Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal
“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 tourists.
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.