sat 20/07/2024

Michael Johnson: Survival of the Fastest, C4 | reviews, news & interviews

Michael Johnson: Survival of the Fastest, C4

Michael Johnson: Survival of the Fastest, C4

Controversial subject handled deftly

Michael Johnson in Jamaica, where he tried to discover the secret of its sprinters' success

What a dicey subject for debate Michael Johnson opened here, one that has scuppered the career of academics and social commentators alike, and which will have made many of his audience feeling deeply troubled. Johnson, now 44,  competed at three Olympic Games between 1992 and 2000, won four Olympic gold medals at 200 metres and 400 metres, and still holds the world record for the latter.

The starting point was his realisation that, at the Beijing Games in 2008, the eight sprinters who lined up for the men's 100m final, who hailed from four countries, were all descended from West Africans by way of the slave trade; two were African Americans, three from Jamaica, two from Trinidad and Tobago and one, a Dutchman, was born on the former empire island of Curacao (Usain Bolt winning pictured below).

One young Jamaican sprinter put her country's athletic success down to eating bananas and yams

Did being descended from slaves somehow give these men a genetically inherited advantage? The argument goes that only the fittest Africans were in the first instance chosen by the slave traders to be sent on the slave ships; only the fittest of those survived the appallingly inhumane conditions across the Atlantic (in which in some cases less than 10 per cent of the human “cargo” made it to the New World); and then only the strongest were bought at market; and to add to the long list of astonishing indignities bestowed upon these people, slave owners would make their strongest male and female slaves “mate” to produce the next generation of sturdy workers. Thus, the argument goes, descendants of slaves have inherited some tremendously strong genes and, in the case of men, a discernibly higher level of testosterone.

Wowser. If true, it's a very contentious argument that plays straight into the black brawn/white brains view of race. It has some seemingly straightforward facts to support it: while East Africans regularly win medals in long-distance events (which science can easily explain due to physical type, diet and climate), West Africans don't win sprint medals, but their descendants do. It's particularly noticeable in the case of Jamaica which, despite its tiny population and scarce economic resources, punches well above its weight in athletics terms; it won five gold medals in the men's and women's sprints in Beijing, when Bolt and Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce breasted the tape first in their 100 metres events.

Johnson's case was made persuasively enough. He spoke to several academics, who talked about a survival gene and another who explained how we can learn from elephant seals, a species almost extinct a short while ago that has since, with more than a little help from conservationists, recovered to become stronger, bigger and fitter. Cataclysmic events can sometimes be useful in evolution, the expert said, and what could be more cataclysmic for humans than slavery?

In the film we saw Johnson trace his Texan family, Who Do You Think You Are-style, back to its slave origins, and through a DNA test back to Senegal. I find it unlikely that he hasn't traced his family before and that he didn't know he was descended from slaves, nor that he was of West African descent, but no matter, this was a bit of business in an otherwise interesting film. When he presented his findings about his ancestors to his siblings we got to see that they were in no way athletic and clearly enjoyed a glass or several at their jolly family gatherings. It made the subtle point that genes are not everything - things such as determination, hard work, ambition, practice and talent also have a lot to do with sporting success. A scientist also noted that other, negative, things appear to have been inherited by African Americans, such as higher rates of prostate cancer and diabetes, both of which members of Johnson's family have suffered.

A lighter moment was provided when Johnson went to Jamaica and one of the young sprinters he spoke to put her country's athletic success down to eating bananas and yams, although her male colleague thought it was about black athletes trying to prove they were as good as whites. A better investigator would have questioned him more, but the statement was left hanging. An interesting factoid at this point: Usain Bolt comes from Trelawny parish in Jamaica, the same district where Olympic chairman Sebastian Coe's ancestors once owned plantations. Funny old world, innit?

Two things were missing from this programme, enjoyable though it was - any real science beyond academics positing a view, and a counter argument. But as we wait to see next month if Usain Bolt can be the first man since Carl Lewis to defend his 100-metre Olympic title successfully, as Johnson said about his film, I hope it at least provokes some thought.

Did being descended from slaves somehow give these men a genetically inherited advantage?

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Survival of the fittest was a very poorly thought out programme, which was especially unfortunate considering its contentious but fascinating subject matter, eugenics. It alluded to all the stereotypes of men with African origins and black skin tones in the USA and Europe, and Johnson wanted to reject some, but was using the same methods people use to promote these to claim the 'positive' ones, i.e the idea that in the USA slavery led to the 'fittest' and 'fastest' being left alive to breed, leading to Johnson and Bolt and all these fast MEN. This is the same flawed methodology and theorizing psychologists and geneticists use to claim people of African descent at not as 'intelligent' (IQ) as Europeans or Asians, and women not as intelligent as men. You could then say slavery selected for 'brawn' and not 'brain', which would be considered 'racist' and also has no credible evidence. Ditto the ability to run fast in African Americans. I'm not saying the subject of eugenics in this (or any) context should not be explored, but the evidence is tenuous and ambiguous and currently interpretation is everything. We have to keep an open, sceptical mind. One geneticist did point out there were so many variables it would be difficult to prove genetics were responsible, but none of the academics came out on the sceptical side. Johnson himself was not at all careful with his language and asked whether slavery had made these 'superior' men. Yikes! The content needed to be two separate programmes, one discussing the social history of slavery with Johnson as the focus, in the 'Who do you think you are' style. And one investigating the concept of genetics selecting for the ability to run fast and any links through slavery to the USA. As it was, mixing Johnson's personal story, with all is obvious psychological biases, it did not do justice to either subject. The glimpses into Johnson's own slave ancestors was fascinating, and a great way to explore the social history of slavery in the USA. Seeing the photo of his great, great, great aunt, and to hear her testament, and the footage and photos of liberated slaves was moving. This was also the only time Johnson seemed to realize that men need women to breed, and that the survival of the women sold as slaves would have to be explored just as much as the survival of the men, if his theory was going to have any credence at all. He spoke to a female professor specialising in the social history of slavery and women, and the discussions of possible 'breeding' programmes and the powerless circumstances slave women were in regarding control over their own bodies, was again, very moving and enlightening. He did not however, then follow what would have been his own line of reasoning and considered whether there was a genetic component from the mitochondrial DNA that could contribute to this fast running ability. Do people think women of African descent also have this same ability? This was not even touched upon. Epigenetics were not explored at all and the cultural influences mentioned in passing. His DNA text came back 7/8th African. What was the other 8th? I suspect it was European and this was glossed over as so many people from the USA find out they have ancestors from both continents and do not seem to be very happy to find this out. Yet this would have fitted in well with the social history of slavery he had discussed with the female professor, as she had talked about men of European ancestry using their slaves for sex. Was this too near the bone for Johnson? Public understanding of genetics and how to interpret evidence is poor and I blame the media and the science communicators. Programmes like this do us all no favours, and that is such a shame as it has the potential to be very educational and engaging.

Nonsense. It is about opportunity and structure. Plenty of Nigerians running and jumping for the UK,US, Greece, Spain, Italy in the 2012 Olympics.

I agree, i have watched every program claiming to investigate this issue, & everyone has been, from a scientific standpoint very vauge & maybe even inept. There have been studies into walking efficiency & achillies lenght. It was found that a shorter achillies ( as in non africans) means less energy gets stored on foot plant, because the longer calf muscle has less elasticity than tendon. So a longer achillies returns more energy per stride than a shorter one. There have been simular studies into kenyan bio mechanics & how there shorter calf muscles & longer achilies makes them more efficiant runners. I really hoped this program would investigate these avenues where research has been documented. But i guess they chose the story of how humanity triumphs over extreme adversity.

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