I was struck by the comments over at Razib’s blog on the matter of Jamaicans and genetic pre-disposition. I even left a skeptical comment there about it. I’ll keep going on about it here.
I’m sure genetic make-up has something to do with pretty much everything; and I’m just as confident that other factors (coaching, money, environment, cultural value, education, prestige, discipline, etc.) have something to do with pretty much everything. So it’s a wash. But if a Jamaican wins a race and everyone says its because of genes, then why isn’t anyone asking if American women have the Beach Volleyball gene? Why isn’t everyone asking if the Chinese have the gymnastics gene? Why isn’t everyone asking if the Kenyans have the non-skiing gene? Why are Kenyans so god-awful at nordic events? Why oh why could that be? Is it the non-skiing gene? Given the reasoning advanced in the comments to Razib’s post, I’m left to conclude that this must be the case. And while we’re at it, why isn’t everyone asking if the Orioles have the bad-pitching gene?
At first blush, the comments at Gene Expression seemed kinda funny, like people were trying to be facetious (like this guy). The conversation tracked onto the genetic cause question and then the disagreements were about why and how genes caused Jamaican success, not whether or not there is more to it (though someone eventually got to that). Scienceblogs is supposed to be about the public conversation of science and, in this case, we have a good example of why that doesn’t work very well: what is the basic understanding of science that people bring to the conversation?
I am not in a position to say what science is, though we can use empirical evidence from studies of science to know what it isn’t (unchanging, asocial, or universal). The easier part, though, is to treat the comments as evidence for what the public understanding of genetics is. That is safer, less judgmental, more analytical territory. It seems that causal relationships dominate that understanding, that singular silver-bullet correlations are hard to get away from, and that, from this, the public understanding of genetics is one understood as one cause = one effect.
Except for a silver in hurdles, the Jamaican men didn’t even place in the last Olympics. So has their genetic pre-disposition just surfaced, in four years? Did they evolve since 2004 to become so fast? And, again, why aren’t we debating why the women’s beach volleyball team is so good? Do they have a genetic pre-disposition to claim that the bikini is merely the most comfortable uniform? Are cameramen genetically predisposed to zero in on wedgies?
This is all Dave’s territory anyway, not mine. Maybe he knows what’s up.