Genetic Testing Promises to Reveal Your Child's Sports Aptitude

For $149 dollars, Atlas Sports Genetics will test your child’s DNA and send you a report listing the sports where your child is likely to succeed. Some parents see it as a way to steer their child toward an activity that is a good match for their abilities. But psychologists and ethicists fear that assigning your child a sports orientation will do more harm than good.

Atlas Sports Genetics, a testing company in Boulder, Colorado, analyzes children’s ACTN3 gene, which has been linked with athletic performance. Certain variants of the gene supposedly indicate whether an individual is predisposed to excelling at certain sports based on the involvement of speed, power, and endurance in each sport. Atlas advertises its wares by suggesting to their parents that their child could be a future Olympic champion, and claiming that their test could identify that championship ability in weeks rather than potentially wasteful years years.

Currently, the predictive abilities of these tests are dubious. But even if these and other genetic tests become accurate predictors of ability, there is a lot of doubt as to whether children should be assigned any sort of ability orientation. Some note that the tests are less for the benefit of children than for parents with Olympic and All-American dreams:

“I find it worrisome because I don’t think parents will be very clear-minded about this,” said William Morgan, an expert on the philosophy of ethics and sport and author of “Why Sports Morally Matter.” “This just contributes to the madness about sports because there are some parents who will just go nuts over the results.

“The problem here is that the kids are not old enough to make rational autonomous decisions about their own life,” he said. (NYT “Born to Run? Little Ones Get Test for Sports Gene”)

William Salaten at Slate’s Human Nature blog sees something more insidious at work, noting that this test could result in our culture performing a kind of environmental eugenics, creating a Gattaca-like future where children are barred from certain activities:

What's really disturbing about this idea, in the case of ACNT3, is that it isn't crazy. The data make a strong case that being XX really does lock you out of success at the highest levels of sprinting and power sports. From an individual standpoint, that doesn't much matter: You can run track, play pickup basketball, and live happily ever after. But from your country's standpoint, putting you on the track team is a waste. We need that slot for an RR kid, and we need a genetic test to find him.

And, notes Lisa Belkin at the New York Times’ Motherlode blog, putting a child in only activities in which they succeed can actually be counterproductive to a child’s development into a full-fledged person:

What I fear it would become is one more way for parents to insure that their children never learn to fail. In her latest book, “Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking: Powerful, Practical Strategies to Build a Lifetime of Resilience, Flexibility and Happiness,” the psychologist Tamar Chansky argues that this is one of the most fundamental jobs of a parent, and one we don’t tend to do very well…If you never fail, she writes, you never learn that you can pick yourself back up again. And that’s a lesson best learned young, while your center of gravity is low and it doesn’t hurt as much to fall down.

It seems that in all this, the core problem is that parents are purchasing tests like these for their children, who are too young to exert autonomy over their situations and too easily seen as a collection of genes rather than the humans they will evolve into. Perhaps the problems of eugenics and pigeonholing could be alleviated by performing non-medical consumer genetic testing only on people who are able to consent to it.

[Atlas Sports Genetics via New York Times]