Sports, Race, and Racism

Nature has a review of a new book called Skin Deep: Journeys in the Divisive Science of Race, by Gavin Evans.  The US now has a frankly racist President, and by it's cowardly acquiescence, a frankly racist political party, the Republicans.  All indications are that the 40% or so of the population that identify as Republicans buy fully into Trump's resurgent racism.  So the topic remains as relevant as ever.

Nonetheless, I can't say that I'm very impressed by Angela Saini's review.  There are just too many places where weak endorsements take the place of fact and logic.  She rightly notes that biology has not been kind to conventional definitions of race - differences among individuals are mostly not correlated with so-called races.  However, when it comes to specifics, she, and perhaps our author, seems confused and dogmatic.

Evans zooms in on two focal points of racial stereotypes: sport and intelligence. His section on the success of Kenyan marathon runners in global contests is brilliant: it demolishes the idea of genetic explanations for any region’s sporting achievements. Some have speculated that Kenyans might have, on average, longer, thinner legs than other people, or differences in heart and muscle function. Evans notes, however, that we don’t make such generalizations about white British athletes when they do disproportionately well in global athletics. Such claims for athletic prowess are lazy biological essentialism, heavily doped with racism.  
If that is the extent of his argument, it's not brilliant but dumb.  Are there sports that Brits dominate in the fashion that Kenyans and some Moroccans dominate long distance running?  If they are, they are sports that others haven't taken an interest in.  Brits don't even dominate in the many sports that they invented. In the first place, Kenyans, or more specifically the fraction of Kenyans that dominate, are not a race but a tribal population whose history and genetics favor those longer, thinner legs and slender bodies that seem perfect for distance running.  As such, they are no more closely related to many other African populations than they are to Brits or Incas.  Ironically, the review is illustrated with a picture of two of those long legged, slender bodied Kenyan runners.

It is a fact that some genes are specific adaptations to environmental  conditions in which populations live or lived.  Some of those are likely to affect performance in sport.  Hot, sunny climates favor slender bodies for heat dissipation.  Cold climates favor thick limbs and bodies for heat conservation.  Other things being equal, ability to run fast is almost certainly an evolutionary advantage.  But sometimes conserving heat is more important, and the slender bodied runners freeze.

That fact, plus some bad dietary habits and luck in the genetic lottery are why I could never jump like Mike or run like those Kenyans.

UPDATE: A summary of the work that showed unequivocally that the Kenyan advantage is innate: 


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