To become an elite sportsperson, you need to win the genetic lottery

A review of The Sports Gene by David Epstein

Winners, it is said, are not born but made. That, however, is not the whole truth, as David Epstein, an investigative reporter with Pro Publica, shows in his book The Sports Gene.

In recent decades, the role of genes in causing diseases has been elucidated time and again. So it should not be surprising that they must also play a role in creating gifted individuals. And, yet, the science to support the latter hypothesis is limited and more recent. The reason for this disparity is not because we don’t have the tools to find evidence for that hypothesis, but because the message it supports is not one that society is ready for.

Epstein make his case through many examples. These are not just of rare individuals with extraordinary achievements. He also looks at physiological characteristics of all players at the international level across various sports. Consider, for instance, the average male basketball player. Had he lived at the time, he would not have made a good candidate for Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. That is because a professional basketball player won’t fit in da Vinci’s circle—the length of the player’s outspread arms is greater than his height. Those two measures were considered to be equal in an “ideal human”. But Epstein’s calculations show that if you want to be an internationally successful basketball player, you need to be an exception—you need to be tall and have longer arms still.

This phenomenon is true of other sports. Be it sprinting, where those endowed with the ability to draw more oxygen from the air than the average are more likely to win. Or be it high jump, where rare jumpers with excessively long Achilles tendon end up succeeding. Or be it marathons, where most winners come from within a single tribe in western Kenya. The story is clear—to sculpt an elite athlete, the roll of nature’s dice must be played in their favour.

Teasing apart the role of genes on complex human traits is no simple task. But recent studies have identified a handful genes that can make or break an athlete. Take the EPOR gene, for instance. Those who have the gene, also tend to have exceptionally high haemoglobin levels in the blood. This improves the efficiency with which oxygen is consumed, creating some remarkable athletes if they choose that path. Or take the HCM1 gene. It causes one of the chambers of the heart to grow in size without any apparent symptoms. This puts an athlete with HCM1 at the risk of falling dead on a track without a warning. On average one such athlete dies every other week in the US.

In general, however, the interaction of genes that creates such remarkable athletes is too complex to breakdown. For instance, hundreds of genes are involved in determining someone’s height. So, even if genetic engineering is available today, a designer baby can’t be created to make an “ideal athlete”. But, to be sure, neither can the natural bounty of genes alone ensure great athletic feats. And, yet, there is no doubt that Epstein’s thorough analysis raises uncomfortable questions for the long-held view—recently made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule—that talent is nothing and practice is everything.

The nature vs nurture debate is not new, but genetics is providing the tools to take the debate forward. The evidence, as Epstein puts it, appears to be that the contribution of both is equally important.

Nurture alone is not going to turn a Pygmy into an NBA player, and that is not a fact that we must shy away from. If anything, genes could help people find which sports would be a good fit for them. Society must not fear these inherent differences. Rather, such inequalities make human life interesting and worth living.

Image credit: piers_nye, CC-BY-NC

We don’t value tinkering as much, but that’s what makes the world great

Review of The Tinkerers: The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors Who Make America Great by Alec Foege 


The inventions of the late 19th and early 20th century that define our modern life were the result of America’s tinkering spirit, claims Alec Foege, an American journalist in his book “The Tinkerers”. That tinkering gave us airplanes, telephones, alternating current, light bulbs and air-conditioners.

America’s founding fathers like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, themselves inventors and scientists, infused this sense of tinkering right at the birth of the nation. But that can-do spirit has been replaced by hopelessness today. The stories of Alexander Bell and Thomas Edison made them heroes. But the mid-20th century needed more than one genius.

That pioneering need gave birth to innovative hubs like the Bell Labs, which invented semiconductor devices, or Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre, which built the first computer that used a mouse-based graphic interface. What made them special was that in these centres researchers were given a problem, plenty of resources and left alone to come up with a solution. Curiosity drove research rather than commercialisation. Karlheinz Bradenburg, the co-inventor of MP3 and a former Bell Labs employee, says: “It was like a university with famous professors, but no students”.

Foege argues that American culture is now focussed on efficiency and conformity rather than innovation. With the exception of Google and a handful of other firms, few companies embrace the spirit of tinkering.

But the tides are changing. The rise of the Internet has enabled these tinkerers to come together in larger numbers than ever before. The Do-It-Yourself (DIY) movement is America is larger than anywhere in the world, and it is growing rapidly. Make magazine, which started in 2005 with a focus on DIY projects, has over 125,000 subscribers today, and runs the hugely popular Maker Faire in many cities in America. Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter are enabling tinkerers to raise money from the public to support their innovative projects. There is even a Tinkering School that involves children to work on DIY projects over summer camps.

It will take time for new initiatives to show any change. In a 2012 survey of the most innovative countries of the world, America came tenth. And perhaps by limiting himself to America—and this is the only criticism of an otherwise well-written book—Foege has missed out on making an even stronger case for the spirit of tinkering. Nevertheless the stories of dabblers and hobbyists, of immigrants and natives, of dilettantes and experts, all living to pursue one dream makes for an engaging, entertaining and inspiring read.

Image credit: TODOIT

Personal metamorphosis

Review of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

“Sir,” said a letter to Kafka in the last few years of his life, “You have made me unhappy. I bought your ‘Metamorphosis’ as a present for my cousin, but she doesn’t know what to make of the story.”

Having finished Kafka’s legendary story, which has “inspired countless stage adaptations and doctoral theses and scores of subsequent writers”, I can share the frustration of the cousin. This story of Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who one day wakes up to find he has become a giant bug, has a simple plot but is hard to make sense of without the right metaphors.

After shaking off the possibility that he is in a dream, Gregor does his best to fit in society that he was once part of. But as the story progresses, his attempts bear no fruit in a household which is finding it difficult to sustain their earlier lifestyle after losing the sole breadwinner. At the end, after enduring the growing distance from a family he still loves and feeling useless, Gregor dies of depression and self-inflicted harm.

Despite the dark plot, Kafka, through simple words and short sentences, keeps the mood cheerful almost all through, with comical interludes and many happy moments. Of the many analogies people draw to understand Gregor’s metamorphosis, this one convinces me the most:

The reasons behind Gregor’s transformation are not all that complicated. Kafka declines to spell out the specific reasons but still makes it clear that Gregor (and by extension, all the other Gregors in the world) had allowed himself to become a powerless insect long before actually physically turning into one. As someone who has selflessly sacrificed whatever independence he may have had to support his uncaring parents and their attempts to live an “upper class” life without actually having to suffer for it, Gregor has already willingly given up all the unique traits that make one a human.

The bit of the story that really gets me, though, comes right at the end, where, after the death of Gregor with whom the family still seems to have some attachment, they go on a drive and start thinking about what a “voluptuous” woman Gregor’s sister has become and how they would like to find him an upper class husband. And the fact that that end seems so out of place, forces readers to reanalyse what Kafka had in mind about Gregor’s metamorphosis.

Hat-tip to Emma Hogan, whose brilliant review of Kafka’s biography made me pick up this book.