Entine, Jon. Taboo. New York: PublicAffairs, 2000. ISBN 1-58648-026-X.

A certain segment of the dogma-based community of postmodern academics and their hangers-on seems to have no difficulty whatsoever believing that Darwinian evolution explains every aspect of the origin and diversification of life on Earth while, at the same time, denying that genetics—the mechanism which underlies evolution—plays any part in differentiating groups of humans. Doublethink is easy if you never think at all. Among those to whom evidence matters, here's a pretty astonishing fact to ponder. In the last four Olympic games prior to the publication of this book in the year 2000, there were thirty-two finalists in the men's 100-metre sprint. All thirty-two were of West African descent—a region which accounts for just 8% of the world's population. If finalists in this event were randomly chosen from the entire global population, the probability of this concentration occurring by chance is 0.0832 or about 810−36, which is significant at the level of more than twelve standard deviations. The hardest of results in the flintiest of sciences—null tests of conservation laws and the like—are rarely significant above 7 to 8 standard deviations.

Now one can certainly imagine any number of cultural and other non-genetic factors which predispose those with West African ancestry toward world-class performance in sprinting, but twelve standard deviations? The fact that running is something all humans do without being taught, and that training for running doesn't require any complicated or expensive equipment (as opposed to sports such as swimming, high-diving, rowing, or equestrian events), and that champions of West African ancestry hail from countries around the world, should suggest a genetic component to all but the most blinkered of blank slaters.

Taboo explores the reality of racial differences in performance in various sports, and the long and often sordid entangled histories of race and sports, including the tawdry story of race science and eugenics, over-reaction to which has made most discussion of human biodiversity, as the title of book says, taboo. The equally forbidden subject of inherent differences in male and female athletic performance is delved into as well, with a look at the hormone dripping “babes from Berlin” manufactured by the cruel and exploitive East German sports machine before the collapse of that dismal and unlamented tyranny.

Those who know some statistics will have no difficulty understanding what's going on here—the graph on page 255 tells the whole story. I wish the book had gone into a little more depth about the phenomenon of a slight shift in the mean performance of a group—much smaller than individual variation—causing a huge difference in the number of group members found in the extreme tail of a normal distribution. Another valuable, albeit speculative, insight is that if one supposes that there are genes which confer advantage to competitors in certain athletic events, then given the intense winnowing process world-class athletes pass through before they reach the starting line at the Olympics, it is plausible all of them at that level possess every favourable gene, and that the winner is determined by training, will to win, strategy, individual differences, and luck, just as one assumed before genetics got mixed up in the matter. It's just that if you don't have the genes (just as if your legs aren't long enough to be a runner), you don't get anywhere near that level of competition.

Unless research in these areas is suppressed due to an ill-considered political agenda, it is likely that the key genetic components of athletic performance will be identified in the next couple of decades. Will this mean that world-class athletic competition can be replaced by DNA tests? Of course not—it's just that one factor in the feedback loop of genetic endowment, cultural reinforcement of activities in which group members excel, and the individual striving for excellence which makes competitors into champions will be better understood.

May 2005 Permalink