Matthew Syed, possibly unintentionally, has produced an explosively revolutionary text. Not a bad achievement for a man who used to describe himself as a Christian Socialist, a man who stood as a parliamentary candidate for Tony Blair’s New Labour Government, a man who is currently employed in Rupert Murdoch’s mean and nasty global media empire. Of course a man is entitled to move on, and one should not so much be judged on where you have come from but rather where you are heading. And, in my view, Syed has produced a damn fine revolutionary text which, furthermore, is written in a style and language that tens of millions of ordinary people, young and old, will be able to relate to.
I’m passing my copy onto my 14 year old step-daughter in the hope and expectation that some of Syed’s insights will germinate in her young and impressionable head. Of course the very word ‘revolutionary’ is a highly subjective term. What is revolutionary to one man might very well be another man’s nightmare. Even my own understanding of the word has evolved and mutated considerably over the decades. So, without further a do, let me define what I now understand as revolutionary. Firstly, a revolutionary critique must be rooted in the real, material world where seven billion of us attempt to survive by whatever means available to us. For most, that means selling our labour to the highest bidder. For billions of people in the developing world even that may prove insufficient for survival. Either the remuneration is so low as to make a dignified and purposeful life impossible or even worse, there is simply no work available and no welfare safety net, so many of our fellow humans simply keel over and die of starvation. That is what is meant by the real and material world. Those that still buy into the host of other worldly fantasies are merely clinging on to superstitions because for them, the real world is too daunting to contemplate. Better to wrap oneself up in the make-believe world of religion than come face to face with the difficult reality of humanity, with all its wonder and all its barbarity.
Syed’s book is revolutionary in that it correctly describes religion as nothing more than a placebo used by sports men and women to bolster their self belief. Syed writes:
Karl Marx called religion the ‘opium of the masses’. He was almost right: religion is the sugar pill of the masses.’ P150
Secondly, to be revolutionary is to believe that the world can change. Part of the God/religion delusion is to stop people seeing the world for what it is and thus deterring us from making a conscious effort to improve the organisation of our planet. If everything is predetermined by a supreme being, humans become passive in the face of injustice. For those addicted to religion, the human suffering that is all around us is part of God’s master plan, but don’t worry the high priests tell us, it will all be better in some imagined after-life. Of course in this age of sophisticated science, our learned priests have to be a little more clever. If the God delusion is not working, the explanation to all our woes is to be found in the human genome. It’s all in our genes they now tell us. But Syed is having none of it. The central thesis of his book is simple. Our genetic inheritance have little or no bearing on our success in life, be it sporting or otherwise. It’s all down to hard work; ten thousand hours of it to be precise and this over a minimum of ten years if you want to climb to the top of your chosen tree.
Although the debate between the respective influence of genes as opposed to environment has been around for many decades, previously in the form of the ‘nature-nurture’ polemic, Syed has done a formidable job in reasserting the centrality of one’s environment. What Syed is saying is simple; if your material environment is favourable and you put in the required hard work (10,000 hours of purposeful and self motivated practice), anyone can achieve in this world. This is a revolutionary premise and cuts through any number of pseudo-scientific babble about our life chances being determined by our genes. It could be argued that Syed places too much emphasis on the hard work component while giving too little attention to the circumstances one finds oneself in, but notwithstanding this imbalance, his position is fundamentally revolutionary. Every human being is potentially capable of achieving far beyond their current status, and no amount religious doctrine, class prejudice and genetic hubris can stand in the way of humanity once these mind chains are cast off. In Syed’s own words:
‘That each and every one of us has the potential to tread the path to excellence.’ P104
What Syed does fail to emphasise sufficiently, is that class barriers cannot be simply wished away by a changed mind-set or any amount of hard work. If the limitations and barbarism of our class based world are to be overcome, then class divisions will need to be torn down by a humanity determined and conscious of its task. Ironically, in what is ultimately a very revolutionary text, the one word that is never uttered by Syed is that of ‘class’. Yet class division is at the very root of human existence today; a tiny global elite who have totally expropriated not only the means of production, but all the cultural assets as well, including our sporting institutions, while the rest of us must try to live on the crumbs from their table the best we can. I know it is unfashionable to talk in these class terms, but I can still find no better explanation to describe the irrational and totally inhumane way our planet is currently run. The only alternative thesis is that of, ‘survival of the fittest’ and under that regime the barbarism will continue until we all will surely perish, the increasingly global and inter-connected nature of our existence will see to that.
A third revolutionary aspect of Syed’s work is his very questioning as to what it is to be human. In a most thought-provoking chapter on ‘Drugs in Sport’, Syed raises the highly contentious issue of genetic modification of the human race. If we accept that current day homo-sapiens are nothing but the result of a long and tortuous process of natural selection (evolution) we must also accept that we humans must continue to evolve. Syed elaborates:
The issue of drugs in sport is important on its own terms, but it is also at the centre of a more momentous debate. It is a debate about the extent to which it is legitimate to enhance mankind through artificial means; a debate about whether it is acceptable to alter our innate capabilities via technology: in sport, it is a debate about the future of mankind itself.’ P229
Syed adds some sobering afterthoughts:
‘Some experts believe that genetically modified athletes are already among us. Some experts on cell regeneration believe the first thousand-year-old human may already be alive.’ P231
Any writer that challenges the prevailing taboos of the day with the aim of debating how human life may be enhanced, ought to be considered revolutionary, and Syed most definitely fits into this category. Syed concludes his discussion on genetic enhancement as follows:
Much of the resistance to genetic enhancement seems to hinge on a kind of squeamishness, the idea that it is both a little creepy and a little presumptuous to interfere with the fabric of human DNA. But this squeamishness is surely misplaced. After all, the human genome is the product of an arbitrary process of evolution. Is it not time to embrace any safe genetic intervention that can improve lives or reduce suffering?’P233
A forth and inspiring aspect of this revolutionary text can be found in the final chapter, ‘Are Blacks Superior Runners?’ Here Syed does a magnificent job in debunking the racial basis behind much that is said about the supposed genetic superiority of Black people in both sprinting and long-distant running and in sport generally. The central plank of Syed’s argument is again rooted in the real, material world. Syed is emphatic that the success of Afro-Americans in the sporting realm has nothing to do with genetic differences and everything to do with socio-economic factors. Syed explains:
So, how do we explain the success of African-Americans in sport? Why do they perform so well, not just in sprinting but beyond? Perhaps the key thing to note is that the over-representation of African-Americans in professional sport is almost precisely mirrored by an under-representation in positions of economic power. This suggests that the sporting success of African-Americans is the consequence not of genetics but of unequal opportunity; that blacks are driven into professional sport due to barriers to entry in other spheres of economic life.’ P257
Similarly, Syed looks to environmental factors to explain the extraordinary success of Jamaican sprinters and East African long distance runners. With respect to the Jamaican sprinters Syed explains,
In the absence of a genetic explanation, scientists have focused on the cultural forces underpinning Jamaican sprinting success. The importance of Jamaica’s impressive investment in the infrastructure and training system required to identify and nurture elite track athletes, the effects of a culture that idolizes track heroes, and the powerful desire of young Jamaicans to use athletic success to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.’ P256
In respect to the Kenyans, Syed adds, it was not their genes that created this aerobic advantage but thousands of hours of running, P255
The key science behind these conclusions is quite revolutionary in itself, namely that there is greater genetic difference within so called racial groups than between them. Syed elaborates,
The findings of population genetics and in particular the findings that pretty much all the genetic variation that exists on the planet is contained within racial groups demonstrate how absurd it is to engage in racial generalizations; how crazy it is to witness a tiny group of blacks winning at, say, the 10,000 metres to infer that all people who happen to have similar skin pigmentation share an aptitude for 10,000 metre running.’P248
And then in one of the most powerful statements in the book, Syed adds:
It’s only because we see the world through the race-tinted glasses that we’re inclined to describe all sorts of things and not just running prowess as having a racial basis.’P248
Syed goes on to expose the racial ideas that were grafted on to Darwin’s scientific explanation of evolution by a white European and American elite who were desperate to find justification for their viscous exploitation of black labour. In the perverse world of the White American and European racists, black people were deemed intellectually inferior to whites by dint of their different evolutionary development, but physically strong and thus able to champion in all manner of athletic pursuits. Syed writes:
The fact that such views had no scientific basis didn’t seem to matter, particularly as the idea of black primitiveness coincided with the economic interests of the white majority. The notion of the black brute strong, athletic, but mentally dull provided moral cover for the use of blacks in the cotton fields of the rural American South.’ P260
Syed then concludes:
The notion of black athletic superiority can be seen, not as a harmless scientific error, but as an idea with a powerful and pernicious history.’ P264
So there we have it. Cleverly masquerading under an innocent text book on, ‘How Champions Are Made’, Syed has produced a powerful refutation of much that is reactionary in our human culture; religious superstitions, racial stereotyping, genetic pseudo-science and a fixed and intransmutable view of what it is to be human. In its place Syed offers a revolutionary view of mankind; one where anyone can excel if the material conditions are favourable (and the necessary purposeful training takes place), a view of mankind which rejects a system where religious, racial and genetic differences are manufactured or exaggerated by those who seek to profit from such divisions, a view of mankind that sees us not as a god-sent fixed entity but one that is conscious of its evolutionary journey. The best read since Richard Dawkins, ‘The God Delusion’.