FanDuel - WFBC

July 26, 2012

Slave Genes Myth Must Die: Olympic Champion sprinter Michael Johnson says, All my life I believed I became an athlete through my own determination, but itís impossible to think that being descended from slaves hasnít left an imprint through the generations. . . . Difficult as it was to hear, slavery has benefited descendants like me Ė- I believe there is a superior athletic gene in us.

posted by rumple to olympics at 03:26 PM - 20 comments

Wow, no comments on this yet. In an effort to get some answers maybe... I believe I understand how, genetically, where a person is from can affect his/her athletic ability. It makes sense to me that if ancestors are from an area where running long distances or lifting heavy loads are valued then there is an increased chance of a "modern" person also having those abilities.

As far as the gene pool being altered somewhat due to slave breeding... Is it even possible to affect the gene pool in the amount of time that the african slave trade was active?

Please, no one use the "racist" word on me. I'm looking for answers and not controversy. For the record, I'm a white guy who can jump a little, run a little - pretty much average athlete in general.

posted by 67nickel at 07:46 PM on July 26

It's ridiculous. Race is more about identity then genealogy. What we call "black"is a mixture of ethnicities - and it's increasingly muddled. We get caught in thinking something is scientific, when we're just organizing socially constructed prejudices. It may appear that the approach, at face value, appears to be logical. It isn't. Is Usain Bolt descended from slaves? Can a "white" athlete win a sprinting event?

posted by WeedyMcSmokey at 09:35 PM on July 26

I think the "slave genes" argument (at least one version of it) is based on the fact that only the strongest survived enslavement, the Middle Passage, and life under slavery in the Americas (and there's a related argument that slavers purchased only the strongest). Like most sociobiological conclusions, it's full of holes, a few of which have been pointed out in this thread.

We get caught in thinking something is scientific, when we're just organizing socially constructed prejudices.

Indeed, just like John Hanning Speke, whose 19th century racial "science" is still causing problems today.

posted by lil_brown_bat at 09:54 PM on July 26

I don't want to get into this, but the "genes" argument is a myth that gets trotted out all too regularly. Race is never about genes - it is always a social construction.

There is more human genetic variation in South and West Africa than in the rest of the world combined. If we were dogs, we'd all be the same breed.

posted by owlhouse at 10:31 PM on July 26

Can a "white" athlete win a sprinting event?

It's happened at least twice already.

posted by grum@work at 11:50 PM on July 26

I think there are several problems with the thesis. First off, you can't group all African-Americans as being descended from slaves, it's just not true. To say, that someone who has descended from slaves "may" have came from a gene pool that was more athletic is not out of the question. You could have been white and descended from slavery (Greek and Roman time frames, for instance). The theory should be that if you descended from slavery you have a higher chance of having "athletic" type genes in your make-up. It doesn't mean you will have, and doesn't mean if you didn't come from a slavery descendence that you will not have "athletic" type of genes. It's like if you have family members that have had cancer, you may be more dispositioned to have cancer as well. It doesn't mean you will get cancer and it doesn't mean only those who have family members who have had cancer will get it. It just a higher probability that's all. If these same people hadn't been slaves but rather workers in their villages, their descendents would still be at a higher probability of having the athletic gene, just like athletes kids have a better chance of being athletic (since many of the slaves were taken because of their strength).

posted by jagsnumberone at 12:22 AM on July 27

I don't think it's an absurd hypothesis. If I wanted to defend it scientifically...

1. Does the average person from the same region of Africa, from which the American slave trade descends, have the same athleticism, on average, when compared to their American counterparts? I can't answer this one. Perhaps someone more travelled than myself can enlighten.

2. Is it possible that selective breeding had an impact? Absolutely. The duration of slavery, coupled with highly selective breeding as well as the intense selective pressure of daily life could have had a huge genetic impact.

3. Is it possible that the region of Africa from which slavery descended was already athletically advanced? Definitely. If we assume that life in that region had already put intense selective pressure on the genetic population over the course of millennia, then surely a dramatic phenotypic and genotypic response would be realized.

Now, can any of this be genetically proven? Not likely. Not because there is no substance there but rather because athleticism is a highly quantitative trait. Meaning, there is no single "athletic gene" but rather a quantitative effect of countless genes. Though we've made tremendous strides in molecular science, including its application to physiology, quantitative traits are still too complex to be pinpointed.

And, on a side note, "race" is a misnomer as we are all of the "human race". Ethnicity would be the appropriate term.

Cheers.

posted by SooperJeenyus at 10:16 AM on July 27

Sure, race is a messy and not easily quantified, but so what? I think it is possible to do studies like this without being racist. And, I also think it is possible to discover that certain qualities in the human body that are found more often in black people contribute to success in sprinting or some other athletic endeavor. And, if scientists had research that led to that kind of conclusion, it does not diminish the success of those athletes one bit. I think articles like this just want to stifle debate and discussion about race hoping that it will go away. People ought to be able to wonder about stuff like this without worrying that others will think they are racist or perpetuating racist myths.

posted by bperk at 10:43 AM on July 27

If you don't believe race is important, look up sickle-cell anemia some time. Genetic factors often cluster with other ones just because people tend to breed locally, and it shouldn't be verboten to suggest that some might cluster within groups or subgroups of similar pigmentation or area of family origin.

As for "human race" -- we're all members of the human species, yes. Racial classifications can be helpful in studying subgroups of that species and shouldn't be written off with a Colbertian pretense that they do not exist.

posted by Etrigan at 11:08 AM on July 27

How would you even study such a thing?

First and foremost, you have the social factors. You can be born with great genetics, but you still need to develop skill from an early age.

So, to get a control, you'd have to take a young black child and raise him in a middle to upper class family. Give him access to video games, a mall, and a billion other distractions and see if he's still great at sports. Give him a life where playing in the NBA isn't the only way out of the ghetto and see what his motivation is.

Are white hockey players genetically better, is that why the sport is so pale? Or is it a matter of poor kids can't afford to go ice skating? Are white people genetically better at tennis? Yachting?

If you know anything about genetics, then yes, it is amazing how quickly we evolve to match our environment. It's also amazing how much of that happens in our first ten years. It doesn't happen in the womb as much as people like to think. Whatever benefits someone might have received from genetics inherited 3-4 generations back is a drop of water in the ocean of the ways our body adapts to the environment in our developmental years.

2 siblings will only be 6.25% genetically compatible with a single grandparent. A generation beyond that, genetic compatibility is trivial. Within 4 generations, you have a completely new and somewhat random set of genetics based on breeding. My grandfather was 6'8" and built like a brick wall... I'm 5'9" and 155 pounds soaking wet.

posted by LostInDaJungle at 11:12 AM on July 27

My guess is that you would measure particular athletic traits not measure athletic achievement (e.g., the ability to build muscles). Obviously, overall athletic achievement factors involves lots of things that have nothing to do with one's body (e.g., access, motivation).

posted by bperk at 11:35 AM on July 27

1. Does the average person from the same region of Africa, from which the American slave trade descends, have the same athleticism, on average, when compared to their American counterparts?

It's a very big region. European slave trading took place from at least as far north as Senegal, all the way south to Angola, and on the east coast in Mozambique and Madagascar. Note also that many of the slaves who were traded to Europeans on or near the coast, had been transported from the interior. I'm guessing the area is quite a bit larger than Europe.

2. Is it possible that selective breeding had an impact? Absolutely. The duration of slavery, coupled with highly selective breeding as well as the intense selective pressure of daily life could have had a huge genetic impact.

"Highly selective breeding" meaning what, exactly? The slaves themselves had no say in the matter, and various revolting fantasies aside, I don't see historical evidence that their owners were all that scientific about it. As for the pressures of daily life, I think that goes two ways. Weaker individuals died, sure, but harsh conditions such as malnutrition have generational as well as individual effects.

3. Is it possible that the region of Africa from which slavery descended was already athletically advanced? Definitely.

Again: very large region with many diverse societies at a wide range of development.

posted by lil_brown_bat at 12:26 PM on July 27

I also think it is possible to discover that certain qualities in the human body that are found more often in black people contribute to success in sprinting or some other athletic endeavor
True. My contention is that we can't classify them, genetically, on the molecular level. We cannot pinpoint the specific genes responsible. This one is not a point of debate.


First and foremost, you have the social factors
I think the debate, however, is genetic predisposition to athleticism occurring over several generations.


measure particular athletic traits not measure athletic achievement (e.g., the ability to build muscles)
I don't disagree here. But this would not identify anything on a genetic level.


The slaves themselves had no say in the matter
Precisely my point. And the slave-owner need not be "all that scientific about it". The eye test would suffice. Who is the biggest, strongest, displays the greatest endurance, etc.


Weaker individuals died, sure, but harsh conditions such as malnutrition have generational as well as individual effects.
All examples of selective pressure.

posted by SooperJeenyus at 01:58 PM on July 27

In my opinion, anybody who denies genetics as the most significant single factor at the base core of athleticism is fooling themselves. I think it is a shame that the subject cannot be approached scientifically without the accusation of racism.

As for slavery, even if in just one generation there was large group of people who were thrown together based on a perceived ability to work hard and were selected because of physical attributes like size and strength, and those people happen to form families from within that original pool of stronger or larger individuals, it only stands to reason there would be a higher probability their offspring would exhibit some of the same attributes that may well translate into athletic ability.

Social and economic factors play a large part of which sports people have the opportunity to play and gravitate to, but genetics is even a more important at the purely physical level. Race is not as important in my opinion as the genetic traits that apply to physical work and sports. While sports success involves factors like training, skill or technique, determination and discipline, many sports are almost purely based in genetics and athleticism. You are either born with the genetic predisposition to be a world class sprinter or jumper or you are not. No amount of training will get you into that league. It can't be merely coincidence that such an overwhelming percentage of the fastest sprinters for example are black and are not from African countries but from countries where they descended from a pool of original ancestors that were selected in part for physical traits that are the basis for athletic success.

The Vikings were another group that through circumstance may have been descended from a more concentrated pool of physically gifted ancestors, due to culture and lifestyle that weeded out physically weaker individuals. It is not about race or color as much as it is about circumstances that created a different starting point genetically.

posted by Atheist at 02:19 PM on July 27

measure particular athletic traits not measure athletic achievement (e.g., the ability to build muscles) I don't disagree here. But this would not identify anything on a genetic level.

It's clear, I believe, that race cannot truly be categorized genetically. Yet, there are still biological differences between races (e.g., how different races metabolize certain medicines) that are worthy of study even if those differences are not traceable to a particular genetic difference.

posted by bperk at 02:53 PM on July 27

While sports success involves factors like training, skill or technique, determination and discipline, many sports are almost purely based in genetics and athleticism. You are either born with the genetic predisposition to be a world class sprinter or jumper or you are not. No amount of training will get you into that league.

Your use of the word "purely" here is foolish. There are no sports "almost purely" based in genetics and athleticism, yet for all sports there are certain physical components that improve success in those sports. Sprinters need to be muscular and lean. Swimmers are long and lean. Gymnasts and ice skaters are tiny. Basketball and volleyball players are tall. These are small parts of what makes an athlete world-class. A million other factors are also at play. World-class sprinting requires incredible amounts of discipline, proper technique, and training that everyone even if they have the right body type cannot do. The sort of diminishing of the other components special to an individual (like discipline and hard working) are what the author of this piece was warning against.

posted by bperk at 03:05 PM on July 27

genetics as the most significant single factor at the base core of athleticism

No argument here. The offspring of 2 athletic parents are much more likely to be successful at sports than the offspring of 2 doctors. Yes, there are many other factors but as every coach knows you can instill smarts in a player with size and talent but you cannot teach a smart player to be bigger or faster.

posted by cixelsyd at 03:06 PM on July 27

genetics as the most significant single factor at the base core of athleticism

No argument here. The offspring of 2 athletic parents are much more likely to be successful at sports than the offspring of 2 doctors.

But how much of that is due to growing up around sports generally and a sport in particular? A tremendously athletic kid who isn't the son of an athlete isn't going to have that recognition at an early age that translates to camps, workouts and learning the game in his or her early years. See also the Gladwell book Outliers, where he lays out why a kid's birthday can also be a huge factor in sports success.

posted by Etrigan at 03:43 PM on July 27

I was not trying to diminish the effect that training, desire, or skill have on the world class athlete, but nobody becomes a world class athlete in sports that require the genetically based abilities like speed, size or strength, without the genetic predisposition. Yes everybody can work hard and get faster, stronger, more flexible etc. They can also make up for a lot of deficiencies through hard work and perfecting techniques and skills, but nobody becomes a world class sprinter without being born naturally faster than most other people.

Lebron James for one example has honed his basketball skills to a very high level but what makes him the super athlete he is, and why he one of the best players ever is the fact that he began with a set of genetic gifts like freakish size, agility, coordination etc. Show me someone with similar genetic gifts in their prime and I will show you another professional or world class athlete, regardless of their work ethic etc. I suppose some without the desire or mental fortitude might be able to squander their genetic gifts, but I contend that if you are born like a Lebron with coordination and agility in a 6'10" 270lb body, It would be difficult not to excel in a sport where those traits are desirable.

Every so often an athlete like a Danny Woodhead comes along who seemingly succeeds while lacking a lot of the genetic advantages common among his peers, through hard work and desire. That is the exception more than the rule.

I would also like to point one thing out, when we talk about a group of athletes like African American athletes, we can understand the cultural, social and economic reasons why we don't see black golfers or swimmers or hockey players in proportionate numbers to the population percentages. But if you look at the sports where there presence is disproportionately higher than their general population numbers, they tend to be the sports where genetic based athleticism has a greater importance to the sport. African Americans are not as disproportionately represented from a population percentage in baseball, as they are in basketball or football, or boxing or track. Why? It is the value of genetically based athleticism as it relates to the sport and that lends some credence to the argument of genetic predisposition.

All other factors considered, the real question posed is simple. Did the business of slavery create a situation in which more athletic and physically able people were selected, forcibly removed from their native locations and isolated in another land where then due to the horrible practices of segregation and prejudice, created an isolated gene pool that was somewhat more genetically predisposed for certain physical traits that are beneficial in athletics? I would say very likely. I also believe that as time goes by this is mitigated by freedom, acceptance, and the lines between races and ancestry will become blurred and possibly eliminated altogether.

posted by Atheist at 05:43 PM on July 27

You're confusing African Americans with an ethnicity. It's a genetically diverse social group. They all didn't descent from the same group. Jesse Owens may not be closer genetically to Lebron James than you are. Again, the idea that African Americans are all descended from Africans (and African slaves at that) is erroneous. Skin color is not the sole indicator of genetic ancestry. And if breeding has such an impact genetically, then why does one see short slave-descendants, fat slave descendants or other genetically "inferior" examples? Were those slave-masters lazy? Or blind? Or maybe genetic evolution is a bit more complicated than that.

And how can you claim that some sports take more importance in genetic based athleticism? Swimming has less athleticism than running? What makes you so certain?

Danny Woodhead lacks size and speed. Who are you to suggest that he lacks any genetic advantage? Point of fact, the argument could be made that because he lacks these obvious advantages could mean that he may have a greater genetic advantages than his colleagues which allow him to overcome the more obvious shortcomings. You see how such bullshit works? It's not science.

posted by WeedyMcSmokey at 10:14 PM on July 27

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