Monday, July 12, 2010

Of Race and Science: It would Seem that Different Centers of Gravity Explain Black and White Differences in Swimming and Running

I get goose bumps when I see these stories because someone's career is about to take a turn, one both unexpected and unintended, for the worst:

This disparity in athletic achievement, obvious to Olympic viewers, throws up so many sensitive questions of race and human difference that it is rarely discussed in public. But now two US academics have risked controversy by publishing a theory that attempts to explain the contrasting performance of black and white athletes using the laws of locomotion.

They argue that black sprinters have a 0.15 second advantage over their white rivals because they tend to have a higher centre of gravity, meaning they can fall to the ground more quickly between each stride. Conversely, having a lower then average centre of gravity helps white swimmers because their speed is determined by the height they can get above water.

More of their upper bodies are above the waterline, so they can generate and ride larger waves.

Adrian Bejan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University in North Carolina, and Dr Edward Jones of Howard University in Washington, used existing data on the body dimensions of soldiers of various nationalities to determine that black people – or more precisely those of West African origin – have a centre of gravity three per cent higher than white people.

Prof Bejan said the theory “completely accounts” for the increasing racial segregation of Olympic podiums.


As a society, we have struggled long and hard to disabuse the masses of any notion that race is a biological construct. Nevertheless, we often confront the Occam's razor test for what constitutes knowledge on these matters: if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it must be a duck. So then, when one group seemingly dominates a sport for example, some then make a leap of faith regarding all other members of said "racial" group. In short, biology mates with performance to become destiny.

We have to be careful here because the relationship between race and science is so ugly, perilous, and barbaric. However, we must also ask ourselves should these questions about biology and race be pursued precisely because we are afraid of them? And what to do with knowledge (however socially inconvenient) that in other contexts may yield some social good--here for example, research on diseases that are almost exclusive to certain "racial" groups?

We know that race is a true lie (there is only one race, the human race). But there is something oddly compelling about the study of inter-group difference and assumed phenotypical differences.

Ultimately, I would suggest that these stories about race and athletic prowess tell us more about culture, values, and relative returns on investment than anything about biology. Black folk are not naturally good jumpers and runners, thus their predominance in the NBA. No, there is a self-fulfilling narrative that some black folk who grow up in ghetto communities gravitate to a game that is cheap to play, assigns local prestige, and which seems to offer the illusion of escape from the 'hood. In the early 20th century it was Jews who dominated basketball in the U.S. for many of the same reasons:

Could it be that West Africans, and in particular folks from the African ethnic groups studied have a cultural and financial incentive to invest in running? Or more generally, that whites dominate swimming because of the many cultural, geographic, and financial incentives for them to learn and excel at that particular sport?

The problem with the argument that West African blacks and white swimmers are somehow designed differently (and thus these divergent outcomes) is one of incompleteness: The math and physics may be right, but the conclusion is methodologically insufficient because the model excludes the variables of culture and history.

The full story follows here.


fred c said...

Long ago I read a "scientific" report that came to a different conclusion about the running ability of Black men (I love these generalizations). The reason they came up with was that Black men generated more leverage on the track due to thin hips, long legs, and especially long feet.

This kind of research only reinforces stereotyping, and is generally misguided, counterproductive, and lacking in academic rigor.

OhCrapIHaveACrushOnSarahPalin said...

The lack of swimming facilities in Africa and black regions of the US have also been cited as a reason for white dominance of the pool.

Um, yeah. Kinda.

OhCrapIHaveACrushOnSarahPalin said...

Safia said...

How do you reconcile 'race' as a social construct here, with 'ethnicity' and its very real physical characteristics? I understand what you are trying to say, but perhaps if we looked at this in terms of ethnicity with most African Americans originating from areas in West Africa, maybe the researchers have valid points. I take issue with the excerpt posted only because it speaks in generalities, with "black athletes" representing athletes of diverse ethnic and geographical origin, only specifying "West African origin" at the end. I'm East African myself (we are not sprinters!), and I really don't see a problem with scientists looking at our tall, slender frames as a possible explanation for our dominance of long distance running. Of course, there is more to sports than biology.

Joanna said...

All of these supposedly "scientific" studies that "prove" that certain physical characteristics lead to success in certain sports (usually these studies are used to "explain" the success of Black athletes) are really conducted for one reason. The white power structure is heavily invested in the stereotype that Black people are lazy. So, the success of Black athletes is obviously a result of some physical anomalies and NOT on the hard work that actually creates their success.
Oh, and thanks for posting the video of Jewish men in basketball... I have tried to tell people about the Jewish participation in basketball, and frankly, no one believes me!

Anonymous said...

Interesting that one of the authors of the study was from Howard. One would hope that a professor from an HBCU would avoid generalizations such as these. But then again, perhaps he felt that since he was at Howard it would make it more acceptable.

John Kurman said...

Well, this is all just sillyness. It's more butterfly collecting than science. Kind of like Jared Diamond's contention that Ashkenazim are intellectually superior to goys due to selective genetic breeding. Apparently, this belief in eugenics is taboo for the likes of Hitler and Jimmy the Greek, but A-OK for Diamond to spew. But how then, does he explain IQ increases in all social and class groups in the US over the past hundred years? (1/3rd of draftees for WWI were classified as "feeeble-minded"). Selective breeding? Or better schooling?

However, there is something interesting going on, but it is more about how you can get such an amazing variety of appearances from a small African population after "only" 60,000 years. Except, you know, for us white devil folks, who were obviously invented by Yakub, that kooky old evil Shabazzian mad scientist. What was he thinking?

CNu said...

The problem with the argument that West African blacks and white swimmers are somehow designed differently (and thus these divergent outcomes) is one of incompleteness: The math and physics may be right, but the conclusion is methodologically insufficient because the model excludes the variables of culture and history.

The "ethnies as species" fallacy appears virtually intractable, notwithstanding a paradigm shift in the understanding of genetics which should have destroyed the last vestiges of biological apartheid decades ago.

The groundbreaking applied work of Venter, Church, et al..., have not only validated Margulies but is in the process of taking this entire sphere of inquiry and application to places never previously considered. For example, recent inquiry into IQ from the Royal Society. Biology is vastly more interesting and complicated than the heirs to Galton and Spencer could have ever imagined. If not for their political danger, one might almost be moved to pity the fools still stuck in a victorian pit of ignorance and stupidity.

Jaysen said...

Isn't this just another example of Cornel West's idea of the normative gaze? Those with some social or hegemonic power (scientists) legitimize some "gazed" notion about the Other thorough the power and legitimacy of science.

chaunceydevega said...

@fred c. I am black. I am slow. Where is my genetic advantage, I feel cheated!

@ohcrap. Why do you have to bring such things into this purely scientific conversation?

@Safia. I agree. But it is funny how they conflate one black ethnic group with all black people. The fallacy of race once more.

@Joanna. I do love it when they get caught in their own troubled thinking. For example, when Limbaugh great believer in the free market and competition, hypothesizes that their is a conspiracy in favor black quarterbacks.

@John--didn't know that about "feeble mindedness". I knew a little about the normal and eugenics public health stuff, but that factoid is surprising. thanks.

@Cnu--You always come correct on the science and biology tip. You should be our resident science in the Academy of Respectable Negro Arts and Sciences. Seriously, send us some stuff to post, it would be an honor.

@Jaysen. Damn. Good. Catch.