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Elite athletes born all ‘roided up: Data on books

Mike Powell | Stone | Getty Images

Charles Darwin is responsible more than most for the nature versus nurture debate that, even with exponential advances in science, continues to be a defining question for humanity. But was it Darwin's nature, or the nurturing of his environment, that led him to the discoveries that changed the world?

Darwin spent years at serious study and research. But he also was born into a privileged family and had a considerable inheritance from his father. Janet Browne's biography of Darwin refers to an idle son of affluent origins sipping Champagne and eating strawberries on a British lawn, and suddenly realizing there had to be something more to life.

Was it the moment in which he foresaw a life being wasted as a trust fund kid that was most instrumental in leading Darwin down the scientific path? Was it the thousands of hours of study (more on that) in Down House that made the difference? Or was it the DNA-rooted fact that his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was a natural philosopher who presaged evolutionary theory in his writings and endowed Charles with the right genetic material to take up these questions?

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Do we have to answer the nature versus nurture question that Darwin posed, when it's posed about Darwin or anyone else?

What we know is that we can ask the question in a variety of new ways, courtesy of the explosion in genetics data (itself reliant on increased computing power), the study of social and physical environment across geographies, and even quantification of individual training regimens.

Take elite athletic performance. That's the topic of the best-selling "The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance," by former Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein, now ProPublica investigative journalist.

From Kenyan long-distance runners to Jamaican sprinters and Finnish cross-country skiers, Epstein plumbs the depths of a data-based explanation for how the athletic stars of the world are formed. High-twitch muscle fibers with an explosive property most people don't possess can't fully explain what lets Usain Bolt leave the rest of the field in the dust.

We must consider the history of the particular region of Jamaica in which he grew up, as well as a culture that has come to consider sprinting a national point of pride, selecting for potential stars from an early age—while other cultures have forgotten all about it, dreaming of stardom in the NFL or MLB.

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A famous Kenyan distance runner raised at the elevation considered ideal for the cultivation of long-distance running optimal blood oxygen levels was once asked if her children were good runners. She replied that because of the life of comfort she was able to provide, they took cars to school rather than running at 6,800 feet. As a result, they didn't have the right stuff, even if they did possess the elastic Achilles' tendon of the region's population that affords running advantage, as well as the extremely thin legs that favor long-distance running excellence.

"Your parents matter," is a nurture reference that is repeated in Epstein's book, and it's just as true for the Kenyan kids with a car service as all the Jamaican and Kenyan children who are watched from a young age for the potential to outperform on the track.

Finnish Olympic cross-country great Eero Mantyranta spent years crossing the frozen landscape of his homeland by ski. Did that training trump a rare genetic mutation (his blood didn't know when to stop making red blood cells) when it came to accumulating Olympic medals and record finishes, or was it merely an inevitable function of his genetic good fortune?

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If we could bottle Eero Manyranta's DNA—the natural equivalent of a doping agent—and inject it liberally, would the world's best skiers be determined with no other factors?

The more we become awash in massive amounts of data, is it human ability to make use of data, and analyze it, or the raw quantitative power alone that will ultimately hold greater power? Will we be reduced to no more than a byproduct of the data trail we leave, or will the data trail be the starting point for human creativity and excellence?

A lot of Major League Baseball players have a visual acuity reading that is off the charts, but they also have a chess master's store of information in their brains on the pitches coming at them that rivals the fastest analytical software.

There has been much made of the reductive ends of a world powered by Google algorithms and fun poked at Silicon Valley's conviction about its means leading to societal justice, made famous in Google's "Do no evil" mantra.

The arguments against a reductive view began when Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" was published, and "The Sports Gene" suggests that if we limit the discussion to a binary scenario, we're likely to miss something more important.

The latest advances in science—whether in Victorian-era biology or 21st-century Silicon Valley—don't have to be reduced to a religious fight. You don't have to believe in the data "God" or dismiss it as much ado about nothing but bits and bytes. All that data provides us with more of a basis to ask but not necessarily categorically answer the questions worth asking.

That's a good premise from which to begin the race.

The famous 10,000-hour rule—if you practice something for 10,000 hours you are more likely to become an elite performer—can't explain the fact that Bahamian high jumper Donald Thomas was able to reach the same Olympic level as "blood, sweat and tears" Swedish high jumper Stefan Holm based more or less on a college locker room dare. "The Sports Gene" devotes a chapter to this dichotomy.

What it does suggest is that amid all the knee-jerk debate about big data, we've got more than a few hours to go before we really know what we're talking about.

By Eric Rosenbaum, CNBC.com

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