Book Review: The Sports Gene by David Epstein
The Sports Gene Review
David Epstein’s book “The Sports Gene” is one of the more engrossing and intriguing books I’ve read in a long time (fiction or otherwise). The author, a former collegiate track runner at Columbia, sets out to look at the age-old issue of nature vs. nurture in terms of sports. In other words: What is more important to an athlete, good genes or good work ethic?
Epstein’s answer this unanswerable question is basically “It depends” but it’s the way he goes about looking at the angle that had me staying up way past my usual bedtime, bleary-eyed as I read about the Kalenjin tribe’s dominance in distance running or the Iditarod racer/dog breeder who literally bred work ethic into his dogs.
The book covers a wide range of topics across many different sports and continents. The discussion of Kenyan distance dominance has always been a hotly debated topic on message boards and the like, so it was interesting to see that the science is still not sure exactly why this relatively small nation has been able to so thoroughly dominate the sport. What was new was Epstein’s discussion of the “genetic diversity” theory, which states that, since life began in Africa, people from that continent are going to have a greater deal of diversity than, say, people living in Asia, who migrated there eons ago. Thus people in Africa, in theory, are going to have people with great genes for all kinds of things, but they’re also going to have people on the low-end of the spectrum (i.e. the fastest and the slowest runners in the world). Fairly controversial stuff, particularly when discussing Jamaicans, who primarily are from the West Coast of Africa, and the “warrior-slave” theory.
I was also fascinated by Epstein’s discussion of gender and its relation to sports, in a chapter called “Why Do Men Have Nipples?” Epstein points out that, at one time, it was believed that woman would reach a point where they would be be better than men at running events, due to how rapidly women were improving. As it turns out, this was primarily due to drugged up runners from Eastern Bloc countries.
At any rate, this book is pretty complex at times, but in terms of a book about science the author has done a phenomenal job of simplifying some staggeringly complex concepts into terms that even a science-averse philistine like myself can somewhat understand. My one criticism would be that he really does not address the PED situation in anything other than a cursory manner.
Overall, I’d highly recommend this to anyone who is interested in sports at any level. Although it’s decently long and at times complicated, the book never feels like work and is quite an easy read considering the subject matter.