The black edge

Are athletes of African descent genetically superior?

Published January 28, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

It's no secret that blacks dominate much of the world of sports. In track, the purest test of athletic ability, runners of African descent hold every single men's world record at every standard distance, from the 100 meters (where no non-black athlete has held the world record since 1960) to the marathon. In pro football, the positions that require the greatest combination of speed, power and explosiveness -- wide receiver, cornerback and running back -- are almost entirely played by blacks. In pro basketball -- the sport that requires the greatest combination of leaping ability, power bursts and agility -- almost all the starters and virtually all the superstars are black. In baseball, blacks are also disproportionately represented, although not to the same degree that they are in the more athletically demanding basketball and football.

None of this is news to anyone who watches American sports or track and field -- and it hasn't been news for over 30 years. You have to go back to the early '60s, if not earlier, to find a time when blacks didn't completely dominate basketball and, to a lesser degree, football. The days when NFL teams routinely started two white wide receivers (remember Boyd Dowler and Carrol Dale?) seem as paleolithic as the jump pass and the quick kick.

Black athletic domination is so accepted today that it's easy to forget how astonishing it is. But what is even more astonishing is that everyone -- with the exception of the athletes themselves -- is afraid to talk in public about it. Even acknowledging that blacks are superior athletes veers uncomfortably close to a question still too traumatic for America's delicate racial sensibilities: Why are they?

The politically correct answer is that blacks dominate sports not because of a biological advantage, but because of an environmental disadvantage. Black athletic achievement is a direct result of racism: For blacks, athletics was practically the only way out of the ghetto, so they had extraordinary motivation to succeed.

There is obviously much truth in this answer. Before scoffing at the idea that environment alone could produce so many world-class black athletes, we would do well to remember that cultural and environmental factors are notoriously easy to underestimate. No one suggests that Ashkenazi Jews or Asians are genetically selected to be superior classical musicians, yet they are disproportionately represented in that field. (For that matter, no one suggests that blacks are genetically selected to be virtuoso improvising musicians -- yet they dominate jazz as much as they do football or basketball.) Why not run out looking for Japanese genes that select for flower-arranging, or Southern American Scottish-Irish genes that lead to NASCAR driving?

Moreover, there are good reasons to wantto believe that black athletic domination has no physiological basis. Science has a long and disreputable history of making false extrapolations from inconclusive hard data -- extrapolations that often merely parrot the prejudices of the age. In the case of blacks, whom whites have perniciously associated with "brute animality" ever since they first encountered them, those prejudices have gone underground, but can be easily reawakened. And certainly with a "soft" social phenomenon like athletic domination, as opposed to a "hard" one like blacks' genetic susceptibility to sickle-cell anemia, hard-science explanations must be looked at with skepticism.

But setting a world record in the 100 meters is a more quantifiable achievement than ripping through a Rachmaninoff concerto or blowing a trumpet solo on "So What." And as both black athletic domination and our knowledge of genetics, physical anthropology and physiology have grown, it has become increasingly hard to assert that environmental factors alone can explain black superiority in sports. Jon Entine's "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It" will make it even harder.

Entine, a journalist and TV producer, makes a compelling, if not absolutely conclusive, case that blacks are naturally better athletes. Their extraordinary athletic achievements are due in large part, he argues, to certain genetically based physiological traits that are common to two African-descended populations -- the first population originating in West Africa, the second in East and North Africa. The West Africans (most black Americans trace their lineage to West Africa) are exceptionally fast and can jump high. The East and North Africans excel in endurance. It's hard to say which population has dominated more: West African-descended blacks hold an astounding 95 percent of the top times in sprinting, while athletes from just one East African country, Kenya (and most of them from just one region), hold an incredible one-third of the top times in all long- and middle-distance races.

To avoid misunderstandings, Entine makes it clear from the outset that he is talking about groups, not individuals: It is not the case that all or most blacks are better athletes than members of other racial groups, only that over the entire population, there are higher odds that some individuals will be faster or able to jump higher than individuals from other populations. The black guy playing corner in a pickup football game may or may not be a better athlete than the white wide receiver lined up opposite him, but there's no statistical reason to assume he is -- genetics doesn't work that way. But when you leave the sandlot and move up to the level where the world's elite athletes compete -- world-class track meets, the Olympics, the NFL and the NBA -- genetics confers the tiny advantage that separates starters from bench-warmers, world record holders from also-rans.

Entine also addresses an even more volatile subject: the unfair devaluation of black athletes' blood, sweat and tears that can all too easily accompany encomiums to their "natural abilities." He is at pains to point out that having a genetic advantage doesn't automatically confer success: Black athletes have to work as hard as athletes of other races if they want to reach the top. Their success is a result of a "unique confluence of cultural and genetic forces."

"The importance of the individual remains paramount," Entine emphasizes. "Winning athletic competitions does not make one superior in any moral sense. It does signify that you have hit on your lucky number playing the roulette wheel of genetics, cultural serendipity, and individual drive."

Both great genes and great discipline are required to reach world-class athletic status. The greatest wide receiver of all time, the 49ers' Jerry Rice, might have been gifted with West African genes that gave him speed and explosiveness, but those genes didn't make him design and stay with an offseason hill-sprinting exercise regimen so brutal that superbly conditioned teammates vomited and collapsed while trying to stay with him. Rice made a catch for a key first down in one of the great drives in pro football history, the legendary 92-yard, fourth-quarter, game-winning drive in Super Bowl XXIII. On 2nd and 25, facing another world-class athlete perhaps carrying similar genes, when Rice's exhausted body needed to come up with one final burst, one more cut executed at full speed with no give-away body lean, with enough concentration left at the end of the pattern to reach far out and up and make the grab, it wasn't his genes that allowed him to do it -- it was those agonizing hours spent running up that mountain, hours of pain spent so that at the end of a game, sucking air, he would have maybe 2 percent more left in his tank than the guy covering him.

Most important of all, Entine refutes the idea that there is any sinister corollary to black genetic superiority in athletics. This is, of course, the real reason why this subject is so loaded. "The elephant in the living room is intelligence," Entine notes. "In the familiar if erroneous calculus, I.Q. and athleticism are inversely proportional." Entine points out that there is no scientific support for this idea and dismisses it out of hand. Whether it will find fertile ground for a rebirth in books like Entine's is another question.

In support of his thesis, Entine relies on two different bodies of evidence: the undeniable, but scientifically "soft," record of black athletic achievement, and the still contested but increasingly accepted theories of anthropologists, physiologists and geneticists. Neither alone is decisive, but taken together, they are -- to a layman -- pretty convincing.

Entine breezes through an endless list of stellar athletic achievements by blacks. Track records are the most impressive, of course, but he also throws in some fascinating lesser-known studies, like one undertaken by the famous baseball "sabermetrician," the statistics-obsessed baseball analyst Bill James. In a 1987 study, trying to figure out what factors best predicted which rookies would become baseball stars, he compared the careers of 54 white rookies against those of 54 black rookies with comparable statistics. Greatly to his surprise, he found that, on the whole, the black rookies went on to have better major league careers than the whites; the black players hit 66 percent more home runs, stole 400 percent more bases, etc. He repeated the study with 49 more pairs and got similar results. Race, it turned out, was the single best predictor of stardom -- and this in a sport in which blacks dominate less than in football or basketball, perhaps at least partially because West African genes confer less of an advantage in baseball. Such studies are obviously not going to end up in the New England Journal of Medicine, but they aren't meaningless, either.

Entine doesn't pursue this, but his theory could also explain why there might never be as high a percentage of black quarterbacks in the NFL as, say, black free safeties. Historically, the dearth of black quarterbacks was clearly due to the racist assumption that blacks lacked "the [intellectual] necessities," in the immortal words of baseball executive Al Campanis, to play the position.

As those idiotic assumptions fade, the percentage of black quarterbacks is certain to increase (a process that has already begun: Entine points out that the number of black QBs taken in the first round of the NFL draft this year equaled the number of black first-rounders in the draft's entire history). But the number of black quarterbacks might never reach that of halfbacks or defensive backs, simply because speed and strength, though advantageous and more sought after at the position now than before, don't confer as great an advantage as they do at other positions.

Case in point from the upcoming Super Bowl: The Rams' big, cannon-armed, slow-footed white quarterback, Kurt Warner, is a throwback to the Roman Gabriel era. He isn't half the athlete his black counterpart, the Titans' Steve McNair, is. But regardless of who is the better quarterback -- a question that has not yet been answered -- the point is that there will always be room in the NFL for quarterbacks like Warner (and, of course, like McNair), whereas there will never again be room for cornerbacks like the slow, can't-jump white guys of the '50s.

So why are blacks, as a group, better than whites or Asians at sports? The answer is simple: It's in their genes. "There is extensive and persuasive evidence that elite black athletes have a phenotypic advantage -- a distinctive skeletal system and musculature, metabolic structures, and other characteristics forged over tens of thousands of years of evolution," Entine writes. "Preliminary research suggests that different phenotypes are at least partially encoded in the genes -- conferring genotypic differences, which may result in an advantage in some sports."

So what are those phenotypic (i.e. observable) advantages?

His findings: "Blacks with a West African ancestry generally have: relatively less subcutaneous fat on arms and legs and proportionally more lean body and muscle mass, broader shoulders, larger quadriceps, and bigger, more developed musculature in general; smaller chest cavities; a higher center of gravity ... faster patellar tendon reflex; greater body density ... modest. but significantly higher, levels of plasma testosterone ... which is anabolic, theoretically contributing to greater muscle mass, lower fat, and the ability to perform at a higher level of intensity with quicker recovery; a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscles and more anaerobic enzymes, which can translate into more explosive energy."

With genetic research still in its infancy, of course, no one can assert with certainty that these phenotypic advantages are in fact encoded genetically -- the research hasn't been done yet. But Entine argues that with "dramatic advances in quantitative genetics," it's only a matter of time. (Africa has greater genetic variety than any other continent, which helps to explain why people of African descent can be genetically gifted.)

It might be objected that Entine's entire argument is conceptually flawed from the outset, because "race" itself is a meaningless concept. In a lucid discussion, Entine demolishes the voguish assertion that "there's no such thing as race," explaining that the argument over the word is little more than semantic. "Limiting the rhetorical use of folk categories such as race, an admirable goal, is not going to make the patterned biological variation on which they are based disappear," he argues.

Regardless of what we call them -- and he acknowledges that the concept of "race" is "fuzzy," fraught with popular misconceptions and mythologies -- there are different human populations that have in fact clustered and developed, through geographical separation, natural selection and perhaps catastrophic geological events, different heritable characteristics. A Nigerian and a Swede are not the same.

But aside from skin color, are there meaningful genetic differences between members of different racial groups? Left-wing critics like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, opposed to race-essentialist arguments, have argued that those differences pale compared to the things members of different races have in common. Racial differences between individuals are so small as to be genetically meaningless, Lewontin argues; skin color is only one marker of race -- along with other markers like fingerprints and resistance to malaria -- and it can be misleading. (In support of Lewontin's claim, Entine cites the example of the Lemba, a Bantu-speaking tribe in Africa; although their skin is black, they are genetically related to white Sephardic Jews.) In similar fashion, Gould has argued that "the differences between the races are small, just tiny compared to the variation within races."

Entine acknowledges that "Lewontin's finding that on average humans share 99.8 percent of genetic material and that any two individuals are apt to share considerably more than 90 percent of this shared genetic library is on target." But he argues that Lewontin, driven by an acknowledged "mission to reaffirm our common humanity," interpreted these facts in a tendentious fashion. The crucial point, Entine insists, is that "the percentage of differences is a far less important issue than which genes are different."

He points out that humans share 98.4 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, and that just "50 out of 100,000 genes that humans and chimps are thought to possess ... may account for all the cognitive differences between man and ape." The so-called regulatory genes, which make up only 1.4 percent of the total genes, can have a "huge impact on all aspects of our humanity." And those genes, he argues, are overwhelmingly likely, because of evolutionary logic, to be different in different populations.

It's hard to regard Entine as having dubious motives for writing this book. He approaches the subject with neutral curiosity about the fascinating variety of the human race. But despite this, "Taboo" is certain to provoke cries of outrage in some quarters. Entine notes that he got a taste of that uproar when he worked with Tom Brokaw on an NBC documentary on this subject that aired in 1989 -- he quotes Brokaw as saying that a distinguished black friend "quietly withdrew our friendship for about two years" after the show. But he argues that "open debate" beats "backroom scuttlebutt" in combating the "virulent stereotypes" that continue to swirl around blacks and sports.

For some critics, who regard white America's interest in the subject as suspicious at best and blatantly racist at worst, such arguments may not be enough. "The obsession with the natural superiority of the black male athlete is an attempt to demean all of us," Entine quotes writer Ralph Wiley as thundering. New York Times sportswriter William Rhoden called interest in black athletic superiority "foolishness," an "obsession" and "an unabashed racial feeding frenzy" -- rhetoric exceeded by Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert, who wrote that it was "a genteel way to say nigger."

For Entine, such reactions are understandable but out of date. There's no longer any serious dispute on this subject, he believes, and people who refuse to face facts will end up as ostriches, hiding their heads not just from outcomes they don't like but from science itself. (Entine takes several gratifying swings at postmodern academic fog machines, who in their scholastic zeal to make sure everything comes out racially rosy simply throw science overboard.)

Since at this point the science is not conclusive (although it tends to support Entine's thesis), the question may in the end come down to what one wants to believe. Is being prepared to believe that blacks as a group have a genetically based athletic advantage over other races a sign of racism? Or is it a sign of scientific enlightenment, a willingness to open oneself up to the truth, wherever it leads? There is also an instrumentalist question: Will merely raising this subject set back the course of racial enlightenment? What happens to the brotherhood of man if some brothers can run faster than others?

Old-school liberals, confronting a legacy of scientistic racism, tend to assume that those who believe that different human populations are fundamentally different in any meaningful way (aside from genetic markers like those for sickle-cell anemia and the like) are either racists or perverse positivists, wrongheadedly seeking to extend the dominion of hard science beyond its possible reach (to bolster retrograde assumptions, no doubt). This is essentially the argument Gould and his like-minded colleagues make against evolutionary psychologists and others who seek to find a Darwinian imprimatur for men behaving badly.

This assumption was valid once -- and in part it still is. Racists still cloak their bigotry beneath a lab coat. But, as Entine argues again and again in "Taboo," the mere fact that legitimate arguments may also have been advanced by racists, or that scientific facts may play into invidious stereotypes, is not sufficient reason to abandon those arguments or deny those facts. The mania against "essentialism," taken to its logical extreme, is nothing but an assault on the spirit of scientific inquiry itself.

Yes, some bigots will rejoice in Entine's book and try to resurrect the "mind that's weak, back that's strong" canard. And some weak-minded resentful people will find in it confirmation of their resentment and fear. But the days when those kind of simplistic, Manichaean, zero-sum appeals could take hold in the public mind are long over.

In fact, after an initial flurry, the notion that black athletic superiority is natural shouldn't change much of anything. When and if it is definitively established, it will simply label blacks as physically blessed, gifted by the extraordinarily rich variety of genes found in the "mother continent," Africa. It'll be a fascinating but minor human reality, a lucky roll of the evolutionary dice, only slightly more significant than the genetic fact that some Asians get cherry red in the face when they drink. The spectrum of human knowledge, of humanity itself, will be expanded. And that advance will be remembered when the idea that because blacks were fast they couldn't be smart has gone the way of the dinosaurs.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

MORE FROM Gary Kamiya

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Africa Books