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Nature vs. nurture The Sports Gene'

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Nature vs. nurture  The Sports Gene' Nature vs. nurture The Sports Gene'

Book takes on age-old questions about athleticism

For as long as competitive athletics have existed, we have sought understanding of what allows a good athlete to become great or a great athlete to become truly elite. Is greatness destined, present since birth on a genetic level? Or is it possible for an athlete to become great through hard work and a beneficial environment? The argument has gone on for years, with plenty of good reasons to come down on either side.

So nature or nurture? Which is it?

That's the question that David Epstein attempts to address with his new book 'The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance' (Current, $26.95). Epstein enthusiastically tackles the subject, with intensive research and a multitude of in-depth interviews. He talks to top-of-the-field scientists and elite athletes alike, looking for any and all information that might provide some insight toward answering that age-old question. Genetics? Or environment?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out to be a little bit of both.

'The Sports Gene' is filled to the brim with information from both sides of the debate; Epstein puts all of his cards on the table, to the point where he occasionally (and unapologetically) offers conflicting data within the same chapter. He has no desired endpoint; he's not trying to prove one side or the other correct. He is simply fueled by that same deep curiosity that many of us have. We just want to know: are great athletes born or made?

The amount of ground that Epstein covers is extensive. For example, he addresses the concept of the '10,000 hour rule' the one that states that 10,000 hours of practice will allow the practitioner to master a particular skill that was popularized by notables like Malcolm Gladwell. According to the science, it isn't necessarily that easy it turns out that the range varies considerably on an individual basis. So while practice is certainly necessary, there's no doubt that innate talent can drastically reduce the amount needed.

On the genetics side, Epstein ventures into some controversial territory when he begins looking into genetic studies involving race and/or gender. It turns out that there are all sorts of race- and gender-based genetic truths out there, indicating inherent predispositions toward certain basic physical attributes. However, it also turns out that there is no way of knowing which of the millions upon millions of potential mutations serve as the keys to elite athletic ability. The human genome is simply far too vast to be adequately explored at such a level of specificity.

And beyond the introduction of new ideas, Epstein also offers evidence that some of the old ideas we hold true are inaccurate as well. Skills we believe to be innate things like reaction time turn out to have learnable components, while things we perceive to be voluntary behaviors such as a will to win actually have a basis in genetics.

This book is sports science at its absolute best. Epstein takes a number of significant studies and conversations with world-renowned scientists and manages to boil them down into language that is both accessible and accurate. He also interviews elite athletes and coaches and offers a real sense of the time and devotion that it takes to become the best of the best. Both sides are brought together seamlessly, resulting in an utterly fascinating work - a thought-provoking read that manages to be densely packed with information without ever becoming overwhelming.

'The Sports Gene' doesn't offer a definitive answer in the 'nature versus nurture' debate, but it doesn't have to. Instead, it makes an invaluable contribution to the conversation, giving readers the opportunity to inform themselves about both sides of the coin. Anyone with even the most tangential interest in the science behind sport would be hard-pressed to find a more informative and interesting book.

Last modified on Tuesday, 06 September 2016 16:09

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