A recent New York Times Opinion piece about testosterone by Katrina Karkazis and Rebecca M. Jordan-Young got me thinking, but not about what you might expect.  What it got me thinking about was my fraught relationship with athletics.  The article by these two distinguished sociologists began with a discussion of a ruling by the Court of Arbitration in Sport which declared that females with naturally high testosterone levels could not compete as women unless they made efforts to reduce their testosterone levels.

Unlike most normal men, I can’t sit through five minutes of a sports event on TV, and wouldn’t shell out five let alone five hundred dollars for tickets to a World Series game.  In a detached sort of way, I do appreciate a particularly skillful header into a soccer goal or a clever basketball fake out, though I’d much rather get a glimpse of a peregrine falcon’s daredevil stoop on a pigeon.

It has occurred to me that my current lack of interest in athletic events may have its roots in my youthful lack of athletic skills.  In high school, I was a well-practiced bench warmer. The only times coaches would put me in games were when our team had a comfortable lead.   Perhaps I was a terrible athlete because I had low testosterone – though my voice cracked, I grew a mustache and the rest of puberty’s weirdness happened right on schedule. Or maybe my brain is just wired funny.   Either way the decision by the Arbitration Court raises some provocative questions.

Clearly, many determinants of athletic success are genetic.  The average height of an NBA basketball player is 6’7” inches and the average male height in the USA is 5’9”.   I don’t think that’s because from the age of 5 on the NBAers strove to be good at basketball and worked hard to be taller.   Genetic science has DNA sequence determining 80% of adult height. Nutrition and childhood illness probably determines the other 20%. And according to the most recent report from the National Center for Biotechnical Information, the heritability of muscle strength ranges from 30 to 80% and the heritability of lean body mass is 50 to 80%.  

So, if the decision by the Arbitration Court becomes settled precedent and athletes with genetic advantages are to undergo interventions to return them to “normal”, NBA players will have to have ten inches surgically removed from their lower extremities and weight lifters would have to undergo fat transplants. That doesn’t seem particularly likely but it’s clearly wrong to make a woman with a genetic advantage undergo medical “correction” while ignoring the issue in men.

Interest in athletic competitions is deeply ingrained in much of the human psyche.   Competitive games which drew large crowds arose independently in widely separated ancient cultures. The Greeks had their Olympics, the first North Americans their lacrosse games, the Japanese their Sumo wrestling competitions, the Mayans their life or death ball games , and the ancient Chinese their Cuju.  Some of these activities had military origins but even before organized warfare, teamwork and physical skill were major factors in early human hunting success. It seems likely that the survival of a clan or tribe of our prehistoric ancestors was often determined by the success of the hunt. Those with genes for strength and teamwork were more likely to survive. 

Teamwork isn’t unique to Homo sapiens.  A step or two back from myopic anthropocentrism reveals other species demonstrating group activity towards a common goal.  The coordinated hunting behavior of our close relative the chimpanzee has been well documented as has that of wolves, hyenas, wild dogs, and lions  (all, curiously, close relatives of two of our favorite pets).  But other examples of similar behavior include orcas, dolphins, some birds of prey and a few species of ants.  It’s tempting to imagine some bit of genetic code in all those species saying “You are meant to get together, figure out who’s to do what and go for it.” 

But if so, mine seems to have been deleted and I must admit, it feels like a disability.   When a group of friends get together to watch the home team compete in a championship game on TV I find some excuse to beg out.  And when, after a win, the conversation turns to analyzing the details of the game my mind wanders. I imagine they feel the same way when I chatter about a recent bird sighting.  It sets me apart, and not in a particularly good way. 

I’d make a lousy soldier but I’m probably here, living a safe and privileged life, because coordinated groups in the past successfully defended themselves against invading hordes (or, just as likely, pillaged others and made off with their wealth and wives).  Either way, that’s risky stuff requiring teamwork and physical skills. How come I didn’t get some of those genes? Perhaps it’s because my ancestral line cowered in the shadows, dodged the draft, went AWOL when a battle threatened. Not really something to be proud of, but here I am.

 Despite Thomas Jefferson’s assertion, all men are not created equal.  Neither are all women. A random hit on a DNA base pair or just the right roll of the chromosomal dice can go a long way towards making  the difference between a star athlete and a bench warmer. But it’s not much fun to think of athletic contests in those terms. Too much cognitive dissonance.  Better by far not to pull aside the Ozian curtain and discover the real wizard, though the judgement of the Court of Arbitration in Sport makes this pretty hard to do.

I’m not sure whether it is a function of age and experience or the dizzying rate at which modern science and burgeoning information keep turning things upside down but we seem to be getting knocked out of our collective comfort zone more and more these days:  Modern agriculture will feed an ever increasing population. Oops, hold on.  All that plant breeding and monoculture has left us vulnerable to massive crop failure because of loss of genetic diversity in the food supply.  Antibiotics are wonder drugs.  Uh, think again, their overuse is causing the evolution of bacterial superbugs.  Those chlorinated biphenyls make terrific refrigerants. Wait a sec.  Ozone disappears and we all get melanomas.  Omega-3 fatty acids are the key to longevity.  Perhaps, but their source happens to be the small fish at the base of the oceanic food chain and seafood makes up a critical part of the diet for around 3 billion people. The industrial revolution freed humanity from incredible amounts of toil and suffering. Perhaps for a while, but our satanic contract with fossil fuels now threatens earthly life as we know it.

It seems virtually impossible for a person with half a conscience to make it through ten minutes without feeling guilty.  The alarm of our plastic clock goes off and we think of the great oceanic garbage gyre; breakfast – hens and hogs in crates too small to turn around in; clothes shopping online – child labor in china; trip to the grocery – should be using mass transit but it’s so inconvenient; pay the electric bill – ought to install rooftop solar but it’s so expensive; pay the heating bill – need to drop the themostat another 5 degrees; dinner – those avocados are shipped all the way from Mexico and the hamburg, well at least that particular cow is done farting.

I’m anything but a historian, but it is tempting to compare the proliferation of ideas, information and technology we’ve enjoyed since the Renaissance to the Greco-Roman age.  Then, as now, life for many became immeasurably better but old cultural assumptions and ways of thinking were displaced by new ones. Did that cause similar cognitive dissonance and, if so, was that the root cause of the ten centuries of darkness which followed?  It’s hard not to hear the jabber – “……climate change is a hoax”, “……vaccines make kids sick”, “…..Darwinian evolution is all wrong” – without fearing that there are barbarians at the gates.

But there is a glimmer of hope.  No less a genius than F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote  “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.  One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”   Remaining determined to make things otherwise sounds like the right approach to our modern predicament. 

3 thoughts on “Testosterone

  1. Peter,
    I’m completely with you on a lack of interest in watching sports. It somehow feels un-American not to be interested in baseball, basketball, or football. As you know though, I really love to participate in sports, despite my genetic disposition to being short and small. Anyway though, let’s hope we can fight off those barbarians at the gate!

  2. As you know, Paul, I am in awe of your athleticism. You clearly prove my argument all wrong since your genes would have you in the role of coxswain and not oarsman in an eight at the Head of the Charles!

    • Of course I should add that by speculating that much of athleticism is genetic and then admitting that you prove me wrong I fulfill Fitzgerald’s criterion of a first rate intelligence 🙂 .

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