In an interesting article, “Why we’re the best”, Oliver Poole writing in the Evening Standard yesterday claims:
Culture, environment and genes are all cited as reasons for sporting success. But it is practice that really makes perfect.
He cites evidence that it not some genetic advantage that makes Kenyan runners so great but the fact that they run barefoot from an early age. Usain Bolt? It is not that he is biologically very different – his brilliant performances are apparently due to eating yams.
It is a mistake to draw the conclusion that genetic factors are not important in sporting performance from the fact that science has not so far identified genetic contributors to sporting performance. Our understanding of our own biology is exponentially increasing but still limited. We don’t know what most genes do or even really why humans age. How much of a sporting performance is the result of innate talent, mental determination or training is difficult to say.
It’s certainly true to be a good high jumper you have to train a lot at high jump. But you also have to be tall. And how tall you can be is limited by your personal biology. It may be that elite athletes could come from any country in the world, if only they had the specialized training to bring out the potential of their gifted citizens. But one of the myths of elite sport that many of us cherish is that anyone could be the best, if only he or she tried hard enough. That, I believe, is sadly not true.
Sporting performance is likely to be mixture of innate biological capacity, training and mental application. The opportunity to be the best, or even self-supporting professional, is likely to be open to a small minority. This drives some to take dangerous performance enhancing drugs or give up or be a spectator.
If we were concerned about human well-being, we would shift our concern from elite sport to making sport a part of culture and everyday life, like tai chi. We have become a culture of elite sportspeople, investors in sport, and unhealthy spectators. Sport should be fun, good for you, the opportunity to develop talents and social. And most of all, something which is really open to all. Elite sport is not.
A great sporting performance is a beautiful and admirable thing. But it is better to be a player than a spectator, in sport and in life.
A new test, soon to become available to the general public in the UK, can tell people how fast they are aging, thereby allowing them to estimate their life expectancy. The test, which should be available for €500 (£435), is based on an analysis of the telomeres, small protective caps at the extremities of a person’s chromosomes. Short telomeres are associated with a shorter lifespan and indicate a more advanced biological age (by contrast with the person’s chronological age). The test has been described as opening an “ethical Pandora’s box”. Concerns have been raised regarding people’s possible reaction to information about how long they still have to live. Some are also worried that the test might be used by organizations selling dubious “anti-aging” remedies to attract potential customers, and that insurance companies might demand to have access to such information before providing cover, requiring people with shorter telomeres to pay higher premiums. Should the prospect of the public availability of such a test concern us, and should we try and restrict it?
In a recently released report the UK Human Genetics Commission said there are “no specific social, ethical or legal principles” against preconception screening. If a couple may benefit from it, testing should be available so they can make informed choices. Information about this kind of testing should also be made widely available in the health system (and in school). The responses in the news have been along predictable lines, with critics warning that this is a modern version of eugenics or that it would lead to some people being stigmatized.
Last month, doctors in France announced the arrival of the country’s first so-called ‘saviour sibling’. Born to parents of Turkish origin, Umut Talha (Turkish for ‘our hope’) was conceived through in vitro fertilisation (IVF) using preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). This technique, in conjunction with Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) typing, commonly known as ‘tissue-typing’, has enabled families to have a child – a ‘saviour sibling’ – that is capable of donating life-saving tissue (usually umbilical cord material) to an existing sick sibling. Umut’s parents approached the hospital in Clamart a year ago requesting tissue-typing PGD. Their two existing children had beta thalassaemia, an inherited blood disorder that requires monthly blood transfusions.
An embryo was screened and genetically selected from an original group of twelve embryos to ensure that it was both free of the disorder and a tissue match for one of the existing siblings. The resulting saviour sibling, Umut, did not have thalassaemia, and cells from his discarded umbilical cord will be used to cure his older sister, now aged two, and her monthly blood transfusions will be discontinued. Umut’s parents plan to return to Clamart to undergo the same procedure to cure their other child, Umut’s four-year-old brother.
Saviour sibling selection is nothing new. Continue reading
by Alexandre Erler
Satoshi Kanazawa is currently in the news – see e.g. these articles in the Daily Mail, The Australian and Psychology Today. An evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, Kanazawa has just published a new article in the journal Intelligence (Kanazawa 2011) in which he argues, in continuity with his previous research, that beautiful people tend to be more intelligent than plainer ones (especially if they are men). Only now he is arguing that this correlation may be much stronger than we previously thought. His conclusion is based on data from two studies, conducted respectively in the UK and the US, which tested the intelligence of children and young teenagers but also rated their level of physical attractiveness. In the British study, attractive respondents had a mean IQ about 13 points higher than unattractive ones, and the beauty-intelligence correlation turned out to be of a similar magnitude to that between intelligence and education.
The prestigious scientific journal, Nature, reports that Germans are poised to allow genetic testing of embryos for serious genetic disorders. This follows a recent judicial judgement that genetic testing of embryos for serious disorders did not fall under German laws that ban destruction of embryos. Now,
The Leopoldina, Germany’s national academy of sciences, has published a report strongly recommending that preimplantation genetic diagnosis of early embryos be allowed by law when couples know they carry genes that could cause a serious incurable disease if passed on to their children.
Australia essentially bans sex selection, except to prevent babies being born with serious sex-linked disorders. The National Health and Medical Research Councils also prohibits it in its guidelines.
A couple in the state of Victoria is currently appealing to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to allow them to access IVF and to deliberately have a girl. The couple have had three boys naturally and lost a daughter soon after birth. They recently had IVF which resulted in a twin pregnancy. The twins were boys. They aborted the pregnancy.
I argued over 10 years ago there are no good reasons to oppose sex selection in countries like Australia.
On Sunday, scientists at the Harvard Dana-Farber Cancer Institute announced that they had succeeded in reversing age-related decline in mice, using genetic engineering techniques. The scientists created transgenic mice with a gene for telomerase expression that could be switched on and off with a chemical signal.
By Julian Savulescu
Reneuron has today announced the first transfer of stem cells in the UK to treat stroke. This follows quickly from Geron’s recent trial in spinal cord injury.
This is a historic moment which may be viewed in the same way as the first attempts to use antibiotics. Stem cells offer the door to entirely new form of medical treatment called regenerative medicine. When cells (the building blocks) or tissues of the body are damaged, they are generally not replaced. The dead tissue is replaced by scar that holds the rest of the organ together. So when a person has a stroke (or heart attack) a blood vessel to an area of brain is typically blocked and that area of the brain dies, being replaced by a scar that is functionless. Stem cell therapy offers the hope of replacing that dead or damaged tissue and cells with functioning new cells, in this case nerve cells. This trial is the very first stage to see if the transfer can be done safely.
by Charles Foster
A recent paper in Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience has the self-explanatory title Investigating the genetic basis of altruism: the role of the COMT Val158Met polymorphism. 1. The German authors aren’t as cautious in their claims as they should have been. They should have noted, nervously, the reception given to the infamous ‘God gene’ hypothesis,2 and entitled the paper something along the lines of ‘Some not very statistically significant correlations (from which we can’t begin to infer a causative relationship) between the COMT Val 158 Met polymorphism and some behaviour that might be markers of, amongst other things, being nice, whatever that means, ignoring other non-correlations with other more plausible markers of being nice.’