Friday, June 21, 2019

The Sports Gene

While you can get better at anything by practicing, it's pretty clear that given the same amount of practice, some people will be way better than others at most sports. What accounts for this difference? David Epstein drills down into this question in his fantastic book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance

When humans mapped the human genome, they expected to uncover all sorts of information that can help account for our differences. Unfortunately, the answers turned out not to be so simple. It would have been nice to find single genes that explain the incidences of certain diseases, so that we could work on methods to change or turn those genes off. But in most cases, it's way more complicated. For example, there is no single gene for height, but rather hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of small variations all contribute to determining one's height. Further complicating matters, these same genes control other aspects of our bodies, meaning toying with them can result in a whole lot of unintended consequences.

All this to say, that there can be no single "sports gene". But there can be certain genes that contribute advantages in certain sports. Epstein dives into a number of these, and they are fascinating.

Animals living near the equator tend to have longer and thinner body parts than their cousins who live in colder climates. This probably took place through natural selection, as a surface area to volume ratio would be advantageous to reproductive success in debilitatingly hot environments. Thin legs (particularly at the calf and ankle) happen to be huge advantages for long-distance running.

All professional baseball hitters have a visual acuity that is off the charts, approaching the theoretical maximum for human beings. If a kid doesn't have this acuity, the odds of making it big become much longer.

Everybody has a different ratio of fast-twitch to slow-twitch muscle. One of these types of muscle is very helpful in exploding off the line, or making a fast cut, while the other helps you sustain force for longer. Countries now test their athletes for these, and have had encouraging results switching athletes from one race category to another in order to take advantage of their genetic strengths.

Exercise is good for you, they say, but that doesn't apply to everyone. Every day, a number of athletes die due to over-straining their enlarged hearts. These hearts are fine until they are pressed to a point where the pumping becomes spasmic. This is another genetic mutation that shows no symptoms until it can be too late, but genetic testing can alert potential victims.

Some people can feel no pain! This would seem to be an advantage at first, but such people tend not to live very long. They don't know when to shift their body's weight, and can often die of infection as a result.

These are just a few examples of the many that Epstein discusses in The Sports Gene. I highly recommend it.

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