There are of course brown-skinned East Asians

There is no such thing as a miracle gene

Peter Leissl apparently found it necessary to emphasize the matter of skin color, of course without addressing it directly. After a good halfway through the 10 000 meter World Cup race in Doha in October, the ZDF reporter remarked: "Eleven Africans are in the lead." Two Americans were among the eleven fastest in the world. "Both were also born in Africa," emphasized Leissl. He didn't say why that should be important, but that was also so clear: The best distance runners come from Africa - and they are black.

Leissl is not a racist, but he used one of the prejudices that run through the world of sports: people from East Africa are better able to run for a long time. The descendants of the slaves from West Africa are the best sprinters for this. Blacks, on the other hand, cannot cycle quickly. There was even a successful film once called: "White men can't jump". The thesis is always a racist one: some groups called "races" have genetic advantages over other groups.

Author Gavin Evans published a book this summer that dispels all of these myths. In “Skin Deep” Evans, who grew up in apartheid South Africa, deals with much more than just prejudices in sport. He is basically taking apart the entire scientific racism that has existed since Darwin at the latest, and which has recently flourished again.

Arguments against hatred

Evans is a historian and political scientist who also works as a journalist for the BBC. He also regularly brings together the latest in neurology, genetics, archeology, biology and psychiatry. Since he published the book "Black Brain, White Brain" in 2014, he has inevitably become an expert on how the New Right is trying to rewrite the racism discourse with the help of pseudosciences. The studies and evidence that Evans now compiles in his latest 365 pages in "Skin Deep", which has so far only been published in English, should actually "close the door to the unscientific idea that different population groups have significantly different biological, mental and emotional attributes", he wrote to add: "But there are too many interests and far too much hatred on the Internet that a single book could change that." . "So this book is for those who instinctively reject racism but don't know how to argue when confronted with statements that are supposedly authentically scientific."

So the reader first learns the basics: for example, it was not the people who emigrated from Africa to Europe who created the first cave paintings, which racists present as evidence of faster developing intelligence among whites. Recent archaeological finds have recently shown much older Stone Age art in Africa.

After that, Evans takes a look at the sport. When black athletes from Kenya, Jamaica and the USA began to dominate running competitions in athletics in the 80s and 90s, whites were looking for genetic reasons for the inferiority of their "own race". It has long been clear to almost all scientists that "race" in humans is, if at all, only a social concept and not a biological one. “Despite some individual differences, all humans are genetically similar to one another. There are hardly any variations, ”writes Evans. After all, today's human has only existed for about 300,000 years. In contrast, "a subspecies of the chimpanzee in Central Africa has many more genetic variations than the whole of humanity."

Nonetheless, geneticists differentiate between so-called populations, primarily in order to understand ancestry and migrations or to calculate the likelihood of certain diseases in people of certain ancestry. The researchers always emphasize that every person bears traces of many different groups. And none of these genetic traces could predict character traits, intelligence or other abilities, as these are sometimes dependent on thousands of genes and also on external environmental influences.

The basic rule is: the differences within a population group are always much greater than those between the groups. So in every population - be it East Asians, North Europeans or West Africans - there are large and small, fast and slow, and people with large and small brains. Since humanity originating from Africa has developed there the longest, the differences in Africa are also greatest. So there is also a higher probability of finding particularly talented long-distance runners or sprinters. That doesn't explain why so many East Africans run best times between 800 meters and the marathon, or why so many Jamaicans win sprint medals.

Forty years ago, Britain was the leading middle-distance country. "With the British, however, nobody looked for reasons in the genes," says Evans. Rather, their success was more logically justified with a running tradition, which at the time led to the fact that a high density of good runners was found who could constantly compete with each other. Evans speaks of a "critical mass" of athletes pushing one another. Today in the UK it no longer exists because people are less active, there is a greater choice of alternatives and trend sports and football is even more dominant in the country than ever before.

The fairy tale of natural selection

But there are now many fast distance runners in Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda. But even that has no genetic, but again social reasons. Wonder genes were definitely sought: especially among Kenyans who come from Nandi Hills, a small town in the highlands that has produced many successful runners. It was speculated that in the past, only the best survived when cattle herds drove for kilometers every day: the fastest brought the cows home, the slowest were overrun, and only the genes of the fast would have reproduced, according to the theory. "Natural selection doesn't work that way," writes Evans. This process takes random mutations and genetic isolation - and it takes thousands of years.

The Greek researcher Yannis Pitsiladis eventually examined the Kenyan runners and found that the Nandi people were never genetically as isolated as would have been necessary to develop a superior ability. He also demonstrated a similarly large genetic diversity for the Ethiopian runners. In addition, Kenyans and Ethiopians differ considerably, so that the fairy tale of the particularly talented East Africans could not be kept. "We can say with great certainty that social and economic factors are the determining factors for your success in endurance running," said Pitsiladis. According to Evans, the decisive factors are the height of more than 2,000 meters above sea level, at which these runners always train, and the prospect that running promises a way out of poverty. This brings a large group of runners together, in which it is then easier to find great talents: the critical mass.

And of course there is doping, so Evans. Until a few years ago there was hardly a serious control system in Kenya, but recently many runners have been caught. That’s what happened in Jamaica too. Here, too, athletics is a way out of poverty; many athletes are trying to become famous as sprinters, but quite a few have recently been caught in drug fraud.

The miracle gene was also searched for in sprinters. ACTN3, which helps build muscles that contract faster, was considered a candidate. After all, ACTN3 can be found in 98 percent of all people in Jamaica, but only in 82 percent of all Europeans. Evidence of Genetic Benefit? No: after all, there are well over 700 million Europeans and just under three million Jamaicans. So there should always be more highly gifted European sprinters. Dafne Schippers, double world champion over 200 meters from the Netherlands, was the latest proof of this. Other talents in this country prefer to play football or on the PC, especially since they are falsely led to believe that they have no chance against black people. The vast majority of people in Kenya also carry the ACTN3 gene; However, there are no successful sprinters here.

And what about the whites who can't jump high? In the professional basketball league NBA mostly blacks play, although African Americans make up only 14 percent of the US population. But why have all high jump Olympic champions been white since 2000? Probably because there is much more money to be made for young (black) US talents in the NBA than in the high jump. And because high school coaches encourage these young people to play basketball rather than athletics. It's different in Russia or Sweden, so high jump gold went four times in a row to white Europeans from these countries.

Gavin Evans: Skin Deep: Journeys in the Divisive Science of Race. Oneworld Publications, 365 pp., Hard £ 18.99.

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