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Athletes: nature vs. nurture?

Athletes: nature vs. nurture?


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Having watched a lot of olympians the last few weeks, I was struck by how many of them have actually spent their wholes lives/careers training for their one event (be in running a marathon, or throwing a javelin). This is of course unsurprising - a lot of people take their sport very seriously - but I wondered to what degree these athletes are predisposed to becoming atheletes, and to what degree they just 'happened' to end up doing it.

I've had a bit of a search around, but have been unable to find any studies (although there is an awful lot of media attention to the topic) that actually study the interaction between nature (genetics) and nurture (environment/training etc) in the context of top-end athletes.

It is quite clear to me that the answer is of course 'both', but to what degree? Have any common genetic variants/loci been identified, or is 'athleticism' a far too complex trait for this? Thanks.


For all types of athlete, their ability is determined by both genetic and environmental factors (nature and nurture). The degree to which each contributes ultimately depends on the demands of the sport.

As an example let's compare basketball and golf.

Basketball is likely to have a strong genetic component because players tend to be exceptionally tall (average is over 2 metres and there are only a handful who have played NBA under 1.75m). Because height is strongly genetically (but not entirely) determined by the genes, they have a big influence on whether someone can poses the physical qualities to play in the NBA. However, a large part of their technical capabilities are due to their environment. If you give a basketball to someone who has played 2 games a week their entire lives and ask them to take 10 shots it is likely they would score more than someone who has never seen a basketball!

Comparing basketball to golf, there are all sorts of body types within the PGA tour, and they is no/few obvious genetic traits which golfers tend to have over other people. This would suggest that golfing ability is more affected by environment.

So an easy way to get a rudimentary test of genetic contributions to sporting ability would be to compare frequency distributions of focal traits in the athletes to distributions of regular people. Obviously the phenotypic trait you measure has both genetic and environmental contributions (e.g. childhood diet) which could affect them but it would be a good starting indicator which could give some candidate traits to test.

As a scientist I would also consider sequencing some athletes and some non athletes and seeing which genes the athletes have more often then the regular person's genome. However, such studies are likely to be complex - linking phenotypes (in polygenic traits) to the single allele variants relies on large sample sizes. Generally it will be more difficult if:

  1. There is large variance in the trait
  2. The gene has a small effect (see major and minor effect genes)

Both of these problems going to be positively correlated with the number of genes affecting a trait (how polygenic is it?) which for athletic ability is probably quite a substantial amount of genes.

EDIT: Here are some possible studies for your further exploration of the topic-

Candidate genes for Specific Genetic Markers of Endurance Performance and o2max

Rowers have an excess of the ACE I allele

Elite Italian footballers with "explosive" leg strength also reveal ACE and other genetic markers

A precautionary tale about Genetic tests for athletic ability


Two hints:

  1. Do a google search for the ACTN3 gene (alpha-actinin-3)

  2. Go to the fitness.stackexchange.com site and search for "fast twitch" muscles, for example. There you'll find many similar questions answered.

You can get an answer for you personally by genetic testing.

This is a quote from a genetic testing site 23andme.com (sorry it's behind a paywall). Note there are other companies who can do this equally well.

Genes vs. Environment

Athletic performance has different estimates of heritability, depending on what aspect one examines. For example, differences in the relative proportion of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fiber are thought to have a heritability of about 45%. Although it is not yet clear whether ACTN3 genotype affects this proportion, it has been shown that the SNP in ACTN3 that we report accounts for about 2.3% of the variation in sprinting performance. However, at the molecular level, whether you have 0, 1, or 2 working copies of alpha-actinin-3 is highly heritable. Lastly, muscle fiber only contributes a small part to your overall athletic performance. Other physical characteristics, such as lung capacity, and behaviors, such as regular exercise, also make important contributions to your prowess in sports.

This is considered "established research for 1 reported marker". It is still subject of much ongoing research, though.

So there you have it: around 2% of a difference in sprinting performance. For the general population this won't matter much. But for prospective professional athletes these 2.3% might matter a lot for developing the full potential of their athletic performance (assuming all other environmental factors, are of equal top quality, e.g. technical equipment, coaching efficiency, etc)


I don't think this will ever be answered, mostly because studying the long-term effects of athletic training is very difficult. People constantly change their training methods, habits, and schedule, so controls are nearly impossible to construct.

My opinion, is that the nurture component is the strongest, because of the amazing plasticity of the body in response to stress: bones grow/reform differently, neural networks become trained, muscles change. Over many years these can be enormous. This is true of all humans, absent those with severe genetic faults.

Genetics probably has a stronger influence on the psychological traits which might induce someone to train so hard. Though parenting could certainly override this.


Nature vs. Nurture

The expression “nature vs. nurture” describes the question of how much a person's characteristics are formed by either “nature” or “nurture.” “Nature” means innate biological factors (namely genetics), while “nurture” can refer to upbringing or life experience more generally.

Traditionally, “nature vs. nurture” has been framed as a debate between those who argue for the dominance of one source of influence or the other, but contemporary experts acknowledge that both “nature” and “nurture” play a role in psychological development and interact in complex ways.

Contents


2 thoughts on &ldquo Athletic Talent – Nature Vs. Nurture &rdquo

I think this is really interesting. When we were little we were all probably exposed to some sort of sport and in that sport there was always that one kid who was just amazing, and no matter how hard you practice you could never quite become as good as them. I have to agree on it being probably both nature and nurture, but I would love to hear your opinion.

I definitely agree with what your blog post said this week. I do think some people are genetically more capable to play certain sports than others. I say this because I am one of those people who is not able to easily play sports, and I don’t think its because I don’t put in the time or effort. This was a very interesting research-based article to read!


Athletes: nature vs. nurture? - Biology

Race as biology has largely been discredited, yet beliefs about one race being biologically superior to another still seem to pervade one social arena: sports. Claims that different races have genetic advantages to play particular sports persists both because individual athletic ability obviously has some basis in biology (even though that does not mean it is racial biology at play) and athletics appears to be one social arena where racial minorities succeed over whites in certain sports.

For example, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports’ 2011 Racial and Gender Report Card on The National Football League (http://www.tidesport.org), over 2/3 rds of players in the NFL are African American — far higher than the proportion of Blacks in the general population of the United States. This report also shows that all other racial groups are under-represented in the NFL relative to their proportion in the general population, including Asians who make up only 2% of the players in the league.

These statistics compel many to assume that racial biology plays a large part in athletic success. However, the 60 Minutes investigation Football Island debunks this assumption during a trip to the place where most of the Asian players in the NFL come from: American Samoa. This small island is a U.S. Territory in the Pacific and has a population small enough to seat comfortably in most professional football stadiums. Yet the average Samoan child “is 56 times more likely to get into the NFL than any other kid in America.”

60 Minutes finds Samoans succeed at football only in small part because of their size and strength. Rather, their success grows mostly out of a “warrior culture” that instills a strong work ethic in young men. Also, on the island the daily chores that are a necessary part of survival provide a lifetime of athletic conditioning. In short, many of the Asian players in the NFL are successful because of their nurturing, and not their nature.

Samoans are also driven to succeed at football because they come from a place plagued by poverty and often their only chance at a better life is through athletics (that, or follow another Samoan tradition and join the Armed Forces). In the video, the most famous Samoan player, Troy Palamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers, explains “football is a ‘meal ticket.’ Just like any marginalized ethnic group, you know, if you don’t make it to the NFL, what do you have to go back to?”

Jason Eastman is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Coastal Carolina University who researches how culture and identity influence social inequalities.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture a textbook about gender and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Comments 37

Yrro Simyarin &mdash September 10, 2012

What common culture did Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson, and Usain Bolt grow up in? Nurture is important, but you can't hand-wave away biological differences just because racial boundaries are poorly defined.

Hard work and warrior mentality will not get you into the NFL without size and strength to match - just look at the hundreds of solid college players who never even get drafted.

Lost_Left_Coaster &mdash September 10, 2012

"Warrior culture" sounds a bit dubious too -- I think that Troy Palamalu's comment at the end there probably gets at it better than anything else. After all, does anyone assert that so many Dominican men succeed at pro baseball because of their "warrior culture"? (what does that even mean?) That kind of idea explains very little, but I bet that we can draw parallels between the types of pressures that Samoan and Dominican boys feel in order to succeed at sports, and then once pro scouts start to take notice, the whole enterprise gains more momentum and attracts more athletes and scouts alike.

Joonas &mdash September 10, 2012

Either you're slinging crack rock or you've got a wicked jump shot.

Grace Scrimgeour &mdash September 10, 2012

I think Michael Messner's work on athletic careers is relevant here- middle-class high school athletes are less likely to go pro because the likelihood of success in sport is small, and they have better avenues to success, whereas if your opportunities outside sports are minimal, even a small chance of success looks good.

Drdanj &mdash September 10, 2012

The all A's are B's therefore all B's are A's type mis-logic seems at work here. A funnel leads some folks "of color" into pro sports, the funnel does not work the same way for us "peach" folks (the official Crayola Crayon color for the rest of us). A highly selective process that becomes a self-reinforcing system says little about the underlying population.

Decius &mdash September 10, 2012

How well do people not of Samoan ancestry adopted by Samoan parents do in sports?

Lori Halford &mdash September 11, 2012

The BBC did a feature about this during their Olympics coverage, and specifically relating to the 100m sprint final. They questioned why so few white runners can currently compete in this event or in the past have run really fast times.
Video is online: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmvtwjqYZcY

Anon &mdash September 12, 2012

I can neither reject nor confirm your first point
because you have not operationalized "ethnic group".

I fear we are talking past one another. I'm not to worried about this since I expect the result will hold under any definition of "ethnic group" that anyone would advance with a straight face. For example, whatever the definition of "ethnic group" is, it will surely be the case that Swedes and Mbuti people belong to different ones. In fact, I'm really not even concerned with ethnic groups at all. I'm concerned with the heritability of traits. Many physical traits are at least partly heritable, and people tend to be (more) related to the people who live near them (than to human beings sampled at random). People also tend to define themselves ethnically in terms of relatedness, and the conclusion follows immediately. But it is probably conceptually clearer to drop the term "ethnic group" altogether and speak only of allele frequencies.

I will agree that
different sports may necessitate different body types, but perhaps only
because the prejudice is designed within.

I'm not sure what you mean here? Physical tasks like "jump as high as you can", "lift as much weight as you can", "run 100m as fast as you can" and "run 26.2 miles as fast as you can" will clearly advantage certain body types. Do you remember that much-beloved portrait series of Olympic athletes that celebrated the diversity of Olympic athletes' body types? Why do the marathon runners, weightlifters and high jumpers all look exactly like you would expect, just knowing the definitions of the sports? Because physics is "prejudiced"? I really can't make out what your position is here. If sports were designed in order to disadvantage certain ethnic groups, doesn't that presume physical differences between groups in the first place? I can only assume I'm misreading you.

But then I have to ask
how you divide the populations.

Again, I'm not interested in ethnic groups per se: I'm interested in allele frequencies, which require no such assumptions about the well-foundedness of ethnic groups to partition humanity. The preponderance of elite sprinters from West Africa and West African Diaspora countries suggests that some combination of alleles advantageous for sprinting is statistically over-represented among people of West African descent. What is the definition of "West Africa", really? Just a short-hand for a sub-population that originally inhabited some part of West Africa.

The argument is quite straightforward:

(1) Elite sprinting is overwhelmingly dominated by the descendants of inhabitants of a very specific part of the world.

(2) These descendants grew up on four different continents in extremely different cultures (Compare Jamaica to Nigeria to the UK to Qatar).

(3) The potential talent pool of non-West African sprinters is very large and culturally diverse. If sprinting ability were primarily culturally conditioned, the world would presumably contain at least one non-West African culture conducive to elite sprinting performance. Instead, 95% of sub-10sec sprinters come from perhaps 3% of the world population.

(4) We already know in general that physical performance is strongly influenced by hereditary biological factors. Indeed, the best known performance enhancing drugs are just natural human hormones and growth factors, which vary between individuals and between populations.

NK &mdash September 18, 2012

Uh Samoans aren't Asian. Samoans are Polynesian. These are different races with different stereotypes attached. It is not true that sport is the only area biological racism survives, it is just the only area where whites arent found to be biologically superior. What a coincidence that it is the only area you decided to 'debunk' and failed to debunk because you didn't even bother to find out the race of specimens you used as evidence. This article is just utterly ludicrous, whites invented racial categories so you should be able to get them right. This website needs to stop talking about race if you can't do it properly.

David Mayeda &mdash November 25, 2012

This post/article is highly problematic. I don't mean to be rude but it really illustrates the problems with how we construct racialized concepts more than anything. As one commenter posted, "Asians" are not "Polynesians." But then there is no category for "Polynesians" or the broader group of "Pacific Islanders" so I suppose players of Samoan (and Hawaiian, Tongan, etc.) ancestry got put into the "Asian" category. This just isn't appropriate, and analysis should critique how the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports screws up its own analyses based on its limited racialized categories. As someone who's worked in Hawaii and now in New Zealand, I find this post falling into a mainstream American idea of race that inappropriately lumps as "Asians and Pacific Islanders" together as one homogeneous group.

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Sport Success: Nature, Nurture, or Both?

Perhaps the most intriguing psychology question debated today has to do with how much of your personality is due to genetics versus learned life experiences — also known as nature versus nurture. Some human qualities, like hair and eye color, are clearly due to genetic influences, while other life skills like throwing and catching a ball are learned through experience. While there are many absolute examples of things like your height being attributed to genetics and learning how to shoot a ball being a learned experience, there are many more instances where nature and nurture intersect and influence each other. It is at this precise point where the introduction of skill acquisition builds from one’s natural genetic structure, thereby providing a new look at nature nurture, but in a less “absolute” sense.

Developing skills

Many times in life biological aspects of human development emerge, and then are either capitalized upon or ignored. For example, lets say you have a son who from the very first time introduced to a baseball picks up the ball with his left hand. Dad, a former baseball pitcher, realizes the advantage of being a left-handed pitcher, and immediately praises his son each time he picks the ball up with his left hand. In fact, dad not only gets excited about this discovery, he finds himself now regularly handing the ball back to his son’s left hand. His son, now catching on that dad becomes very happy when he throws with his left hand, is encouraged to continue using his left hand and, over time, becomes a “lefty.”

Using this example, we can see an initial potential predisposition of left-handed throwing, but you could easily argue that it was dad’s encouragement and positive reinforcement (learned behaviors) that really prompted the kid to become a left handed baseball player. Would this be nature? Nurture? Or both?

Being good at something in life is usually a combination of have some natural talent (and interest), coupled by life opportunities that allow skills to develop and flourish. The challenge for parents is A) noticing natural interests and tendencies their kids display, and B) creating an environment around the child that allows him/her to further develop specific skills. Additionally, parents need to keep emotions in check when the potential for a skill develops, as in the case of the overzealous dad who quickly capitalized on his son’s potential to throw left-handed. The best-case scenario is when a child displays an above-average talent and interest toward something, and parents then create specific, reward-driven learning opportunities so the child can improve in the skill.

Final thoughts

Nature (genetics) alone will only provide part of what is needed in order for kids to fully develop specific life skills, including sport skills. In addition to good genes, kids need life opportunities to further enhance skills, as well as solid parenting and coaching around them to consistently shape behaviors through positive reinforcement. Kids with natural advantages will only go so far if they aren’t surrounded by adults who can provide important opportunities, as well as motivate kids to reach their best through positive encouragement and reinforcement.


Nature, Nurture, and Athleticism

Nature vs nurture can be said to be a debate on what is ‘innate’ and what is ‘acquired’ in an organism. Debates about how nature and nurture tie into athletic ability and race both fall back onto the dichotomous notion. “Athleticism is innate and genetic!”, the hereditarian proclaims. “That blacks of West African ancestry are over-represented in the 100m dash is evidence of nature over nurture!” How simplistic these claims are.

Steve Sailer, in his response to Birney et al on the existence of race, assumes that because those with ancestry to West Africa consistently have produced the most finalists (and winners) in the Olympics that race, therefore, must exist.

I pointed out on Twitter that it’s hard to reconcile the current dogma about race not being a biological reality with what we see in sports, such as each of the last 72 finalists in the Olympic 100-meter dash going all the way back to 1984 nine Olympics ago being at least half sub-Saharan in ancestry.

the abundant data suggesting that individuals of sub-Saharan ancestry enjoy genetic advantages.

[…]

For example, it’s considered fine to suggest that the reason that each new Dibaba is fast is due to their shared genetics. But to say that one major reason Ethiopians keep winning Olympic running medals (now up to 54, but none at any distance shorter than the 1,500-meter metric mile because Ethiopians lack sprinting ability) is due to their shared genetics is thought unthinkable.

Sailer’s argument seems to be “Group X is better than Group Y at event A. Therefore, X and Y are races”, which is similar to the hereditarian arguments on the existence of ‘race’—just assume they exist.

The outright reductionism to genes in Sailer’s view on athleticism and race is plainly obvious. That blacks are over-represented in certain sports (e.g., football and basketball) is taken to be evidence for this type of reductionism that Sailer and others appeal to (Gnida, 1995). Such appeals can be said to be implicitly saying “The reason why blacks succeed at sport is due to genes while whites succeed due to hard work, so blacks don’t need to work as hard as whites when it comes to sports.”

There are anatomic and physiological differences between groups deemed “black” and “white”, and these differences do influence sporting success. Even though this is true, this does not mean that race exists. Such reductionist claims—as I myself have espoused years ago—do not hold up. Yes, blacks have a higher proportion of type II muscle fibers (Caesar and Henry, 2015), but this does not alone explain success in certain athletic disciplines.

Current genetic testing cannot identify an athlete (Pitsiladis et al, 2013). I reviewed some of the literature on power genotypes and race and concluded that there are no genes yet identified that can be said to be a sufficient cause of success in power sports.

Just because group A has gene or gene networks G and they compete in competition C does not mean that gene or gene networks G contribute in full—or in part—to sporting success. The correlations could be coincidental and non-functional in regard to the sport in question. Athletes should be studied in isolation, meaning just studying a specific athlete in a specific discipline to ascertain how, what, and why works for the specific athlete along with taking anthropomorphic measures, seeing how bad they want “it”, and other environmental factors such as nutrition and training. Looking at the body as a system will take us away from privileging one part over another—while we also do understand that they do play a role but not the role that reductionists believe.

No evidence exists for DNA variants that are common to endurance athletes (Rankinen et al, 2016). But they do have one thing in common (which is an environmental effect on biology): those born at altitude have a permanently altered ventilatory response as adults while “Peruvians born at altitude have a nearly 10% larger forced vital capacity compared to genetically matched Peruvians born at sea level” (Brutasaert and Parra, 2009: 16). Certain environmental effects on biology are well-known, and those biological changes do help in certain athletic events (Epstein, 2014). Yan et al (2016) conclude that “conclude that the traditional argument of nature versus nurture is no longer relevant, as it has been clearly established that both are important factors in the road to becoming an elite athlete.”

Georgiades et al (2017) go the other way and what they argue is clear in the title of their paper “Why nature prevails over nurture in the making of the elite athlete.” They continue:

Despite this complexity, the overwhelming and accumulating evidence, amounted through experimental research spanning almost two centuries, tips the balance in favour of nature in the “nature” and “nurture” debate. In other words, truly elite-level athletes are built – but only from those born with innate ability.

They use twin studies as an example stating that since heritability is greater than 50% but lower than 100% means “that the environment is also important.” But this is a strange take, especially from seasoned sports scientists (like Pitsiladis). Attempting to partition traits into a ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ component and then argue that the emergence of that trait is due more to genetics than environment is an erroneous use of heritability estimates. It is not possible—nor is it feasible—to separate traits into genetic and environmental components. The question does not even make sense.

“… the question of how to separate the native from the acquired in the responses of man does not seem likely to be answered because the question is unintelligible.” (Leonard Carmichael 1925, quoted in Genes, Determinism and God, Alexander, 2017)

Rather, individual performance thresholds are determined by our genetic make-up, and training can be defined as the process by which genetic potential is realised. Although the specific details are currently unknown, the current scientific literature clearly indicates that both nurture and nature are involved in determining elite athletic performance. In conclusion, elite sporting performance is the result of the interaction between genetic and training factors, with the result that both talent identification and management systems to facilitate optimal training are crucial to sporting success.

Tucker and Collins (2012) define training as the realization of genetic potential, while DNA “control the ceiling” of what one may be able to accomplish. “… training maximises
the likelihood of obtaining a performance level with a genetically controlled ‘ceiling’, accounts for the observed dominance of certain populations in specific sporting disciplines” (Tucker and Collins, 2012: 6). “Training” would be the environment here and the “genetically controlled ‘ceiling'” would be genes here. The authors are arguing that while training is important, training is just realizing the ‘potential’ of what is ‘already in’ the genes—an erroneous way of looking at genes. Shenk (2010: 107) explains why:

As the search for athletic genes continues, therefore, the overwhelming evidence suggests that researchers will instead locate genes prone to certain types of interactions: gene variant A in combination with gene variant B, provoked into expression by X amount of training + Y altitude + Z will to win + a hundred other life variables (coaching, injuries, etc.), will produce some specific result R. What this means, of course, What this means, of course, is that we need to dispense rhetorically with thick firewall between biology (nature) and training (nurture). The reality of GxE assures that each person’s genes interacts with his climate, altitude, culture, meals, language, customs and spirituality—everything—to produce unique lifestyle trajectories. Genes play a critical role, but as dynamic instruments, not a fixed blueprint. A seven- or fourteen- or twenty-eight-year-old is not that way merely because of genetic instruction.

The model proposed by Tucker and Collins (2012) is pretty reductionist (see Ericsson, 2012 for a response), while the model proposed by Shenk (2010) is more holistic. The hypothetical model explaining Kenyan distance running success (Wilbur and Pitsiladis, 2012) is, too, a more realistic way of assessing sport dominance:

The formation of an elite athlete comes down to a combination of genes, training, and numerous other interacting factors. The attempt to boil the appearance of a certain trait to either ‘genes’ or ‘environment’ and partition them into percentages is an unsound procedure. That a certain group continuously wins a certain event does not constitute evidence that the group in question is a race, nor does it constitute evidence that ‘genes’ are the cause of the outcome between groups in that event. The holistic model of human athletic performance in which genes contribute to certain physiological processes along with training, and other biomechanical and psychological differences is the correct way to think about sport and race. Actually seeing an athlete in motion in his preferred sport is (and I believe always will be) superior to just genetic analyses. Genetic tests also have “no role to play in talent identification” (Webborn et al, 2015).

One emerging concept is that there are many potential genetic pathways to a given phenotype [ 41 ]. This concept is consistent with ideas that biological redundancy underpins complex multiscale physiological responses and adaptations in humans [ 42 ]. From an applied perspective, the ideas discussed in this review suggest that talent identification on the basis of DNA testing is likely to be of limited value, and that field testing, which is essentially a higher order ‘bioassay’, is likely to remain a key element of talent identification in both the near and foreseeable future [ 43 ]. (Joyner, 2019 Genetic Approaches for Sports Performance: How Far Away Are We?)

Athleticism is irreducible to biology (Louis, 2004). Holistic (nature and nurture) will beat the reductionist (nature vs nurture) views with how biological systems work, there is no reason to privilege one level over another (Noble, 2012), so there is no reason to privilege the gene over the environment, environment over the gene. The interaction of multiple factors explains sport success.


Nature Vs. Nurture In An Athlete’S Success

Ever since the beginning of civilization, society has worshiped great athletes. Greatness, however is not guaranteed as there are many different factors that determine whether or not an athlete will be successful. Among those factors, the most important is genetics, and this is certainly proven by looking at outstanding athletes such as Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and Donald Thomas. Genetic inheritance and biological factors in junction with arduous training are the greatest contributing factors to an athlete’s success. Athletics is similar to the animal kingdom, where the fittest survive and the athletes who have the greatest genetic inheritance consequently are the most accomplished. Hailing from Trelawny, Jamaica, Usain Bolt won three gold medals at three consecutive Olympic games before the age of 32 (Biography, 2018).

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To be crowned the title, ‘Fastest Man Alive,’ Bolt has established himself by setting multiple sprinting records. Some scientists believe that any gene-centered explanation dismisses the importance of some psycho-social and cultural factors. They believe that these factors largely contribute to the success of Jamaican sprinters. In Jamaica, track and field holds a position of high respect, the culture idolizes sprint heroes. Therefore, there is a powerful desire among the Jamaican youth to use sport to help lift not only themselves but their families out of poverty as well. Whether the desire is there or not, it takes a sprint athlete with special physical capabilities, which usually stem from ‘sprint’ variants of the ACTN3 gene as well as other physical factors, to compete at the level of Usain Bolt.

Upon closer analysis, his success can be attributed to his genetics and his anatomy. Bolt’s innate talent for speed is evident with his physical build, “Looking [at his] stride length and frequency, the uniqueness of Bolt is evidently his stride length” (Shinabarger et al, 2010). Although every step Bolt takes is comparable to his competitors, every step is significantly bigger because of the length of his legs. Adding on, researchers have proven that nature trumps nurture, “They examined the association between size and record times, and found that taller and heavier athletes tended to be the fastest” (Weider, 2010). Bolt achieved 9 gold medals as a result of his genetic build: a towering six-foot-five and ninety-four kilograms compared to the average male Olympic sprinter who usually stand at about six-feet and and weigh seventy-five kilograms.

Bolt’s hereditary traits set him apart from his competition, thus awarding him with athletic success. Growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, Michael Phelps demonstrated swimming prowess at a very young age. He set the record for winning the most medals, 28, of any Olympic athlete in history as well as setting the most world records, 39, of all time (Biography, 2018). Many people credit Phelps’ work ethic and his intense training regiment as the main reason for much of his success. Whoever, what distinctly sets him apart from other swimmers, is his physical build, which is a result of his genetics. “His height, torso-to-leg length, hand and foot size, shoulder width, aerobic capacity, [and] fast- to slow-twitch muscle-fiber ratio…”(“Genetics,Genetics, Genetics”, 2016). His physical build is an integral piece that contributes to Phelps becoming the most prolific swimmer in history.

Furthermore, Phelps holds an advantage over his competitors, as his limbs are longer than average, “ [His> remarkably long torso is like the hull of a boat, allowing him to ride high on the water. His ankles, knees, elbows and shoulder joints are rubber-band flexible. His wingspan is 3 inches longer than his 6-4 height” (Michaelis, 2008). This allows him to be able to glide through the water and touch the finish line before his competitors. Phelps’ athletic build is the most critical aspect which aids him in conquering his rivals and becoming an athletic legend.

Donald Thomas, born in Freeport, Bahamas is an athletic underdog (SR/Olympic Sports). He is a prime example of innate talents prompting an individual to soar over their competition. Thomas tried high jump after a track team member bet that he could not clear a six-foot-six bar. He competed at the World Championships where he only had eight months of training under his belt. This novice, with exceptional natural talent, beat Stefan Holm of Sweden who was physically at a disadvantage, but trained tirelessly, “By the 2004 Olympics where he won a gold medal, he had logged more than 20,000 hours of practice.” Thomas, a college student who after a few hundred hours of practice, reached the level of Holm’s, which he had spent over 20,000 hours working hard to obtain. This disproves Malcolm Gladwell’s famous rule, “Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness,” (Gladwell, 2008).

Thomas is illustrative of how someone who is anatomically built for a specific sport, will have a competitive advantage over someone who is not physically suited. Genetics undoubtedly can give athletes an advantage, and has the potential to set them apart from their competition. This assumption has been demonstrated by the success of some of the highest achievers in their chosen sport, who have genetically inherited physical attributes that are very suited to success within their field. Prime examples of this phenomena are Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and Donald Thomas. In comparison to an athlete who has genetic traits specifically suited for the sport, average athletes, no matter how much they practice, will always be at a disadvantage. In conclusion, in the debate of Nature Vs. Nurture, biological build trumps all in separating the good athletes, from the great.

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Nature or nurture? When it comes to great athletes, it’s both

Usain Bolt of Jamaica reacts after winning the men's 100m race during the London Diamond League 'Anniversary Games' athletics meeting at the Olympic Stadium, in east London July 26, 2013.

This article was published more than 7 years ago. Some information in it may no longer be current.

The best counterexample to the most powerful popular science narrative of the past decade is a tomato-faced Finn who lives in a tiny hamlet north of the Arctic Circle. Eero Mantyranta was born with a single misspelling – an adenine molecule instead of a guanine – in a 7,138-unit-long stretch of DNA associated with red-blood-cell production. As a result, he has a distinctly reddish-purple complexion, up to 65 per cent more hemoglobin to carry oxygen from his lungs to his muscles than the average person, and seven Olympic medals in cross-country skiing.

At least, that's one way of telling his story.

The other way, as author David Epstein finds out when he makes the long trek to Lapland to track down Mantyranta, more than 40 years after his last Olympic triumph, is to focus on his childhood – so poor that his whole family shared a single fork, skiing on wooden planks by the time he could walk, an hour each way to school across a frozen lake – and on his gruelling training regimen as a teenager, when he realized that success as a skier could save him from a life of hard labour and deadening poverty.

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So which is it? That, in essence, is the question that Epstein, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated who specializes in sports science, wrestles with in various guises throughout The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. The current conventions of popular science writing dictate that he should settle on a single counterintuitive but easily digested answer, preferably one that, if applied to your own life, will help you improve your jump shot and get that promotion at work you've been hoping for.

Instead, Epstein eventually concludes that the secret of Mantyranta's success is "100 per cent nature and 100 per cent nurture" – an equivocal answer that surely made his literary agent blanch, but should earn cheers from the rest of us.

In his quest to understand what marks some athletes for greatness, Epstein tags along with scientists studying Jamaican sprinters and Kenyan marathoners, ventures to Alaska to understand the unique psychology of champion sled dogs, and sifts through vast data sets from youth soccer academies and National Football League combines. The pages are packed with fascinating science – not just passing references to studies, but thorough explanations that don't try to hide the inevitable uncertainties and ambiguities.

Along the way, he wrestles with two strong currents of contemporary thinking. Scarcely a day passes without reports of newly discovered links between particular genes and traits ranging from cancer risk to a fondness for coriander, and this streak of genetic determinism extends to sporting prowess. Several companies now offer genetic tests that tell you whether your toddler should be streamed into strength or endurance sports – though, as Epstein discovers, these tests have essentially no predictive value. ("If you want to know if your kid is going to be fast," one scientist tells him, "the best genetic test right now is a stopwatch. Take him to the playground and have him race the other kids.")

In contrast, Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 book Outliers (still near the top of bestseller lists in Canada and the United States almost five years later) emphasized the role of factors such as opportunity and luck in success, along with the "10,000-Hour Rule" of deliberate practice for the mastery of any skill. Mozart and Wayne Gretzky shone, in this view, because they were born into unique situations that allowed them to begin accumulating their 10,000 hours shortly after exiting the womb, not because of their genes.

This contrarian view has spawned a wave of similar books arguing with varying degrees of subtlety that talent is overrated – Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code, Matthew Syed's Bounce, Geoff Colvin's Talent Is Overrated.

That the truth should lie somewhere between these two narratives won't come as a surprise to anyone. (Except, perhaps, Dan McLaughlin, who after reading Outliers and Talent Is Overrated quit his job as a photographer to undertake 10,000 hours of practice with the goal of becoming a professional golfer, even though he'd never even played a full round of golf in his life. He started in 2009, at the age of 30, and expects to reach the "magic number" by 2016.) Instead, the surprises in Epstein's reporting come from which particular elements of sporting success skew toward one side or the other.


Hormones explored

Differences in hormone development have emerged as a key area of research on same-sex attraction for both men and women.

Fraternal birth order linked to same-sex attraction in men

Scientists have discovered that having older brothers increases the odds of a man being gay.

The role of hormones explored

Scientists believe that hormonal differences may influence sexual orientation.

Endocrine disorders linked to same-sex attraction in some women

Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) causes an overproduction of masculinizing hormones.


The Nature of Race and the Nurture of Racism

In 2020, the rallying cry of Black Lives Matter is resounding around the world, and conversations about systemic racism are happening everywhere. But there’s one topic that is still considered taboo when it comes to race: nature versus nurture.

The cultural distaste for discussing the genetics of racial g r oups is warranted because these conversations are often intended to promote the superiority of one group over another. Beyond that controversy, racial groups are not even useful as biological categories. But discounting biology from discussions about systemic racism prevents us from addressing the real root of many problems in the U.S., that nature and nurture are inseparable.

Excitement about the Human Genome Project, genetically modified foods, and genetic ancestry testing has misled people into believing that our destinies are prescribed by our DNA. But a genome only represents a fraction of the potential contained within a living organism. The technological advancements that drive modern society cannot be found in the human genome, and, as a result of our progress, humanity wields the power to change our own DNA through genetic engineering.

The feedback loop between nature and nurture is not isolated to scientific lab techniques — our nature is constantly being rewritten by our nurture. This process, known as epigenetics, determines which of our genes get used at what times. Epigenetic changes don’t usually alter the sequence of our DNA, but they do have a profound impact on our day to day biology. Epigenetics represents a way for our bodies to constantly communicate with the environment, for better or worse.

For example, cigarette use causes immediate and permanent epigenetic changes that lead to the familiar problems of cancer and lung disease. On the flip side of the coin, regular exercise causes epigenetic changes that reduce disease risk and prolong lifespan. Through epigenetics, our nurture changes our nature, which allows our biology to respond to our choices and environments.

Epigenetic changes to our biology can get also passed down to our descendants. Cigarette use doesn’t just affect the biology of the smoker, it harms their children and grandchildren too. Similarly, exercise can provide benefits to the mental and physical health of future generations. Epigenetic inheritance means that what we do changes who we are, and who we are influences who our descendants might one day become.

Differences between racial groups get epigenetically manifested as people are sorted into different environments and experiences based on skin color. In many U.S. cities in the 20th century, racial housing covenants cemented race-based segregation into the letter of the law, preventing racial minorities from escaping literally toxic environments. Racial differences do not cause exposure to toxins, but segregation based on race does.

The intergenerational cycles of nature and nurture explain the inequities of the U.S. far better than racial differences. For instance, exposure to the toxic metal lead causes problems like intellectual impairment, increased criminal behavior, and downward socioeconomic mobility. A person’s race is predictive of the amount of toxic lead in their blood and bones, and lead exposure is predictive of decreased IQ, criminality, and poverty. But people with African ancestry or darker skin tone are not genetically predisposed to these issues. Race is not a causal factor in these matters, it’s a skin-deep scapegoat for a deeper cultural decay.

Fortunately, epigenetics can be a potent force for positive outcomes, and simple interventions can have big returns on individual and collective health. Clean environments, availability of healthy food, mindfulness meditation, and interpersonal support networks can transform our biology for the better. These aren’t solutions to the problems of a broken criminal justice system, unaffordable healthcare, or wealth inequality, but they are steps in the right direction that will prevent bigger problems in the future.

Black Lives Matter is a valiant effort to equalize opportunities for all Americans, but the issues plaguing the U.S. stem from the inseparable interaction between nature and nurture, not from racial differences. Individual decisions can override predispositions and biological nature, but environmental factors and genetics can influence how easy or difficult it is to make the right choices.

Race is a convenient way to frame systemic problems it is simpler and easier to see each other through the lens of superficial qualities. But only when we take the time to appreciate each other as fully realized people — with all the complexity that entails — can we begin to solve the difficult problems we face, together.


Watch the video: A Star Athlete: Nature. Nurture (January 2023).