If you were asked to pick two people on opposing sides of the nature/nurture debate, you might pick myself and David Epstein, author of the new book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. If you haven’t bought it already, you should: it’s a fascinating, thought-provoking look at the leading edge of sports performance, written by a guy who knows the territory. David, besides being a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, was a collegiate runner for Columbia University. More to the point, he’s a terrific researcher and a fine, thoughtful writer.
Last week David and I had a wide-ranging barroom-style chat that covered Jamaican sprinters, the 10,000-hour rule, and the secret role of David’s mother in his new book. You might think we would spend the entire time hurling barstools at each other. You would be wrong. Partly because David is an incredibly nice guy, and mostly because science is shining new light on this area: when it comes to raw athletic skills (endurance, speed, leaping ability) genes are a difference-maker, particularly at the world-class level. With complex athletic skills (basically everything else), it’s far more about environment (quality practice, coaching, motivation, etc.).
Here’s how our chat went:
DC: David, let me start by saying how much I admire the book, your work, and how it made me appreciate physical talent in a different way. I can only presume that the skill you show in writing this book is mostly genetic.
DE: It’s funny — my friends think of me as a guy who thinks that training is a miracle, because it can totally transform someone. But the questions I get on TV are mostly, “What’s the gene for this, what’s the gene for that?” Like this TV show I went on yesterday tweeted “David Epstein thinks that there’s an actual sports gene that separates athletes from the rest of us.” I totally don’t think that.
DC: I’m especially interested in this notion of trainability you write about — how when some people exercise, they get a lot more fit, and other people who follow the exact same regimen don’t improve at all, and it seems controlled by genes. I wonder if you found any evidence whether these same sorts of variances apply to the brain and the process of learning skills.
DE: Yeah, I didn’t get into skills as wide ranging as you have, but I did look at twin studies, fraternal and identical twins, heritability and things like that. Experimenters would have them doing skills like balancing on a plank that has a ball under it, and the identical twins would usually progress in a way that was similar to each other and different from the fraternal twins, and sometimes significantly different. But it depended on the tasks. For tasks that were really simple, everyone would get better at the same rate, fraternal and identical, and everybody would end up in a pretty similar state. But if the tasks were pretty complex, sometimes people would actually get more different from one another with practice. Identical twins would move together, and they would move away from the fraternal twins. So it seems, even though we don’t know the genes for all that, that in complex tasks there was usually a trainability phenomenon, or almost always a trainability phenomenon.
I had to cut 40,000 words from the manuscript, and some of the material I cut involved some studies like this. One of the genes was the BDNF gene, which stands for “brain-derived neurotrophic factor.” There’s studies with versions of BDNF called val and met, and they’d have people do a driving simulation and people with a certain version would tend not to repeat their mistakes as much, so when they would bring them back, a day or month later, they’d remember the course better. The same thing happened with putting pegs in holes.