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I'm always amazed at the short memories of people who claim that African-Americans must be genetically superior to be such good athletes. Wasn't it just 100 years ago that the Irish were considered racially superior athletes?

The genetic difference between humans and chimps is less than 1%. The differences between races are even smaller. There is much more variability within the races than difference between them. If there is a racial difference in athleticism it's much, much smaller than the influence of culture, motivation, social group, etc.



According to this study of long distance runners no group of elite athletes has a common genotype, and environmental conditions are probably more important in the success of East African runners. http://www.fims.org/default.asp?pageID=782860264


Could someone please explain why so many online news outlets are publishing articles about race, DNA and "ability"? Has there been an increase in such reporting or am I mistaken? I certainly agree that it is a valid topic of discussion, but I just was curious as to why so many articles are being published.

Christopher Horn

Outstanding effort Anthony (4 or so posts ago). You noted that Kenyans are strongly motivated by role models that have shown them the road to tremendous prosperity that comes from being an elite distance runner. Such a road may not be otherwise available to Kenyans; certainly there are far fewer roads to prosperity in Kenya then in the West.

I admit I had the same reaction as you, though I lack the credibility of having lived in Kenya.

Indeed, I suspect the thing missing from Malcolm's thought experiment is this:

Imagine that the US is a generally poor nation, but with the resources to get its citizens to Boulder and train them up to be world class marathoners, with all the life benefits that would bring for a poor people. Would the US dominate? For sure.

You know, in this community where Sailer sympathizers and Gladwell sympathizers trade barbs, Sailer's folks arguing that biology is destiny while their opponents suggest that biology is irrelevant, posts like Anthony's can be like a pretty nice breath of fresh air.

Biology is not destiny, but environment can be, when you understand that all humans are motivated to make the most of their lives. Kenyans, Americans, Chinese, aliens, you name it...

Christopher Horn

Actually, Anthony's post also encouraged me to pick up my handy copy of "The Tipping Point", where I was reminded of...

The Law of the Few. With Kenyan runners, this would be Kip Keino and other successful, world famous superstars.

Stickiness. The idea that being a world-famous runner can result in tremendous riches not easily available to Kenyans.

The Power of Context. Seeing your fellows chasing the same dream, wishing to keep up with them (cf Pedro's comment as well).

Might we conclude that long-distance running has tipped in Kenya, Macolm?

Heather Ross

"Here's the appropriate thought experiment. Imagine that every year 50 percent of all American 10 year old boys were shipped to Boulder Colorado, where they ran 50 to 70 miles a week at altitude for the next seven years. Would the United States regain control of international middle and long distance running?"

I believe that the answer would be no. As you said earlier in your post, the boys see it as a way out. Boys in America don't need that way out so the desire wouldn't be there. Competitiveness requires desire - desire to win, desire to succeed, etc.


All human traits and characteristics are a result of the interplay between environment and genetics. You cannot simply say that it is one or the other.

Surely, we do not discount the difference that genetics play when considering two individuals of the same race. Consider Michael Jordan vs. Gary Coleman (or anyone African-American of average ability to be less extreme).

Or Lance Armstrong vs. the average white person. No amount of training or desire can make up for the physical differences in lung capacity, aerobic efficiency, muscle makeup and a host of other largely genetic physical traits.

Yes, desire might make the difference between two similarly naturally gifted athletes, but not between Michael Jordan and the average man.

Of course, we know that genetic variation between individuals is far greater than that between races - a term which more and more DNA evidence shows has little biological meaning. (See the fascinating book "Mapping Human History", by Steve Olsen).

Still, it might be too optimistic to claim that there are zero differences between groups. Pretty close to zero, but I'm not sure one can say zero. Everyone not of direct African descent had anscestors that left Africa around 60,000 years ago. That is 60,000 years (not much, but potentially enough) to optimize physical traits for other environments and terrains. For instance to combat the cold European nostrils changed their shape.

But the real question here is whether the group differences are large enough to overcome individual differences at a statistical level. In general, I think the answer is no, but remember we are talking about the elite runners/athletes at the far end of the normal distribution.

If there is an advantage I think it is very very small, but again perhaps just enough to show at the elite level. (Or is that desire and cultural difference again) I am not a statistician, but it would seem to me that (for instance) if there were a significant difference in groups then all sports would be dominated by one group given that there are millions of people in a given group, but only 500 to 1000 spots on professional teams.


When I said dominated above, I meant exculsively - 100%. For example there are approximately 3 million African American males of professional football playing age in the U.S., but only about 1000 spots in the NFL. That means if every spot were taken by an African American that only the best .03 percent would make it.

If there were a large genetic difference over non-African- American players, it would seem impossible that any non-African-American players would make the NFL (they would have to be better than the best 99.97% of the genetically better African-Americans.) Yet, the NFL is at only around 2/3 African American suggesting there may be a group genetic difference, but it is very small.

Alas someone has done some math on this subject:



Why is it that only Kenyans are mentioned as having the best long distance runners in the world. Over the past 10-20 yrs, Ethiopian runners (most notably the great Haile Guebre Selassie) have DOMINATED the 5K - 10K distance. They have repeatedly beaten kenyans, both women and men. Now, Kenyans are better at the shorter distances (800m - 5k) along with the Morrocans. Overall though, i believe that Ethiopia is just as strong a running nation as Kenya. I just wanted to add this fact so that people don't mistake long distance running to be exclusively a Kenyan show.


The genetic makeup of Moroccans, Ethiopians and Kenyans is quite different, so I think the genetic explanation is quite flawed. Personally, I believe that altitude, nationwide interest and strong athletics programs are responsible for why these countires are so good at long distance running. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haile_Gebreselassie

jennifer j

Hey Malcolm -- welcome back! I was just in Eldoret, Kenya at the high altitude training camps. Let me know when you start running again and want to come for a visit! (p.s. I wasn't training - we tourism board reps were just taking a tour.)

The woman who won the Nairobi marathon in late October is quoted as saying, "My husband had to go out and borrow money for me to come to Nairobi. He is jobless and getting Sh1,200 to use as fare is not easy for him. He struggled to let me come and compete in Nairobi."

note: 1,200 Kenyan Schillings is $18.50 usd


Sorry, but have to agree with the cultural argument, a good corrollary is professional cycling - very much the same aerobic capacity/power-to-weight ratio criteria as running (and, yes, for argument's sake, let's neutralize the PED angle...). It's hard to argue that the Belgians or the Dutch or the Spanish are genetically different. It's the Hockey in Canada argument - Belgium has cycling schools (!) There were 1.5M (out of a population of 6M) people on the side of the road this spring to watch the Tour of Flanders (a single-day race)- that'll raise the quality level...

Josh Gold

If black NBA basketball players have genetic advantages over white players, why don't they dominate the high jump or triple jump in track and field? A high percentage of the best high jumpers and best triple jumpers are white.


It is great to see Malcom blogging again! Salazar's numbers are hard to believe, but if they are even within a magnitude, it really does tell a story. Those kind of numbers are overpowering.

It is disheartening to hear the old thinking about race come up in the comments, and I think as the kind of thinkers and intellectuals who read a blog like Malcolm's we owe ourselves a bit deeper and more careful treatment of such matters, though we are influenced by thousands of years of a fatally flawed heuristic: that race is the cause of human attributes.

Why did Man come up with the idea of "race"? As far as I can tell, race has long been used to separate the "us" from "them". This was quite useful when dealing with a stranger in tribal times, or during unarmored warfare. Friend or foe? Is this person my enemy? The hair, the eyes, the facial features -- one could tell at a glance. Even in those earliest years, it became part of war mongering and battle motivation speeches. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_%28historical_definitions%29]

"Race" is actually a very inexact thing, however: it is judged either by several of one's visible physical traits, or by such traits of one's biological parents. Assuming that individuals of similar visible characteristics self select each other over time, those physical characteristics will remain in the family tree. The selection dynamic is a strong social force, after all you are going to mate with one of "us, not one of "them", right? The resulting perpetuation of the similar visible physical traits within a family over time leads many to believe that race is the root of human characteristics. It is obviously true, but in truth, false.

The few visible physical traits of "race" are only riders on the family DNA, like foot size, propensity for colon cancer, relative length of 2nd toe, male pattern baldness, and everything else. Consider there are 20,000+ genes in the human. Trying to assess genetic running aptitude based on skin color and hair is like trying to assess running aptitude based on on whether the parents were bald and died of colon cancer. "Most genetic diversity occurs within races rather than between them." [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_genetics]

Any astute runner can tell you straight away that there are two main categories of runners: those that can run long, and those that can sprint fast. Two key genetic gifts that may provide an advantageous genetic starting point for sprinting, a high percentage of fast twitch muscle fiber and relatively high lower body muscle mass, are absolutely contrary to what makes for a great long distance runner. Great sprinters struggle to run marathons; great marathoners do not excel at the same level in the 100 meter dash, even if their skin color, hair, and facial features are much the same.

After all, they had different grandparents.


While going to a liberal arts college in Colorado that was free for Native Americans. I met a number of Native Americans that would easily run ten miles a day. There are many tribes in the Southwest (especially Arizona) that have running apart of their daily lives similar to children in Kenya. Maybe we as Americans are looking in the wrong place for talent.

For training Durango, Colorado would be a better choice than Boulder for training. Fort Lewis College in Durango only has about 5k students but still has some of the best teams in endurance related sports such as soccer, biking, and lacrosse.


I enjoy reading your books and your articles for the New Yorker. What topic is your upcoming book covering?

Doug Stewart

There are obvious differences between the races. For example, some are more prone to certain diseases than others. In some cases this is due to environmental factors but in others (e.g. inherited sickle-cell anemia) it is unquestionably genetic.

We seem willing to accept that certain medical conditions are heriditary and that certain races have these disadvantageous genes to a greater extent.

Why can we not accept the converse, that certain races also have genetic advantages in specific fields. For example, the native Kenya population has a higher proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibers, which is an advantage for marathon races (although a disadvantage for sprinting)?

DH in DC

Excellent post. I agree that from the evidence discussed you cannot conclude that Kenyan's are better marathon runners because of a genetically superior make up. Instead, the best explanation for their dominance in this field is the large talent pool of Kenyans who run/train extensively. However, isn't it correct that merely from the fact that many more of their youth run so prolifically, you can't conclude that they are NOT genetically superior? To reach that conclusion, wouldn't you need to have a pool of equal numbers (enough of each to run an experiment that will lead meaningful results) of Kenyans and non-Kenyans who train in the same conditions for a lengthy period? That, to me, seems like the apples-to-apples comparison needed to DISPROVE the "genetic superiority" hypothesis.

Let me add that I am troubled by all of the discussion about genetic superiority and its impact on racial and ethnic beliefs. I tend to think that the differences are insignificant, especially when we know that certain policies can have a positive impact on our society, and that in the scheme of social policy the "genetic differences" argument is really a red herring, used as a divisive distraction from what matters.


The Japanese have a very deep marathon pool of runners.

Christopher Horn

A long long time ago, on November 17th, Pedro said this about the thought experiment, referring specifically to soccer:

"I'm surprised that none of the hypothesis mention peer-pressure...It's a matter of how good are the people you're competing against"

Pedro pointed to the impact of peer pressure on performance, and that sparked for me a memory of the dreadful Colorado adoption study.

That landmark study, striking fear into the hearts of parents everywhere, showed that while parents provide genetic material to their children, parents have little social influence on their childrens' formation - social influence is entirely a function of the child's peer group.

Gladwell-philes will recall that Malcolm cited that study in The Tipping Point (its on page 240-1 in my copy). Its relevant here to Pedro's point, in that the quality of soccer, or running, or any activity in a country is going to be a function of the quality of the competition from the perceived peer group.

Looking at it a bit differently: Dane also discussed the inferiority of Chinese soccer, which can be understood via this peer group phenomenon ... after the top flight Chinese soccer players have been blown out a couple of times against Germans, Brazilians, et. al, those Chinese players will aim to match their new desired peers (world class Brazilians) - and the gap will no doubt close...

...so in the spirit of the Colorado Adoption Study, how about an amendment to the Colorado Long-Distance Running study?

Let's sprinkle a couple of Kip Keino's among the many thousands of boys training in Boulder, and we'll be off to the races (in a manner of speaking).

Christopher Horn

and a final postscript:

Suppose the Chinese national soccer team is inferior to the Brazilians because once a Chinese soccer player becomes best-in-class in his country he is still way short of world class. Suppose further that the Chinese players wish to perceive the Brazilians as peers, so as to raise their level to world class.

If you were a Brazilian, a lover of soccer and your beloved national team, would you go on a blog that Chinese soccer players read religiously, and there would you talk about how slow, or weak, or fitted with the wrong twitch-type muscles the Chinese are? Would you lament, with feigned objectivity, the impossibility of the Chinese ever competing on a world stage, contributing to Chinese perceiving themselves as having no better option than remaining second rate?

And if you did that, would it be fair to label you a racist?

Even though you would simply be exploiting natural attitudes of those unlike you, attitudes you didn't create, but which exploitation is for the betterment of you or those like you?

Its funny...last year many of us, myself included, gave Malcolm the business for suggesting that car salesmen were racist for doing almost precisely the same thing to unsuspecting black customers.

Clearly, this racism business is way more complicated than we wish to admit.


What is the motivation for excluding potential factors? Could it not be that racial genetics and culture and economics and environment are all contributors? Given the complexity of the equation and the difficulties involved in weighting the factors I have to wonder if arguments which rush to exclude genetics are inspired by political correctness.

Christopher Horn

Do any of you guys read Sports Illustrated? If so, check out last week's issue, its the one that places the cover jinx on the Missouri Tigers, you know with Chase Daniel on the cover.

In the opening pages SI always has a couple of two page spreads featuring some sporting event or another; last week one such spread was the NCAA cross country championships.

In the context of this conversation, notice that there are maybe a half-dozen or more runners of seemingly Kenyan/Ethiopian/etc. heritage at the front of the pack. There are maybe one or two Kenyans/Ethiopians/etc among the larger mass of runners further back.

That photo suggests that one doesn't even have to reach Kip Keino-type levels to realize life dreams as a schoolboy runner in Africa. I predict the African runners in the photo will all achieve outsize accomplishments relative to their home country peers, even if few (if any) win an Olympic medal.


I wondered how it took so long for someone to mention the Japanese marathoners.

Having Japan take 3 of the 6 marathon medals in Beijing would surprise no one who is knowledgeable about elite running.

Maybe they have a genetic advantage too.

I know the Kiwis had a genetic advantage, but only while Lydiard was coaching. Funny how that happens.

Dr Bonk

It's just common sense: if you tell a hundred kids that they can be a hundred different things when they grow up, then you'll produce a hundred different interests. But if you tell a hundred kids that they're only choices are baseball, basketball, and football, of course that's what you'll get.

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