Nature vs Nurture - What Side Are You On?

Tuesday, December 15, 2015 - 14:45

The seemingly endless debate of "nature vs nurture" is brought one step closer to resolution (which leaves us with only a bazillion more steps to go) by David Epstein in his book The Sports Gene and it's been on my mind since I finished listening to the book over a week ago. Not only are the scientific studies and anecdotes Epstein highlights thought-provoking, they have implications for all of us as athletes. Here are some questions we might all ask ourselves after reading this book:

How good can I get?

Is there a limit set on my ability because of my genetics?

Am I not as good as Billy Bob Joe from lane 4 because he works harder than me, or because his genetic makeup is superior to mine?


Here are some additional questions specific to me that I've been asking:

How much of my success so far is due to genetics and how much due to hard work?

If I decide to compete as a professional triathlete, will I get trounced because my genetic makeup isn't like Jan Frodeno's?

Or is it?

Do I have to give it a shot to know if I can be the best, or can something like VO2 max or genetic testing give me my answer?

If one of my motivations is to see how good I can get, but testing tells me "not very good" then are my other motivations strong enough to keep me in the sport?


These are all pretty powerful questions that can have a profound impact on our lives. Epstein presents evidence that it is most certainly a mix of both genetics (nature) and hard work (nurture), and attempts to discern what percentage of each is responsible for extraordinary performance in an array of sports from baseball to chess to Ironman triathlon to sprinting. He explores the warrior-slave theory of Jamaican sprinting, the Kenyan and Ethiopian domination of marathoning, and how rare gene variants have been found to be not-so-rare at the highest levels of sports like dog racing or track running.

A few things that I've been able to conclude from the book:

1.) Ironman triathlon racing is probably a larger percentage of nurture than other things like singing that are largely genetic. There are so many factors that influence Ironman racing like experience, training infrastructure and luck that genetic predisposition is partially overridden. Have any of us ever met someone who popped out of the womb going sub-9 in an Ironman? I know I haven't. Have any of us seen someone who at the age of 10 could sing better than almost anyone you know? They're rare, but yes!

2.) It's not only your physical ability that is partly determined by your genes, but your mental ability. Epstein's chapter on Alaskan huskies in the Iditarod is an amazing example. They were actually bred not only for their physical talent, but for their eagerness to run and mental toughness over a grueling 8 day race. We may not be willing to breed humans to be tough or fast, but the husky anecdote is one that suggests our genes partly determine our willingness to suffer.

3.) Though many people have told me that I must have talent and that's why I'm as fast as I am, I've never thought of myself as particularly gifted. I admit that I do have more talent than most, but compared to some of the elites out there, I didn't have a high starting point - I ran an 8min mile in middle school, unlike the 5:20 that Meb Keflezighi ran. I believe my gifts of mental toughness and some degree of physical talent have overcome some of the disadvantages I face.

Let's each find what we are well-suited for and passionate about in life, and then go after it!


P.S. Feel free to leave comments if you have a stance on the nature vs nurture debate

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