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Gladwell Versus Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell, back in the day:

So why aren't we allowed to say that there might be athletically significant differences between blacks and whites? . . .

Black men have slightly higher circulating levels of testosterone and human-growth hormone than their white counterparts, and blacks over all tend to have proportionally slimmer hips, wider shoulders, and longer legs. In one study, the Swedish physiologist Bengt Saltin compared a group of Kenyan distance runners with a group of Swedish distance runners and found interesting differences in muscle composition: Saltin reported that the Africans appeared to have more blood-carrying capillaries and more mitochondria (the body's cellular power plant) in the fibres of their quadriceps.

Malcolm Gladwell, the present day:
Why, for instance, is it a useful rule of thumb that Kenyans are good distance runners? It’s not just that it’s statistically supportable today. It’s that it has been true for almost half a century, and that in Kenya the tradition of distance running is sufficiently rooted that something cataclysmic would have to happen to dislodge it.
The only think I know about scientific study of the genetic origins of Kenyan running ability is from that first Gladwell article, so maybe he got it wrong back then. But the contrast is a bit striking.

UPDATE: Some say they don't see a contradiction here. And, sure, there's not a logical contradiction in the "p & ~p" sense. But if you think that Kenyans are good distance runners because they're biologically superior at distance running it becomes very odd to, several years later, answer the question of "Why . . . is it a useful rule of thumb that Kenyans are good distance runners?" with reference to the idea that a tradition of running is ingrained in Kenyan culture. If Kenyans really do have a genetic advantage in distance running, then that is what makes "Kenyans are good distance runners" a useful rule of thumb. Note also that the earlier article is specifically geared toward observing that there's a taboo around discussing such issues and complaining about the taboo. The later article, meanwhile, reflects the taboo.

January 30, 2006 | Permalink


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It's almost like reading David Brock.

Posted by: Cal Ulmann | Jan 30, 2006 5:00:56 PM

The black is a better athlete to begin with, because he has been bred to be that way. This goes all the way back to the Civil War, when the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid, see.

Posted by: Jimmy the Greek | Jan 30, 2006 5:17:24 PM

Maybe I'm reading this wrong, but where's the contradiction? In the first excerpt, Gladwell references a study demonstrating that Kenyans may have a biologically-based advantage in distance running. In the second excerpt, he's saying that the above-average distance-running ability of Kenyans is statistically supportable and deeply ingrained in their culture. Seems consistent to me...

Posted by: Aziz | Jan 30, 2006 5:18:25 PM

As I remember it from college evolutionary biology, human beings have not been long enough dispersed to create any important genetic variation between races.

...research results consistently demonstrate that about 85 percent of all human genetic variation exists within human populations, whereas about only 15 percent of variation exists between populations (Figure 4). That is, research reveals that Homo sapiens is one continuously variable, inter-breeding species. Ongoing investigation of human genetic variation has even led biologists and physical anthropologists to rethink traditional notions of human racial groups. The amount of genetic variation between these traditional classifications actually falls below the level that taxonomists use to designate subspecies, the taxonomic category for other species that corresponds to the designation of race in Homo sapiens. This finding has caused some biologists to call the validity of race as a biological construct into serious question.
Almost all human genetic variation is relatively insignificant biologically— that is, it has no apparent adaptive significance. Some variation (for example, a neutral mutation) alters the amino acid sequence of the resulting protein but produces no detectable change in its function. Other variation (for example, a silent mutation) does not even change the amino acid sequence. Furthermore, only a small percentage of the DNA sequences in the human genome is coding sequences (sequences that are ultimately translated into protein) or regulatory sequences (sequences that can influence the level, timing, and tissue specificity of gene expression). Differences that occur elsewhere in the DNA—in the vast majority of the DNA that has no known function—have no impact.

Some genetic variation, however, can be positive, providing an advantage in changing environments.


In other words, the amount of genetic variation between races that could have any kind of impact on athletic ability is vanishingly small.

Posted by: antid_oto | Jan 30, 2006 5:33:45 PM

For the record, I'm not taking any position on either of Gladwell's comments; I'm just saying that he's internally consistent.

Posted by: Aziz | Jan 30, 2006 5:37:25 PM

Ditto for seeing no contradiction in Gladwell then vs. Gladwell now. Someone point it out for me?

Posted by: Matt | Jan 30, 2006 6:39:10 PM

The black is a better athlete to begin with, because he has been bred to be that way.

There's actually no biological reason why homo sapiens couldn't be bred to enhance and concentrate certain attributes, in the same manner that people have turned canis lupus into everything from chihuahuas to Saint Bernards. Jimmy the Greek was off the mark -- but not by all that much. Slave owners most likely did attempt to engage in some selective breeding, but they weren't very good at it (human beings are hard to control in sexual matters), and they likely didn't have enough time or generations (slavery in the US lasted less than 250 years) to see their efforts bear fruit.

Posted by: Howard Cosell | Jan 30, 2006 6:59:56 PM

Ditto for seeing no contradiction in Gladwell then vs. Gladwell now. Someone point it out for me?

I didn't see much of a contradiction. But presumably, our blog host is showing how Gladwell used to get all dirty and un PC-like and talk about biology and genetics; now he limits himself to talking about "tradition" (i.e., "culture"). Nurture over nature, in other words.

Posted by: Howard Cosell | Jan 30, 2006 7:03:26 PM

Making this a "race" issue muddles things up. Certain body types are better for certain sports, and where you come from has a lot to do with your body type. Marathoners (black) come from East Africa. Sprinters (black) come from West Africa. World's Strongest Man constestants (mainly white) come from parts of Europe where names are generally unpronounceable. People from those different parts of the world are all, in general, built differently to thrive in their respective environments. The black East African and the white Norwegian or Hungarian are no more alike and no more different than the rangy black East African with a high ratio of surface area to volume and the thick-set black West African with a high ratio of volume to surface area. Such superficial attributes as skin color and hair texture, by which we classify "races" don't figure into it.

Posted by: C.J.Colucci | Jan 30, 2006 7:23:59 PM

I agree with the remark. By those results one could also come to the conclusion that whites have been bread to be more intelligent than blacks.

Posted by: habib | Jan 30, 2006 7:40:58 PM

Actually, C.J., the argument I was making is far broader than one about superficial designations of race. It applies to the more "essential" designations of geographic origin you're trying to separate out as well. Local populations simply aren't the locus of most genetic variation. People simply aren't "built" to thrive in their environments.

I agree with the remark. By those results one could also come to the conclusion that whites have been bread to be more intelligent than blacks.

And I can't tell if this is sarcastic. If it isn't, I find it highly amusing that you misspelled "bred."

Posted by: antid_oto | Jan 30, 2006 7:49:16 PM

I should have used my spell checker.

Posted by: habib | Jan 30, 2006 7:53:09 PM

This requires me to make the embarrassing admission that I didn't try to click the link before now, but here goes: both links about are to the same article.

Posted by: antid_oto | Jan 30, 2006 8:18:20 PM

Serves me right for making fun of someone else's spelling. Both links above are to the same article.

Posted by: antid_oto | Jan 30, 2006 8:19:15 PM

antid_oto | Spelling has very little to do with intelligence. Why are you so defensive. What is better; to be mentally superior or physically superior?

Posted by: dobst | Jan 30, 2006 8:25:43 PM

By those results one could also come to the conclusion that whites have been bread to be more intelligent than blacks.

Interesting theory.

Posted by: Charles Murray | Jan 30, 2006 8:48:12 PM

Yes, blacks are better at distance events.

That of course, explains why African athletes dominate the Tour de France and Nordic ski events.

In point of fact, the athletes with the highest measured VO2 Max ever measured were cyclists and nordic skiers. Not distance runners.

And, of course, blacks are better at short distance events. Which explains why most of the sprint events in Olympic swimming are dominated by African athletes. Those longer legs, broader shoulders, and slimmer hips help athletes of African heritage dominate world class swimming.

This stuff is just so much rubbish.

Posted by: Kent | Jan 30, 2006 9:51:33 PM

Re: your update.

Roughly nine years passed between the two articles. Maybe Gladwell isn't reflecting a newly adopted taboo. Maybe he learned something, namely, that the idea of significant genetic variation between races or nationalities is bullcrap. Should people really be expected to hold wrong ideas consistently?

Posted by: antid_oto | Jan 30, 2006 10:13:11 PM

Actually, scratch that: now that the first link is fixed, I have to say I think you're misrepresenting Gladwell's first article. He presents the example of the Kenyan distance runners as one that might tempt you to argue for inherent, genetically-based racial differences, and then spends most of the rest of the article carefully pulling that theory to pieces. For example, from later on:

The same is true for the distinctive muscle characteristic observed when Kenyans were compared with Swedes. Saltin, the Swedish physiologist, subsequently found many of the same characteristics in Nordic skiers who train at high altitudes and Nordic runners who train in very hilly regions-conditions, in other words, that resemble the mountainous regions of Kenya's Rift Valley, where so many of the country's distance runners come from. The key factor seems to be Kenya, not genes.

Posted by: antid_oto | Jan 30, 2006 10:25:06 PM

Whatever, it's still an undeniable fact that black women have the best asses.

Posted by: R.J. Lehmann | Jan 30, 2006 10:48:44 PM

We don't know too much about genetic variation and athletic perforamnce: to be exact, we know it has pretty high heritability, but we don't know too many of the exact genes involved and what they do. Which is typical of our current state of genetic knowledge.

We know some: we know that alpha-actinin-three (a protein expressed in fast-twitch muscles) has two variants, one functional and one a null mutation. In Europe, the two varieties are about equally common. Among the Zulu, the frequency of the active allele is about 90%, instead of 50%.

We also know that among white Australians Olympic-class sprinters are much more likely than average to have the functional allele, endurance athletes are somewhat more likely than average to have the null allle. This is part of a bigger and very interesting story.

As for the idea that the common origin of the various human races is too recent (~50,000 years) for significant differences to have evolved: well, that turns out to be a very interesting question. Well worth further examination.

Posted by: gcochran | Jan 30, 2006 11:30:19 PM

With these last two posts, Matt is staking ground as the logic police of the Internets.

Posted by: blah | Jan 30, 2006 11:37:54 PM

That's fascinating. I'd love to read more. Do you have links to any reviews on the subject?

Posted by: antid_oto | Jan 30, 2006 11:59:01 PM

In the meantime, the same argument is breaking out at Jane Galt's, where a commenter claims that blacks are better at basketball, football, and boxing -- note by comparison the claim above that "World's Strongest Man" champs have/will come from Europe, which would seem to be a similar skill to boxing. (I'm in that one already, had I known this was where the real party is...)

Posted by: DonBoy | Jan 31, 2006 12:15:28 AM

Let's just say that being a good distance runner has a genetic component and that genetic component is common in Kenya. Why would it be surprising that the Kenyan culture celebrates it? For that matter, if a culture celebrates it why would it be surprising that the genetic trait persists or even increases in frequency within the culture? It's a brief reference and it's not clear to me that Gladwell is really making a distinction between two causes which he believes are independant.

Posted by: B | Jan 31, 2006 12:53:26 AM

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