Skeptics Host Symposium on Race & Sports

Article excerpt

On Sunday, September 17, at the California Institute of Technology, the Skeptics Society hosted a scientific symposium on race and sports, centered around Jon Entine's controversial book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About it. The Skeptics Society is not afraid to talk about it. In fact, we welcome open debate and dialogue on such controversies, and our speakers generated an afternoon of intelligent conversation. A brief summary of their talks follows, but for an in-depth analysis of the subject see our special section in Vol. 8, No. 1. The symposium talks were followed by a lively Question-and-Answer period.

Entine, author of the book Taboo, started off the day. An Emmy-winning producer for NBC and ABC News and winner of a National Press Club Award, Entine wrote and produced the widely acclaimed 1989 NBC television special with Tom Brokaw on black athletes, which was chosen as the international sports film of the year. He began with a brief history of the reactions to his documentary film and the problems he had in finding a publisher for his book. Despite the second half of the books subtitle, Entine made it clear that people are certainly not afraid to talk about it, as he read from numerous reviews that have appeared in both the popular press and in scientific journals. Entine then concluded with a brief summary of the best data he has on the dear racial differences that exists in sports, most particularly in track and field, including and especially the 100, 200, 400, and 800 meter events (dominated by athletes of West African heritage), and the marathon (dominated by athletes from Kenya).

Following Entine was Dr. Alondra Oubre, who received her Ph.D. in medical anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley, where she was a student of anthropologist Vince Sarich, one of the other symposium speakers. Now a biomedical research consultant and writer, Dr. Oubre is the author of Instinct and Revelation, in which she examined the evolution of the hominid brain, the emergence of human consciousness, and the origins of the religious impulse. Her next book Race, Genes, and Ability: Rethinking Ethnic Differences, explores the science behind biological and cultural differences between groups of people. Oubre's position was that while there are undeniable racial differences in the outcome of sporting events, and while there can be no doubt that some of these differences can be accounted for by genetics, there is much research (which she recounted in fascinating detail) showing that not only family background and culture shape physical abilities, but so too does the biochemistry of the fetal ex perience in the womb, early childhood development, and even environmental chemicals. For example, much is made by some scientists of the fact that blacks mature physically much sooner than whites (and thus, presumably, also develop athletic abilities earlier). Oubre cited studies showing that the chemical content of hair-straightening gels, often used by black children, contains hormones that may help account for these maturational differences (that have traditionally been attributed to genetically programmed developmental differences). Oubre was neither overly critical nor overly supportive of Entine's thesis, and instead brought a measure of balance to the debate. …