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.
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
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.
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.