Sunday, February 06, 2005

Last Year's Super Bowl Digital Recycled...

Memo to those

Budweiser guzzling and

Doritos munching jock fiends out there. I have a serious confession to make:


And that is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

When are they playing again?

In June?

Who is in the finals this year?

Someone told me that it is the

Chicago Bulls against

the Philadelphia Flyers.

Is that true?


Michael Jordan still a running back for

the Florida Packers?


Mike Tyson play defence for

the New England Indians?


Marion Jones the main quarterback for the Detroit Yankees?


Janet Jackson the Most Valuable Player at last year's Super Bowl?

Is it true that

Justin Timberlake

was traded to

Liverpool or is he playing for



Tiger Woods the Pitcher for the

San Diego Lions?

How long does Super Bowl take? Seven games or six sets?

Who gets to do the three pointers from the

First Down?

Please, don't tell me, I know, I know:

Gail Devers.

Now, I can read your minds, dear creepozoids, you are thinking, you are going:

"Onyango Oloo- What an



I agree.

I am a complete ignoramus when it comes to sports.

And when it comes to football, I know more about the variety associated with



Zinadine "Zizou" Zidane


Roger Milla.

When it comes to


football, you will find me waxing lyrical, in a poem you will see if you stay with this digital.

Anyways, I am just messing with you all.

Have a GREAT Super Bowl tomorrow, you NFL aficionados....

By the way my muthendi is on

Donovan McNabb and the Eagles win or lose...

I just wanted to recycle a digital essay I unleashed almost exactly a year ago.

Can Kenya Soar to Greater Heights in Sports?

Another Marathon Essay from Onyango Oloo

Montreal, February 2, 2004

11:23 am EST

It is the morning after

the night before.

Yes, yesterday, was

the thriller

in Houston
between some patriotic jocks from the American north east and some sturdy cats from the south.

I am not going to be a Monday morning quarterback quacking like a television quack pundit moaning and groaning, whining and pining about the what ifs, if onlys and how abouts that is probably dominating the anguished reflections of the Panthers and their heart-broken fans in the aftermath of Super Bowl XXXVIII.

I will not do that for two reasons.

Number one, I know zilch about American football, in spite of the best efforts of my friend Munene (a Patch,that is to say, Nairobi School rugby alumnus from the early eighties) to show me the ropes over many a Sunday afternoon. I still can not tell a First Down from a Running Back and I will be clueless if you asked me whether the Titans are in the NFC or with the “other guys”. And to this day I am always looking for the motorbikes which I assumed must go with all those crash helmets the players saddle themselves with even as they bump and grind sending adrenaline rushing like the Niagara Falls to countless couch potatoes in the USA, Canada and elsewhere.

The second reason why I can not give you a play by play commentary on what some CBS commentator (in what is becoming an annual updated ritual) called the “greatest “Super Bowl ever, is because, folks, I was not really watching the game.

Sorry, my Budweiser guzzling Kenyan compatriots- not everyone is giddy and delirious about prime time commercial drenched organized sports.

But that is not the reason why I was not really watching the game.

You see, I was kinda, sort of watching the game.

I mean, like practically every other North American home, my television was locked on CBS.

And was that

Beyonce doing that absolutely angelic rendition of the American national anthem or what?

An experience immediately sullied by the ostentatious parade of


(or was were they

Black Hawks? They always name their military toys after an Indigenous nation of Turtle Island) and the most vapid display of flag waving American Jingoism.

But then I had to contend with the reality that right in the middle of that very living room there was this gorgeous, absolutely stupendous Kenyan woman who had taken the trouble of jumping into a cab and come over to my apartment on this freezing evening just to hang out with me. And she knows even less about American football and cares even less about sports.

So what is a guy to do?

Snub a lovely compatriot interested in a heart to heart conversation or go ape shiit over the deadly duel between

Brady and


Decisions, decision, decisions.

So, I opted for a deft compromise:

Watch that game MUTED while drinking in the honey flowing from the human 8th Wonder paying me a courtesy call.

And to all you frisky, porn addled freaks out there- NO, it was not that kind of an evening. There was no spontaneous Greco-Roman wrestling bouts that took place in my living room, or my bedroom for that matter- so could you quickly retrieve your minds from that mtaro please?

I must confess though, that I did become a very, very bad host towards the dying minutes of the fourth quarter- with those see saw changes in the score and final heart stopping moment as

Adam Vinatieri brutally drove a dagger through the collective hearts of millions of sobbing Panther fanatics with that last minute stupendous kick to NFL folklore. And I would be lying through my teeth if I did not register a candid confession that yes, like billions of male Neanderthals around the globe, I did absolutely gawk, ogle and droooool when Justin Timberlake “accidentally” triggered the “wardrobe malfunction”

on Janet Jackson’s bosom, causing the overflow of a supple studded chocolate boob to the gasping delight and hypocritical “disgust” of puritans around the world. Later on, I saw a story posted on the MTV site on January 28th promising “ shocking moments” during Janet’s half time slot and wondered to what extent was the whole “accident” choreographed. (see this story also) I reminded myself that Super Bowl Sunday is like the Xmas Day of Jocks Around the World and it is in order for the networks to programme the requisite Tits and Ass show into the extravaganza.

All appearances to the contrary, this essay is NOT about organized sports in North America or the presence of well known African American pop divas in certain over-saturated television spectacles.

As always, I am anchored firmly to Kenyan realities.

And today I want to move away from the "usual"subjects and talk about sports. But that DOES NOT MEAN that I will cease being political, as we shall soon see.

We are getting our soccer behinds whooped in Tunisia. We cried foul when the Malian with French connections completed our massacre during the first game. And then the heroes of the 2002 World Cup, those boys from Senegal made us feel the same way the Panther fans are feeling today. I have special sympathies for ANY Panther fan who also follows the elusive quest of our overmatched and our outplayed Harambee Stars. Ouch. That must hurt. It is like a worker coming home who is pigwad ngeta (mugged) not once but twice in the same evening by two separate gangs of street hoodlums.

Even the most rabid Kenyan Senegal lover can not relate to this poem that I composed during the last World Cup.

As if that was not enough, our

Kenyan Cheronos are becoming

Qatari Shaheens ,rapidly joined by other instant athletic Muslims who follow the money to the finish line rather than grabbing the flag of their mother land for a victory lap.

Our sports administrators would not make it past the early heats if there was an Olympics for sports management.

Here is how Juma Kwayera put it almost two years ago in an article for the Nairobi based East African.

And another prolific digital essayist, Michael Mundia Kamau, had this to say in 2000:

As recently as two days ago, the London based Guardian was also weighing in on the issue:

The decision by the Kenyan teen sensation to fling back the thirty pieces of Qatari silver has been portrayed in the most vaunted operatic proportions.

It is clear that we have a problem with the sports in Kenya which is kind of ironic given the Western assumptions that we Kenyans are DESTINED TO RULE, at least in the athletics world.

I will come back to share my perspectives about how we can revamp the administration of sports in Kenya.

But first I want to take you all on one of my meandering sight seeing tours around the world of intriguing ideas and provocative thoughts.

Here we go. Fasten your seat belts. There could be some turbulence along the way.

How many of you have read a magazine called


What is that? I hear you ask, somewhat skeptically.

Well, since you ask, let me tell you.

SKEPTIC describes itself as a “quarterly publication of the Skeptics Society, devoted to the investigation of extraordinary claims & revolutionary ideas& the promotion of science & critical thinking”. It is published in Altadena, California, and remains one of my favourite magazines.

But, but, but…I hear you mutter and stammer and stutter.. Wha..Wha,, What does this, what does this have to do with SPORTS IN KENYA for crying out loud?

Well, please do not cry out loud.

Instead, calm down and enjoy the ride.

The reason I brought up SKEPTIC is because I want to talk about a specific issue of the magazine that I have right here in front of me- all 106 pages of it. This particular issue- Vol. 8, No.1, 2000 has a special section on voodoo science( debunking tall tales of “dreams of infinite free energy,“attention deficit disorder, chiropracty); an interview with evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr and an article about the “physics of the soul.”

But that is NOT why I have dragged this innocent magazine into yet another one of my rambling essays.

I bring in the magazine because a big chunk of this particular issue is DEVOTED TO DISCUSSING ATHLETIC PROWESS IN SPECIFIC RELATION TO KENYA.

The cover story gives my intentions away: “Race and Sports” which is a special symposium featuring Jon Entine, Vince Sarich, Michael Shermer and John Hoberman.How can you held of this back issue, I hear you suddenly ask, you initial skepticism completely evaporated?

Well, you can try writing to them to send you a copy. Here is their mailing address:

P.O. BOX 338 , ALTADENA, CA 91001

PHONE: 626/794-3119, FAX: 626/794-1301


You can do something much simpler.

Like clicking on this link

So why do I want to waste your time with a magazine called the Skeptic?

Well, first of all, if you feel I am wasting your time, you can buzz off, ok?

As I was saying, this particular issue is very important for Kenyans, at least in my opinion.

Let us look at the introductory article by Frank Miele which summarizes the special symposium:

“Race is to America what the Goddess Discord was to Homeric legends—invite her to the banquet and she brings trouble with her, ignore her and she visits trouble on you. From Thomas Jefferson’s words, “all men are created equal” to “separate but equal,” and from “equality of opportunity” to “equality of outcome,” the subject of race refuses to vanish from our national life. As anthropologist and participant in this forum, Vincent Sarich, notes: “When we discuss issues such as race, it pushes buttons and the cerebral cortex just shuts down.”

“For most of the last 50 years the province of sociology and anthropology, the concept of race has now reemerged as a broader scientific issue. President Clinton acknowledged as much in his latest State of the Union Address, when, in commenting on the Human Genome Project, he observed that the world’s races share more than 99 percent of their genes.

“But what does that statement really mean? Does it mean that human differences are minuscule and therefore meaningless? Or was it a blatantly political sop, yet another invocation of the taboo against discussing human diversity—cultural and biological?

“Jon Entine, investigative journalist, Emmy-award winning producer for NBC and ABC News, and recipient of the prestigious National Press Club Award, examines this question in his book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It. Simply stated, it is the most explosive book on race and ability since Herrnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve, for which Skeptic also hosted debate (Vol. 3, #3).

“Taboo is based on the 1989 NBC documentary, narrated by Tom Brokaw, Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction, which Entine wrote and produced, which netted more than 250 reviews and articles around the world and was named best international sports film of the year. Yet it faced relentless criticism from those who believed that even mentioning the possibility that evolution may have left a biological imprint on human populations was a subject too dangerous for Americans to ponder.

“Now Entine has revisited the subject, this time incorporating a wide range of social, cultural, and scientific perspectives to understand why this issue so transfixes and repels so many otherwise thoughtful people.

“This special Skeptic symposium on Race and Sports begins with Jon Entine’s summary of the thesis of Taboo, followed by his account of the struggle to break the self-censorship imposed by the publishing industry against discussing the reality of race. Next professor John Hoberman of the University of Texas takes a skeptical look at the concept of race and the link between “racial differences” and athletic performance; he also considers the degree to which such statistical associations can take on a life of their own and harm our society.

“U.C. Berkeley anthropologist Vincent Sarich then argues that race is a meaningful biological concept, not a mere social construction, and that racial differences in abilities and behaviors have been important over the course of human evolution. If anything, Sarich contends, Entine himself is somewhat wary of breaking the final taboo.

“Michael Shermer closes out the discussion by integrating his knowledge of how science works (especially within such emotionally-charged fields as race differences) with his first-hand experiences as an elite athlete in ultra-marathon cycling. He examines several cognitive biases clouding observations and theorizing on both sides of this issue, and asks why it is that Americans are so obsessed with black-white differences, and what any of these differences really mean for our society and ourselves.”

Very quickly, let us go through the arguments and counter-arguments:

First, Jon Entine. What does he have to say?

Let us tune in:

“…Even a casual mention that there exist any meaningful genetic differences between races can ignite a firestorm. In a speech before the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1995, Roger Bannister, the distinguished neurologist, retired Oxford dean, and the first man to break the four minute barrier in the mile, in 1954, was showered with ridicule for venturing his opinion “as a scientist rather than a sociologist” that all athletes are not created equal. “I am prepared to risk political incorrectness,” he said, “by drawing attention to the seemingly obvious but under stressed fact that black sprinters and black athletes in general all seem to have certain natural anatomical advantages.”

That’s the explosive “N”word—natural. “Nurture”alone cannot explain the remarkable trends. Over the past 30 years, as sport has opened wide to athletes from almost every country, the results have become increasingly segregated. There are only 800 million blacks, or one in eight of the world population, but athletes of African origin hold every major world running record from the 100 meters to the marathon. In the United States, where African Americans make up about 13% of the population, almost 90% of professional basketball players, 70% of the National Football League, and more than a third of professional baseball is black. In Britain, with a black population of less than 2%, one in 5 professional soccer players is black. Blacks have also come to dominate world boxing.

"Why do blacks of West African ancestry dominate sports in which the social and economic barriers are lowest?

Fifty years of anthropological and more recent physiological studies have documented clear, if overlapping, biologically-based differences between athletes of different populations. Scientists are just beginning to isolate the genetic links to those differences (though the fact that the anatomy and physiology are in large measure inherited is unequivocal). That’s the science. The politics is more precarious. Any suggestion of human differences is publicly and politically seen as divisive or worse in a country which sometimes gives lip service to equal opportunity and where race remains a festering sore..”

Further down he declares:

“…In fact, highly heritable characteristics such as skeletal structure, the distribution of muscle fiber types, reflex capabilities, lung capacity, and the ability to use energy more efficiently are not evenly distributed across racial groups and cannot be explained by known environment factors. Consider diving, gymnastics, and ice-skating, sports in which East Asians excel. Asians tend to be small with relatively short extremities, long torsos, and a thicker layer of fat. “Chinese splits,” a rare maneuver demanding extraordinary flexibility, has roots in this anthropometric reality.

"Eurasian whites are the premier wrestlers and weight lifters in the world. Evolutionary forces have shaped a population with large, muscular upper bodies with relatively short arms and legs and thick torsos. These proportions tend to be an advantage in sports in which strength rather than speed is at a premium. This region also turns out an extraordinary number of top field athletes—javelin throwers, shot-putters, and hammer throwers (whites hold 46 of the top 50 all time throws).

Athletes who trace their ancestry to western African coastal states, including British, Caribbean and American blacks, are the quickest and best leapers in the world. Consequently, they almost completely monopolize the sprints up to 400 meters. No white, Asian, or East African runners have broken 10 seconds in the 100m. Athletes of West African descent hold the top two hundred times in the 100m—all less than 10 seconds––and 797 of the top 800 times. All 32 finalists in the last four Olympic men’s 100-meter races were West African. The likelihood of that happening based on population numbers alone is 0.0000000000000000000000000000000001. Yet there are no—not one—premier distance runners who trace their ancestry to this region in Africa.

"Studies have shown that athletes of West African origin hit a biomechanical wall after about 45 seconds of intense, anaerobic activity, when aerobic skills come into play. East Africans, who have small and slender ectomorphic body types and are therefore hapless in the sprints, dominate distance running.

"Whereas the West African population evolved in the lowlands and remained relatively isolated, East African runners trace their ancestry to the highlands. This region in Africa is also a genetic stew, with studies indicating a mixture of genes from invading Arabs and Middle Easterners. Kenya, with 28 million people, is the athletic powerhouse. At the Seoul Olympics in 1988, Kenyan men won the 800, 1,500, and 5,000 meters, along with the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Based on population percentages alone, the likelihood of such a performance is one in 1.6 billion. The Kalenjin people of the Great Rift Valley adjacent to Lake Victoria—who represent 1/2000th of the world population —win 40% of top international distance running honors and three times as many distance medals as athletes from any other nation in the world. One tiny district, the Nandi, with only 500,000 people, swept an unfathomable 20% of major international distance events. By almost any measure, the Nandi region is the greatest concentration of raw athletic talent in the history of sports. It’s a potent example of the interacting bio-cultural forces that shape great athletes…”

But Jon Entine is not done with his theme yet. He cites the Black people who have embraced his book, Taboo:

“…What has been the reaction from the black community, to the degree that it has been homogeneous? Gary Sailes, editor of the Journal Of The African American Male, wrote a blurb for the book in which he calls Taboo “Compelling, bold, comprehensive, informative, and enlightening.” The black magazine Emerge, in its March issue, called the book “thoughtful, thorough, and sensitive. …Taboo is a good read for anyone interested in the history of black athletes in the United States and world-wide.” John C. Walter, professor of history in the American Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Washington, in a review in the Seattle Times, writes that “Taboo is both provocative and informed. Entine has provided a well-intentioned effort for all to come clean on the possibility that black people might just be superior physically, and that there is no negative connection between that physical superiority and their IQs.”

"What are we to make of this phenomenon in which some whites, so quick to crow about their own racial sensitivity, recklessly inject racial divisiveness into a debate in which most African Americans see thoughtfulness? It’s apparent that many blacks have become irritated to the point of anger by the patronizing censorship and condescension of many journalists and academics. “I am an editorial columnist,” wrote Bill Maxwell of the St. Petersburg Times in a personal note to me after his glowing column on Taboo. “I reviewed your book because I enjoyed reading it. It cut through all of the bull****. I am black.”

"The evidence that there are bio-culturally grounded differences between populations in body type, physiology, and athletic performance is overwhelming and growing. Although the African biological edge in some sports is not great, at the level of an elite athlete, even a small advantage can be the difference between a gold medal and finishing out of the money. On-the-field trends create a cultural advantage that forms a biosocial feedback loop, with nature and nurture fueling each other. Nevertheless, it is critical to remember that no individual athlete can succeed without the ‘X-factor,’ the lucky spin of the roulette wheel of genetics matched with considerable dedication and sport smarts. “It’s the brain, not the heart or lungs, that is the critical organ,” Sir Roger Bannister told me. “But one would have to be blind not to see a pattern here. I hope we are not at a time and place where we are afraid to talk about remarkable events. I hope not.”

"Popular thought is now beginning to catch up with scientific knowledge. The genetics revolution has decisively overturned the dated belief that all humans are created with equal potential, a tabula rasa, or blank slate, for experience and culture to write upon. Acknowledging human biodiversity may approach a danger zone, but pretending that there are no slippery questions does not prevent them from being asked, if only under one’s breath.

"Taboo is not so much a sports book as it is a cultural and historical account, warts and all, of how western culture has understood what it means to be human. It debunks facile theories of race that have been used for hundreds of years to justify racism and even genocide. Most important, it shatters stereotypes that blacks or whites or any racial group are innately “superior” or “inferior.” This is a book about the rich diversity of life, free of the myths of “ranking” that have plagued Western thought for centuries. That’s the message of Taboo; for the most part, it is being heard…”

Vincent Sarich using what on the surface appears to be a meticulous and impeccable “scientific” approach, comes up with serious arguments to back up Jon Entine by advancing what I call the “Kalenjin Hypothesis”:

“The Race is to the Swiftest and the Swiftest are the Kalenjin
On the other hand, let's analyze some real data that should make the case for racial differences in sports performance obvious to all. The venue is the World Cross-Country Championships in Turin, Italy in 1997. The competition included 275 runners from 60 countries. They took part in a test of human bipedal ability about as similar to what our ancestors faced in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) as one could imagine.

"The results? For the 12th consecutive year, the team title went to Kenya. Kenyans took two of the three medals, and five of the first 10 places, finishing 1st, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 17th, 19th, 24th, 28th, and 47th (no country being allowed more than 10 entrants). The winning time was 35 minutes, 11 seconds. The 10 Kenyans averaged 36:04, which if obtained by a single runner would have given him 12th place overall. And this doesn't even begin to tell the whole story on the magnitude of group differences, as most of the Kenyan runners come from one tribe, the Kalenjin, who number only 3 million and make up about 10% of Kenya's population.

"Over those 12 years of Kenyan domination, if the Kalenjin runners had been a team of their own, they would have won the team title 8 times, and they have taken 18 of the 36 medals. In other words, the Kalenjin have been "over-represented" among the medalists by a factor of about 1700. (Here's the math: 3 million Kalenjin versus 5 billion of the rest of us humans. The Kalenjin took 18 of 36 possible medals; and the entire rest of the world together got the other 18. Their "over-representation" is then as 5 billion is to 3 million, or a factor of about 1700.)

"But what about the received dogma that bipedalism is such a critical aspect of the human adaptation that one would not expect to see great differences either from individual to individual, or between populations? Well, it seems to me that a factor of 1700 can legitimately be seen as a "great difference."

"We can crunch the numbers even more finely to compute the difference in running ability between the average Kalenjin and the average for the rest of the world. The most useful metric here is the standard deviation, where, for a normal (i.e., bell curve type) distribution, the area that falls between one standard deviation (SD) on each side of the mean includes 68.26% of the sample; two SDs, 95.6%; three, 99.3%; and so on.

"So how many standard deviations is the Kalenjin mean beyond the mean of the rest of the world? How do you get to a ratio of 1700? Assume that the cross-country medalists are ultimately selected from, in effect, 20 million males of the appropriate age all around the world. That means that the winner is about 5.3 SD above the world mean; that is, at +5.3 SD on the bell curve we are looking at the best individual among 20 million competitors. But only about 12,000 of those 20 million (one in 1700) are Kalenjin, and the best among 12,000 is only 3.8 SDs above the Kalenjin mean. The Kalenjin mean then would be about 1.5 SD (5.3 SDs - 3.8 SDs = 1.5 SDs) beyond that of the rest of the world. That is an enormous difference for any measure of human performance. Put that figure in the more familiar IQ context and the Kalenjin have an RQ (Running Quotient) of about 122 compared to a world mean of 100.

"And just how much is 1 SD of RQ worth in cross-country finishing time? If the best runners are 5.3 SD beyond the world mean (a probability of 1 in 20 million on the bell curve), then 1 SD slower equals 4.3 SD above the world mean, which is about 150-fold more frequent. As the finishing times in the 1997 race were: 1st = 35:11; 150th = 38:44, 1 SD was worth about 3.5 minutes. So a properly conditioned male with average genetic potential and of an appropriate age (that is, one at the world mean), would require 35:11 plus 3.5 minutes per SD x 5.3 SDs, or about 55 minutes to complete the courseóa full 20 minutes behind the winner!

Just How Big Are Race Differences?

"What about other, less contentious realms? For example, what is the degree of racial variation with respect to morphology in humans as compared to other taxa? I answered that question five years ago in Skeptic (3:3:87) as follows: "racial morphological distances within our species are, on the average, about equal to the distances among species within other genera of mammals, as, for example, between pygmy and common chimpanzees. I am not aware of any other mammalian species where the constituent races are as strongly marked as they are in ours."

"To which I should have added "except those few races heavily modified by recent human selection; in particular, dogs." I remain as unaware as I was then of any other mammalian species that exhibits such extensive variation, and I have come to think that there really aren't any. Since I wrote that sentence in 1995 I have addressed the matter of "racial morphological distances" in a more quantitative manner, and I present some of those data and conclusions here.
Previous investigators have not bothered to quantify these issues, which allows ideology to prevail. To avoid this problem I present some comparisons below that apply the same metric to various cranial and facial measurements compiled by world recognized authorities in their respective fields. The metrics designed here represent a novel methodological approach for studying this problem. The 29 human samples were provided courtesy of physical anthropologist W.W. Howells, using 28 measurements on some 2500 individuals; the large chimpanzee sample (17 measurements on 347 individuals) and gorilla sample (25 measurements on 590 individuals) were both provided courtesy of primate taxonomist Colin Groves of the Australian National University in Canberra. Taxonomists classify chimps into two species, the common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), and the so-called pygmy chimp or bonobo (Pan paniscus). The common chimp species, Pan troglodytes, is itself divided into three subspecies or races, called P. t. verus, P. t. troglodytes, and P. t. schweinfurthii. Gorillas are classified as belonging to either the western or one or more of four eastern populations. The formal taxonomy for gorillas is still in dispute, with some recent classifications seeing three speciesóone in the west (Gorilla gorilla) and two in the east (G. graueri and the so-called "mountain gorilla," G. berengi), while others classify the eastern forms as races of Gorilla gorilla.

"The metric I have used here is the percentage difference per size-corrected measurement (expressed in SD units), and the numbers given are the percent increases in distance going from within-group to between-group comparisons of individuals. Thus, for example, the increase in average distance in going from the paired comparisons of two males to similar comparisons for male and female pairings in some human populations is about 1-3%; for example, for Zulu, 1.15%; Australia, 1.87%; and Santa Cruz Island, California, 2.16%.

"For pygmy chimps, the corresponding increase for male-female versus male-male comparisons is 4.7%; for common chimps it is 10.4%. These figures are consistent with the general sense that the degree of sexual dimorphism increases as we go from humans to pygmy chimps to common chimps.

"Comparing distances among the three common chimp subspecies or races (for males) gives us about 6% between verus and either schweinfurthii or troglodytes, and 1.6% (which is getting very close to noise level) between the latter two. From bonobo to verus is about 20%; to troglodytes, 14.6%; and to schweinfurthii, 8.8%. These three bonobo morphological distances are correlated with the corresponding geographical distances, and one has to wonder to what extent the smaller bonobo (P. paniscus)chimpanzee (P. t. schweinfurthii) statistic is due to parallel evolution and how much to gene flow between the two sometime after the basic chimp/bonobo split took place. Neither I nor anyone else as yet presumes to have the answer to that one.

"For gorillas the basic split is between the western form (G. gorilla) and four eastern populations (three races of G. graueri and G. berengi, the "mountain gorilla"). The relevant statistics for these comparisons are: 17.3%, 19.8%, 22.9%, and 24.7%, respectively. Between the first graueri race and the other three eastern forms, the percentages are 7.9%, 12.8%, 12.3%. Between the second graueri race and the others, the differences are 4% and 11.1%. Between the third graueri race and berengi, one gets a value of 8.4%.

"Those are the ape statistics I have calculated to date. Now, what about us humans? Let's start by comparing three African samples, using the data provided by W. W. Howells. The three samples include: the Dogon of Mali, the Teita (Kenyan Bantu speakers), and the South African Bushman. The morphological distances are as follows: Dogon to Teita = 9.9%; Dogon to Bushman = 13.4%; Teita to Bushman = 14.9%. Thus the Dogon or Teita to Bushman "racial" distance is very similar in magnitude to the 14.6% separating two chimpanzee species (using the Pan troglodytes troglodytes to bonobo number). Similar figures (16.3% and 15.5%, respectively) are obtained when comparing a sample from Hokkaido (Japanese, not Ainu) and two Amerind groups (the Arikara from South Dakota and a sample from Santa Cruz Island). Other comparisons that help put these distances in perspective are: South Australia to Tolai (a New Britain group) = 10%; Dogon to Norse = 19.4%; and South Australia to Norse = 26%.

"The largest distance among chimpanzees or gorillas (the 24.7% between G. gorilla and G. berengi) is slightly less than that separating Howells' Norse and the South Australian samples (26%), but even this set of statistics doesn't begin to exhaust the range of human variation. The largest differences of all in Howells' sample are found when comparing Africans with either Asians or Asian-derived (Amerind) populations. Thus, the distance between Teita and Tierra del Fuegans is 32.4%, while Zulu to Tierra del Fuegans or Santa Cruz yields a distance of about 36%. The largest difference for any of the human data sets is 46%, which comes from comparing Teita with Buriat (who live in the Lake Baikal area of Siberia and speak a Mongolian language).

"I will also note here that putting these results on the bell curve would mean that each increase of 15% in distance is worth about 1 SD, and that the absolute within-group variation does not vary significantly among the three genera (humans, chimps, and gorillas) involved. I think this is the first time any such comparisons have ever been carried out (and it is certainly the first time any such data have been published), and the results seem well worth the effort.

"Why? Who would have predicted that the racial morphological distances in our species could be much greater than any seen among chimpanzees or gorillas, or, on the average, some 10-fold greater than those between the sexes?

"I think it fair to say "no one." But they do exist, and they also seem to speak directly to the question of race differences in athletic performanceóin the sense that we again see those one to two, or more, SD spans coming up. If the prevailing orthodoxy were correct and race were just a recent social construction based on a few unimportant characteristics such as skin color, one couldn't find such differences in so critical a behavior as bipedalism or the anatomical structures on which it is based. Remember that the 1.5 SD advantage the Kalenjin have over the average human population suggests that there must be some population that is 1.5 SD below the mean, and therefore separated from the Kalenjin by 3 SDs (as are Buriat from Teita in the cranial data analysis above).

"In the PBS website debate between a leading forensic anthropologist, George Gill, and physical anthropologist Loring Brace on Kennewick Man and the reality of race, Gill describes how it is possible to determine race from skeletal remains, including those critical to bipedalism. "Numerous individual methods involving midfacial measurements, femur traits [which I note here are related to running ability], and so on are over 80% accurate alone, and in combination produce very high levels of accuracy. ÖI have been able to prove to myself over the years, in actual legal cases, that I am more accurate at assessing race from skeletal remains than from looking at living people standing beside me. ÖThe idea that race is ëonly skin deep' is simply not true, as any experienced forensic anthropologist will affirm." Were the orthodoxy true, Gill's statement could not be.

"At this point the skeptic might bring up the quite correct point that the genetic distances among human races are minimal, and argue that we might therefore be fooling ourselves with this concentration on phenotype rather than genotype. As President Clinton said in the first State of the Union address of the new millennium, referring to the 99.9% genetic identity of all living humans: "Modern science has confirmed what the old religious teachers told us [which, of course, they didn't], that what unites us is our common humanity." Well, the 99.9% figure is true enough. So is our common humanity. We do, after all, all belong to one species and so share a lengthy common evolutionary history. But the thrust of the message is not correct. And to see that it isn't, we need only to think of our closest friends. Dog breeds can obviously be much more different from one another, both morphologically and behaviorally, than human races; no one doubts that those differences are genetically based; and yet they remain genetically indistinguishable. That is, we cannot yet look at a dog's DNA and determine whether it is a Pit Bull or a Pekinese, but any child of five can, and so should any potential burglar.

"The point is that there need not be any strong correlation between genetic distance and morphological or behavioral distance. Therefore, one cannot legitimately argue, as many do for our species, that the minimal levels of interpopulational genetic variation observed are telling us something about the levels of such functional phenotypic variation present. Again, just as was the case for Darwin's thinking, looking at "artificial" (human-guided) selection gives us a much better sense of what natural selection can accomplish…”

Vincent Sarich further says:

“…Now that we have dealt with the question of why variation does not get used up, we can go back to the question of "why do Africans dominate some sports, such as sprinting and marathoning?" The answer is: (1) genes, genes, and more genes; and (2) nobody really knows why Africans should be so dominant. How do we know that statement (1) is correct? Because the results over the past few decades are consistent with a genetic model, and inconsistent with the "it's all society and culture" model. If it were the latter, then as opportunities for individuals of African descent began opening up, first on the track, and then in various professional sports, and finally, and especially, in Africa itself, we would have gotten an increase in African participation and competitiveness, up to where their numbers would be strongly correlated with their numbers in the arena from which the participants were being drawn. The NBA would be about 10% black, we'd see a Kalenjin only every few years at the cross-country championships. If, on the other hand, the athletic superiority was a product of genes, then we'd would have gotten exactly what we have gottenóparticular genetic populations in very different social and cultural settings producing very similar results.

At least some factors that could very likely be contributing to African dominance are clear. First, we have to remember that our lineage arose in Africa some 4-5 million years ago and, since then, has spent most of its time exclusively in Africa. Bipedalism began in Africa, stone tool making began in Africa, we first spoke in Africa, humanness began in Africa, much of the increase in brain size occurred in Africa, and so on. Our basic adaptations are African. Given that, it would seem that we would have had to make adaptive compromises, such as to cold weather, when populating other areas of the world, thus taking the edge off our "African-ness." Thus body fat levels seem to be at a minimum among African populations; they do not increase with age in them, and Africans in training can apparently achieve lower body fat levels more readily than is the case for Europeans and Asians. That would appear to be plenty to begin with in explaining such African dominance as exists in the running world.

The Final Taboo

The final taboo, to which Jon Entine devotes Chapter 18 (entitled "Sports and IQ"), results from the fear people have that allowing a genetic explanation in one area leads to the possibility of genetic contributions in all areas, and one of thoseóthe most touchy of allóis going to be brain power. The idea that being smart and being a good athlete are mutually exclusive has a strong appeal, and its presence is, often unthinkingly, taken for granted. The stereotype then is not so much "blacks as physical brutes and whites as thinking beings," but the more general one going back perhaps to Platonic types of "thinking beings" being designed by nature to rule over "physical brutes."

Case closed? It would appear so, but not quite.

Let us hear from the other side of the debate.

John Hoberman
has the daunting task of being first at bat to counter Entine and Sarich. Does he connect with the ball for a hit? Is it a home run or a foul ball? You be the umpire bud:

“…Before proceeding to an examination of the author's scientific arguments, I would like to make clear certain of my own positions. First, it should be obvious to any attentive observer that the performance records in quantifiable running events, and especially the sprinting and long-distance events, clearly demonstrate the superior performance levels of athletes of West and East African origin, respectively. In particular, the achievements of male Kenyan runners during the 1990s have been nothing short of phenomenal, and Taboo documents this in a convincing way. Second, I do not believe that proposing a genetic basis for such athletic superiority is racism unless scientific curiosity is combined with a racist agenda. As I stated in Darwin's Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race (Houghton Mifflin, 1997, 240): "It is possible that there is a population of West African origin that is endowed with an unusual proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers, and it is somewhat more likely that there are East Africans whose resistance to fatigue, for both genetic and cultural reasons, exceeds that of other racial groups."

The scientific argument presented in Taboo includes both evolutionary and physiological theses. The "multiregionalist" theory of human origins [one of the two major theories, along with the "Out of Africa" hypothesis, discussed by the author] holds "that all of modern humanity originated from a single ancestor, but millions rather than hundreds of thousands of years ago. Some members of the community of early humans then broke off and migrated to other regions" (82). However, as Entine points out, significant physiological differences could have evolved as recently as thousands of years ago as a result of "differing selective pressures" (82) that might result in extra foot speed or endurance. The principal corollaries of this scenario, according to the author, are the genetic dichotomy between Africans and non-Africans (18, 92, 108, 113, 115) and the greater genetic variability of Africans (92, 116), both of which supposedly point to African athletic superiority.

It is hardly necessary to point out that any all theories of human origins remain highly speculative. Paleoanthropologists revise their phylogenetic trees nearly every year as new finds come in from the field, so how and when human populations branched off into different racial groups remains an open question. As the author points out, "there is certainly ample wiggle room for ambiguity" (88) when it comes to multiregionalism, and his readers can only agree with one of the few calls for intellectual caution that appear in this book. But after calling for caution, Entine leaps in with both feet anyway.

The author's presentation of the physiological evidence for black athletic superiority (Chapter 19) is the most interesting section of the book. His strategy is to combine into a single model every claim about racial differences for which any support can be found in the published literature or private commentary. If the author can point to a single publication or an interview that supports a favored idea, then it passes muster. This lack of interest in assessing the reliability of his sources is the major deficiency of the book.

The first of several claims about racial physiology is that black babiesóAfrican as well as African-Americanóare physically precocious. Eight published articles, dating from 1953 to 1992, are cited to support this argument, since the author suspects that "precocious infants will end up as athletically skilled adults" (251). Either of these claims is conceivably true. That the author does not distinguish between genetic differences and congenital differences at birth arising from different prenatal environments is one more indication of his advocacy approach to scientific evidence and his lack of interest in environmental factors bearing on human development.

The second claim is that blacks of West African origin have more fast-twitch muscle fibers than whites (253-254). This conclusion is based on a 1986 publication that compared about a dozen sedentary West Africans with an equal number of French Canadiansóan inadequate sample on which to base such a generalization. Nor does the author explain to his readers the complexity and potential unreliability of muscle-fiber typing procedures. While information on this subject appears in Darwin's Athletes (284-285), the author has chosen not to cite it.

The work of the Swedish physiologist Bengt Saltin on Kenyan and Swedish distance runners is probably the only scientifically credible research on the physiology of elite athletes involving racial comparisons. Saltin found suggestive differences in the cross-sectional area (but not type) of muscle fibers and in physiological variables related to fatigue, both of which might help to explain superior Kenyan performances.

Readers of Entine's summary of this work (259-260) will find a less ambivalent and intellectually modest Saltin than the one found in his published papers. Readers may also wish to compare the reviewer's treatment of this work in Darwin's Athletes (206-207).

Finally, Entine finds "intriguing data in support of the stereotype that blacks are more relaxed than whites" (265-266), which might translate into an athletic advantage. These "data" consist of stop-action photographs of black and white athletes as described by a scientist in a 1988 issue of Life magazine. Once again, readers may want to examine the history of this stereotype in Darwin's Athletes (199-201).

In summary, the author's treatment of scientific evidence is speculative, selective, and inconclusive. When the scientists he interviews refuse to speak as categorically as he wishes, he implies they are too faint-hearted to speak their minds (251, 269-270, 271). The author's generally careless approach to genetics is evident in his reference to "significant black-white differences in the prevalence of genetically based hypertension" (288). In fact, one of the mysteries of hypertension is that rural West Africans have much lower rates of hypertension than African Americans, a finding that implicates social factors such as stress rather than genes (Richard S. Cooper, Charles N. Rotimi, and Ryk Ward, "The Puzzle of Hypertension in African-Americans," Scientific American, February 1999, 56-63).

In the last analysis, the problem with Taboo as a work of science reporting originates in the author's journalistic standards, which are based on a determination to offer "intriguing data" and to be politically incorrect within certain limits. In this regard, his description of Martin Kane's 1971 Sports Illustrated article on this subject, "An Assessment of Black Is Best'," as being "in the best tradition of journalism, mixing anecdotes with available science," strikes me as unfathomable (see Darwin's Athletes, 193-195). I would have thought that the point of a book written 30 years after Kane would be to exceed the scientific standards at Sports Illustrated, not to imitate them. “

Michael Shermer, the closing pitcher for his side, starts by quoting the poet Pope(no it is not the pontiff who composes verse, but the dead Englishman whose first name is Alexander) and mentioning several Kenyans by name:

“In An Essay on Man, the 19th century English poet and essayist Alexander Pope elucidated the pitfalls of speculating on ultimate causes derived from immediate events:

In vain the sage, with retrospective eye,
Would from th' apparent what conclude the why,
Infer the motive from the deed, and show
That what we chanced was what we meant to do.

Pope's wise words were in the back of my mind as I began writing this essay on March 5, 2000, a miserably cold and rainy Sunday morning, simultaneously watching the elite runners in the Los Angeles Marathon—just a handful among the 23,000 weekend warriors who braved the elements—cross the finish line. Although I have run the LA Marathon, and even once completed a marathon after first swimming 2.4 miles in the open ocean and riding a bike 112 miles in the Hawaiian Ironman triathlon, I would not have given the results a second glance were it not for a book I had just read that called my attention to a characteristic shared by the top five finishers. They were: (1) Benson Mutisya Mbithi, 2:11:55, (2) Mark Yatich, 2:16:43, (3) Peter Ndirangu Nairobi, 2:17:42, (4) Simon Bor, 2:20:12, and (5) Christopher Cheboiboch, 2:20:41It was not the times of the top five finishers that stood out in this year's race, since they were well below both world and course records (understandable considering the conditions). What was startling was their country of origin. All were from Kenya. Coincidence? Hardly. Meaningful? To some, yes; to others, no; to science, maybe. That is the subject of the book I had just read, Jon Entine's controversial Taboo: Why Blacks Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It.. ..”

Then he goes on to the business of dissecting the ideas of Jon Entine:

“….From the Particular to the General: Do Black Athletes Dominate Sports?
If you are a basketball, football, or track-and-field fan, the black-white differences are obvious and real. You'd have to be blind not to see the gaping abyss any given day of the week on any one of the numerous 24-hour a day sports channels. Further, there are quantifiable within-race differences in some of these sports. Kenyans dominate marathon running, but you'll likely never see one line up for the 100-meter dash. On the other hand, blacks whose origins can be traced to West Africa own the 100-meter dash but will not likely soon be taking home the $35,000 automobile awarded to the LA Marathon winner. And it could be a long while before we see a white man on the winner's platform at either distance. As Entine carefully documents, at the moment "every men's world record at every commonly-run track distance belongs to a runner of African descent," and the domination of particular distances are determined, it would seem, by the ancestral origin of the athlete, with West Africans reigning over distances from 100 meters to 400 meters, and East and North Africans prevailing in races from 800 meters to the marathon.

But my first quibble with the debate is how quickly it shifts from Kenyans winning marathons or West Africans monopolizing the 100-meter dash to, as stated in Entine's subtitle, "why black athletes dominate sports." I understand a publisher's desire to economize cover verbiage and maximize marketability (the actual text of Taboo is, appropriately, filled with qualifiers, caveats, and nuances), but the simple fact is that black athletes do not dominate sports. They do not dominate speed skating, figure skating, ice hockey, gymnastics, swimming, diving, archery, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, biathlons, triathlons, ping pong, tennis, golf, wrestling, rugby, rowing, canoeing, fencing, strong-man competitions, auto racing, motorcycle racing, and on and on.

In my own sport of cycling, in which I competed at elite ultra-marathon distances (200 miles to 3,000 miles) for 10 years, there are almost no blacks to be found in the pack. Where are all those West African sprinters at velodrome track races? Where are all those Kenyans in long-distance road races or ultra-marathon events? They are almost nowhere to be found. In fact, in over a century of professional bicycle racing there has been only one undisputed black champion—Marshall W. "Major" Taylor. And Taylor's reign was a century ago! He started racing in 1896 and within three years he became only the second black athlete to win a world championship in any sport, and this was at a time when bicycle racing was as big as baseball and boxing. Since there were few automobiles and no airplanes, cyclists were the fastest humans on earth and were rewarded accordingly with lucrative winnings and more than 15 minutes of fame. Major Taylor was the first black athlete in any sport to be a member of an integrated team, the first to land a commercial sponsor, and the first to hold world records, including the prestigious mile record. He competed internationally and is still revered in France as one of the greatest sprint cyclists of all time. The fact that outside cycling circles he is completely unknown in America tells us something about the influence of culture on sports.

By the theory proffered by Entine and others, there is no reason blacks should not be prominent in cycling since the physical requirements are so similar to running. The reason they are not, in fact, is almost certainly cultural. Although there are no longer racial barriers (as witnessed by the wide range of colors and nationalities that fill out the pelotons throughout Europe and the Americas), the reason blacks are not in cycling is obvious, says Dr. Ed Burke, a sports physiologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder: "No money, no publicity, no grass roots program. Why would gifted American athletes, with so many lucrative opportunities in other sports, choose cycling?" In Europe working class fathers introduce their sons to the sport at an early age where they can be nursed through junior cycling programs until they turn professional and permanently bootstrap themselves into the middle classes. But there are not that many blacks in Europe, and in America no such social structure exists. Bottom line: in cycling culture trumps biology.

(After Major Taylor, many cite the black sprinter Nelson Vails, since he took the silver medal on the track in the 1984 Olympics. But this is problematic because the East Germans boycotted that Olympics, and they were dominating the sport in those years, having thoroughly trounced both Vails and the 1984 gold medalist, Mark Gorski, in the world championships the year before. After Vails, Scott Berryman was a national sprint champion, and 19-year old Gideon Massie recently won the Jr. Worlds on the track and is an Olympic hopeful for 2004. The few other isolated cases—Shaums March in downhill mountain biking and Josh Weir on the road—only further call our attention to the dearth of blacks in cycling.)

"Would blacks dominate cycling ceteris paribus? The problem is that all other things are never equal so it is impossible to say until the natural experiment is actually run. There is no reason why they should not, by the arguments put forth by Entine, since track cycling is much like sprinting, and road cycling is similar to marathon running in terms of the physical demands on the athlete. But we simply do not know and thus it would be unwise to speculate. For that matter, the ceteris paribus assumption never holds true in the messy real world, so this whole question of race and sports is fraught with complications, making it exceptionally difficult to say with much confidence what these differences really mean.

The Hindsight Bias: Did Evolution Shape: Black Bodies Best For Running?

"Tiger Woods may very well be the greatest golfer of all time. Although he is not "pure" black, he is considered to be black by most people, especially the black community. Thus, he very well could inspire other blacks to go into the sport. What if this were to happen on such a scale that blacks came to dominate golf as they have football and basketball? Would the explanation for this dominance be role modeling coupled to cultural momentum, or would we hear about how blacks are naturally gifted as golfers because of their superior ability to swing a club and judge moving objects at a distance due to the fact that they are closer to the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (or EEA, as evolutionary psychologists call the Pleistocene period of human evolution)?

"In cognitive psychology there is a fallacy of thought known as the hindsight bias, which states that however things turn out we tend to look back to justify that particular arrangement with a set of causal explanatory variables presumably applicable to all situations. Looking back it is easy to construct plausible scenarios for how matters turned out; rearrange the outcome and we are equally skilled at finding new reasons why that particular arrangement was also inevitable.

"Consider professional basketball. At the moment blacks dominate the sport and it is tempting to slip into the adaptationist mode of Darwinian speculation and suggest that the reason is because blacks are naturally superior at running, jumping, twisting, turning, hang time, and all the rest that goes into the modern game. Then it is only a step removed from suggesting, as does Entine and others do, that the reason for their above average natural abilities is that since humans evolved in Africa where they became bipedal, populations that migrated to other areas of the globe traded off those pure abilities through adaptations to other environments—e.g., colder climates led to shorter, stockier torsos (Bergmann's Rule) and smaller arms and legs (Allen's Rule)—thereby compromising the ability to run and jump. African blacks, however, are closer to the EEA and thus their abilities are evolutionarily less modified.

"For basketball, however, I would point out the remarkable range of skin tone one sees on the court. Are these black players all equally "black" in this racial sense? I grant that races may exist as fuzzy sets where the boundaries are blurred but the interiors represent a type we might at least provisionally agree represents a group we can label "black" or "white." But when I see a range of "black" skin tone on the court—from Manute Bol's dark chocolate to Dennis Johnson's sandy beige—I cannot help but question the validity of allowing a single category to represent so many shades. The fuzzy boundaries of the "black" set are so wide and the overlap with the "white" set so great that it seems scientifically untenable to draw the same conclusions about basketball that are made for track and field.

"I also find it interesting that individuals with a small percentage of "black" genes are always classified in the "black" set, whereas whites are not accorded an equally broad latitude. In other words, if we were to graph the range of skin tones in so-called blacks and whites as two bell curves, the overall width of the black curve would be much greater, and the standard deviation for the black curve would be considerably greater than it would be for the whites. Why is this? The answer is clearly cultural, I suspect, having to do with the eugenics notion of a "pure" white race being contaminated with the blood of other, lesser races. A fuzzy-logic solution to this problem is to have just one set with fractional numbers assigned. For example, just as we might label the early morning sky as .3 blue/.7 orange, the midday sky as .9 blue/.1 orange, and the sunset sky as .2 blue/.8 orange, we could label Manute Bol as .9 black/.1 white and Dennis Johnson as .2 black/.8 white. Better still, we could just not label people by skin color at all.
Finally, the step from racial group differences on a basketball court to racial evolutionary differences in the Paleolithic is a significant one, and it is here where the hindsight bias is especially obvious. Let's go back in time and see how—not to the Paleolithic, but just to the earlier part of the 20th century. It may come as a surprise, especially to younger readers, to hear that at one time Jews dominated basketball. What sorts of arguments were made for their "natural" abilities in this sport? In the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s basketball was an east coast, inner-city, blue-collar immigrant game largely dominated by the oppressed ethnic group of that age, the Jews. Like blacks decades later, the Jews went into professions and sports open to them. As Entine so wonderfully tracks this history in Taboo, according to Harry Litwack, star player of the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association (SPHA), "The Jews never got much into football or baseball. They were too crowded [with other players] then. Every Jewish boy was playing basketball. Every phone pole had a peach basket on it. And every one of those Jewish kids dreamed of playing for the SPHA's."

"The reason why is obvious, right? Cultural trends and socio-economic opportunities set within an autocatalytic feedback loop (where variables operate on each other to drive the system forward) led more and more Jews to go into the game until they came to dominate it. That is not what the scientific experts of the day said. As Entine shows, according to the wisdom of the time the Jews were just naturally superior basketball players.

"Writers opined that Jews were genetically and culturally built to stand up under the strain and stamina of the hoop game. It was suggested that they had an advantage because short men have better balance and more foot speed. They were also thought to have sharper eyes, which of course cut against the other stereotype that they suffered from myopia and had to wear glasses. And it was said they were clever. "The reason, I suspect, that basketball appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background," wrote Paul Gallico, sports editor of the New York Daily News and one of the premier sports writers of the 1930s, "is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness."

"By the late 1940s Jews moved into other professions and sports and, Entine notes, "the torch of urban athleticism was passed on to the newest immigrants, mostly blacks who had migrated north from dying southern plantations. Ö It would not be long before the stereotype of the ëschemingÖtrickiness' of the Jews was replaced by that of the ënatural athleticism' of Negroes." If Jews were dominating basketball today instead of blacks, what explanatory models, in hindsight, would we be constructing? If, in 30 years, Asians come to control the game would we offer some equally plausible "natural" reason for their governance?

"Does this mean that blacks are not really better than whites in basketball? No. I would be shocked if it turned out that what we are witnessing is nothing more than a culturally dominant "black style" of play. But because of the hindsight bias I cannot be certain that we are not being fooled and that the reasons for the differences we witness today are far more complex than we understand…”

The following, is for me at least, the other defining passage in Shermer’s very illuminating critique of Jon Entine’s hypothesis:

“…Now, let's be clear that no one—not Jon Entine on one end nor, hopefully, Harry Edwards on the other—is arguing that athletic ability is determined entirely by either genetics or environment. Obviously it is a mixture of the two. The controversy arises over what the ratio is, the evidence for that ratio, and the possible evolutionary origins of the difference. What surprised me in reading Entine's book, and other arguments for evolutionary origins of biologically-based racial group differences in athletic ability, was the dearth of hard evidence and the need to draw questionable inferences and make sizable leaps of logic.

"Although Entine's book is promoted as if it were a polemic for the hereditary position, he confesses that even in his best case examples of the Kenyan marathon runners, we cannot say for certain if they are "great long distance runners because of a genetic advantage or because their high-altitude lifestyle serves as a lifelong training program." It's a chicken-and-egg dilemma, Entine admits: "Did the altitude reconfigure the lungs of Kenyan endurance runners or was a genetic predisposition induced by the altitude? Is that nature or nurtureÖor both?"
It is both. But proving a particular percentage of each is tricky business. "Most theories, including those in genetics, rely on circumstantial evidence tested against common sense, known science, and the course of history," Entine explains. "That scientists may yet not be able to identify the chromosomes that contribute to specific athletic skills does not mean that genes don't play a defining roleÖ." Clearly that is so. But the real debate is not if; it is how, and how much. It is here where the science is weak and our biases strong.

What do we really know, for example, about the genetic coding for running? On the one hand it can be argued that this is a very simple activity compared to, say, a complex gymnastics routine. Even so, running ability depends on a host of variables—fast twitch/slow twitch muscle fiber ratio, VO2 uptake capacity, lung capacity, maximum heart rate, anaerobic threshold figures (that determine the level one can sustain work output), measures of strength versus endurance, etc. We can estimate that these variables are half or three-quarters determined by genes, but we haven't a clue as to how they are coded, or even how genes and environment interact in the development of the ability under question. Autocatalytic feedback loops are powerful mechanisms in physical, biological, and social systems, and we are discovering them in nature-nurture interactions as well. Some genes are turned on or turned off by environmental stimuli. It may be possible that some human populations with a genetically-encoded ability to run fast never have these genes turned on by the proper environment, or during a critical period of development. And perhaps other groups, like the Kenyans, have both the genetic propensity plus the cultural drive, high-altitude training, and so forth. Further, we have no idea if different human groups code for such variables in different ways as they interact with their environment; thus their autocatalytic feedback loops may be different. We just do not know.

Finally, while we can agree that different human characteristics are coded by differing genomic complexes—from simple to complex—we do not know enough genetics to say with any confidence that, for example, the ability to run a 100-meter dash is coded by n genes, the ability to slam dunk in basketball is coded by 2n genes, and that the ability to negotiate a complex gymnastic routine is coded by 8n genes. And this is just for physical abilities. Cognitive skills are another subject entirely, and we have even less knowledge on, say, how spatial reasoning or verbal skills are genetically coded, or autocatalytically determined through gene-cultural co-development.
All of this makes conclusions drawn about racial differences in sports problematic. No doubt some black-white differences in some sports are heavily influenced by genetics and might possibly even have an evolutionary basis of origin. But proving that supposition is another matter entirely. As it is, to be fair, for the extreme environmental position. Harry Edwards, for example, argued on my radio show that Kenyans are tenacious trainers, rising at 5:00 a.m. every morning to run mountains at high altitude. But that's just the hindsight and confirmation biases at work again, where we examine the winner of a race to see what ingredients went into the winning formula. It ignores all the other hard-working jocks who also got up every morning at 5:00 a.m. (oh don't I remember it so painfully well?) but didn't take the gold. Or the other winners who slept in until 8:00 a.m. and went for a leisurely jog on the flats. Training alone won't get you to the finish line first. Neither will genetics. Neither will luck. To be a champion you need all three…”

Now there is something you will not see on the online version of this special issue of SKEPTIC. You have to get hold of the original hard copy. It consists of a cartoon from the Sunday Nation. There is this bewildered Kenyan athlete, arms crossed, feet firmly secured by a belt like contraption facing something that looks like a missile but labeled “X-Ray”. To the side are two white men in lab coats. One is telling the other: “ I’ve checked everything Sir… his bones, lungs, heart,.. there’s nothing EXTRA to him run faster.”

Does that cartoon capture the Kenyan attitude or have we bought into this notion of innate athletic prowess?

Do these outsiders for instance realize that the Kalenjin is a cluster of communities rather than a single “tribe”?

How does one explain the feat of the Goans who earned Kenya her first gold medals in international Olympic competition? Or the Ngugis who dominated cross country and the Kariukis, Oukos, Asatis and other Kenyans from other Kenyan nationalities who have excelled in the steeplechase, the marathon and other track events? Were they the exception that proved the rule?

I was looking for an article posted by another well known Kenyan online, James Sang, maybe five years ago, if I am not mistaken. If memory serves me correctly, it went a long way in debunking some of the postulates of akina Entine and company. If you are reading this Sang, could you do all of us a favour and repost your original piece?

Given the length of this piece I will just note that I tend to agree with Hoberman and Shermer more than Entine and Sarich. It is a very slippery slope indeed we start sliding down when we start ascribing success to supposed genetic and racial differences. I will reserve more extensive comments for rejoinders once I start getting feedback to this article.

But back to our original question:

What should we do to make Kenya soar to even greater heights in sports?

1.We should analyse our problems before rushing to dish out band aids to dress a lot of deep and festering wounds.
2.We should get the NARC government to integrate long term sports planning into our national priorities. This may sound silly, but I can elaborate on this point later.
3.Learn from Cuba. Yes, that is right. And I am not just saying that because I am a Communist. Cuba’s sports record for the last four decades speaks for itself. Here is a small island in the Caribbean, beset with all kinds of political and economic obstacles ranking consistently very high in international sports gatherings. Some people argue that the great Cuban boxer Teofilo Stevenson, would have knocked Muhammad Ali if they had met both in their prime. And if the subway baseball contest was truly a World Series, Cuba would have a decent shot at coming out on top- check their Olympic record in this event. How do the Cubans do it?

See the following:

finya hapa

Fidel Castro, like many of his many Communist comrades( including some Kenyans who will remain nameless) has no shortage of opinions on ANY SUBJECT including sports as you can see from this link.

Onyango Oloo
Monday, February 2, 2004
11:23 am EST

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