The 2012 Olympics are coming closer, and, as such, have been a popular blog topic lately. And I’ll join in since I came across an article that looks at the progression of running speeds in three animals: dogs, horses and humans. For all three there are good datasets on the ten best performers for the past century or so. The distances of the races under consideration were 450 – 500m for dogs, 2200 – 2800m for horses and 200 – 1500m for humans (later in the analysis restricted to 800 – 1500m).
Anyway, what they found is that in all three cases, the progression of records followed a similar pattern: quick at first, and then arriving at a plateau. Their analysis suggests that all three considered subjects are nearing their plateau’s (and, in humans, the plateau is reached).
This similar pattern, they say, is quite surprising given the different conditions leading to speed improvement in the three species. In dogs and horses, artificial selection was/is quite significant. In humans beings, on the other hand, the faster running times are likely to be mainly the consequence of better training systems and more thorough population screening, which leads to a larger ‘genetic pool’ to sample from.
In their conclusion, the authors write:
The parallel progression of maximal running speeds in these three species over the last decades suggests that performances will no longer progress despite genetic selection in animals and best population detection in humans. Regardless of differences between species (biological, environmental and competition history), human pressure, which has accelerated the biological adaptations allowing to run faster, is a process with limited potential and reduced benefits in the near future.
So, we’re nearing (or have already reached) our biological limits when it comes to running speed.
However, life isn’t static. Biological limits can change. Of course, this takes a lot of time. Or does it? For the past few Olympic games, the subject of genetic enhancement has been popping up. A subject about which a lot has been said and written. So, where are these genetically enhanced athletes? (On a side note: progress in training methods etc. might make a difference as well…)
Of course, there’s no such thing as a ‘running gene’ or a ‘sprinting gene’, but on the other hand, it is not inconceivable that there are some genes that can have a significant impact on athletic performance (the 2007 reference below lists some candidate genes, involved in, for example, muscle size, strength and recovery, or size and oxygen carrying capacity of red blood cells). And as the human genome is being quickly explored, other candidate genes are bound to be found. Overall, if proper procedures are developed, it seems possible to enhance athletic ability in human beings.
Leading us to the ethics of it. Rather than continuing with a lengthy treatise on it, I’ll just leave you with some questions:
- If genetic enhancement of athletic ability becomes possible, should it be allowed?
- If it is allowed, does it diminish the ‘value’ of the performance?
- Beyond genetics, what about other alterations such as surgery, or prosthetics (the Oscar Pistorius debate)?
- How far can/should we go? (Creating a special class of ‘athlete humans’, each attuned to his/her specific discipline?)
- Besides enhancing athletes, should we, if it becomes feasible, ‘design’ athlete babies by changes in the germ-line (the reproductive cells)?
Whatever, it will turn out to be, I’m looking forward to, hopefully, seeing some world records being pulverized in a little while.
Desgorces, F.-D., Berthelot, G., Charmantier, A., Tafflet, M., Schaal, K., Jarne, P., & Toussaint, J.-F. (2012). Similar slow down in running speed progression in species under human pressure. Journal of Evolutionary Biology DOI: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2012.02563.x
Gaffney, G.D., & Parisotto, R. (2007). Gene Doping: A Review of Performance-Enhancing Genetics. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 54, 807-822 DOI: 10.1016/j.pcl.2007.04.004