David Epstein is the author of the New York Times bestseller “The Sports Gene,” a compilation of answers to 15 of his own biggest questions about genetics, sports and skill acquisition. In 2009, he broke the story of Alex Rodriguez’s steroid use. Epstein, now an investigative reporter at the media organization Propublica, visited Yale last week to give the talk “Genius in Sports: Is it Nature or Nurture?” WKND sat down with him to talk about sports genetics, Linsanity and the Sonoran Desert.
Q: Is this your first time at Yale?
A: No. Actually, for my book I spent some significant time in the [genetics] lab of Ken and Judy Kidd.
Ken Kidd [a professor of Genetics] is one of the world’s leading figures in genetic diversity research. There was, at some point in the past, one theory in human evolution that modern man arose in multiple different places at different times — but not that far apart. And now, the overwhelming evidence points to the fact that we arose once in Africa. Every person in the world outside of Africa derives from a subset of people who left Africa. So there was all this genetic mutation building up in Africa, and then a tiny group of people left Africa, and then a tiny group of people left that group, and then a tiny group of people left that group. It’s not that much of an exaggeration to say that if you got rid of every white person in the world, you wouldn’t lose that much genetic diversity. You would lose some, clearly — genes for white skin and some other things, but [most genes would be preserved].
Ken did some groundbreaking work showing decreasing genetic diversity as you go further along the [early human] migration path from Africa. His work really solidified the so-called “out of Africa” hypothesis.
And I wanted my book to address what [race] does or doesn’t mean from a genetic perspective, hoping that I wouldn’t become a pariah for writing about race.
Q: So, Africans are more diverse?
A: More genetically diverse. In fact, two African neighbors are liable to have more differences in their genome than you and I probably have. There’s just been more time in Africa for all this diversity to build up, and only a small part of [the population] left, and that wasn’t too long ago, only 150,000 years [ago].
Q: And what does that mean for sports?
A: One, I think when you say a “black athlete,” that in and of itself doesn’t have that much informational value. So when people talk about a black [sprinter] in the United States, they’re talking about someone from a specific area on the coast of West Africa called the Bight of Biafra. Every man who has been in an Olympic 100 meter final since 1980, whether his homeland has been Nigeria, Portugal, Great Britain, the U.S., Canada or Jamaica, has had some recent ancestry from this tiny area. [But then] the dominant group in long-distance running is from the other side of Africa, in the East. And those two groups could not be more physiologically dissimilar. They both share black skin, because they have their ancestry in low latitude, but otherwise they are so different.
I think to have any conversation about race, you have to make people feel like you’re starting from a very concrete evidence-based standpoint. So, I wanted to investigate for myself whether race has a genetic meaning or not. I ended up [finding out] that there are ethnic ancestries that cause genetic differences between people, but just to call someone black really gives you very little information.
Q: How did you get into sports genetics?
A: I grew up in [an] area with a lot of first-generation Jamaican immigrants, and track was really popular at my high school because all these Jamaicans loved track. We had these great teams — we won 24 conference championships in a row, largely thanks to the Jamaican sprinters — so I got interested in Jamaica. When I was a teenager, I flipped open an atlas: There were 2.5 million people in Jamaica, and I was like, “What the hell is going on over there?” I kind of just filed that [information] in the back of my head.
In college, I ran a little bit longer-distance, and I met some Kenyan guys. [I got] a chance to talk to them, and it turned out that, not only were they Kenyan, they were all from this same town in this remote part of Kenya, and they’re all from this small minority tribe. Again, I was like “What the hell is going on over there?” We think of Kenyans as great runners, but when you go to Kenya, they say “Those Kalenjian [the minority tribe] are really talented.”
[I was also inspired to write about sports genetics] by things that I saw as a sports viewer. The first chapter [of “The Sports Gene”] is about why Major League Baseball hitters can’t hit softball pitches: I saw that on this television show. A woman was throwing underhand [and] striking out the best Major League hitters, and I quickly made an estimate about how fast she threw, and how far she was… [The book is] just a list of questions from my own athletic experience and viewing that I wanted to answer as best I could.
Q: Tell me about your experience living in the Sonoran Desert, located in the Southwest.
A: Columbia — where I went for undergrad — used to lease the Biosphere 2, this crazy enclosure [in the Sonoran Desert] that some people with too much money [made into a] self-sustainable ecosystem. Columbia was running that, but at the same time leasing a lot of land out in the Sonoran Desert. I went out there the summer after my freshman year, just to take some geology classes, totally fell in love with it, and kept going back. Later, I lived out there in a trailer in the middle of the desert. I did a lot of interesting things when I was in geology: I lived on a boat in the Pacific Ocean, I lived in the Arctic in a tent… I’m getting soft now.
Q: How did you transition from geology to sports writing?
A: In one chapter, I write about sudden death in athletes. My closest friend from home had been a phenomenal athlete — potential Olympic-development [athlete], a first-generation Jamaican immigrant — and he dropped dead after a race when I was in college.
When I graduated and started geology grad school, I went to his parents and asked “What happened to him?” They said he had had a heart attack. All of a sudden, something flipped in my brain, and I thought, “I don’t even know what [heart attack] means.”
I got really curious, and over time, kept going back to them, and eventually they signed a waiver, allowing me to gather up his medical records. I did that, and one thing led to another, and I was beating on cardiologists’ doors. I determined that he died of a textbook-version of this heart condition that’s caused by a single gene mutation — it’s almost always the cause of an athlete dropping dead suddenly, a young athlete in particular. The more I learned about it, the more I said “I want to write about this,” and merge my interests in sports and science, partly because I wanted something useful to come of it. Still, you can’t say he didn’t die in vain, because he did. And I said I wanted to do this for Sports Illustrated, because I had been reading SI since I was a kid.
So I finished my Masters, took some journalism classes, became a crime reporter at a tabloid [the New York Daily News], and just worked from one job to another trying to get to Sports Illustrated. I started as a temporary fact-checker [at SI]… I left a full-time job to be a temp fact-checker, because I thought “This is what I wanted to do, to write about sudden cardiac arrest in Sports Illustrated,” So I got [there], and that was in fact my first cover story, about sudden cardiac death in athletes.
Q: What do you think of Linsanity: the period when Jeremy Lin, an Asian American basketball player, burst onto the professional basketball scene?
A: I was actually in Kenya when [Linsanity] exploded, and it was in the newspapers in rural Kenya. I didn’t find out that Whitney Houston had died until I came back, but I found out about Jeremy Lin while I was in Kenya.
I think the question “Are Asian men as good [at basketball] as other ethnicities?” is totally an open one, but I think he would have gotten drafted had he not been Asian. I think there’s a stereotype there, and it’s really cool to see what he did.
I think we shouldn’t be hugely surprised that he has regressed from being Michael Jordan for a couple of games, but I think he’s still a really effective player.
One thing I love about the Olympics is that people from every continent and background engage in the same competitions, and I would love to see the NBA become the same way. I don’t think [Linsanity] answers any question other than “Are there no Asian people in the world who can play guard in the NBA?” Outside of that, I think it’s wonderful socially, and I hope we see more of him.