Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Nature vs. Nurture: Round 1-Kenyans

Over the past couple years my opinion on how genetics affect environment has changed greatly. Thanks to the infux of "talent" books from Daniel Coyle, Geof Colvin, Malcom Gladwell, Matthew Syed, and David Shenk, they have put together the research and case studies that can essentially prove that the environment and circumstances have MUCH more of an effect than what people think others are "naturally gifted."

I wanted to start a series of posts that I will do periodically that disprove genetics are the main factor into what makes athletes and others talented. My reason for doing this is to get rid of the excuse that someone is more gifted genetically, and look for solutions that can improve our athletic ability and give ourselves and the youth a chance to be great. The first step is to believe that anyone can be great.

Nature vs Nurture Round 1: Kenyans

Everyone loves to talk about how great Kenyans are at long distance running, especially marathons. There's reason for it as a Kenyan has won all but 3 Boston Marathons in the men's division since 1991, and the women have 8 winners since 2000. Not too shabby.

Most people think that area of the world has been genetically grown to run marathons. They all are built of slow twitch muscle fiber that is key for any great long distance runner. But is genetics really the reason why?

Matthew Syed in his book Bounce brought my attention to why they're so good. The Nandi District of Kenya lies at the heart of the running world. What has the Nandi District produced? Out of 11 of the Boston Marathon winners, 7 were from the Nandhi District. I tried fidning the other winners birthplaces but it was not listed from multiple sites. This area is roughly 1.8% of the Kenyan population. The average person would say that this area was mutated for long distance running.

Then you look at the other factors. Nandi district is at a high elevation, which is essential for any great marathon runner. It lies around 2000m or 1.2 miles above sea level. However, altitude isn't enough as we would have plenty of great marathon runners coming from Denver and the Rockies if that were the case.

Another major factor is public transportation. There really isn't any at all. Kids from a young age average 8-12 km per day, sometimes up to 20 km, to get to and from school. As Syed said, "This adds up to 80 minutes of running per day, more than 90 hours per week, five hundred hours per year, and in excess of six thousands hours before their sixteenth birthday"(p.273).

The last factor is also the cultural obsession with the distance running. This area isn't know for it's wealth and now with marathon winners coming back with more money from one race than an average person makes in a lifetime, it provides deep motivation to improve the standard of living. As well as become a local and national hero.

Combine these 3 factors and you get one hell of a long distance runner. I will leave you to reason if genetics still had a large part to play but ask your self this.... if we switched two kids at birth, one from Nandi district and another from the 'burbs in Denver, who would be better at marathons. Genetics would have to say the Kenyan, but my money is on the kid from Denver in the Nandi environment, and I would bet a lot of it. You can make your own conclusions though.

What does this teach us?
Notice what your child takes interest in a place a positive environment that can foster learning. Then praise effort.


  1. This post is full of sweeping statements and grammatical errors. At least try reading your own posts through a couple of times before uploading them. Alternatively, get someone else to read them first.

  2. 6000 hours before they're sixteen?!!! Do the maths, pal -

    6000 X 12kph (very slow indeed for any Kenyan) = 72,0000 kilometers !!!

    So they go to school every day, every week, every year? Those that don't make the grade as runners will most likely have Phd's by the time they're sixteen with that kind of diligence !

  3. I will be sure to edit more thoroughly in my future posts.

    However, I think your missing the point. It was 12km per day not kph. The point is that if you had to run that much everyday going to school or other chores, than you to would be a great long distance runner with that many miles logged.

  4. gladwell makes a similar comment about kenyans in his book outliers, he looks at the children of successful kenyan distance runners and finds that not many of them are talented runners despite having the same genetic background (and in theory the "runners gene" if there was one). its because these kids dont have to run to school because their parents are wealthy enough to afford busing.

  5. Very good point Kevin. I should have added that to the post and forgot completely about it. Thanks for reminding me.