The Genetics of Basketball Part 1

The Global Game

Tepantitla mural, Ballplayer B CroppedChichén Itzá Goal

For the Mayans of Ancient Mexico, sport really could be a matter of life and death. After a Mesoamerican Ball Game, a losing team was sometimes ritually sacrificed to the gods.

Other cultures are weird, and are weird in surprising ways. But there is something even more surprising about the Mesoamerican Ball Game which is not weird in the slightest.

Players divide into two teams, which attempt to keep control of the ball, and compete to direct it through a hoop, high above the ground. In other words, it is a lot like basketball.

Independent Invention

This ought to come as a surprise because basketball was invented by James Naismith in Massachusetts in 1891. He almost certainly had no idea about the Mesoamerican Ball Game. People from two very different cultures had created remarkably similar games.

They are far from identical, of course. In the Mesoamerican Ball Game (above left), the players employ their hips, thighs and shoulders to control the ball. And the hoop (above right) is vertical rather than horizontal. But, if there is too much focus on the contrasts and not the commonalities, there is a danger of slaying curiosity on the altar of novelty.

Even the extreme approach to dropping players differs only by degree from countries with a tabloid press. Many an England football manager has been sacrificed to the Sun.

Ancient Greek Football PlayerOne Hundred Children in the Long Spring-crop

Football itself has many parents. The Greek and Chinese versions of game (above) were surely independent, while variants of football or rugby have also been devised by people as far flung as Inuits in Canada, Georgians by the Black Sea, and Australian Aboriginals.

I could go on: forms of field hockey have developed everywhere from Ireland to Chinese Inner Mongolia; canoe races have always been a feature of life in the Polynesian islands and Senegal; and almost every country of the world has its own style of folk wrestling.

Sport is a cultural universal. There does not appear to be any society which has never had games of physical skill. This reveals something fundamental about human nature.

The Sports Instinct

Evolutionary psychologists study the ways that natural selection has shaped our genes but, to the surprise of many, they are far more interested in the similarities than in the differences. A core idea which drives much research is the “psychic unity of humankind“.

Language is an excellent example of this. For evolutionary psychologists, language is a product of evolution, which can explain the unexpected parallels between the world’s languages. But evolution does not explain why Austrians speak German or Brazilians speak Portuguese. That is a cultural question and it is better understood by historians.

There is reason to believe that sport is part of our evolutionary heritage but it is equally unclear that there are genetic differences between groups. Sport is highly psychological and even its more physical aspects are at least as genetically complex as cognitive traits.

Over the next few weeks, I shall explore the question of genetic differences in sporting ability, using basketball as an example. I shall ask whether the relative strength of some nations is explained by genes, or if we should believe in the sporting unity of humankind.

Next week: The genetics of height in Europe and the effect it has on basketball success


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