An Obviously Dangerous Idea

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It’s not often that I get into heated debates with people on my iPod, but I found myself doing just that while listening to a recent episode of the Radiolab podcast called “Cut and Run”. Radiolab, for those who are unfamiliar, is a highly engaging and entertaining radio program about “science, philosophy, and the human experience.” For the most part, I think they do a really good job explaining the science behind a particular phenomenon in a way that is both accurate and entertaining, while handling the subject matter in a respectful manner. In this particular episode, however, they really missed the mark.

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The episode in question, narrated largely by NPR’s East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner and hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, attempts to answer the question of why Kenyans – in particular a group of Kenyans called the Kalenjin – are especially good at long-distance running. They explain how the Kalenjin dominate distance running competitions, comprising “the greatest concentration of elite talent ever.” They then offer possible explanations for this greatness such as the high altitude where the Kalenjin live (which trains the body to run on less oxygen), their highly starchy diet, social pressure that emphases competitive running as a way out of poverty, and the fact that many Kalenjin children run long distances to and from school starting at a very young age.

After dismissing all of these hypotheses for not being specific enough to the Kalenjin, Gregory Warner states, “Maybe there’s something genetically different about them that makes them better than us…this is obviously a dangerous idea.”

I was really taken aback by this statement. It is not at all obvious why the very fundamental notion that genetic differences can equip one group of people with the traits that give them an advantage over another group of people in a given arena is “obviously a dangerous idea.” This is essentially the definition of “fitness,” a central tenet of the theory of evolution.

I think this becomes an “obviously dangerous idea” to those who only see natural genetic variations against a backdrop of perversions of genetics, i.e. eugenics, Nazism, and other forms of racism. But race, as it is usually defined, i.e. black, white, Asian, etc., is a meaningless categorization, at least in this context. The Kalenjin aren’t good runners because they are black, and being black doesn’t automatically make someone a good runner.

While there isn’t a complete consensus, the likeliest explanation for why Kenyans are such good runners is due to physics and their physiology, which, like their skin color, is a product of their environment and its effect on their genes.

As explained in a 2004 Science article entitled, “Peering Under the Hood of Africa's Runners”:

“Just as more aerodynamic cars get better gas mileage, the Kenyan build helps explain their fuel efficiency… the Kalenjin [possess] "birdlike legs, very long levers that are very, very thin [on which they] bounce and skip" along…Compared with Danes, the thinner calves of Kenyans have, on average, 400 grams less flesh in each lower leg. The farther a weight is from the center of gravity, the more energy it takes to move it. Fifty grams added to the ankle will increase oxygen consumption by 1%...For the Kenyans, that translates into an 8% energy savings to run a kilometer.”

Moreover, the article explains, Kenyan runners are also able to resist muscle fatigue much longer than their European counterparts, covering 10% more mileage using the same amount of oxygen. These traits arose due to the environment in which the Kalenjin have lived for the last thousand or so years. Simply put, humans that live in hot, humid environments will be long and thin, which increases the body’s surface area, making them lose heat much faster. This also appears to make them really good runners.

But this reasonable and scientific explanation doesn’t sit will with the boys at Radiolab. “To peg it all on physics,” Abumrad states, “smells like an argument that I really don’t like.” “No,” adds Krulwich, “nobody likes it.”

Except for me. I like it.

Of course, it’s not just genetics, because nothing ever is. The Kalenjin’s greatness most likely stems from a combination of their physiology, diet, and social traditions (such as running to and from school).

This brings me to my second grievance with this episode. After dismissing the “obviously dangerous idea” of genetic differences, the show posits a new hypothesis: the Kalenjin get their running edge because of their cultural tradition of genital mutilation. Kalenjin males, they explain, are subjected to a rite of passage shortly after puberty that involves crawling through stinging nettles, being “beaten on the bony part of your ankle that really hurts,” and ending with circumcision. This practice, they argue, gives the Kalenjin a greater ability to tolerate pain, a skill that they bring with them to the running track.

Although I suppose this is a valid hypothesis, I also don’t think that the Radiolab team presents a strong enough case that this is what gives the Kalenjin that added advantage. Even the one Kalenjin runner that they speak with, Elly Kipgogei, seems to dismiss the idea, explaining that he will not subject his own sons to the circumcision ritual, an omission he believes will not negatively affect their running ability whatsoever.

What I really find disturbing is that while the show thinks the Kalenjin being genetically superior runners is an obviously dangerous idea, they really like the idea that forced circumcision is what makes them so great because it’s “fair.” As Warner explains:

“If we’re trying to figure out what makes these runners so great, and our first answer is a totally, scientifically factually true, but somehow demoralizing absolute that puts one set of people over there, and the rest of us over here – we all have our body type that we’re born with – but then if the second explanation of this Kalenjin advantage may be just as inaccessible to the rest of us, but still it feels like a more equalitarian version of advantage…”

to which Abumrad adds, “…that feels like a fair advantage to me.”

Fairness is not an appropriate standard to hold biology to. Fairness implies some sort of entitlement or right to something. No one has a right to be fast, or smart, or beautiful. And sure, we may feel bad about ourselves if we are not those things, and jealous of those who are, but regardless of how we feel, fairness has nothing to do with it.

For me, that “inequality” is one of the things that makes evolution so beautiful. That within a single species, years of adaptation can result in groups of people who are exceptionally good at running, or swimming, or surviving in subzero temperatures or in one of the hottest places on earth. If all humans were equal, that would make for a very boring and unsuccessful species.

Maybe the real dangerous idea is that genetic differences are somehow taboo and unfair, and the assumption that only cultural differences are valid comparisons between peoples. Maybe what’s really dangerous is being so afraid of difficult ideas that you’re willing to grasp for a weaker hypothesis just to satisfy your own desire for “fairness.”