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Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street
"It's strange that I could become a professional athlete,"
said the Australian winner of this summer's Tour de France, Cadel
Evans. "Physically, I was completely unsuitable for almost all
Australian school sports. Nearly all Australian school sports
require speed and/or size."
Sounds like a triumph of effort over talent. But is sporting
prowess innate or something we cultivate?
Consider the ACE gene, which codes for angiotensin-converting
enzyme and comes in two forms, one of which has an insert of 287
base pairs in its code. About 19% of Caucasians have two copies of
the insert (one from each parent), 37% have no inserts (that is,
they have two "deletions") and the rest have one.
For more than 10 years geneticists have been finding examples of
a simple pattern: People who are good at sports requiring strength
are more likely to have deletions in the ACE gene while people who
are good at endurance sports are more likely to have inserts. The
over-representation of inserts has shown up in long-distance
runners, rowers and triathletes.
Moreover, the longer the distance, the higher the frequency of
insertions-among both runners and swimmers. Most elite swimmers
have deletions, because most swimming events are short trials of
strength, but swimmers who specialize in 25-kilometer swims are
much more likely to have inserts.
Perhaps the most striking finding is that elite mountaineers who
climb peaks higher than 23,000 feet-and especially those
extraordinary few who can ascend 26,000-foot peaks with no
supplemental oxygen-are much more likely to have inserts. So are
people who live at high altitudes in Peru or India's Ladakh. This
is not true of amateurs who scale Mount Kilimanjaro as
Not every study finds these effects-some Israeli studies seem to
find the opposite-but a recent literature review by Zudin
Puthucheary and his colleagues at University College London found
that the overwhelming majority of studies, especially those that
looked at ethnically homogeneous groups, did find that inserts go
with endurance and deletions go with strength.
That both versions of the gene are common implies a bout of
indecision on the part of evolution: Sometimes the strong won,
sometimes the tireless. Perhaps a tribe with some of each did
especially well, or perhaps when one version grew rarer, it was
favored, so that the strong did well when most people were tireless
or vice versa (an idea known as frequency-dependent selection).
At first sight, the ACE discovery flies in the face of the
recent fashion for emphasizing effort rather than talent: 10,000
hours of practice and all that. "Bounce," Matthew Syed's recent
book on sports, argues that the "talent theory is not merely flawed
in theory: It is also insidious in practice, robbing individuals
and institutions of the motivation to change themselves and
society." Leaving aside the flaw in his logic-talent is often seen
as the ticket out of social disadvantage-such conclusions seem to
ignore the recent genetic discoveries that I've described.
Yet the neat thing about the ACE study is that, while it implies
a role for nature, it does not do so at the expense of nurture.
Indeed, it underlines the role of effort. Experiments with randomly
chosen layabouts who were put on identical exercise-bicycle regimes
reveal that those with ACE deletions are not stronger. They just
put on more muscle as a consequence of exercise. To put it
generally, their nature is expressed through nurture.