Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book review: The Sports Gene by David Epstein

I just finished reading David Epstein's The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who's interested at all in the "nature vs. nurture" debate about how people become elite runners, basketball players, etc. Epstein draws upon lots of cutting edge research into genetics and sports performance to explain, among other things, how professional baseball players can hit 95 mph pitches when the reaction time available to them is barely more than the time it takes to coordinate a thought into action (answer: years of experience has given each of them a "memory map" that enables them to make reasonably good predictions about how the pitch will travel based on a split second view of the pitcher's delivery) to why Kenyans and Ethiopians seem to dominate middle- and long-distance running while Jamaicans seem to dominate sprinting (answer: a combination of factors ranging from cultural to the proportion of fast twitch to slow twitch muscle fibers favoring sprinting or distance running to, in the case of the East Africans, living at the sweet spot of altitude training ~ 6000-8000 feet above sea level).

In any sort of work on sports performance and gene science, race inevitably looms in the background. To his credit, Epstein doesn't shy away from discussing race, but neither does he channel Al Campanis (who infamously blundered into the subject with the sensitivity of a drunken rhino). As the sprinting vs. long-distance running example mentioned above demonstrates, people from different parts of the world excel at different types of athletic competitions. Epstein points out that the individual record for the 100 meter sprint in Kenya isn't good enough to qualify for the Olympics; as dominant as the Kenyans are in the distance events, they're totally uncompetitive in the sprints. Epstein doesn't say this explicitly, but what I drew from the book is that when we Americans talk about "race" and sports, we do so in a very obtuse way because we lump people into "white," "black," "Latino," or "Asian," when in fact there can be a significant amount of diversity within those crude racial categories.

If there's a book that The Sports Gene reminds me of, it's Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, which similarly examined race and cultural through a completely new lens (of geography).

1 comment:

  1. He had a nice TED talk, too, for folks who want a quick run-down of his ideas: http://www.ted.com/talks/david_epstein_are_athletes_really_getting_faster_better_stronger