More on Genes

Arun Gupta:

Americans of the stupid variety keep trying to justify the way things are by genetics. But the fact is that culture (learned behavior) is far stronger.

I have pretty good reason to suspect that the "American of the stupid variety" he has is mind is your humble correspondent. But let's consider the merits of the claim. It seems to me that claiming that culture is much more important than genetics is a bit like claiming that the brain is more important than the lungs. Both are essential, but the relative importance of the two depends on context. In this case, the crucial qualities under consideration are running speed and what the football scouts refer to as athleticism - essentially acceleration in changing one's state of motion. These are matters of details of body mechanics like limb proportions and the relative size of the achilles tendon.

Training can affect muscle strength and reaction times, but the above mentioned critical matters are determined by genetics and probably, childhood nutrition. Culture is almost certainly a very minor factor in running speed and athleticism.

So what about the linked story Arun adduced in evidence? I've read it carefully (when I first cited it) and again in response to Arun's comment, and I think his interpretation is utterly unreasonable. In one of the cases discussed in the story, the authors cite the case of a highly successful black center in college who was converted to tackle in the NFL. The story, and Arun, quote a history prof to the effect that a "tradition" of white centers accounts for the reassignment. The story, but not Arun, quotes the twice winning super bowl coach who drafted him:

“Trent is so athletic, so talented and so smart, he could play any position and play it at a Pro Bowl level. Could he be a great center or guard? Absolutely. But you win in this league with tackles.”

Tackles get the big bucks, tackles play the more crucial roles, so if you have the skills and talents to play either position, you play tackle. That sounds like a far more convincing answer to me. Other elements of the cited story also reinforce what I said. Still other elements are highly dubious, e.g.:

Any athlete may be able to compensate for a lack of genetic ability through practice and skill mastery.

This is bullshit. Everybody playing top level professional athletics has had plenty of practice and skill mastery. Everybody at that level is also, in some respects, a genetic freak. Diligent training will turn an ordinary Joe into a pretty good weekend athlete, but the gap between that level and pro is enormous.


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