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Explaining the physical differences between people groups (i.e. races/ethnicity).


LazyLemonLucas
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All peoples of all sorts of races have managed to conjure up discrimination based on someone's race. It is quite unfortunate that these events happened before and still continue to happen. However, my question is not about racial discrimination but I thought I'd clear that up beforehand.

I was watching a video (which I believe I can't link here as that would be an advertisement) that was essentially explaining the role race plays in sports. According to the video, there seems to be a relationship and correlation with race/ethnicities and what sports these people dominate in (ex: East Asians tend to dominate in weightlifting, Europeans tend to dominate in swimming, West Africans tend to dominate track and etc).

My question is: How can the physical differences between race/ethnicity be explained? 

I ask this question on a forum like this one because it seems to be filled with people who have more qualifications than me.

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I'm glad you didn't waste our time with a video that only looks at one aspect.

Sport has added dimensions to the usual nature/nurture discussion.

You also need a longer memory and a wider appreciation of sport than your list.

Who does well seems to go in cycles and is also influenced by who sets the rules / makes the measurements and the environment of all the competing would be sports men and women.

For example you mentioned swimming.

I would expect that warm water pearl divers would win that sport (if it were a sport) not europeans.

But who has the most swimming pools to race in and the best technology low friction swimsuits ?

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We are humans. That is our race.

All other differences can be described by historical cultural differences for attraction and access to mates across regions and families. 

If Great Danes are not a different species from Chihuahuas, then neither are humans from different regions who happen to have slightly different skin tones. 

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You know why Brazilians produce so many great soccer players ?

Every little kid, no matter how destitute their family, loves the sport, and they will play it, often without shoes.

I guess the Brazilian race ( ? ) is more adept at soccer ...

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As mentioned, access to training and popularity have a huge impact on generating talent. There is a reason why the US has been dominating basketball but less so in volleyball. Also there are a lot of African American basketball players, but African teams are not really on that level.

For sports where certain genetic advantages have been suspected (e.g. for Kenyan endurance runners), genetic analyses have failed to reproducibly find factors to be associated with performance. And many suspected loci are more associated with relationship (i.e. found in folks in a certain region) rather than being more common in the highest performers. 

It is part of a trend that came with more access to genetic data. In the past, many thought that we would find clearer associations between populations and certain traits. But increasingly we find that yes, we can find markers which delineate folks typically in a given geological area (i.e. identify relationships) but those are (with few exceptions) not great at explaining traits that were associated with certain groups. It is also increasingly clear that the historic classification of human groups (aka races) does not really follow genetic diversity, either, which of course made many assumptions rather suspect.

There is a bit of some slow reckoning of that in the medical field which will take a while to sink in. That is not to say that there no genetic components that could have made an impact on performance and that those are more common within a given population. The issue is really that the being good at a particular sports is multifactorial and isolating the genetic element out of it has been shown to be surprisingly difficult.

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3 hours ago, CharonY said:

As mentioned, access to training and popularity have a huge impact on generating talent. There is a reason why the US has been dominating basketball but less so in volleyball. Also there are a lot of African American basketball players, but African teams are not really on that level.

For sports where certain genetic advantages have been suspected (e.g. for Kenyan endurance runners), genetic analyses have failed to reproducibly find factors to be associated with performance. And many suspected loci are more associated with relationship (i.e. found in folks in a certain region) rather than being more common in the highest performers. 

It is part of a trend that came with more access to genetic data. In the past, many thought that we would find clearer associations between populations and certain traits. But increasingly we find that yes, we can find markers which delineate folks typically in a given geological area (i.e. identify relationships) but those are (with few exceptions) not great at explaining traits that were associated with certain groups. It is also increasingly clear that the historic classification of human groups (aka races) does not really follow genetic diversity, either, which of course made many assumptions rather suspect.

There is a bit of some slow reckoning of that in the medical field which will take a while to sink in. That is not to say that there no genetic components that could have made an impact on performance and that those are more common within a given population. The issue is really that the being good at a particular sports is multifactorial and isolating the genetic element out of it has been shown to be surprisingly difficult.

What's wrong with this?

Quote

Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners: what makes them so good?

Abstract
Since the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Kenyan and Ethiopian runners have dominated the middle- and long-distance events in athletics and have exhibited comparable dominance in international cross-country and road-racing competition. Several factors have been proposed to explain the extraordinary success of the Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners, including (1) genetic predisposition, (2) development of a high maximal oxygen uptake as a result of extensive walking and running at an early age, (3) relatively high hemoglobin and hematocrit, (4) development of good metabolic "economy/efficiency" based on somatotype and lower limb characteristics, (5) favorable skeletal-muscle-fiber composition and oxidative enzyme profile, (6) traditional Kenyan/Ethiopian diet, (7) living and training at altitude, and (8) motivation to achieve economic success. Some of these factors have been examined objectively in the laboratory and field, whereas others have been evaluated from an observational perspective. The purpose of this article is to present the current data relative to factors that potentially contribute to the unprecedented success of Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners, including recent studies that examined potential links between Kenyan and Ethiopian genotype characteristics and elite running performance. In general, it appears that Kenyan and Ethiopian distance-running success is not based on a unique genetic or physiological characteristic. Rather, it appears to be the result of favorable somatotypical characteristics lending to exceptional biomechanical and metabolic economy/efficiency; chronic exposure to altitude in combination with moderate-volume, high-intensity training (live high + train high), and a strong psychological motivation to succeed athletically for the purpose of economic and social advancement.

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22634972/

 

Quote

Aerobic exercise capacity at sea level and at altitude in Kenyan boys, junior and senior runners compared with Scandinavian runners

Abstract
The aim of this study was to characterize Kenyan runners in regard to their oxygen uptake and blood and ammonia responses when running. Untrained Kenyan boys (14.2 +/- 0.2 years) and Scandinavian runners were included for comparison. The studies were performed at altitude (approximately 2.000 m.a.s.l.) and, for several Kenyan and Scandinavian runners, at sea level as well. At altitude sedentary adolescent Kenyan boys had a mean maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) of 47 (44-51) ml.kg-1.min-1, whereas similarly aged boys regularly walking or running but not training for competition reached above 62 (58-71) ml.kg-1.min-1 in VO2max. Kenyan runners in active training had 68 +/- 1.4 ml.kg-1.min-1 at altitude and 79.9 +/- 1.4 ml.kg-1.min-1 at sea level, with individuals reaching 85 ml.kg-1.min-1. The best Scandinavian runners were not significantly different from the Kenyan runners in VO2max both at altitude and at sea level, but none of the Scandinavians reached as high individual values as observed for some Kenyan runners. The running efficiency, determined as the oxygen cost at a given running speed, was less in the Kenyan runners, and the difference became more pronounced when body weight was expressed in ml.kg-0.75 min-1. Blood lactate concentration was in general lower in the Kenyan than in the Scandinavian runners, and the Kenyans also had extremely low ammonia accumulation in the blood even at very high exercise intensities. It is concluded that it is the physical activity during childhood, combined with intense training as teenagers that brings about the high VO2max observed in some Kenyan runners. Their high aerobic capacity, as well as their good running economy, makes them such superior runners. In addition, their low blood lactate and ammonia accumulation in blood when running may also be contributing factors.

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7552766/

 

This one hints at body dimensions, but is less conclusive:

Quote

The Kenyan runners

Abstract
Today the Kenyan dominance in middle- and long-distance running is so profound that it has no equivalence to any other sport in the world. Critical physiological factors for performance in running include maximal oxygen consumption (VO2max), fractional VO2max utilization and running economy (energetic cost of running). Kenyan and non-Kenyan elite runners seem to be able to reach very high, but similar maximal oxygen uptake levels just as there is some indication that untrained Kenyans and non-Kenyans have a similar VO2max. In addition, the fractional utilization of VO2max seems to be very high but similar in Kenyan and European runners. Similarly, no differences in the proportion of slow muscle fibers have been observed when comparing Kenyan elite runners with their Caucasian counterparts. In contrast, the oxygen cost of running at a given running velocity has been found to be lower in Kenyan elite runners relative to other elite runners and there is some indication that this is due to differences in body dimensions. Pulmonary system limitations have been observed in Kenyan runners in the form of exercise-induced arterial hypoxemia, expiratory flow limitation, and high levels of respiratory muscle work. It appears that Kenyan runners do not possess a pulmonary system that confers a physiological advantage. Additional studies on truly elite Kenyan runners are necessary to understand the underlying physiology which permits extraordinary running performances.

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26589124/

 

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1 hour ago, StringJunky said:

What's wrong with this?

What is wrong is that quite a few studies in the past were set up with the pre-conceived notion that e.g. minority participants were likely outgroups. Together with some general issues of reproducibility in human cohorts (and associated statistical issues) a range of ethnicity-based assumptions have found their way into clinical practice. Some of these have also found their way into medical algorithms, which I have mentioned in another thread. The big issue is that the idea of such studies is to improve health outcomes of everyone involved. If e.g. a certain group benefits more from a particular treatment, then of course it would be better do it. 

However, over time it was found that many of these assumptions actually deepened race-based disparities. As it turns out, many aspects are likely not genetical (which is or was the default assumption for racial differences) but more of lifestyle and environmental nature. And even in cases with more genetic implications, using race is a very crude proxy (there are also some issues related to the fact that European is seen as a a norm and often dominate a cohort, whereas higher variability in black cohorts are not really accounted for). 

As such, the mounting evidence suggest that race-based medicine is simply doing more harm then good .

See e.g. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2022-057998 for one of those articles, and https://www.aafp.org/pubs/afp/issues/2021/0800/p122.html for an editorial. 

As such, increasingly medical specialists call for an end to it. That is not to say that this is an universal move. In some areas (e.g. hypertension treatment) some suggest that there are racial differences that one should take into account. A big issue is again that the mechanistic understanding of these differences are often somewhat poor. 

The third option, which I have to admit to be biased towards due to my research, is trying to really get to the point of precision medicine (also called personalized medicine but got somewhat refocused and rebranded) in which we try to get away from crude generalizations but trying to find markers that actually guide what treatments we should apply.

With regard to the Kenyan studies there is by now a fairly large body of lit trying to figure out from the early assumptions of physiological superiority to look at genetic markers and the studies generally came up short. It is not to say that there are none, but even after two decades of research we still are not really closing in convincingly on genetic targets (beyond GWAS).

Even ignoring genetics and focusing on physiology and biomechanics, a fairly recent review is not really that provide that much more evidence than the studies years prior, which really just means that it is really complicated:

Quote

Conclusion

Our findings presents evidence on biomechanical factors associated with RE and performance of elite Kenyan distance runners. Despite these findings, there are a number of limitations inherent to this review including; low level of evidence, minimal number of included studies, small sample size and lack of appropriate control subjects. However, we considered these shortcomings and summarised the best available evidence in attempt to give direction to future research and coaching strategies.

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbmt.2017.11.004

Edit: I should mention that it is probably not that recent, I was working on a related topic quite a while ago, and while it occasionally it my radar, I am not up to date on it and I kind of forgot that it is quite a few years later now.

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@CharonY I suppose an issue I glean from your links, is that researchers belonging to an ethnic group see more variation  within their own group than those outside their group, leading either side to treat other less familiar groups in a more monolithic, stereotyped way, which is reflected in research results.

Edited by StringJunky
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3 hours ago, StringJunky said:

@CharonY I suppose an issue I glean from your links, is that researchers belonging to an ethnic group see more variation  within their own group than those outside their group, leading either side to treat other less familiar groups in a more monolithic, stereotyped way, which is reflected in research results.

Part of it, yes. But there is also another issue regarding overall genetic diversity. Due to the bottleneck out of Africa, the genetic diversity for non-African population is lower than for African populations, however in most studies European cohorts are used as reference, which makes comparisons a bit difficult. I probably have to think a bit (or get more sleep) to make a better analogy, but it is a bit like using Chihuahua biology as reference and try to scale all other dog breeds to its specifications. The observed differences are likely going to be a bit biased. 

Or perhaps it is a bit like going to the urologist and they treat their patient like a person having a hysterectomy and seriously enlarged penis (OK I definitely need to think about it more). But the background is that using a special case as the standard skews basically all comparisons, if that makes sense. 

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24 minutes ago, CharonY said:

Part of it, yes. But there is also another issue regarding overall genetic diversity. Due to the bottleneck out of Africa, the genetic diversity for non-African population is lower than for African populations, however in most studies European cohorts are used as reference, which makes comparisons a bit difficult. I probably have to think a bit (or get more sleep) to make a better analogy, but it is a bit like using Chihuahua biology as reference and try to scale all other dog breeds to its specifications. The observed differences likely going to be a bit biased. 

Or perhaps it is a bit like going to the urologist and they treat their patient like a person having a hysterectomy and seriously enlarged penis (OK I definitely need to think about it more). But the background is that using a special case as the standard skews basically all comparisons, if that makes sense. 

Right. OK.

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On 6/10/2022 at 6:53 PM, LazyLemonLucas said:

My question is: How can the physical differences between race/ethnicity be explained? 

Diet is one aspect. There is evidence that it's not just your diet, but the diet of your parents, and even grandparents, that can affect your physical development. Thats why you see each generation getting a bit bigger and taller. And in sports where the difference between gold and bronze can be half a second, or even tenths, then factors like that can make a difference. 

But it's easy to get things wrong. I'm about 70. I can remember, back in the 1970s it was widely stated by people who really knew their boxing, that there would never be another white heavyweight champion. And it look at the time that it was stating the obvious. The domination of the heavyweight class by people of African descent was so great, that nobody dreamed that it might change. But that's gone out of the window now.

It's tempting to say the same thing about sprinting today. It might even be true. But the chances are, someone will come along and blow it out of the window. 

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