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The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance Paperback – April 29, 2014
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“I can’t remember a book that has fascinated, educated—and provoked—me as much as The Sports Gene. Epstein has changed forever the way we measure elite athletes and their achievements.”—Malcom Gladwell
“Clear, vivid, and thought-provoking writing that cuts through science anxiety for rank-and-file sports fans.”
—Bonnie Ford, Senior Writer, ESPN
“Many researchers and writers are reluctant to tackle genetic issues because they fear the quicksand of racial and ethnic stereotyping. To his credit, Epstein does not flinch.”
—The Washington Post
“Epstein’s rigour in seeking answers and insights is as impressive as the air miles he must have accumulated . . . his book is dazzling and illuminating.”
“Few will put down this deliciously contrarian exploration of great athletic feats.”
—Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
“The narrative follows Mr. Epstein’s search for the roots of elite sport performance as he encounters characters and stories so engrossing that readers may not realize they’re receiving an advanced course in genetics, physiology, and sports medicine.”
—Christie Aschwanden, The New York Times
“An important book . . . The Sports Gene is bound to put the cat among the pigeons in the blank-slate crowd who think that we can all be equal as long as we equalize environmental inputs such as practice.”
—Michael Shermer, The Wall Street Journal
“This is the book I’ve been waiting for since the early 1960s. I can’t imagine that anyone interested in sports—particularly the fascinating question, ‘How do the best athletes become the best?’—will be any less enthralled than I.”
—Amby Burfoot, (1968 Boston Marathon Champion), Runner's World
“A must-read for athletes, parents, coaches, and anyone who wants to know what it takes to be great.”
—George Dohrmann, author of Play Their Hearts Out
About the Author
David Epstein is an award-winning investigative reporter at ProPublica, and was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. He earned All-East honors on Columbia University’s varsity track squad, and has a master’s degree in environmental science.
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Top Customer Reviews
"The Sports Gene" is an enjoyable book that shares the latest of modern genetic research as it relates to elite athleticism. In the never-ending quest to settle the debate of nature versus nature, David Epstein takes the readers on a journey into sports and tries to answer how much does each contribute. This fascinating 352-page book includes the following sixteen chapters: 1. Beat by an Underhand Girl: The Gene-Free Model of Expertise, 2. A Tale of Two High Jumpers: (Or: 10,000 Hours Plus or Minus 10,000 Hours), 3. Major League Vision and the Greatest Child Athlete Sample Ever: The Hardware and Software Paradigm, 4. Why Men Have Nipples, 5. The Talent of Trainability, 6. Superbaby, Bully Whippets, and the Trainability of Muscle, 7. The Big Bang of Body Types, 8. The Vitruvian NBA Player, 9. We Are All Black (Sort Of): Race and Genetic Diversity, 10. The Warrior-Slave Theory of Jamaican Sprinting, 11. Malaria and Muscle Fibers, 12. Can Every Kalenjin Run?, 13. The World's Greatest Accidental (Altitudinous) Talent Sieve, 14. Sled Dogs, Ultrarunners, and Couch Potato Genes, 15. The Heartbreak Gene: Death, Injury, and Pain on the Field, and 16 The Gold Medal Mutation.
1. Well-written, well-researched book. Epstein is very engaging and keeps the science at a very accessible level.
2. Fascinating topic that sports fans will enjoy. A look at elite athleticism through the eyes of science. Sports elites. I'm there!
3. Epstein does a fantastic job of skillfully handling the very sensitive topic of race and genetics. Any minor miscue and it would have derailed the book but Epstein never lets that happen and should be commended for his utmost care.
4. There are very few books on this interesting topic and this one covers multiple sports. And behind it all is the quest to find what's behind elite athleticism, "The question for scientists is: What accounts for that variance, practice, genes, or something else?"
5. You are guaranteed to learn something new. As an avid sports fan and reader, I didn't expect to learn too many new facts but I am always humbled and pleasantly surprised when I do.
6. The importance of experience in athletics. "Studies that track the eye movements of experienced performers, whether chess players, pianists, surgeons, or athletes, have found that as experts gain experience they are quicker to sift through visual information and separate the wheat from the chaff."
7. Golfers will pick up a valuable scientific tip...I'm not going to spoil it here.
8. The 10,000 hours rule in perspective. "Studies of athletes have tended to find that the top competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach elite status. According to the scientific literature, the average sport-specific practice hours to reach the international levels in basketball, field hockey, and wrestling are closer to 4,000, 4,000, and 6,000, respectively."
9. Understanding the importance behind visual acuity and its importance in sports like baseball. "Coincidentally, or perhaps not, twenty-nine often is the age at which visual acuity starts to deteriorate and the age when hitters, as a group, begin to decline."
10. Important lessons shared, "To this day," Woods said in 2000, "my dad has never asked me to go play golf. I ask him. It's the child's desire to play that matters, not the parent's desire to have the child play."
11. Addressing the differences in gender. "Much of sexual differentiation comes down to a single gene on the Y chromosome: the SRY gene, or "sex determining region Y" gene. Insofar as there is an "athleticism gene," the SRY gene is it." Great stuff!
12. So who was the greatest high-school athlete of all time according to ESPN? Find out.
13. The impact of the Human Genome Project as it relates to sports. The naturally fit six...
14. The science behind muscle growth. "Something that myostatin does signals muscles to cease growing. They had discovered the genetic version of a muscle stop sign. In the absence of myostatin, muscle growth explodes." A lot of good information here.
15. Discusses physical traits by sport that give the athletes innate advantages over the competition. "The height of a sprinter is often critical to his best event. The world's top competitors in the 60-meter sprint are almost always shorter than those in the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter sprints, because shorter legs and lower mass are advantageous for acceleration."
16. A cool look at the NBA. My favorite team of all time, the 95-96 Chicago Bulls (Jordan, Pippen and Rodman). Some eye-opening facts concerning wingspan.
17. Scientific observations, "Low-latitude Africans and Australian Aborigines had the proportionally longest legs and shortest torsos. So this is not strictly about ethnicity so much as geography."
18. Race and genetic diversity. "Kidd's work, along with that of other geneticists, archaeologists, and paleontologists, supports the "recent African origin" model--that essentially every modern human outside of Africa can trace his or her ancestry to a single population that resided in sub-Saharan East Africa as recently as ninety thousand years ago." Honestly, where would we be without understanding the grand theory of evolution? An excellent chapter, worth the price of the book.
19. Mind-blowing facts, " In an example particularly relevant to sports, about 10 percent of people with European ancestry have two copies of a gene variant that allows them to dope with impunity." Wow!
20. An interesting look at Jamaican sprinting and Kenyan long-term running. What's behind the success? "Consider this: seventeen American men in history have run a marathon faster than 2:10 (or a 4:58 per mile pace); thirty-two Kalenjin men did it just in October 2011." Say what?
21. The honest limitations of the young science of genetics, "Just as it is tough to find genes for height--even though we know they exist--it is extraordinarily difficult to pin down genes for even one physiological factor involved in running, let alone all of them."
22. Is motivation genetic? Interesting.
23. Genetic diseases. "According to statistics that Maron has compiled, at least one high school, college, or pro athlete with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) will drop dead somewhere in the United States every other week."
24. An excellent epilogue on the perfect athlete, "In reality, any case for sports expertise that leans entirely on either nature or nurture is a straw-man argument."
25. Notes and selected citations included.
1. Football is the most popular sports in America bar none but wasn't really given as much paper as I was hoping for; sure you get some stories about Jerome Bettis, Herschel Walker, head injuries and weight lifting...but not the treatment a sport of its magnitude would warrant.
2. The science is very basic and done so to reach a larger audience. Links or an appendix would have given curious readers more to immediately munch on.
3. At no fault of the author, the science of genetics is still too young to be able to answer the most demanding questions to a satisfactory level.
4. No formal separate bibliography...you have to surf through the notes.
5. Few links.
In summary, the perfect summer book. This was a page-turner of a book that provides us a glimpse into elite athleticism through the eyes of science. David Epstein provides sports enthusiasts with a scientific treat. One thing is perfectly clear...genetics is very complex and we are in its infancy. That being said, it's fascinating science and its increased understanding will continue to be applied to the world of sports. Epstein provides readers with an excellent appetizer of things to come; if you are interested in how genetics is being applied to extraordinary athletic performance, I highly recommend this book!
Recommendations: "Outliers: The Story of Success" by Malcom Gladwell, "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us" by Daniel H. Pink, "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business" by Charles Duhigg, "Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (Vintage)" by Leonard Mlodinow, "Running Science" by Owen Anderson, "Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body" by Neil Shubin, "The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution" by Sean B. Carroll, "The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution" by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, "Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA" by Daniel J. Fairbanks, "Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design" by Michael Shermer, "Only a Theory" by Kenneth R. Miller, "The Greatest Show on Earth" by Richard Dawkins and, "Why Evolution Is True" by Jerry A. Coyne.
Epstein marvelously explains complex genetic processes and their effect on physiology while simultaneously discussing the influence of culture and environment on elite performance. Nature and nurture deftly described. Examples of each influence and their interplay abound, such as Albert Pujols’ inability to hit a woman pitching underhand; the trainability of a young Jim Ryan who couldn’t make his junior high track team yet became the first sub-four minute high school runner in a few short years; the remarkable sprinting of Jamaicans and the comparably astounding endurance of Kenyan and Ethiopian runners. These are just a few of the many fascinating performers highlighted in the book.
On the nature side, the author reports on the genetic research that reveals the role of genes and resulting physical capacities and/or weaknesses in areas such as visual acuity, muscle growth, limb length, fast and slow twitch muscles, aerobic capacity, oxygen usage and efficiency, energy efficiency based on body structure, testosterone, doping, and several others.
In respect to nurture, Epstein reports on studies describing the effect of geography, altitude, family, income, poverty, culture, motivation, drive, the 10,000 hours practice concept, etc. In every instance of performance there is a confluence of factors from both nature and nurture, the precise amount of each varying with individuals and being practically impossible to tease out. Researchers, however, continue to make new discoveries and fortunately there is a David Epstein reporting on and explaining the implications of this complex work.
While some gene mutations can enhance performance significantly , other mutations, as is well known, cause disease. The boundary line between these vastly different outcomes is not always or automatically clear. Epstein addresses this topic with feeling and candor as he describes sudden heart disease in young athletes, one of whom was a teammate and close friend. He also elucidates some of the genes implicated in brain insult along with injuries that result from damaged ligaments and tendons.
I had never read anything by David Epstein previously. His reporting of difficult scientific material was so clear, instructive and eminently readable that I will easily and eagerly reach for his next effort.