Leave This Child Behind
Sports, segregation, and environmental eugenics.
"Little Ones Get Test for Sports Gene," says the headline in Sunday's New York Times. The article describes a test, now being marketed in the United States, that predicts whether your toddler has more potential as a power athlete or as an endurance athlete. Critics fret that the test will bring back the bad old days of eugenics. The company behind the test says they're wrong. I think the answer is more complicated. We're not drifting back toward an old peril. We're drifting forward toward a new one.
Eugenics was crude and brutal. It regulated survival and procreation. If the government decided you were unfit to breed, it could sterilize or kill you. The notion was that some families were better than others—and that these hereditary differences, not subsequent environmental factors, determined a child's prospects.
The new mentality assumes the opposite: Good heredity isn't enough. Without proper nurture, nature's gifts will be wasted. We have to find the kids with the best genes and focus our resources on developing their talents. This isn't regulation of heredity. It's regulation of environments. I'd call it environmental eugenics, or envireugenics.
The test featured in the Times focuses on a gene called ACTN3, which affects fast generation of muscular force. Roughly speaking, the more copies of the R variant you have, as opposed to the X variant, the more likely you are to excel at sports requiring power or speed. (You can be RR, RX, or XX.) The testing company, Atlas Sports Genetics, cites studies that support this pattern. A 2003 analysis of hundreds of athletes who had represented Australia at international meets found that 53 percent of the male competitors in sprinting or power events were RR—nearly twice the prevalence of this genotype in a less-athletic population sample. None of the 35 female sprinters were XX. Nor were any of the 25 male Olympic sprinters. Subsequent studies show the same basic pattern in Finland, Greece, and Russia. You can find XX athletes who defy the trend: one in Spain, a few more in Russia. But the data are pretty depressing.
Misha Angrist, a genetic expert at Duke University, points out that ACTN3 testing isn't new. An American company, 23andMe, "has been doing it for a year," he writes, and "it's been available via Australia for four years." That's true. But sometimes, the important changes in a technology aren't in the tool itself. They're in how it's understood or used.
Five years ago, when the test went commercial in Australia, the company that made the announcement, Genetic Technologies Limited, stipulated that it "could also lead to future treatment applications in certain muscle diseases." Today, that therapeutic fig leaf is gone. ACTN3 variation "may contribute to whether you are a sprinter or a marathoner," 23andMe tells customers, but it "does not cause any health effects."
What hadn't changed, until now, was the personal nature of the test. In its 2003 announcement, Genetic Technologies said the test could "maximize the potential of an athlete in their chosen sport, by helping to identify the event in which they are most likely to be successful, and also allowing the design of the optimal training program." The sport was assumed to have been chosen before the test; the chooser was an adult. 23andMe was even more emphatic about individual autonomy.
In the hands of Atlas Sports Genetics, that personal orientation is giving way. "Finding any great Olympic champion normally takes years to determine," says the company's home page. "What if we knew a part of the answer when we were born?" Atlas President Kevin Reilly warns the Times that "if you wait until high school or college to find out if you have a good athlete on your hands, by then it will be too late. We need to identify these kids from 1 and up, so we can give the parents some guidelines on where to go from there." The test is no longer for adults. It's for kids. The decisions will be made not by them but by their parents, who need "guidelines" to steer them.
What's the point of all this steering? National greatness. Atlas' business partner in the new test is Epic Athletic Performance, a company founded by former college coach Boyd Epley. According to the Times, Atlas plans to direct its clients to Epic, and "Mr. Epley's goal is to build a system in the United States more like those in China and Russia, which select very young children to be athletes." In his own words, Epley argues, "This is how we could stay competitive with the rest of the world."
Well, yes: We could match China's output by matching its methods. But that would mean thinking more like a collective. Collectivism was at the core of American eugenics, not to mention German National Socialism. What made these movements so dangerous wasn't just heredity worship or perfectionism but the centralization of the perfectionist enterprise under the control of the state.
Envireugenics is less dangerous. It spreads through culture, not coercion. It doesn't employ murder or sterilization. Instead, it relies on segregation. If your kid is RR, he goes here; if he's XX, he goes there. We don't tell you whether you can have a baby. We just tell you whether your baby belongs on the track team, the chess team, or the assembly line.
What's really disturbing about this idea, in the case of ACTN3, is that it isn't crazy. The data make a strong case that being XX really does lock you out of success at the highest levels of sprinting and power sports. From an individual standpoint, that doesn't much matter: You can run track, play pickup basketball, and live happily ever after. But from your country's standpoint, putting you on the track team is a waste. We need that slot for an RR kid, and we need a genetic test to find him.
That's what worries me about Atlas Sports Genetics. It's not just selling a test. It's selling a mentality.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.