Good Times on the Intertubes: Sports and Genes (D.E.W.)

Hey all.

Quick heads up.  This coming Wednesday, August July 31 at 6 p. m. EDT, I’ll be doing my monthly internet radio gig, talking to David Epstein about his brand new book The Sports Gene.  David’s a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, from which perch he’s written one of the most careful, nuanced, best books about genes and human accomplishment I’ve come across in a month of Sundays.

Admittedly, that could be seen as a low bar, given the dismal record of discussion about genes and people, up to and including some of the most grotesque race writing.  (If you want to dip your toes in the actual horror that resides there, a good place to start can be found at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory site.  I should note that CSHL is unusual among institutions in that it was deeply implicated in the American eugenics movement, and it now shines a light on that miserable past.)

But in The Sports Gene, Epstein does much more than avoid the pitfalls of his topic.  Instead, he’s written a wide ranging book that debunks some persistent popular memes (his gentle, devastating analysis of Gladwell’s 10,000 hours misread is worth the price of the book on its own); provides clear, simple-but-not-simple-minded accounts of the basics of genetics and molecular physiology; and consistently delivers on promise to unpack what is known about genes and athletic performance through a host of really good stories.

1880_Pierre_Auguste_Cot_-_The_Storm

Epstein’s reporting stands out — he went to where the mysteries are; he went with and/or to a wide range of researchers who are teasing apart some of the knots in this incredibly tangled inquiry, and he brings his own experience as high school and college track guy to bear in ways that give the reader confidence in his accounts of athletic development.  (Unsurprisingly, a lot (though by no means all) of the book deals with  track athletes, btw.)

The best thing about the book, and where it stands in contrast to so much else written in this area, is its modestly.  A change Epstein rings more than once comes with his note of how many genes bear on a trait like height, for example, and how, after decades of work, so much remains to be understood about that one issue.  The moral:  genes account for actual human differences, human variety.  They don’t account for all of such variation.*  All kinds of “nurture” affects outcomes, even when sifting through talent at the extreme of accomplishment — among Olympic sprinters, for example.

More to come on Wednedsay — I’ll blog the conversation again then, and include a couple of quotes to tease all this further.  And then, at six p.m. (eastern) you’ll get to hear David himself on the magic (not really) that allows a baseball player to react to a pitch faster that the human eye-brain system can pick up a ball out of the pitcher’s hand; on malaria’s influence on track records, on sled dogs; on the genetics of head injuries in football and much, much more.  Put it on your calendar.

*Epstein doesn’t mention this example, but this is true even for the seemingly most obviously genetically determined matters.  In Masha Gessen’s really good book, Blood Matters, on genetic diagnosis and genetic medicine, she writes about a man dealing his  Huntington’s disease gene — a case in which the crucial determinant of eventual disease, the number of repeats of a section of DNA, fell into the ambiguous middle zone between no risk and obligate disease.  The kicker in the story — his brother had inherited the same disease-causing allele from their father, but with enough repeats to guarantee disease.  There is no clear explanation what drove the difference in the DNA copying in their two cases, except that it must be environmental — in the sense that John Maynard Smith meant when he told me once that “the environment begins at the chromosome.”)

Image: Pierre Auguste Cot, The Storm, 1880






22 replies
  1. 1
    ruemara says:

    This sounds very cool, thanks. I’m fascinated by genetics and how they affect things like this, so I’ll try to listen in.

  2. 2
    gene108 says:

    Fuck the radio broadcast, I want your time machine!

    This coming Wednesday, August 31 at 6 p. m. EDT,

  3. 3
    Tom Levenson says:

    @gene108: Oops. Fixing now.

  4. 4

    Nope, no racism in Florida, not that I can see:

    Lying in a hospital bed the night after he was shot by Escambia County sheriff’s deputies in his own front yard, Roy Middleton only had one question: Why?

    Middleton, 60, of the 200 block of Shadow Lawn Lane in Warrington, was shot in the leg about 2:42 a.m. Saturday while trying to retrieve a cigarette from his mother’s car in the driveway of their home.

    A neighbor saw someone reaching into the car and called 911. While he was looking into the vehicle, deputies arrived in response to the burglary call.

    Middleton said he was bent over in the car searching the interior for a loose cigarette when he heard a voice order him to, “Get your hands where I can see them.”

    He said he initially thought it was a neighbor joking with him, but when he turned his head he saw deputies standing halfway down his driveway.

    He said he backed out of the vehicle with his hands raised, but when he turned to face the deputies, they immediately opened fire.

    It goes without saying, the victim here is black. So this is either an incredibly novel smoking cessation program in Florida or a case of Walking While Black.

  5. 5
    Dead Ernest says:

    It’s grey and raining. I’m painfully behind on charting & billing, with enough calls to make to patients who want to see me to take all day to make. In short, not a satisfying day to be a physician … Until this quote:

    “the environment begins at the chromosome.”

    Man oh man. That so precisely fits the pith of the matter, so gloriously, that it’s made my day. God I love smarts. I haven’t got enough myself but its nice to have some delivered so succinctly.
    Thank you.

  6. 6
    Joel says:

    Returning to work from paternity leave. Hard to get motivated to do some science these days.

  7. 7
    JustMe says:

    (his gentle, devastating analysis of Gladwell’s 10,000 hours misread is worth the price of the book on its own)

    At least with respect to the example of hockey players, Gladwell was not arguing that genes didn’t play a role, only that those with the inborn genetic talent to become top-level hockey players were being “lost in the shuffle” to fulfill their potential by getting trained intensely enough to become top level hockey player for other, non-genetic-related-reasons.

    Which is to say, there are people with superior genetics in something all over the place, but in many cases, that talent hasn’t been tapped for reasons of circumstance.

  8. 8
  9. 9
    smintheus says:

    How much influence do genes have on the proportion of different kinds of muscles we have? Or are we entirely responsible for creating, say, a preponderance of fast twitch muscle by the kinds of exercises we do?

    I had a lot of both speed and endurance in my younger days, and my impression was that it was probably partly or mostly the right genes whereas a lot of the other guys who ran track at my school, no matter how well they trained, were never going to become more than well-trained plodders. They just didn’t seem to have the genes needed. Struck me as a bit unfair that guys who’d been running for years could never reach a level where they could hope to compete against those of us who were naturally fast.

  10. 10
    smintheus says:

    @Dead Ernest: Did you see this incredibly tendentious article in WSJ? More doctors steer clear of Medicare

    Worst kind of scaremongering. Buried deep in a graph, but never acknowledged explicitly by the reporter, is the fact that the number of US doctors opting out of Medicare has only risen from 2.8% to 2.9% since 2010. On that tiny factoid is the ‘trend’ founded.

    I took the journalist to task for her disingenuousness but she hasn’t responded.

  11. 11
    Mnemosyne says:

    @JustMe:

    At least with respect to the example of hockey players, Gladwell was not arguing that genes didn’t play a role, only that those with the inborn genetic talent to become top-level hockey players were being “lost in the shuffle” to fulfill their potential by getting trained intensely enough to become top level hockey player for other, non-genetic-related-reasons.

    I think you’re missing at least one “not” in this sentence. People with the genetic ability to become top-level hockey players were being “lost in the shuffle” and became top-level hockey players for non-genetic-related reasons?

  12. 12
    JustMe says:

    @Mnemosyne: Thanks for that catch. That comment of mine was a mess. I meant to say that some people with genetic ability to become top-level hockey players were being “lost in the shuffle” by not getting trained intensely enough for non-genetic-related-reasons, while the other, similarly genetically-endowed managed to rise to the top for reasons that appeared to be merit-based but in fact had other factors in play.

  13. 13
    Woodrowfan says:

    @Southern Beale: Sounds more like “Existing while Black.”

    and FWIW I love that painting. The girl reminds me of an old college sweetie.

  14. 14
    StringOnAStick says:

    @smintheus: thanks for the “2.8% to 2.9%” factoid; that’s helpful information.

  15. 15
    luc says:

    Apropos genetics:
    Cancer, Stroke and Diabetes in USA – Environment versus Genetics

    I guess you will like this discussion:
    http://www.homolog.us/blogs/bl.....-genetics/

  16. 16
    Anoniminous says:

    Genetic inheritance provides some determinative characteristics such as eye and hair color. Mostly genetic inheritance provides broad guidelines and a combination of Nurture and Environment – not quite the same thing – gives the broad trajectory as to how the gene expresses.

    IOW, a child may inherit and the genetic and epigenetic characteristics for being another Einstein. If that child lives in the “Developing World” [edited to add: or is of the wrong skin color in the US] …. fergetaboutit.

  17. 17
    Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism says:

    Will this be available for download after? I’ve got someone very interested in the show who has an appointment at the broadcast time.

  18. 18
    mclaren says:

    Sounds fascinating. One word of advice: America abounds with people like me who, upon hearing the word “sports,” immediately turn off and walk away. The book doesn’t seem primarily to be about sports, so he might have picked a better title.

  19. 19
    Dead Ernest says:

    @smintheus:
    Smintheus, it’s been hours since your comment so I dunno if you’ll see this reply…
    No I hadn’t read it and it appears to be behind a paywall but I can tell you I find Medicare to be among the easiest to submit claims to, and the quickest to pay. I don’t know why any physician would drop Medicare. I’ve had far worse experience w commercial insurance than I’ve ever had w Medicare.

  20. 20
    mclaren says:

    @Mnemosyne:

    No, he’s not missing a “not.” His sentence construction is awkward but makes perfect sense. What he’s saying is:

    “People are getting lost in the shuffle which would otherwise, in ideal circumstances, result in their getting trained intensely enough to become top-level hockey players.”

    The entire paragraph should be broken up into multiple sentences without the confusing dependent clauses. Thus:

    At least with respect to the example of hockey players, Gladwell was not arguing that genes didn’t play a role.

    Instead, Gladwell contended that those with the inborn genetic talent to become top-level hockey players were being “lost in the shuffle.” For non-genetic-related reasons, these people failed to fulfill their potential — a potential which would been fulfilled by getting trained intensely enough to become top level hockey players.

    The ability to write clear concise sentences is now a lost art. Ditto the ability to write coherent paragraphs which parse. That’s only to be expected, since clear thinking is now an ability so rare that it qualifies as a superpower.

    Most people’s reasoning today runs something like this: “Socrates was a man. All men are mortal. Therefore all men are Socrates!”

    Viz. Marco Rubio’s recent claim that Obama is going to be responsible for shutting down the government if he refuses to cave in to the Republicans’ blackmail on the debt limit. Or Obama’s ridiculous statement from 2012 that it was his intention to provide a “legal framework” for kidnapping and hurling into a dungeon forever anyone the Executive Branch decided it didn’t like after Obama disgracefully signed the NDAA.

    Call it the “Great Endarkenment,” or, if you prefer, the New Medievalism.

  21. 21
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism: Yup. At the same link as the live ‘cast given in the post. (Also on iTunes — search for Virtually Speaking Science

  22. 22

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