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The Genetic Lottery and Sport

Koios and I have been recently discussing issues related to determinism (doxastic/belief-related determinism, agent/action determinism, biological determinism) and some of the implications of holding this position in its various forms. Here I would like to briefly discuss the implications that such a view has on a very non-philosophical topic: sports.

Much of the excitement that results from watching professional sports is due to the extra-ordinary skills that professional athletes have and the extra-ordinary feats that they are able to accomplish. We like to watch these games, at least in part, because they contain individuals who are the best in the world at what they do and hence a representation of what humans are capable of. But we do not simply stand back in awe of the greatness of an abstract humanity. We stand in awe of particular individuals. We praise these individuals. We hold them up on a pedestal. We make value judgments of the sort that seem to imply that such athletes are not merely superior to most other individuals in their respective sport but superior to most other individuals, period. Who do we have more admiration for? Michael Jordan (insert famous athlete here) or the local 40-year-old McDonald’s clerk, the school nurse, the fireman, the accountant, etc? We think very highly of professional athletes and again, I would argue, not because we are amazed by what humanity is capable of but amazed by what these individuals are capable of.

But there is a very real sense in which what we are praising is individuals who were lucky enough to win the genetic lottery. We are praising individuals who were biologically lucky. No professional athlete is what we might consider biologically normal. Very often it is their physical prowess (height and muscle build) that is abnormal, which plays an especially large role in basketball and football but also plays a role in hockey and baseball and other sports as well. Then of course there is the lesser-defined yet biologically-related areas that allow baseball players to hit (and throw) 95 mph fastballs, quarterbacks to throw 50 yard touchdown passes, and so on.

The argument that I am making is obvious: our genetic inheritance (including athletic talent) is a matter of luck. We don’t tell God or his naturalistic counterpart what sort of biological nature that we want. We don’t have a choice. We have what we have. That person A could not make the NBA because, although a very talented shooter, he was too short, is not his fault. Or that person B could not make the MLB because, although tall and muscular, his brain could not process a moving ball traveling faster than 85 mph, is not his fault. It is not something we can blame them for. They were just unlucky. But it would also seem to work the other way around. Just because someone is tall enough to make the NBA or just because someone’s brain can register pitches over 85 mph does not seem to merit any more praise than the others merited blame. I cannot blame someone for not having the natural talent to be a professional athlete. Why, therefore, should I praise someone for having such talent? Because the genetic pool worked in their favor? Because they were lucky?

There is a very common response to this argument. It goes like this: doesn’t practice play a significant role in how great an athlete becomes? Can’t we praise these professional athletes for working so hard? They didn’t become great by sitting around watching television all day. They worked their asses off over a long period of time. Without such practice they would never have become great.

The problem with this argument is that there are thousands and thousands of athletes who work their asses off day in and day out and yet still fail to become high-level athletes. This should be obvious. Not just anyone can work hard and expect to become a professional athlete. You have to have been lucky in the genetic lottery first. Only then will hard work lead you to achieve extra-ordinary results.

The argument of luck goes further. To become a professional athlete you must also have a great deal of environmental luck. You have to be born in the right time period, in the right geographical location, have available certain activities to flourish in, and so on. A poor African boy could have been the next Hank Aaron or Lebron James. But will he get a chance to harness his natural talents? Or the school janitor may have the natural talents to flourish in a sport that will not be invented for one hundred years. He could have been a professional athlete. Just not in this time and place. He was unlucky.

A whole slew of contingent factors have to be in place to create an extra-ordinary athlete. And the majority of those factors are beyond anyone’s control. In what sense then can we praise these athletes for their extra-ordinary talents?

(This same argument can be applied more broadly beyond athletic talents to natural talents in general. E,g.: artistic and intellectual talents.)

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  1. 06/16/2009 at 12:59 am

    Not everyone praises them. A golfer is more likely to praise Tiger Woods than a poet. The golfer praises Tiger Woods because he envies him. Tiger Woods is what he would like to be, a representation that he is a success in life in accordance with the values he holds. And the greater success one is, the greater the chance of survival. Same rules apply to the poet, but with different values..

  2. 06/16/2009 at 7:32 am

    Do you think one can choose not to exercise his or her talents? Using your sports example, say there is this phenom kid with freak abilities to play basketball but he doesn't enjoy the sport. Do you think he can choose to not play basketball? There is a sense in which one has to choose to accept one's talents and cultivate them. It's like one has to have the will to act on one's talents. So, while the elite sports players may be naturally blessed with physical talent, they have to take it upon themselves to do whatever they need to do to become elite. Talent is nothing without practice and cultivation. So, to some extent, one can still "choose" who he or she is, despite one's nature. Maybe?

  3. 06/17/2009 at 1:20 am

    I agree. Not everyone praises them. Not everyone praises or admires Einstein or Da Vinci either. But contemporary sports is a major market with many fans who, I would argue, admire these athletes not merely because they envy them (although that may often be the case) but sheerly because of their natural giftedness. I can admire Tiger Woods without actually wanting to be like him. We could always just comment on the luck that is involved in leading athletes (or anyone) to become world famous and extremely wealthy.

  4. 06/17/2009 at 1:50 am

    Sure. It would seem that he could choose not to cultivate his talents, choose not to practice. Although I'm not sure how much of a choice he would have after realizing that he had world-class talent. Many factors outside of his control would probably begin to pull him in that direction. But I suppose it is logically possible for him to choose to not cultivate his talents. Although that doesn't necessarily entail that such a choice was free either.

  5. 12/21/2009 at 6:35 am

    Did you win the genetic lottery and do you feel superior because you did?

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