"Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration . . . [shining] down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre, and bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects . . . All great artists and thinkers [are] great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering."- Friedrich Nietzsche
On March 19th, 2011, Jon Jones had arrived. His opponent, and then champ, Mauricio Rua was said to be the perfect foil: it was Jones' skill vs. Rua's will. A complete cliche, sure, but descriptive enough of the match on display. We knew what Rua, the savage product of Chute Boxe, was capable of. What of Jones? When the fight unfolded, it became very clear, very fast who the better fighter was.
Shogun didn't even seem to exist on the same planet. Sure he fought valiantly, but at the cost of prolonging a beatdown that was as calculated as it was callous. Is there an underlying truth to the way we describe Jones' talent as otherwordly? As 'supernatural'?
You may hear Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan torture the use of words like "athletic", "explosive", and phrases like "fast twitch muscle fibers" are hammered into our skulls with zero nuance or explanation. What does it mean to be athletic? Or explosive? So about that...
Within each cell of your body lies the famous double helix: a unique biological structure containing paragraphs of genetic code. This 'code' refers to genes, which trigger the production of proteins (this is where genes get their Star Trek-like names: by the proteins they initiate in the body), which ultimately form traits. Traits like "athletic and explosive", it turns out. And to that end, we'll look at various genes: genes that, in theory, should create the perfect athlete (like a Jon Jones). A great athlete should be fast, and so let's look at that. Is there one? It turns out there is.
This "speed gene" is called ACTN3: if you have the gene variant that produces ACTN3 (alpha-actinin-3), your body produces a protein associated with muscle fibers that are able to contract rapidly (the "fast twitch muscle fibers" Goldberg never shuts up about).
However, as you have a pair of chromosomes, you have two copies, and it turns out a person with two X copies prevents the protein from being triggered in the body. If you're reading this, you're probably not an Olympic sprinter, as no Olympic sprinter that has been put under a microscope has the two X copies. Why would they? It's simple math, right? If you have the X copies that don't trigger the protein, you don't have the fast twitch muscle fibers.
What about endurance, and "anabolic response to intense exercise training"? The gene for that has a name and it's called ACE (a gene that triggers the production of an angiotensin-converting enzyme). The wonderful pop-science writer of genetics, Matt Ridley, elaborates:
For more than 10 years geneticists have been finding examples of a simple pattern: People who are good at sports requiring strength are more likely to have deletions in the ACE gene while people who are good at endurance sports are more likely to have inserts.
The count when it comes to genes linked with physical performance is more than 200, so let's take a look at one more potential ingredient to Jones' genetic success. And a very provocative one at that. It's called COMT (a gene that triggers the production of awkward sounding catechol-O-methyl transferase), and depending on the version of the gene you have, has been associated with decreased pain sensitivity, and reduced anxiety during stressful situations. As the pubmed link notes, it has been provocatively titled the "warrior" gene. An advantageous ingredient for someone who fights for a living, right?
So there it is. The secret to Jon Jones' success is written in his DNA. Case closed.
Well, not so fast. One of the hottest (and hotly debated) fields of study in science, and one highlighted in Time's recent special issue of the latest in scientific discoveries, is epigenetics: the study of how environment affects the actual architecture of your DNA. So far you've been reading about genes, and what they do if you have versions that trigger certain proteins. So perhaps you've concluded that genes determine athletic success.
Let's go back to the speed gene, and consider East African runners. Of the top 10 sprinters of all time in the 100 meters, all are of West African descent. Even crazier, three quarters of all elite distance runners come from a small tribe from Kenya called the Kalenjin. Last year, David Epstein ran a large feature on genetics in sports (what are the genes that mold individuals for sport and do they exist?), and he turned to Yannis Pitsiladis, a biologist out of the University of Glasgow. Pitsiladis decided to take a look at what made the distance runners of the Kalenjin different from their fellow Kenyans.
The difference? Well, there seemed to be several, and none of them had to do with genetics. For one, runners, growing up as children were more likely to live several miles from school (traveling eight to twelve kilometers each day from the age of seven). Individuals from the Kalenjin tribe were more likely to rely on their feet in order to get to school, and being located near the Rift Valley allowed them to train at altitude in addition.
As David Epstein would add during his PBS interview:
...There are other things that didn't make the article like the way they eat develops, or influences their body development...they eat no refined sugar for what's called a low glycemic index diet, and they end up being small people, which is good for long distance running.
The Atlantic's David Shenk elaborates, the Kalenjin also benefit from a mild year round climate. Even cultural factors appear to be at play, as their historical dedication to running might be connected to the economic incentives of cattle raiding, and individual achievement appears to be stressed more than 'team spirit' (perhaps explaining why soccer, a "Kenyan sport", is ignored by the Kalenjin tribe of Kenya).
Most people more or less understand the relationship between nature (biology on the one hand) and nurture (environment on the other). Surely an interaction of the two is the answer. After all, a gene that triggers the production of a protein that enhances speed means little if no one ever fosters your interest in sports with the smell of a baseball field, or the intensity of the green gridiron. So what more does the science of "nurture" say? Quite a bit.