The Genetics of Basketball Part 4

Bradner Gardens Park 20

I know what you are thinking. If you have read the last three posts in this series, you may believe that I am some sort of genetic denialist. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, I am confident that genes are extremely important in shaping ability in all sports, especially basketball. They explain much of the variation between individual players in a country. However, genes have much less impact on the differences between countries.

This counter-intuitive conclusion is not just restricted to sport but reflects an academic consensus about a wide range of traits. It is certainly James Flynn’s conclusion about IQ.

How can this paradox be explained?

One reason is that humans are not very genetically diverse in the first place, much less genetically diverse than chimpanzees. What little diversity there is must have mostly arisen when we were all living together in Africa. We only started to spread out about 60,000 years ago and we have been separated for just 1% of our evolutionary history.

And Flynn offers another answer, which he explores in a joint paper with the economist, William Dickens. In explaining a similar pattern in the genetics of IQ, Dickens and Flynn use an analogy which is particularly helpful for our purposes, the analogy of basketball.

Dickens and Flynn have observed the huge increase in American basketball ability over time, which I discussed last week. They attribute this improvement to more television coverage, leading to more pickup games, and a proliferation of basketball hoops (above).

But not everybody is equally enthusiastic. Some players shine in these informal games, usually the taller ones, and become keen to play more. The shorter players often become frustrated and discouraged. Those with a genetic advantage end up practising more and develop a more favourable environment as well. Genes and environment work together.

Chris Paul (2)

The same applies to formal basketball training. The best opportunities to receive high quality coaching and acquire new skills come only if selected by a school or club. Once again, those players who already have an advantage will be able to increase it further.

It is possible for a relatively short player to make it. Chris Paul (above) won Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012, despite being one of the shortest competitors at both Games, at 6 foot. But Paul was lucky. He made the team as a 4 foot 1 eight-year-old because his coach could see his talent. If he had been overlooked, it would have been harder to learn new tricks, and his skills would have become as short as his stature.

What about countries?

The equivalent for countries would be if taller countries like the Netherlands invested more resources in basketball, because they know they are more likely to succeed, while shorter countries like Spain invested less. But this does not happen, or at least not yet.

Instead, the Spanish are far more interested in basketball than the Dutch, and we have the topsy-turvy situation where Southern European countries perform far better than Northern European ones, despite Northerners having a substantial genetic advantage.

In a world where scientific talent identification is becoming increasingly common, this could change, and a more calculated approach might emerge. But talk of nations taking full advantage of their population’s genetic gifts is, for the moment, rather premature.

Next week: For Christmas, I examine less serious sports, such as the egg and spoon race

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