The best counterexample to the most powerful popular science narrative of the past decade is a tomato-faced Finn who lives in a tiny hamlet north of the Arctic Circle. Eero Mantyranta was born with a single misspelling – an adenine molecule instead of a guanine – in a 7,138-unit-long stretch of DNA associated with red-blood-cell production. As a result, he has a distinctly reddish-purple complexion, up to 65 per cent more hemoglobin to carry oxygen from his lungs to his muscles than the average person, and seven Olympic medals in cross-country skiing.
At least, that’s one way of telling his story.
The other way, as author David Epstein finds out when he makes the long trek to Lapland to track down Mantyranta, more than 40 years after his last Olympic triumph, is to focus on his childhood – so poor that his whole family shared a single fork, skiing on wooden planks by the time he could walk, an hour each way to school across a frozen lake – and on his gruelling training regimen as a teenager, when he realized that success as a skier could save him from a life of hard labour and deadening poverty.
So which is it? That, in essence, is the question that Epstein, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated who specializes in sports science, wrestles with in various guises throughout The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. The current conventions of popular science writing dictate that he should settle on a single counterintuitive but easily digested answer, preferably one that, if applied to your own life, will help you improve your jump shot and get that promotion at work you’ve been hoping for.
Instead, Epstein eventually concludes that the secret of Mantyranta’s success is “100 per cent nature and 100 per cent nurture” – an equivocal answer that surely made his literary agent blanch, but should earn cheers from the rest of us.
In his quest to understand what marks some athletes for greatness, Epstein tags along with scientists studying Jamaican sprinters and Kenyan marathoners, ventures to Alaska to understand the unique psychology of champion sled dogs, and sifts through vast data sets from youth soccer academies and National Football League combines. The pages are packed with fascinating science – not just passing references to studies, but thorough explanations that don’t try to hide the inevitable uncertainties and ambiguities.
Along the way, he wrestles with two strong currents of contemporary thinking. Scarcely a day passes without reports of newly discovered links between particular genes and traits ranging from cancer risk to a fondness for coriander, and this streak of genetic determinism extends to sporting prowess. Several companies now offer genetic tests that tell you whether your toddler should be streamed into strength or endurance sports – though, as Epstein discovers, these tests have essentially no predictive value. (“If you want to know if your kid is going to be fast,” one scientist tells him, “the best genetic test right now is a stopwatch. Take him to the playground and have him race the other kids.”)
In contrast, Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers (still near the top of bestseller lists in Canada and the United States almost five years later) emphasized the role of factors such as opportunity and luck in success, along with the “10,000-Hour Rule” of deliberate practice for the mastery of any skill. Mozart and Wayne Gretzky shone, in this view, because they were born into unique situations that allowed them to begin accumulating their 10,000 hours shortly after exiting the womb, not because of their genes.
This contrarian view has spawned a wave of similar books arguing with varying degrees of subtlety that talent is overrated – Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, Matthew Syed’s Bounce, Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated.
That the truth should lie somewhere between these two narratives won’t come as a surprise to anyone. (Except, perhaps, Dan McLaughlin, who after reading Outliers and Talent Is Overrated quit his job as a photographer to undertake 10,000 hours of practice with the goal of becoming a professional golfer, even though he’d never even played a full round of golf in his life. He started in 2009, at the age of 30, and expects to reach the “magic number” by 2016.) Instead, the surprises in Epstein’s reporting come from which particular elements of sporting success skew toward one side or the other.
For example, the lightning-fast reflexes needed to swat a 95-mile-per-hour fastball: born rather than made, surely. But the wiring of the human visual system means that “keeping your eye on the ball” is literally impossible: Hitters have to initiate their swing before the ball is even halfway to the plate, based on cues like the pitcher’s shoulder position. It’s only a lifetime of experience that makes this possible – which is why softball pitcher Jennie Finch, with her unfamiliar underhand mechanics, was able to blow heat past befuddled stars like Barry Bonds in 2004 and 2005.
On the other hand, even the will to put yourself through a gruelling training regimen – the essence of the self-made superstar myth – turns out to have a strong genetic component. Some people like (or need) to move more than others, and Epstein explores the unusual temperament of champion sled dogs and guides us through fascinating layers of research on the voluntary wheel-running behaviour of laboratory mice, which leads us to a gene that is also linked to food-gathering success in nomadic tribesmen and, intriguingly, to ADHD.
In each succeeding chapter, Epstein delves into another intersection of elite sport and scientific knowledge, all pointing to the conclusion that – well, it’s complicated.
As any science journalist knows, it’s much easier to tell a compelling story if you’re willing to cherry-pick the findings that support the idea you’re writing about, ignore the ones that contradict or undermine it, and generally streamline the messy, ambiguous and complex world of scientific research. Epstein’s book, in adhering to the evidence, doesn’t leave you with the satisfying click of clarity and enlightenment that you get after reading something by, say, Jonah Lehrer.
And that should be a warning.
The sin that knocked Lehrer from his perch as a megastar of science writing last year was making up quotes (by Bob Dylan, among, as it turned out, many others). But to some critics, his willingness to fudge facts was merely a small part of bigger and harder-to-police problem: a willingness to place the demands of good narrative above faithfulness to the muddy evidence. Sometimes that click of enlightenment is just an illusion.
Of course, good narratives are why we read books (even if we sometimes tell ourselves otherwise). Epstein goes to great lengths to make sure that the science he explains is told through the stories of athletes, some world-famous and others, like Eero Mantyranta, obscure. Even though I write regularly about sports science, most of the stories were new to me, the result of Epstein’s impressive reporting and access to both athletes (through Sports Illustrated) and scientists (among whom he has earned enough respect that he was invited to moderate a contentious panel on the nature/nurture of sports expertise at last year’s American College of Sports Medicine conference).
In the end, the picture of athletic greatness that emerges from the book is fascinating and humblingly complex – just like the world it aims to describe.
Alex Hutchinson writes The Globe and Mail’s Jockology column.