Will some one kindly inform the nerds over at New Scientist that they’re not supposed to run pieces like the one in this month’s issue titled “Endurance running is in east Africans’ genes”? Findings or no findings, them’s some dangerous ideas author Andy Coghlan and company are cooking up over there. One shudders to imagine the consequences.
Stories of genetic differences — even the most innocuous — tend to invoke the horrors of Nazi Germany and Hitler’s eugenic experiments, or, farther back, 19th century Confederate attempts to establish the sub-humanity of Africans. Since then any research into differences among the races, even at the sub-atomic particle level, has been taboo. In fact, the thing has reached such an absurd level that medical research that could lead to breakthroughs in the treatment of heart disease affecting mainly African Americans has been denounced — by African Americans, no less. It is feared the research might suggest that there indeed are subtle genetic differences between the races.
The issue of genetic differences has cooled considerably since the mid-’90s when Charles Murray and the late Harvard Professor Richard Herrnstein published The Bell Curve, which, in brief, reported a slight disparity in IQ among the races. The authors were attacked mercilessly in the press and in academia and labeled racists and pseudo-scientists for daring to publish data that suggested race, not racism, was a factor in the disparity in IQ. (The Bethune Institute’s David Lethbridge titled his review “Fascism as Science” and the late Stephen Jay Gould accused Murray and Herrnstein of “rehashing old arguments to exploit a new political wave of uncaring and belt tightening.”) Critics could point to no serious flaws in Murray and Herrnstein’s research. Their objections were mainly to its possible political consequences.
Now comes research from — I’m not joking — the International Centre for East African Running Science at the University of Glasgow in the UK, which finds that Ethiopians’ long-distance running prowess is partly dictated by their genes. According to the New Scientist, researchers have found that Ethiopia’s elite male athletes are more likely to have certain variants of four Y chromosome genes. Researcher Yannis Pitsiladis cautions that the differences in gene variants “are not so overwhelming to say that this is the reason for their success.” They also note that not all Ethiopians have the variants. Just the really good runners. But even more surprising is the fact that the research saw the light of day.
In the past, Ethiopian athletic success (Ethiopians or Kenyans have run 37 of the 40 fastest times recorded over 10,000 meters) was attributed to training and having to run long distances to school at high altitudes. And doubtless most would be happy to leave it at that. But along comes these nosy scientists, dipping into the Ethiopian gene pool.
In grade school in the early 70s, a few of my philosopher-classmates used to allege that African Americans were superior athletes because they had an extra muscle in their leg or an extra bone in their foot. In fact we’d use any old excuse to explain why we sucked at basketball and track, rather than admit that we were just plain lazy and didn’t practice half as much as they did. Sadly, a lot of critics who presumably know better seem unable to distinguish between the humbug of Hitler, the lame excuses of grade school boys, and the valid findings of legitimate research.
And that ain’t all. As geneticists become better at cracking our “life code” there is no telling what surprises will be unearthed. Perhaps we will even find that there are actual differences between boys and girls, beyond the obviously physical, differences that paleo-feminists will be unable to discount.
Will some mouth-breathing Neanderthals use this research to bolster his or her racist theories? Perhaps. But discovering the truth about our species can never be a bad thing. Whether we like what we find out about ourselves or not.