April 8, 2000
A Feckless Quest for the Basketball
By JONATHAN MARKS
Calif. -- You know what they say about a little knowledge. Here's
some: The greatest sprinters and basketball players are predominantly
black. Here's some more: Nobel laureates in science are predominantly
What do we conclude? That blacks have natural running ability and
whites have natural science ability? Or perhaps that blacks have
natural running ability but whites don't have natural science ability,
because that would be politically incorrect?
Or perhaps that we can draw no valid conclusions about the racial
distribution of abilities on the basis of data like these.
That is what modern anthropology would say.
But it's not what a new book, "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate
Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It," says. It says that
blacks dominate sports because of their genes and that we're afraid to
talk about it on account of a cabal of high-ranking politically
correct postmodern professors -- myself, I am flattered to observe,
The book is a piece of good old-fashioned American
anti-intellectualism (those dang perfessers!) that plays to vulgar
beliefs about group differences of the sort we recall from "The Bell
Curve" six years ago. These are not however, issues that
anthropologists are "afraid to talk about"; we talk about them a lot.
The author, journalist and former television producer Jon Entine,
simply doesn't like what we're saying. But to approach the subject
with any degree of rigor, as anthropologists have been trying to do
for nearly a century, requires recognizing that it consists of several
First, how can we infer a genetic basis for differences among
people? The answer: Collect genetic data. There's no substitute. We
could document consistent differences in physical features, acts and
accomplishments until the Second Coming and be entirely wrong in
thinking they're genetically based. A thousand Nigerian Ibos and a
thousand Danes will consistently be found to differ in complexion,
language and head shape. The first is genetic, the second isn't, and
the third we simply don't understand.
What's clear is that, developmentally, the body is sufficiently
plastic that subtle differences in the conditions of growth and life
can affect it profoundly. Simple observation of difference is thus not
a genetic argument.
Which brings us to the second question: How can we accept a genetic
basis for athletic ability and reject it for intelligence? The answer:
We can't. Both conclusions are based on the same standard of evidence.
If we accept that blacks are genetically endowed jumpers because
"they" jump so well, we are obliged to accept that they are
genetically unendowed at schoolwork because "they" do so poorly.
In either case, we are faced with the scientifically impossible
task of drawing conclusions from a mass of poorly controlled data.
Controls are crucial in science: If every black schoolboy in America
knows he's supposed to be good at basketball and bad at algebra, and
we have no way to measure schoolboys outside the boundaries of such an
expectation, how can we gauge their "natural" endowments? Lots of
things go into the observation of excellence or failure, only one of
which is genetic endowment.
But obviously humans differ. Thus, the last question: What's the
relationship between patterns of human genetic variation and groups of
people? The answer: It's complex.
All populations are heterogeneous and are built in some sense in
opposition to other groups. Jew or Muslim, Hutu or Tutsi, Serb or
Bosnian, Irish or English, Harvard or Yale -- one thing we're certain
of is that the groups of most significance to us don't correspond to
much in nature.
Consider, then, the category "black athlete" -- and let's limit
ourselves to men here. It's broad enough to encompass Arthur Ashe,
Mike Tyson and Kobe Bryant.
When you read about the body of the black male athlete, whose body
do you imagine? Whatever physical gift these men share is not
immediately apparent from looking at them.
Black men of highly diverse builds enter athletics and excel.
Far more don't excel. In other words, there is a lot more to being
black and to being a prominent athlete than mere biology. If
professional excellence or over-representation could be regarded as
evidence for genetic superiority, there would be strong implications
for Jewish comedy genes and Irish policeman genes.
Inferring a group's excellence from the achievements of some
members hangs on a crucial asymmetry: To accomplish something means
that you had the ability to do it, but the failure to do it doesn't
mean you didn't have the ability. And the existing genetic data
testify that known DNA variations do not respect the boundaries of
To be an elite athlete, or elite anybody, presumably does require
some kind of genetic gift. But those gifts must be immensely diverse,
distributed broadly across the people of the world -- at least to
judge from the way that the erosion of social barriers consistently
permits talent to manifest itself in different groups of people.
In an interview with The Philadelphia Daily News in February, Mr.
Entine observed that Jews are overrepresented among critics of the
views he espouses. But is that a significantly Jewish thing? Or is it
simply a consequence of the fact that among any group of American
intellectuals you'll find Jews overrepresented because they are a
well-educated minority? There's certainly no shortage of non-Jews who
find the ideas in "Taboo" to be demagogic quackery.
Of course, Jewish academics may sometimes be speaking as academics,
not as Jews. Likewise black athletes may perform as athletes, not just
as embodied blackness.
How easy it is to subvert Michael Jordan, the exceptional and
extraordinary man, into merely the representative of the black
The problem with talking about the innate superiority of the black
athlete is that it is make-believe genetics applied to na´vely
conceptualized groups of people. It places a spotlight on imaginary
natural differences that properly belongs on real social differences.
More important, it undermines the achievements of individuals as
individuals. Whatever gifts we each have are far more likely, from
what we know of genetics, to be unique individual constellations of
genes than to be expressions of group endowments.
Jonathan Marks teaches biological anthropology at the University
of California, Berkeley, and is author of "Human Biodiversity."