World's Fair

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Bob O'H
    August 22, 2008

    In the past few years the UK has been running an intensive eugenics programme to breed the best sportsmen and women. Early work out-sourced to Australia showed that the genes we were interested in were linked to the sitting down gene, which limited what we could achieve somewhat.

    Oddly, I now hear that in the US there is strong linkage disequilibrium between the genes for sprinting and not being able to hold a baton.

  2. #2 jj
    August 22, 2008

    I took a required ‘core’ class my freshman year in college that was about ‘social justice’ (it was actually a writing class for first quarter freshmen, but the topic was social justice). One of the topics we discussed were the idea that Africans had some gene that made them ‘faster’ or more athletic. Now this wasn’t a genetics class, or even taught by a science professor (an I was a Biology Major, so I did take genetics courses). But what the main point of the discussions was centered around, was do those of African decent have a gene to make them faster. The answer was no, but that social pressures push those of African decent into sports as opposed to other professions. The idea is that there should be roughly the same ratio of those who are from African decent and those who are of European decent who have the genetic disposition to be an athlete. The key here is genetic disposition, not that you are or you are not. It happens that since those who are disenfranchised by society will to sports as an ‘out’. So, then, those of African decent and are pre-disposed to become more athletic are likely to follow sports and train than a person of white decent with the same disposition.

    I believe I had heard in one of my biology lectures that those of African decent are more genetically diverse from each other than they are from those of European decent, that is, a person of African decent is more closely (genetically) related to a white person as they are to most others of African decent. I believe the reasoning fort his is that since humans originated from Africa, that the Gene pool there is much larger, increasing diversity, where as in Europe there is a smaller amount of diversity. Not sure if that is true or not, but that’s what I remember being told (it was probably a TA, though)

  3. #3 razib
    August 22, 2008

    Not sure if that is true or not, but that’s what I remember being told (it was probably a TA, though)

    it’s not true. at least not as you stated it above.

    i have to admit that i find the oppressed-people-only-go-into-sports as reductively dumb as the one-gene-to-rule-them-all model. then again, sociology is mostly a religion, not an attempt at scholarship.

  4. #4 razib
    August 22, 2008

    btw, if you changed the title to understanding of population genetics the confusions would be clearer. most people have a rough understanding of molecular genetic principles, but these models are predicated specifically on one gene systems for ease of exposition and clarity.

  5. #5 jj
    August 22, 2008

    Razib, I think you missed the point on that argument. The point isn’t that the oppressed people only get into sports at all, it’s more of the opposite, those who have it easier are more likely to get in other professions. There’s a HUGE difference (to me). And if I look at those that I know, I can tell you there is about an equal ratio of people who could become athletes, regardless of race. As someone who has spend a good deal of time studying biology at pretty good University for Genetics (I believe we were the one’s on the fore front of the human genome, until that damn fire) , that you cannot say a pheontype is ultimately the genotype (fairly basic principle) and that it’s the expression of the genotype in the physical setting. I don’t really buy that it’s all a social thing either, I mean, it’s obvious that genes do play a key role in the development of a pheontype, but I don’t think I buy the it’s-caused-by-a-gene theory either.

    And as for my comment about diversity between ethnicities, I do believe I somewhat misstated the overall idea. I think it was related to different sub-groups within Africa, and that the idea was there there is generally more genetic variance in those of African decent than those of European. I haven’t seen any data regarding this, so we’ll chalk that up as hear say.

  6. #6 razib
    August 22, 2008

    The point isn’t that the oppressed people only get into sports at all, it’s more of the opposite, those who have it easier are more likely to get in other professions.

    i’d like to see some regressions on this. last i checked mexican americans aren’t that prominent in most sports vis-a-vis whites.

    that you cannot say a pheontype is ultimately the genotype (fairly basic principle) and that it’s the expression of the genotype in the physical setting.

    look, a lot of this is into not-even-wrong territory. yes, most people are retarded and don’t understand heritability or norms of reaction, but since you went to a good university i assume you do, so let’s just move beyond the conception that i have some retarded genetic architecture in mind. i don’t. genotype-phenotype mappings are problematic, but they’re a lot less prone to confounds than sociological hypotheses, but no one has an extremely high degree of skepticism or evidentiary bar that is proportional when it comes to sociological explanations. so the reason for the disparate treatment is politics; nazi genocide based on biology is bad, communist genocide based on sociology and history is just bad intention.

    I think it was related to different sub-groups within Africa, and that the idea was there there is generally more genetic variance in those of African decent than those of European. I haven’t seen any data regarding this, so we’ll chalk that up as hear say.

    a common, and majority (if not universally) accepted model is that human populations have been founded by serial bottlenecks as a function of geography. and, these events began in africa. so….

    non-africans are a subset of northeast africans

    west eurasians and east eurasians are a subset of south asians

    new worlders are a subset of east eurasians

    so, for example, europeans are very genetically homogeneous compared to africans. even compared to say west africans, to scale the geography more realistically. but, simultaneously the average european is much more genetically closely related to an average european than west african, and really i bet no europeans are going to be more closely related to an average west african whose ancestry was not recently derived from europe (it is theoretically possible, but unlikely, if you use identity-by-descent as the measure).

    and FYI, you can pick out about 10 “informative” genes to differentiate someone of west african ancestry from those european ancestry (well, actually, you can be 90% certain by just looking at one gene, SLC24A5). with an admixed population like african americans you might need some more loci, but 100 should do to get to private sector levels of quality assurance.

  7. #7 ngong
    August 24, 2008

    Ben Johnson won the 100 meters for Canada in 1988. He was born in Jamaica.

    Linford Christie won it for England in 1992. He was born in Jamaica.

    Donovan Bailey won it for Canada in 1996. He was born in Jamaica.

  8. #8 b
    August 24, 2008

    are you suggesting was johnson was genetically pre-determined to cheat and get caught doping, ngong?

  9. #10 ngong
    August 24, 2008

    are you suggesting was johnson was genetically pre-determined to cheat and get caught doping, ngong?

    He was pretty damn fast. His with-dope record held up nearly 20 years, and it’s dubious to believe that all other doped-up sprinters have been caught in the interim.

  10. #11 brc
    August 24, 2008

    but how come nobody addresses the other main question here: are american women genetically pre-determined to excel at beach volleyball?

    and jeepers razib, thank you: “if you changed the title to understanding of population genetics the confusions would be clearer. most people have a rough understanding of molecular genetic principles.” i’ll be sure to run these posts by you before they go up in the future. i actually don’t know “most people” in the world so i wouldn’t have been able to make such a claim. your facebook page must be bursting at its seams with all those friends.

  11. #12 jomega
    August 24, 2008

    “Are cameramen genetic predisposed to zero in on wedgies?”

    Yes.

  12. #13 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 24, 2008

    I thought that Great Britain ranking 4th in total medals at these Olympics had something to do with the roughly a billion dollars ($10^9) whatever that is in Euros, having been invested in recruitment and training since a poor showing at the Olympics 4 years ago.

    Is there a genetic predisposition for making money (the Shylock Hypothesis)? I think not. The Chinese, of course, invented paper money in the first place, and have spent it quite lavishly yet strategically here.

    And why is Australia doing so well? Because they started as prisoners deported from Great Britain? Or from genetic engineering of marsupial genes into humans? Or the general cultural frenzy for drinking and gambling?

    Too bad there’s no gene for science writing…

  13. #14 ngong
    August 24, 2008

    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?

    Because Jamaica has a very small population. If China consistently wins in any particular event, it’s not such a surprise.

    Because speed is more of a “raw” talent. You’ve either got it or you don’t. A volleyball prodigy is harder to identify at grade school level, and there are clearly a lot of fine skills that have to be developed over a long time before one becomes a proficient volleyballer or gymnast.

  14. #15 brc
    August 25, 2008

    well ngong, here’s hoping the powerful pro-volleyball lobby doesn’t track you down for such denigration. raw setting and bumping and rotating talent they have, i’m told. rotating especially. man can they rotate.

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