»  National Review

February 21, 2000

  Score One for Nature

Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It
by Jon Entine


By and large, sports events are meritocratic. That is their main appeal. In most other areas of life — in business, in politics, in academic and artistic endeavor, in love and war — there are large elements of caprice, of misjudgment, of chicanery and wild chance, of faddishness, even of corruption. In the lives that most of us live, the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong; on the contrary, observed results all too often prompt the melancholy reflection that, as the saying goes, "gold sinks but garbage floats."

At a track meet, however, the athletes' abilities are measured against tape or stopwatch with the precision of a scientific experiment. In team games — especially those decided on a best-of-several principle — much more often than not we come away with no doubt that the superior team won.

If the meritocratic principle is going to throw up any problems it is therefore in sport that we should expect to see them soonest and most clearly. So it has proved. As social and international barriers to participation in sport have fallen away it has become clear that, in any given event, athletes of some races are much better equipped to succeed than those of others. On page 30 of Taboo there is a table of world running records. Fifteen events are listed, from the hundred-meter sprint to the marathon. The record holder for every single one of them is a person of recent African ancestry. In sprinting, West Africans and their descendants are overwhelmingly dominant: all of the thirty-two finalists in the last four Olympic men's 100-meter races were of West African descent. In middle- and long-distance running, athletes from the highlands of western Kenya dominate to a similarly extraordinary degree. Contrariwise, Jon Entine tells us, no African American has ever qualified for the U.S. Olympic swim or diving team. Physiological investigation — of metabolic efficiency, muscle reflexes, bone density and so on — leaves little doubt that the causative differences are innate, and so presumably coded in the genes. It seems plain, even after making all possible allowance for social and cultural factors, that in sports, nature generally trumps nurture.

The problem with all this is that it challenges the nurturist dogma preached by the media, cultural and academic elites of the U.S.A. — and, to lesser degrees, in the rest of the Western world. (The East is another matter altogether.) Richard Bernstein's review of this very book in the New York Times illustrates the problem. Bernstein declares himself "not convinced that environmental and cultural explanations are inadequate to account for the phenomenon under discussion."  "Dogma" is too feeble a word, in fact; the ferocious tenacity with which nurturist beliefs are defended needs some explaining all by itself, especially in view of the implausibility of those beliefs. It would, after all, be statistically astounding if the only innate differences between the various races of humanity were those visible to the unaided eye.

So why are we afraid to talk about it? Why this passionate commitment to pure egalitarian theories, making discussion of race differences indeed a taboo? By way of an answer Jon Entine's book includes a history of the race issue in sports, describing the indignities endured by American blacks, the horrified realization of what Hitler's race program actually aimed at, and the poisonous influence of the notion that physical superiority is the expression of an "animal" nature. There is also, of course, the unhappy history of racial injustice in American society at large. Reaction to all of this, implies Entine, engendered a mindset — still the dominant one among elites in the U.S. — that all discussion of race differences other than the glaringly obvious ones is improper. This doctrine has generated its own sunbeams-from-cucumbers extremists, as any doctrine will: we have, for example, Richard Rorty telling us that race is "a social construct" with no objective reality. It must be fun to watch the Olympics with Professor Rorty.

I do not feel sure that Jon Entine has really gotten to the heart of the matter here. The fanatical egalitarianism of Western elites calls for some deeper explanation, I feel. Entine has, however, provided the first accessible survey of the topic identified in the first part of his book's subtitle, touching — if you will pardon the expression — all the bases. He has included a thorough discussion of the rather more complex matter of women's sports, as well as a wealth of curious and interesting statistics and factoids. Did you know, for example, that there is a Dog Genome Project under way? (Entine describes it as "modestly financed.")

The great value of Taboo is that it lets off another stick of dynamite under the nurturist consensus, which is already — as Charles Murray described in an article in this magazine last month ("Deeper into the Brain", Jan. 24) — beginning to crack and split. The evidence Entine presents is overwhelming, the larger conclusions plain: we can have equal outcomes by race, or we can have meritocracy, but we can't have both. We really need to decide which one we want.

Or do we? Just as the racial differences being revealed by the spread of meritocracy are beginning to cause serious social stresses, our understanding of molecular genetics may be reaching the point where we can make the necessary adjustments. Find yourself a geneticist and pose him a nature/nurture question. For example: Is the poor educational performance of black Americans caused by poverty or genetics? "You better hope it's genetics," he will reply cheerfully. "We'll know how to fix genetics long before we know how to fix poverty!"

If this is right our worries about the divisive effect of race differences might seem as quaint, a hundred years from now, as our ancestors' fretting about a Malthusian population catastrophe. Perhaps it really is true that whenever social progress create a problem, science will soon supply the means to solve it. This is a very cheering thought; and, if true, demonstrates at least to my satisfaction that somebody up there loves us.