It’s Olympics time! As some of you may know, I’m an obsessive track and field fan. And when I say obsessive, I mean that I have been known to make up elaborate and false excuses, in the middle of some important business meeting, so I can sneak away and watch a livestream of some obscure European track meet.
So basically these are the most exciting few weeks of the year for me—especially since I am a Canadian, of Jamaican heritage, and West Indians and Canadians of West Indian background have been killing it in these games. Damian Warner—Canadian-born with a Barbadian father—wins the Decathlon. Andre De Grasse, a Canadian with two West Indian parents, wins the 200 meters. Jamaican women sweep the 100 meters, win the 200 meters and the 4x100 relay. Jamaican men get the gold and bronze in the 110 meter hurdles. West Indians take the men and women’s 400 meters.
I could go on. There is literally no limit to the amount of boasting, chest thumping and jumping up and down on behalf of my cultures of origin that I’m capable of doing right now. (By the way, if you haven’t watched De Grasse come off the curve in the 200 meters and put the hammer down, it was one of the great moments of the games.)
So let us reopen the perennial question. How is that a tiny group of West Indian countries consistently run faster than nearly everyone else? Jamaica, the largest, has under 3 million people; it’s basically the Tampa-St. Petersburg metro area.
There are, as I’m sure you know, all kinds of complicated and controversial answers that are sometimes given to that question. Is there some kind of genetic advantage to people of West-African descent when it comes to sprinting? I’m not going to venture down that path, because I think there is a much simpler and more powerful explanation that we would do well to remember.
Let’s start with this. Here’s a list of the Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry since 2000.
What’s striking about that list? There’s a lot of people from Israel! Another tiny country. To put it in perspective — Belarus, Austria, Hungary, the United Arab Emirates, and Papua New Guinea all have populations about equal to Israel's. But none of them have had four chemistry Nobelists in the past twenty years.
So how it is that a country of nine million is having such a run of producing geniuses in chemistry? The answer is that in Israel, chemistry matters. It has enough status that lots of smart Israelis want to pursue a career in chemistry, and some of those people end up being chemistry geniuses.
I suspect that some of you find this explanation unsatisfying. It seems glib and simplistic. We prefer explanations of high achievement that focus on endowments: “So-and-so is a great songwriter because So-and-so has a natural gift for melody and musical composition.” That idea makes more sense to us than, “So-and-so is a great songwriter because she really likes songwriting.” But why do we favor the endowment approach? Let me try again on the question of Israeli chemistry geniuses.
Imagine that in any population group, 1 percent of the population—for whatever reason—have an innate gift for doing advanced chemistry. Something about the way their brains are organized fits the kinds of problems posed by chemistry. In a high school of 1,000 students, that means that ten students will have the ability to do really well in advanced chemistry. But suppose that high school is in Silicon Valley, and each of those ten students catches the computer science bug and ends up coding. And suppose there’s another high school with the same distribution, but it’s in a neglected neighborhood, in a part of the country where mining or construction jobs are in demand: those ten might end up leaving high school early to support their families. Or maybe the school doesn’t offer advanced chemistry classes so the chemistry whizzes never even get a chance to discover that they are chemistry whizzes.
The late, great psychometrician James Flynn used to use the term “capitalization” to describe this phenomenon. Those two high schools had a normal endowment of chemistry whizzes. But they did a poor job of capitalizing on that talent. Flynn’s big point was that we spend way too much time, as a society, imagining that unequal outcomes between different groups signal a difference in endowment. In fact, he argued, they usually signal a difference in capitalization.
Because what’s the big difference between the Silicon Valley high school and the poorer semi-rural high school, on the one hand, and an Israel high school, on the other? The Israeli school doesn’t have more chemistry whizzes. They have ten as well! But because the culture around that school values chemistry so much, the school does a much better job of finding and developing and capitalizing on that talent. The United States has 380 million people. If the chemistry-whiz percentage is 1 percent, that’s 3.8 million people. But if America’s chemistry capitalization rate is .01, then that gives us a pool of 3,800 potential chemistry Nobelists. Israel is a country of 9 million people: that’s 900,000 in their potential chemistry pool. But if their capitalization rate is 1 percent to our 0.1 percent, that’s 9,000! More than twice as many potential Nobelists than in the US, from a country a fraction of the size.
It’s not about the size of the country. It’s about the size of the capitalization rate.
So why do West Indians run so fast? It’s not because they have some magical genetic endowment. Please. I remember once driving through Kingston with my cousin, who lives in Jamaica. He had a son in elementary school who had shown some promise in sprint.
I asked my cousin, “How many kids in your son’s class are also budding sprinters?” He replied, “Everyone.” And then he told me something that I think explains everything you need to know about why capitalization matters more than endowment: “At my son’s grade school, they have a full time sprint coach.” They don't waste any running talent in Jamaica. I wish the world could say the same about chemistry talent.