Even more interesting, is transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, which suggests that the experiences of ones’ parents can be inherited. Even though a contemporary idea, it’s not a new one ( inheritance of acquired characteristics).

  29. #30 Matt Springer
    August 24, 2008

    Matt, you should know better. Go back and read your own posts about what a person who thinks they have a new theory of physics should do. Then go do that with your old theory of race.

    Heh, well, I don’t have a theory on race. The concept is way outside both my field and the way I think about things. We’re all people, after all.

    What I’m getting at is that when I watch short-distance Olympic sprinting, the dudes with high albedo rarely win. And by “rarely” I mean “never”. Why? I have no idea, much less a theory. Surely your sociological explanation plays a part, but shouldn’t there be an occasional high-reflectivity guy raised in similar conditions?

  30. #31 greg laden
    August 24, 2008

    Matt: The vast majority of people on this planet are non-white, so it is actually rather surprising to see the number of whites that win anything. Gotta get the null model working first!

    Regarding your point about conditions: No, zero white people are raised under the conditions of being a black person. Well, there was Bill Clinton and probably a few other cases, but they are very rare .

  31. #32 ferdinand bardamu
    August 24, 2008

    The paper you mention is an important one in the history of this discussion. It makes a plausible but nothing even a tiny bit close to ironclad case that referencing self reported or indirectly indicated ‘ethnicity’ is better than a “race blind” approach in medicine, treating patients, and medical research.

    Nice equivocation. Note that your original claim wasn’t the rather weak one that using ethnicity is better than ignoring race in biomedical settings. What you said was this:

    On one hand, everyone knows that the differences between humans that are often categorized as “racial traits” are either overstated or irrelevant. All humans have essentially the same basic potentials, and the genetic differences that do exist between people are not sorted out by the usual racial categories.

    This article and many others like it provide strong evidence that genetic differences between populations are sorted out by racial categories. Now, personally, I also think they make a very strong case that the use of racial categories is extremely beneficial to biomedical science. But whether or not you agree with that claim, it’s clearly absurd to suggest, as you did to pradeep above, that:

    If you were doing real science, you would get fired for using such categories as sampling units.

    Really? So the large number of population genetics and pharmacological studies that do use racial categories as sampling units aren’t doing real science? What, pray tell, defines real science? Refusal to use sampling units you find personally offensive?

    This paper has also been effectively criticized. Read more.

    I don’t doubt that it has; that’s how science works. Would you care to provide me with the references you have in mind? I went out of my way to oblige your request for references; presumably you’ll do the same for me.

    The best this paper can do is to state that there is a suspicion of a genetically important factor that can be estimated by racial identity in some cases, but the only evidence … in fact the key model … proposed (by inference) to support this is what I snarkily referred to above. SES and race both have an effect, and sometimes race has a stronger effect, thus, race = more “alotness” in the data an thus race = genetic.

    No, that’s not at all what this paper says. Your interpretation is so way off-base it makes me question whether you’ve even read and understood it. What the paper does say, and what dozens of other studies have repeatedly shown, is that human populations naturally cluster into distinct genetic groups that closely mirror conventional racial group designations. To put the point in the perspective for you, you can select a relatively small number (20-30, in many cases) of genetic markers from literally hundreds of thousands if not millions and be able to discriminate almost perfectly between different racial groups. In other words, when one person says “I’m Caucasian” and another says “I’m African-American”, these are not convenient fictions we’ve invented; they can be easily validated in nearly all cases by relatively simple genetic analyses. Note that you would not be able to similarly validate other ways of carving up the population. For example, you’re not going to be able to find markers that cleanly distinguish people who like gardening from people who hate gardening.

    The same exact data patterns can be explained if we introduce on more concept: Racism. If race begets racism, which is a reasonable hypothesis, then that can in turn interact with SES and other variables to produce medically visible results.

    Notice I have not said anything about “medically visible” results. What I’m taking issue with is your assertion that “the genetic differences that do exist between people are not sorted out by the usual racial categories”. SES or racism cannot in any way explain these results. How, pray tell, could they explain the fact that over a dozen large-sample studies conducted with both cross-continental and US samples all replicate the same broad population structure? Are you saying that if I look at 100 markers on the genomes of 200 Africans, 200 Caucasians, 200 Asians, and 200 Pacific Islanders, SES is influencing my genotyping results? Does being poor alter gene expression? Really? (Of course, it’s not even just being poor; it would have to be being poor in absolute terms, because what defines SES in Pacific Islander populations is very different from what defines it in Western Europe.)

    Now, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that “medically visible” differences between populations could potentially reflect population stratification to some extent, in some cases. But that’s an empirical question, not one to be asserted by fiat. If you’d read the paper I cited, you would have seen the section addressing precisely this concern, and noting that there have been a number of high-profile studies that have controlled for a broad host of potential confounds and still detected strong residual effects of genotype. But that, at least, is something you can debate reasonably. The basic assertion you make, that there’s no meaningful genetic basis for race, is not.

    Of course, if you have any substantive criticisms, I would love to hear them. But please don’t tell me to “go read more”; I’ve taken enough time out of my day to write a point-by-point reply to your comments. Presumably you can show me the same courtesy.

  32. #33 Science Avengers
    August 24, 2008

    “wow. and do you also believe in astrology? Seriously. I ask for citations and I get ‘a black guy and a white guy are sitting in a bar….'”

    Funny, I was going to ask you if you call handicapped people “differently abled” and deny that there is any difference between them and “normal” people. And no, I don’t believe in astrology, because when astrologers are given the same sort of double blind test I mentioned (and you dishonestly misrepresented) above, they fail. On the other hand, you take 10 natives (ie born there) of Norway and stand them next to 10 natives of Nigeria and I and practically everyone reading this can discern who is who to a statistically significant level. So obviously there is something objectively there that we are noticing. If you don’t like the term “race” to describe this, fine, come up with another term, but it won’t change reality.

    “You and Matt (and others) are using a method to assay the precise allelic makeup of people or populations that has been tried and shown to be truly faulty.”

    You are bloviating out your Butteville. We are talking about an identification system that works accurately for people all over the world. That it offends your political sensibilities is irrelevant. No one is talking about precise allelic makeup or static groups. That’s in the same school of dishonest rhetoric as creationists who demand I give them a step-by-step evolutionary path for everything. That you consistently do this with me, and Matt, and anyone else that hasn’t bought the myth of the Emperor’s clothes speaks volumes as to how much science you have behind you.

  33. #34 Science Avenger
    August 24, 2008

    Jim hit the nail on the head with regard to sports performance. At the highest levels, the tiniest genetic difference in bone structure or muscle mass can make the difference between a gold medal and a 9th place finish. As a guy built like a wrestler who futily attempted to compete in cross country with guys built for running (much longer legs and lower muscle mass), I can personally attest to the limits of superior training in the face of formidable genetic advantages.

    I notice no one has explained why the 100 meter dash (or my favorite, the position of NFL cornerback) is completely dominated by one r…, general genetic group, if there are no group genetic adv…, differences in mean ability. The reason is simple: they can’t do so within their political and social ideals, so they take the only path left to them: claim those groups we see really aren’t there. Such data-free positions do more to harm the cause of science credibility than all the creationists put together.

  34. #35 Stephanie Z
    August 24, 2008

    Science Avenger, you went and looked at Toby, right? You were able to clearly identify his race? You want to look at me and tell me what part of my physical heritage comes from my Swedish ancestors and what part comes from my Native American ancestors?

    If you can’t do that, would you care to explain exactly what it is that your “identification system that works accurately for people all over the world” identifies? You say you’re not talking about precise genetic makeup, yet you’re telling me that your identification system separates out people who completely dominate a particular activity. Would you care to explain, then, the mechanism by which identity is translated into domination?

  35. #36 Stephanie Z
    August 24, 2008

    Ferdinand, reading just the abstract of the Wilson paper that supplies most of the data for the article you cite above, one finds this:

    We find that commonly used ethnic labels are both insufficient and inaccurate representations of the inferred genetic clusters, and that drug-metabolizing profiles, defined by the distribution of DME variants, differ significantly among the clusters. We note, however, that the complexity of human demographic history means that there is no obvious natural clustering scheme, nor an obvious appropriate degree of resolution.

    That is hardly support for an “ironclad case for the genetic reality of different races.”

  36. #37 ferdinand bardamu
    August 24, 2008

    Ferdinand, reading just the abstract of the Wilson paper that supplies most of the data for the article you cite above, one finds this:

    That is hardly support for an “ironclad case for the genetic reality of different races.”

    Stephanie, that paper does not “supply most of the data” for the Risch et al article. It’s only one of many articles cited in support of the same conclusion. And please note that the Wilson article is taken as the main target of criticism throughout the article. The point you raise is explicitly discussed by Risch et al. They nicely point out that Wilson et al’s own data undermine their case. Please read the article thoroughly.

  37. #38 Bob
    August 24, 2008

    I must be psychic – I’m most of the way through Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. It’s sad to see another instance of “the science offends my politics so the science must be wrong.” Understanding and acknowledging how genetic differences play out among ethnic or cultural groups is not the same as politically, socially, or economically oppressing them nor is oppression an inevitable outcome of the research.

    Maybe there’s a simpler answer to your question:
    When athletes run fast, an activity that all legged animals engage in, people find naturalistic explanations. But when a group athletes excel in human-specific activities (beach volley ball or gymnastics) personal stories of heroics are used to explain the result.

    Sure, this falls apart when comparing gymnasts to brachiates (specifically, the uneven parallel bars), but it’s simpler and less nefarious. I still think it’s wrong. Sorry for distilling out the “shame on whitey” vitriol; it wasn’t helping.

    It might also be that runners, gymnasts, and beach volleyballers train differently.

    Running is a comparatively simpler task than gymnastics and if there are genetic advantages, I’d expect them to play more of a part in a simpler activity than in a more complex one.

    Also, sports journalism has not had the best track record in terms of racial sensitivity, pardon the pun. I’m not sure how accurate it is to blame this on white people in general.

    Also, I’d like to know how non-white people answer the genetics/heroics question. Would we be having the same conversation if people considered running fast a badge of genetic pride?

    At the risk of making the understatement of the year, there is still a lot we don’t know about human genetics, still less is know about evolutionary psychology. To claim that there isn’t a link between genetics and race, performance, or behavior is ignorant (and I mean that in the best way, not as a pejorative) – we just don’t know. But to imply that we shouldn’t know because of centuries of racism, sexism, and all other -phobias and -isms is just as damaging as promoting our biases as science.

    Believe me, I don’t like playing down racism. The four years I spent in Louisiana convinced me it’s a deep and complex issue and it’s not to be trivialized. I don’t think it’s helpful to paint such a simplistic, content-free view of racism.

  38. #39 JimFiore
    August 24, 2008

    Greg, you might wish to check out my take on this:
    http://scienceblogs.com/bushwells/2008/08/maybe_running_far_and_fast_is.php

  39. #40 Matt Springer
    August 24, 2008

    Regarding your point about conditions: No, zero white people are raised under the conditions of being a black person.

    Ah, but that’s not what you said. You you were directly talking about physical conditions in your post, attacking the position: “The fact that almost all African elite long distance runners were born and raised one or more miles above sea level and thus developed tremendous lung capacity is no longer as important.”

    But then where’s all the highly reflective 100-meter winners from high-altitude Denver? Heck, why has no highly reflective person from any cultural background or geographical location managed to run 100 meters in less that 10 seconds?

  40. #41 Tony Jeremiah
    August 24, 2008

    you take 10 natives (ie born there) of Norway and stand them next to 10 natives of Nigeria and I and practically everyone reading this can discern who is who to a statistically significant level

    I think this example explicitly epitomizes what is the talking past each other point concerning the existence vs. non-existence of race. On an everyday level, most people probably conceptualize race in terms of (probably average) morphological differences in the socially constructed racial categories (e.g., white, black, non-hispanic black, asian, native american) via skin color, facial features, hair color, hair type, height, and somatotype (I’m guessing forensic science is at a point where it’s possible to guess the racial origins of skeletal remains, much like it can be done for gender).

    At a genetic level, though, one wonders whether such racial distinctions are possible. It seems possible if we are refering to identification of phenotypes controlled by a limited number of genes and/or known to involve Mendelian inheritance (e.g., morphological differences that are easily noticed). But when it comes to traits that are likely polygenic and more susceptible to environmental influence (e.g., personality and intelligence), presumably it would be much more difficult to make racial distinctions at a genetic level based on these more complex traits. Also, I don’t believe there’s any research showing that the genes that control morphological traits are the same ones controlling sociological/psychological traits (e.g., that the genes for melanin or speed are also somehow controlling the more complex traits,independently from the environment).

    Additionally, there are differences between races (defined in terms of average morphological differences) that ironically, weaken the notion of race even from a morphological standpoint. As examples:

    Blacks: Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Australia (Aboriginies)
    Whites: Italy, Ireland, Norway, Germany
    Asians: China, Japan, Korea
    Indian: India, U.S./Canada (Native Americans)
    Hispanic: Mexico, Venezuela

    Perhaps it’s just me, but it seems when you break the usual racial categories down into ethnic origins (as defined in terms of the mean morphological characteristics of persons occupying the countries listed above as examples), one can probably make a good guesstimate of what country various persons are from (assuming no own-race bias) based on mean morphological features.

    I suspect the idea of race is a residual effect of the own race (facial) bias in psychology, in which persons of races (defined by mean morphological characteristics) different from ones’ own, are perceived as looking all the same, whereas people of one’s own race are perceived as being more diverse.

    So it’s probably not a far cry from assuming that the color of one’s skin, dictates the content of one’s character and then invoking a long history of environmental and social conditions based on such assumptions.

  41. #42 Tony Jeremiah
    August 24, 2008

    Heck, why has no highly reflective person from any cultural background or geographical location managed to run 100 meters in less that 10 seconds?

    Assuming there’s data on that, it probably has something to do with nervous system wiring. Thinking (originating from the frontal lobes) works against you in a sport requiring brainstem (e.g., cerbellum) activation, which contains all of the automatically activated motor skills associated with running quickly and for which have become automated through training. If you think too much in the context of a sporting skill that’s become automated, it’s commonly called paralysis by analysis and/or choking in the sporting world. The same logic applies for doctors working an emergency room, for which slow, reflective diagnosis as to what might be wrong with a patient is not conducive to patient survival.

    Probably would have better luck in finding distance runners with reflective inclinations.

  42. #43 greg laden
    August 24, 2008

    Matt: What, you expect me to read every post I write? Jeesh…

    Obviously, the relevant information here is not confined to this one post, which actually has only a partial link to the issue being brought up regarding the Jamaicans. As I say in the beginning, I did not have time (and this remains true for a few days) to respond to the discussion about Jamaicans and their running genes, so I put this post up as food for thought.

    What I was responding to was the unspoken comment … that self identified African Americans (in the US, obviously) are part … these days … of s sub group that has a several hundred percent greater chance of looking at and trying for sports, compared to whites (these days) which makes this self identified group over represented in that area if all else was equal. Thus, assumptions tha tall else is not equal based on folkore about genetics and wishful thinking is not necessary.

    Tony. Interesting point . That would also, by the way, totally rule out any kind of contribution from allelic variation across populations, demes, races, or whatever. (Because of the way neurons work…)

  43. #44 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 24, 2008

    Interesting and important blog thread.

    60 or so students in an urban school in greater Los Angeles started at me, white boy, in puzzlement when I came in a substitute teacher for their class in Black History. I managed to convince some of them that, as a published Mathematical Biologist, I would prove that there is no such thing as “race.” You hit the nail on the head, with the fact that individual genetype and phenotype variation WITHIN any fictitious so-called racial group is greater than the variation BETWEEN groups.

    The muscle-related genes are interesting. As are others associated with heart and lung development.

    “Race horses and humans run somewhat under one order of magnitude difference in speed, and way more than one order of magnitude difference in endurance” — my understanding is that Native Americans would catch, to tame, wild horses by running after them day and night until the horses could run no more and the humans could. Wish I could give a citation. So the duration issue matters more in that sense than the velocity issue.

    Olympic sports do tell us something about the upper limits of human performance. That matters as much to me as the Nobel prizes, Field medals, Pulitzer prizes, and other judged events of human capability on the high tail of the distribution. Likewise, Archimedes, Mozart, Shakespeare, Gauss, Euler, Chaucer, Darwin, Ramanujan, Einstein, Milton, Erdos, Asimov, Feynman, Hawking… 3 of whom I knew personally. I am so proud of my race. The Human Race.

  44. #45 Stephanie Z
    August 24, 2008

    But then where’s all the highly reflective 100-meter winners from high-altitude Denver? Heck, why has no highly reflective person from any cultural background or geographical location managed to run 100 meters in less that 10 seconds?

    Maybe they’re skiing. Skiing is sexy in Denver. Sprinting? Not so much. In fact, track and field just isn’t that sexy in the US. Where I live, if you’re a kid with fast reflexes who moves quickly and powerfully for short distances, you play hockey. You don’t go outside and just run under the sun.

    Unless you’re, uh, highly absorbent(?). If you’re brown, you notice that all the kids on the ice are white. In that case, you might look around to see what the people who both move like you and look like you are doing. Hey! They’re running track! Some of them are even winning stuff for it and being highly valued for their talents.

    I wonder why that would be more appealing than fighting to get onto the ice.

  45. #46 Jessica
    August 24, 2008

    No one is debating how slim the biological differences are between human to human- no one, its just a basic fact. But just because we’re desperately trying to cleanse ourselves of racism doesn’t mean the search for differences shouldn’t continue. Its beautiful, wonderful, and provides a strong context to evolution. I’m white (or pink would be more honest), lived in Jamaica for a couple of years and developed skin cancer by the age of 8(melanoma, UV damage caused). It was hot, and culturally, Jamaica is kinda an “out doors place”- I was screwed. Skin color is so well understood in terms of biological need, yet it seems trivial now. Of course skin color has NOTHING to do with physical performance, but to imply that unique environments do not favor certain traits seems…a little much for me. Cultural differences are overwhelmingly favored to be the main culprits of �athletic division�, Funding, facilities, cultural incentive, blah blah- its so obvious. But just because 90% of its cultural doesn�t mean you have to go a crusade against the very probable 10%. Nurture through nature- maybe I missed your point, do you want these “racially based” studies to stop because you’re already convinced they’re moot, or do you think the discussion simply can not be had in any educated sense?

  46. #47 Tony Jeremiah
    August 24, 2008

    Tony. Interesting point. That would also, by the way, totally rule out any kind of contribution from allelic variation across populations, demes, races, or whatever. (Because of the way neurons work…)

    That’s true for the most part. Which is why I think that if any differences exist among racial groups, it’s probably not due to alleles. Rather, the differences are likely epigenetic, and by that I mean the influence of the environment on bodily functioning, such as the impact of the social environment on synaptogenesis and synaptic pruning early in development (refered to as experience-expectant and experience-dependent brain growth).

    A good analogy would be something along the lines of thinking of the body as an instrument like a piano. The keys are genes, individual notes represent proteins, particular songs represent complex phenotypes, types of songs played represent epigenetic effects, and individual piano players represent particular environmental/contextual influences.

    There’s some interesting research linking the cerebellum with higher cognitive processes, which partially connects to the above analogy.

  47. #48 windy
    August 25, 2008

    “The slow ones have the fast genes.”

    Wrong. The results from the study you quoted you quoted are in line with the stereotype (West Africans have a lower frequency of the null allele as would be expected from a “fast” group):

    frequency of the 577XX null genotype is LOWER IN SPRINTING AND POWER ATHLETES and HIGHER IN ENDURANCE ATHLETES.

    A much better criticism of the “Jamaican genes” claim is here. It points out that the genes are highly correlated with individual athletic success but not so much with the number of elite athletes coming from each nation.

  48. #49 Greg Laden
    August 25, 2008

    Again, this is not a critique of the Jamaican fast runners.

    Oh, and Matt: I should have mentioned. The counter example IS in the post I wrote. The person depicted is an elite African runner.

  49. #50 Carter
    August 25, 2008

    It’s amazing how everyone, everywhere evolved to be exactly the same (except for “trivial” differences, of course). What are the odds of that?

    “When black people run fast, white people, alarmed”

    Who are these “alarmed” white people? You seem to be the only person who finds the running results alarming.

  50. #51 Stephanie Z
    August 25, 2008

    Actually, Carter, you’ve got it exactly backward. People are very different in many ways. So much so that it’s very hard to say anything meaningful (as opposed to trivial) about them once you start lumping them into groups.

  51. #52 Nada platonico
    August 25, 2008

    There seem to be a few misconceptions about running and training. One is Matt Springer’s point “”The fact that almost all African elite long distance runners were born and raised one or more miles above sea level and thus developed tremendous lung capacity is no longer as important.”

    But then where’s all the highly reflective 100-meter winners from high-altitude Denver? Heck, why has no highly reflective person from any cultural background or geographical location managed to run 100 meters in less that 10 seconds?”

    The advantage to high altitude training is debatable: a person produces more of a certain blood cell (red?) in response to being at altitude, but on the other hand people can’t train as hard because they’re at altitude.

    Former collegiate runners have told me that the advantage is not training at altitude but from sleeping (I think they may mean living generally) at altitude.

    And it doesn’t seem to help sprinters. But sprinters have an advantage running at altitude (less air resistance, I’m guessing) — world marks in the 200m and 400m set at altitude stood for a long time (1968’s 400m record for nearly 20 years), and the 200m record set by an Italian runner in 1979 wasn’t broken until Michael Johnson broke it — twice — in 1996, first at the Olympic Trials (one record run was wiped out by too much wind, if I remember correctly), and then it was smashed at the Olympic Games.

    People have noted that training is a key component, and it is. It is relatively cheap to promote running than it is to promote soccer teams — Kenyans apparently love soccer, but aren’t good at it. Growing up playing soccer is tremendous training for middle distances and longer (800m, 1500m-mile, maybe even 5000m) — maybe that’s why Europeans once dominated the middle distances (the records set by British runners in the early 1980s in the 800m have only been topped by one man: Wilson Kipketer (Kenyan by birth, has lived in Denmark for some time and broke the world record as a Dane). An interesting aside — he doesn’t have an Olympic Gold medal.

    The fastest time in both the 1500m and the mile last year? Alan Webb. He didn’t win the World Championship last year (I think he finished 7th). He didn’t even make the US Olympic team this year (finished 4th or 5th at the trials).

    Kipketer has world championships in the 800m but no Olympic medal. Webb has just the American record in the mile (set last year) but no world championship (or even a top three finish) or an Olympic medal. Also, this year’s Olympic gold in the men’s marathon was Kenya’s first. Tactics and training have a lot to do with how one does in these meets (especially when it involves several heats in a few days, like in the 800m and the 1500m especially).

    Bernard Lagat didn’t advance to the final in the 1500m — his legs gave out. Jeremy Wariner — the top sprinter in the 400m the past few years — said the same thing about his legs and what happened the second half of his race.

    Also, look at the marathon world best progression (since it’s not run on the track, the “record” in the marathon is technically a “world’s best”): an African first set the record in 1960, then it was broken by a Japanese runner, European runners, an Ethiopian, then another Japanese runner, then several European runners, before being broken again by an African, then a Brazilian, and then African runners since 1999. From 1965 to 1988, the world record was held by someone who was not African.

    On the women’s side in the marathon, only two African women have ever held the record (one of them broke her own record), and the record is currently held by a British woman (Paula Radcliffe).

    Considering this tendency of the records — and the absolute paucity of African women on the marathon record list — I have to wonder that if there’s a genetic tendency, why doesn’t it cross male-female lines?

    This comment is already way too long (sorry) but I should also point out that at the middle distances, Russian women have dominated recently (not evident at these Olympics, though).

    Also, how much of the “myth of race” regarding sports is psychological? If I think the person next to me has an innate advantage, then I might already by psyching myself out and giving that person an advantage.

    Again, sorry for the long post; I hope my contributions justify it.

  52. #53 Tony Jeremiah
    August 25, 2008

    The frequency of the 577X null allele differs between human groups: it is approx 10% in Africans but approaches 50% in Eurasian populations. Two independent studies have reported associations between R577X and elite athlete status; the frequency of the 577XX null genotype is lower in sprinting and power athletes and higher in endurance athletes.

    A few comments:

    (1a) Male (and to a lesser extent), female athletes of African descent hold the world record for every event from 100M to the marathon. This world record dominance is less so for the jumps (e.g., Jonathan Edwards, a non-African holds the world record for triple jump which is over a decade old); and throws (e.g., no African athlete holds the world record for throwing events).

    (1b) So if we assume the 577X null gene is responsible for world record running performances, it should predict that African dominance in running is associated with a low frequency of the 577x gene in African sprinters (relative to non-African populations), and a higher frequency of the 577x gene in African endurance runners (relative to non-African populations). So something does not quite match up as it concerns the 10% vs. 50% difference in the frequency of the allele among racial groups, and the performance of sprinters and endurance athletes from various racial groups (on average).

    The R577X polymorphism is associated with elite athlete status and human muscle performance, suggesting that alpha-actinin-3 deficiency influences the function of fast muscle fibers. Here we show that loss of alpha-actinin-3 expression in a knockout mouse model results in a shift in muscle metabolism toward the more efficient aerobic pathway and an increase in intrinsic endurance performance.

    There’s something incomplete about these sentences that make me question the veracity. From a physiological standpoint, sprinting (i.e., 100M) taps into a wholely different biological system than distance running (e.g., marathon). The former is anaerobic and heavily dependent on the musculoskeletal system; the latter is aerobic and heavily dependent on the cardiovascular system. For the sentences to make sense, it would probably have to be true that the 577X polymorphism controls both the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems (which seems questionable). Muscle physiologists also note that there are two types of fast twich fibers (slow and fast fatigue; which likely distinguish a good 100M runner from a good 400M runner), that are probably influenced by training. Of course it could be that somehow the polymorphisms arise while training (which seems ridiculous).

  53. #54 AMac
    August 25, 2008

    Of note is that the blogger cited by “Windy” at 12:46pm (here) was the first author of one of the most important journal articles on the phenotype of the ACTN3 gene in humans.

    As far as the fantastic belief that our eyes are lyin’ (again) and race has no meaning beyond that of a Social Construct, here is a recent blog post that provides links to Lao et al.’s August 2008 paper “Correlation between Genetic and Geographic Structure in Europe,” as well as to additional informed commentary. It seems that standard race-denialist dogma becomes less tenable with each additional publication.

    Here are some interesting graphs and commentary, looking at ethnicity and world-record times in footraces of various lengths, from 100m to marathon.

  54. #55 windy
    August 25, 2008

    Again, this is not a critique of the Jamaican fast runners.

    Even so, there is still a misconception in the original post. Since the study only compared West Africans, Europeans and Asians, the result is in accordance with the stereotypes about these populations (West Africans have more sprinters, Europeans have more endurance runners). So your conclusion “The slow ones have the fast genes.” is WRONG. African long distance runners don’t have anything to do with this study, since they’re mostly from East Africa; I bet not even Philip Rushton thinks that all Africans are born long distance runners.

    There is another study which has looked into East Africans and does not find the expected “endurance” gene in higher frequencies than usual. That would be a much better counterexample, right now the post falls flat if you actually bother to look at the result.

  55. #56 Greg Laden
    August 25, 2008

    I bet not even Philip Rushton thinks that all Africans are born long distance runners.

    I’ll take that bet in a second. Shall I call him or will you?

  56. #57 windy
    August 25, 2008

    Sure, call him if you want – does this mean that you admit your error about the slow and fast genes?

    (If you actually call Rushton I’ll buy you a beer either way, but it might be a while getting to you ;)

  57. #58 Greg Laden
    August 25, 2008

    Windy, I have not made an error, so there is nothing to admit. I have no position on slow vs. fast genes.

    I’ll let you know how the call goes!

  58. #59 eric henderson
    August 27, 2008

    I have worked directly with Jamaican sprinters (particularly MVP Track Club – Kingston) and experienced their training regimens.

    I appreciate this discussion – one of the few that seem to be argued from some integrity, i.e. willingness by either side to admit shortcomings of research or argument.

    Still, I’m a layman, and thus,my take on this is, of course, not a scientific one, but I will comment on what looks like a big failing of science. It happened with the marathoners as well.

    If you want to be true to scientific method, then valid experiments must be run, not just analyses of genes compared to these results. Some American runners went to train with the Kenyans a while back and found out that they were woefully short on miles. During the press conferences with Bolt, it was brought up as an anomaly that he trains (as many Jamaican sprinters do) on grass for a major portion of his strength-building programme.

    My point. I have not seen any situation where comparisons have been made with frequent tests including control groups. Further, how do you account for the stated differences in coaching. e.g. Does gene power consistently exceed or lag behind coaching benefits?

    Now, even if you could study it, I can only imagine how long it would take to come to agreement on the weighting of factors, and that very process itself would make any result contentious.

    So much work to do from a simple logic standpoint that leave these discussions wanting. The danger is what you see written by serious reporters, grafting science into their explanations, explanations picked up by laymen and then carried as fact into culture – with real ramifications… I’ve listed some of those explanations here:
    http://tinyurl.com/jamaica-fast-twitch

    We should study, but not try to cajole conclusions, especially when we know they have such weighted political-racial implications.

    Thanks for the discussion.

  59. #60 Ken Hirsch
    August 28, 2008

    If you haven’t called Rushton yet, I’d recommend e-mailing him instead–his address is on his web site. Otherwise I’d be really skeptical of what you report. He may think you’re asking if Africans are, on average, better runners than non-Africans, which is quite possibly true, whereas what is stated above is whether “all Africans are born long distance runners”, emphasis mine, which is certainly false.

    Precision of language is important in these questions and it’s very difficult to achieve in a phone conversation. Even in your blog post and comments you make comments that I cannot understand as being true in any reasonable interpretation. For example “All humans have essentially the same basic potentials.” What could you possibly mean by that this is believable?

    Or: “That would also, by the way, totally rule out any kind of contribution from allelic variation across populations, demes, races, or whatever. (Because of the way neurons work…)” Huh?

    And you claim “I have no position on slow vs. fast genes,” even though originally you said “The slow ones have the fast genes.” It appears to me that you’re just embarrassed to admit that you got the interpretation of the results backwards, but the alternative is that your original post didn’t mean what all the commentators here think it means.

  60. #61 Bernard
    December 2, 2008

    The big number one problem is that “white” and “black” are sociological categories – Greg laden

    Greg, if I want read irrelevant sociological mumbo-jumbo, there are already a million other sites doing that. Why do you need to join them?

  61. #62 Stephanie Z
    December 2, 2008

    Because, Bernard, as long as you keep calling it mumbo-jumbo, it’s obviously not sinking in. Any other silly questions?

  62. #63 Bernard
    December 2, 2008

    Steph – its sociological mumbo-jumbo because the sole purpose of blogging like this seems to be to ‘prove’ there is no such thing as race.

    Everybody is the same.

    Check.

    Everybody has the same innate abilities.

    Check.

    Not everybody, specifically not every group, on average, has the same outcomes.

    Sound the alarm!

    Since the likes of Greg have ‘proved’ race is a social construct the poorer outcomes of some groups must have a sociological basis. And what could be the cause? Why white racism of course!

    Im interested to know how you explain the success of a group like the Jews in white societies. Apparently subject to anti-semitism they still succeed, academically, economically & politically.

    As their existence is merely a sociological artifact you cant ascribe their success to any innate qualities such as IQ, after all they can’t be more intelligent than anyone else.

    Neither can you ascribe their success to a separate culture, havent we all got the same culture?

    Finally you cant allow for the idea that they might co-operate to advance at the expense of the majority. That would make you an antisemitic conspiracy theorist.

    So your explanation is…?

  63. #64 Stephanie Z
    December 2, 2008

    Bernie, child, in short, simple words: No, we don’t all have the same culture.

  64. #65 Heraclides
    August 20, 2009

    @7 (toby); regards woman’s shot put, the current 2x world champion is a New Zealander. There’s an element of “nurture” to her success, too. (Full story is a bit long-winded for here.)

    Part of the thing is starting your specific sport at a very young age, too, so that these people are essentially “bred” as an athlete. Somewhere in the mix we should be adding coaches. After all, they tend to deal with athletes within one local area, etc.

    @22: There was a boycott that year, many countries didn’t attend.

    @27 (JimFiore): Another thing that you’ve raised by implication is local competition, local environment again. I always think of Coe and Ovett when I think of local competitors.

  65. #66 qzz
    August 21, 2009

    Below the species level groupings (demes, subspecies, races) are often problematical. Actually, even species can be fuzzy (ring species, superspecies etc).

    I think that the word “race” should be retired as a scientific term (note I do not say as a cultural, social, or even legal term – e.g. defining genocide) solely because of its ugly historical and sociological baggage.

    Population clusters, from village-level to continental, have a biological reality (as dynamical statistical entities) as well as social salience. This combination is subjected to the human mind’s tendency for typological thinking, which leads to a lot of problems. Including sloppy and simplistic analysis of group differences.

    Hey! Someone saying something sensible. Good work. The way Greg Laden et al come across is that they’re denying even the existence of population clusters as dynamical statistical entities.

    It’s useful to note that for most of the questions about whether genetics is playing a role in differences between population groups, ‘race’ in the sense Greg Laden defines it doesn’t have to be a rigorously-definable concept. Generally, most proposed genetic explanations for differences between different populations require only the dynamic statistical entities that are population clusters exist. (Note that I am not saying that this implies than any particular proposed explanation based on genetic differences is therefore correct, only that when people propose that, for example, the reason one kind of running is dominated by people with ancestors from one region, you don’t need any vaguely discrete variable corresponding to ‘race’ to be well-defined at all, and you don’t need there to be some genetic trait common to all people with ancestors hailing from the area so that you could unambiguously assign ‘race’ to them.)

    I also note the point made earlier, that genetic variation among Africans is greater than among Europeans. This could (note: I’m not suggesting it *does*, I mean ‘could’ in the sense of ‘one could speculate idly’ or ‘is consistent with’, not ‘therefore there is something in it’) provide a genetic basis for the fact that Africans dominate in running: if there’s greater genetic variation among Africans then you would in fact expect that the people at the high end of the genetically-based-aptitude-to-be-a-good-runner (after all, I assume that _some_ genetic luck is necessary to be a world-class runner, whether or not genetic differences play a role in differences between representations in populations at the top level) distribution should be predominantly African.

  66. #67 Greg Laden
    August 21, 2009

    ‘race’ in the sense Greg Laden defines it doesn’t have to be a rigorously-definable concept. Generally, most proposed genetic explanations for differences between different populations require only the dynamic statistical entities that are population clusters exist.

    That is true, and that is what is generally meant in a scientific setting, but the fact that this is true has almost no effect whatsoever on the day to day playing out of racist thinking and action.

    What you need to understand is that it is not sufficient for scientists to pretend that racism goes away or is invalidated if science takes an accurate view of the dynamics of gene flow. It just isn’t realistic, and in fact, it is rather counter productive (and even racist) to maintain that very incorrect and ineffective view of how society and culture works.

    I’m not sure why you need to insist that genetics explains running data better than almost everyone on the entire continent living at betweeen one and three km above sea level. It concerns me that you move aside an obvious hypothesis (more than a hypothesis, really) while continuing to seek the racialized explanation. Why do you need to do that?

  67. #68 Goodok
    December 8, 2009

    The combined impact of metabolic gene polymorphisms on elite endurance athlete status and related phenotypes

    http://www.springerlink.com/content/y0503p6747715906/

    Endurance performance is a complex phenotype subject to the influence of both environmental and genetic factors. Although the last decade has seen a variety of specific genetic factors proposed, many in metabolic pathways, each is likely to make a limited contribution to an ‘elite’ phenotype: it seems more likely that such status depends on the simultaneous presence of multiple such variants. The aim of the study was to investigate individually and in combination the association of common metabolic gene polymorphisms with endurance athlete status, the proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibers and maximal oxygen consumption. A total of 1,423 Russian athletes and 1,132 controls were genotyped for 15 gene polymorphisms, of which most were previously reported to be associated with athlete status or related intermediate phenotypes. Muscle fiber composition of m. vastus lateralis in 45 healthy men was determined by immunohistochemistry. Maximal oxygen consumption of 50 male rowers of national competitive standard was determined during an incremental test to exhaustion on a rowing ergometer. Ten ‘endurance alleles’ (NFATC4 Gly160, PPARA rs4253778 G, PPARD rs2016520 C, PPARGC1A Gly482, PPARGC1B 203Pro, PPP3R1 promoter 5I, TFAM 12Thr, UCP2 55Val, UCP3 rs1800849 T and VEGFA rs2010963 C) were first identified showing discrete associations with elite endurance athlete status. Next, to assess the combined impact of all 10 gene polymorphisms, all athletes were classified according to the number of ‘endurance’ alleles they possessed. The proportion of subjects with a high (≥9) number of ‘endurance’ alleles was greater in the best endurance athletes compared with controls (85.7 vs. 37.8%, P = 7.6 × 10−6). The number of ‘endurance’ alleles was shown to be positively correlated (r = 0.50; P = 4.0 × 10−4) with the proportion of fatigue-resistant slow-twitch fibers, and with maximal oxygen consumption (r = 0.46; P = 7.0 × 10−4). These data suggest that the likelihood of becoming an elite endurance athlete depends on the carriage of a high number of endurance-related alleles.