Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Does Exceptional Talent Run in Families?

Last week I explored why it is easy to conclude that talent might be highly heritable but hard to get an easy DNA based read on the genetics of talent.  In this post I want to share some thoughts about how exceptional levels of achievement and success seem to run in families and ultimately why this might increase through a process known as “assortative mating” or the tendency of people with certain characteristics to reproduce with each other and perhaps amplify the characteristic of interest over time.  Think tall people marrying tall people and having tall kids for example.  This concept also applies to things like income, intelligence, and unfortunately obesity.


This post also reflects an e-mail discussion with the usual suspects:  David Epstein, Jonathan Wai, Amby Burfoot, and Terry Laughlin.


Darwin’s Family

During some recent academic work on heritability and genetics I stumbled onto the fact that Darwin’s extended family has been loaded with achievers and innovators for about 250 years.  Other families of note include the Huxley family and also the Bohr family from Denmark whose members have made major contributions to physiology and math with two Nobel prizes in physics.


Sports Dynasties

When dynastic families in sports came up, through dumb luck David Epstein was looking through the files he generated on this topic for his book “The Sports Gene”.  Here is David’s stream of consciousness list of exceptional families and a few side comments:


“In the course of book reporting, I came across a lot of families with multiple pro athletes, although not always in the same sports. For example, Jon Jones is the greatest MMA fighter in the world, and his two brothers are NFL players. Then there were rare families like the Alou clan, which had like six straight men in MLB. At one point, three Alou brothers were the outfield for the San Francisco Giants. The Alomars had father and two sons in MLB, and the Bells had four guys in three different generations who all at one point played for the same team! The Boones, Hairstons, and Colemans are three generation MLB family. Clay Matthews’ family is a three generation NFL family. I remember a father and son from the Maldini family in Italy were captains of Champions League winners exactly 20 years apart. I guess there are a few really high profile ones, like the Mannings, the Harbaughs and Ryans, the Sharpes. The Gronkowskis have three currently in the NFL. Cecil and Prince Fielder. In the NBA the Gasols, Brooke and Robin Lopez, the Currys. Kobe and his father (Joe Bryant). Barry Bonds and his father. Rick Barry and his three sons were all in the NBA. I think the Staals have four brothers in the NHL. Eight members of the Sutters have six Stanley Cups between them, and I think the three Howes have some. And I only know the Sauers have two brothers in the NHL and one was in the NFL because I was writing about the brain damage of the NFL brother. There are some prominent identical twin athletes, like Tiki and Ronde Barber, and in track the female Barbers, and the Borlees. The Klitschkos, both world boxing champs at the same time. The identical Bryan bros are the top doubles tennis team in the world. The Griffeys, the three Dimaggios, the three Ripkens. Jackie Robinson’s brother took silver in the 200 in 1936 just behind Jesse Owens. The Alis and Reggie and Cheryl Miller both have a male and female who were both the best or nearly the best in the world. The five Andrettis in auto racing. The Williams sisters of course. …there are a bunch more. I didn’t memorize this, I was just pulling some from a folder where I had been marking these down. Actually, my favorite was an Israeli mother and daughter who were on THE SAME 4×100-meter relay for the national team. How cool is that?”


Basketball Fathers and Sons

David also sent me some back of the envelope calculations made by his colleague Jon Werthheim (Scorecasting)  about the odds of the son of an NBA player making it to Division 1 college basketball:


“We can argue about the ratio of nature to nurture. But, clearly, sons born to fathers who once played in the NBA are statistically more likely to become D-I hoops players. How much more likely? After joining forces with Dr. Ed Feng—Stanford Ph.d in engineering and founder of —crunching the numbers, and making some admittedly imprecise assumptions, we reached an astounding conclusion: male offspring of former NBA players are currently more than 55 times likelier to earn a college basketball scholarship than a male from the population at large.  Here’s how we arrived there:

• There are (roughly) three million high school graduates each year.

• There is (roughly) a 1:1 male-to-female ratio for 15-64 year olds.

• So there are 1.5 million male high school graduates each year

• Division-I college basketball teams have up to 13 scholarships

• There are 347 Division-I schools that have a men’s basketball program.

• Overestimating that each program uses its full complement of scholarships, there are 4511 scholarships at any given time, 347 * 13 = 4511.

• We divide the 4,511 scholarships by the 1,500,000 males times four years of college. i.e. 4511 / (4 * 1,500,000) = 0.00075.

• In the population at large, a male’s odds of earning a D-I basketball scholarship are .00075 or 1 in 1330.


On the other hand:

• There have been 4,699 players in NBA history. (This, however, dates to the 40s and includes current rookies.)

• We make a rough estimate that one-tenth of them had a male offspring born between 1990-1994 — the window for kids in college today.

• So 470 former NBA players had a son born between 1990-94.

• There are (at minimum, as some parentage might be unascertained) 20 current D-I players whose fathers played in the NBA.

• 20/470 = 4.3 percent.

• Among the population of current 18-22 year-old old males born to NBA players, their odds of earing a college scholarship are roughly 1 in 23.5.

• Put another way, they are more than 55 times more likely to play D-I basketball than kids whose father weren’t in the NBA.


When Elites Meet and Mate

Before there were a lot of high level athletic opportunities for women it might have been unusual for elite male and female athletes to meet and mate.  However, with the advent of more competitive opportunities for women perhaps there will be more and more pairings of elites and whatever elements of athletic success are heritable might converge in their kids.   Amby Burfoot pointed this out back in 2008 for the runner and 10k bronze medalist Shalane Flanagan who both “Picked Her Parents Well” and “Trains Her Butt Off”:


“I’ve been writing a bit in recent days about possible genetic contributions to distance-running success. You know: “Pick your parents carefully, and ask them to grow up in the Rift Valley of East Africa.” Flanagan didn’t follow the script precisely, but she sure as hell did a fine job selecting her parents. Her mother, Cheryl Treworgy, was the first woman to break 2:50 in the marathon. The first. Ever. Her father, Steve Flanagan, was a 1:50.8 half-miler, a 4:07 miler, a three-time member of the U.S. World Cross Country team, and a 2:18 marathoner.”


Another example is the cyclist Taylor Phinney, his father was a professional cyclist and his Mom (Connie Carpenter-Phinney) was both a summer and winter Olympian in cycling (gold medalist 1984) and speed skating.  Height obviously matters in basketball and my wife has two former teammates who are both about 6-4 (195cm).  Both of these women have married tall (6-6 and 6-8) men who played college sports and their kids are literally off the charts in terms of height.  It will be interesting to see where their interests lie and how far they go in sports.


Nature, Nurture, Push, Pull?

In a whole series of posts on the topic of talent vs. practice I have favored the idea that talent is hard to define but essential for elite (as opposed to expert) level performance.  I have also argued that talent is nothing without practice.   The examples above also make me think about the role of enriched environments.  If you listen to the parents of elite performers in various fields many will tell you that they did not “push their kids” and that the kid pulled them.  However, if you look further you might also find evidence of what I call an enriched environment with plenty of opportunities for exploration and good early instruction.  Also what role does seeing a parent or parents early in life training or pursuing some other activity they really enjoy (that is also valued by the world at large) have on the ultimate motivation of a child?  Late in life Andrew Huxley, who won the Nobel Prize for figuring out nerves work with his colleague Hodgkin, was interviewed and commented about his very early education and home environment:


“Well, I had always been keen on and quite good at hand work of various sorts, played a lot with meccano and zero-gauge clockwork railways when small. My parents gave my brother and me a quite good lathe when I was about twelve or so, which I still have (he was 79 at the time of this interview). It’s a screw-cutting, metal-turning lathe, which I still use for building my own equipment and I was self-taught on that…”


Huxley did design and build much of the equipment he needed for his ground breaking scientific work.  If you read the whole interview it is pretty clear that he pulled and his parents facilitated while he was exposed to the best educational institutions and minds available in England throughout his life.


Lessons for Parenting?

One thing that hits me as I review these family histories of achievement is that pushing your kids and so-called “Tiger Parenting” is not such a good idea.  Maybe a better strategy is to set a good example by engaging the world in a positive but rigorous way and facilitating and supporting your kid’s interests.  From what I can tell that pattern is common in many of the families mentioned above.


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One Response to “Does Exceptional Talent Run in Families?”

  1. March 12th, 2014 at 8:09 pm

    amby burfoot says:

    Thanks for including the Shalane Flanagan blog.
    Another good example in families is two generations
    of sub-4 milers. I know I’m going to forget someone,
    but there’s Barry Brown and his son Darren. Sammy
    Bair and his son. And John Gregorek, the son, is on
    the cusp of the sub-4 achieved by his father, John.

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