Review: The Sports Gene (David Epstein)

Incidentally, the Wiki page was very poor, so I had to rewrite that before writing this.

Generally, this was an interesting read that taught me a lot. This probably has to do with me not really caring much about sports. Some parts can be boring if you don’t care/know much about e.g. Baseball. It is pretty US-centric in the topics chosen.

The science in the book comes mostly thru interviews with experts and some summarizing of studies. Rarely is sufficient detail given about the studies for one to make an informed decision about whether to trust it or not. Usually, no sample sizes, p-values, effect sizes etc. are mentioned. It was written as a popular science book to be fair, so this criticism is somewhat unfair.

Some quotes:

When scientists at Washington University in St. Louis tested him, Pujols, the greatest hitter of an era, was in the sixty-sixth percentile for simple reaction time compared with a random sample of college students.

College students are above average g, which means above average reaction time. Presumably, the tested simple reaction time. This correlates about .2 with g. College students are perhaps at 115 on average. This university is apparently a top university. So perhaps the mean IQ is 120-125 there, meaning that these students are about 0.334 d above the mean on reaction time (unless they were students in fysical ed. in which case they may be even higher). Being at the 66 centile is not bad then.

Jason Gulbin, the physiologist who worked on Australia’s Olympic skeleton experiment, says that the word “genetics” has become so taboo in his talent-identification field that “we actively changed our language here around genetic work that we’re doing from ‘genetics’ to ‘molecular biology and protein synthesis.’ It was, literally, ‘Don’t mention the g-word.’ Any research proposals we put in, we don’t mention the genetics if we can help it. It’s: ‘Oh, well, if you’re doing molecular biology and protein synthesis, well, that’s all right.’” Never mind that it’s the same thing.

Studying race? NAZI NAZI!!! Studying population genetics? No problem, carry on.

This story is fascinating. Perhaps the best example of how categorical thinking about gender lead to real life problems.

Several scientists I spoke with about the theory insisted that they would have no interest in investigating it because of the inevitably thorny issue of race involved. One of them told me that he actually has data on ethnic differences with respect to a particular physiological trait, but that he would never publish the data because of the potential controversy. Another told me he would worry about following Cooper and Morrison’s line of inquiry because any suggestion of a physical advantage among a group of people could be equated to a corresponding lack of intellect, as if athleticism and intelligence were on some kind of biological teeter-totter. With that stigma in mind, perhaps the most important writing Cooper did in Black Superman was his methodical evisceration of any supposed inverse link between physical and mental prowess. “The concept that physical superiority could somehow be a symptom of intellectual inferiority only developed when physical superiority became associated with African Americans,” Cooper wrote. “That association did not begin until about 1936.” The idea that athleticism was suddenly inversely proportional to intellect was never a cause of bigotry, but rather a result of it. And Cooper implied that more serious scientific inquiry into difficult issues, not less, is the appropriate path.

How very familiar. Better not hurt those feelings! At least they should publish the data anonymously in some way so others can examine them.

There is a university called Lehigh… Le High… geddit??

In 2010, Heather Huson, a geneticist then studying at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks—and a dogsled racer since age seven—tested dogs from eight different racing kennels. To Huson’s surprise, Alaskan sled dogs have been so thoroughly bred for specific traits that analysis of microsatellites—repeats of small sequences of DNA—proved Alaskan huskies to be an entirely genetically distinct breed, as unique as poodles or labs, rather than just a variation of Alaskan malamutes or Siberian huskies.
Huson and colleagues discovered genetic traces of twenty-one dog breeds, in addition to the unique Alaskan husky signature. The research team also established that the dogs had widely disparate work ethics (measured via the tension in their tug lines) and that sled dogs with better work ethics had more DNA from Anatolian shepherds—a muscular, often blond breed of dog originally prized as a guardian of sheep because it would eagerly do battle with wolves. That Anatolian shepherd genes uniquely contribute to the work ethic of sled dogs was a new finding, but the best mushers already knew that work ethic is specifically bred into dogs.
“Yeah, thirty-eight years ago in the Iditarod there were dogs that weren’t enthused about doing it, and that were forced to do it,” Mackey says. “I want to be out there and have the privilege of going along for the ride because they want to go, because they love what they do, not because I want to go across the state of Alaska for my satisfaction, but because they love doing it. And that’s what’s happened over forty years of breeding. We’ve made and designed dogs suited for desire.”

Admixture studies in dogs, a useful precedent to cite to ease the pain for newcomers.

In one tank are mice missing oxytocin receptors. They are used in the study of pain, but the mice also have deficits in social recognition. Put them with mice they grew up with and they won’t recognize them. In another corner is a tank of raven-haired mice that were bred to be prone to head pain, that is, migraines. They spend a lot of time scratching their foreheads and shuddering, and they are apparently justified in using the old headache excuse to avoid mating. “This experiment has taken years,” says Jeffrey Mogil, head of the lab, of the work that seeks to help develop migraine treatments, “because they breed really, really badly.”

How did they get ethics approval for this???

As Pitsiladis put it, to be a world-beater, “you absolutely must choose your parents correctly.” He was being facetious, of course, because we can’t choose our parents. Nor do humans tend to couple with conscious knowledge of one another’s gene variants. We pair up more in the manner of a roulette ball that bounces off a few pockets before settling into one of many suitable spots. Williams suggests, hypothetically, that if humanity is to produce an athlete with more “correct” sports genes, one approach is to weight the genetic roulette ball with more lineages in which parents and grandparents are outstanding athletes and thus probably harbor a large number of good athleticism genes. Yao Ming—at 7’5″, once the tallest active player in the NBA—was born from China’s tallest couple, a pair of ex–basketball players brought together by the Chinese basketball federation. As Brook Larmer writes in Operation Yao Ming: “Two generations of Yao Ming’s forebears had been singled out by authorities for their hulking physiques, and his mother and father were both drafted into the sports system against their will.” Still, the witting merger of athletes in pursuit of superstar progeny is rare.

Sure we do!  Some do it quite consciously, e.g. using dating sites that match for overall likeness.