I recently finished David Epstein’s The Sports Gene. It is excellent and well-worth the read. Below is a brief review I wrote for my Goodreads page.
Is elite athletic performance the result of nature (our genes) or nurture (environment and training)? Yes, according to David Epstein’s The Sports Gene. This engaging and illuminating work is a pleasure to read. The anecdotes are amazing and humanize the scientific questions and issues raised by the role of genes in sport. Epstein does a great job of reporting the science without getting too technical, but without dumbing it down or sensationalizing it. He clears away the misunderstandings and misuse of the effect of genes. We often, he shows, misascribe the influence of genes: over-attributing them in some cases while failing to see their role where there is a significant influence.
Part of the story here is that genes play significant and important roles in athletic performance, but Epstein is careful not to overplay this. First, the target of his work here is extraordinary and elite performances. These are athletes that are already well off the curve. What he finds here isn’t going to necessarily translate back to the rest of us who live in the heart of the bell curve. Second, Epstein doesn’t want to disrespect or downplay the importance of the effort and hard work of these elite athletes. Yes, they often have amazing genetic gifts, but without the effort and practice, these gifts won’t amount to anything. (At the same time, the book looks at the genetic contributions for effort-taking and practicing.)
Another important theme of the book is that a better understanding of the genetic roots of performance can help us improve performance. The differences in our genetic propensities (our genotype) require, in many cases, different kinds of training and practice. Our bodies react to training and practice differently and so, to understand better how to improve our skills and outcomes, we have to understand better how we respond to the environment and training. One person’s strenuous cardio workout might be overkill (tragically quite literally in rare cases) for another.
Epstein doesn’t tackle the issue of genetic manipulation (or gene-doping) head on, but it certainly lurks throughout the book. Over the last century, the scientific and technological influence on training for athletic performance has increased immensely. As our knowledge of the human genome and genetic technology increases, will we see this influence extend beyond training into the athlete’s genetic makeup? Epstein’s tentative response is that, given the state of the science, there is just too much unknown at this point to do this in any extensive or effective way.
But that knowledge is coming; it is more of a when than an if. I am fairly certain that as the knowledge increases, so will the use of this knowledge to improve performance. Epstein is agnostic, ultimately, on the wisdom or morality of doing this. That wasn’t the point of the book, so it is no fault. But his work suggests much about this possible future. Personally, I think that, as with most scientific and technological advances, this will generally be a boon for human civilization and for sport. I am not utopian, though, and recognize that it will come with some harms and dangers. This is in part why it is important to get a better understanding of the science and learn more about how nature and nurture interact.
Another moral question not raised by Epstein, but suggested by his book, is how our understanding of the influence of our genes on performance affects our evaluation of doping. If some people have natural advantages conferred by their genotype, then is it really unfair for someone without those genetic advantages to use a drug to produce a similar effect? For example, Finnish athlete Eero Ma/ntyranta has a genetic variation that makes his red blood count as much as 65 percent higher than that of an average man (274). His body is able to move oxygen to muscles much better than most and this (all other things being equal) gives him an advantage in endurance sport. This is quite similar to the effect of taking EPO as a performance-enhancer. If one of the goals in athletic competitions is a level starting point for athletes, then maybe we ought not ban EPO. That is, maybe, allowing EPO would level the field for athletes that do not have the benefit of genetic advantages. Is there a moral difference (putting aside for the moment the wrongness of the rule-violation) between someone who has a performance advantage from their genotype and someone who has a performance advantage from taking a substance? In more fundamentally, it begins to challenge the traditional concepts and evaluations of doping and performance enhancing.
While Epstein doesn’t deal with these issues, the book is good place to learn (in a non-technical way) about the scientific foundation for answering these kinds of moral and philosophical questions. For that reason alone it worth a read. But it is also quite interesting on its own terms.