Future Tense

Can You Replicate the Burning Desire to Win That Drives Superhuman Athletes?

A response to Hannu Rajaniemi’s “Lions and Gazelles.”

Cropped version of running illustration.
Doris Liou

An evolutionary biologist who is the author of Superhuman responds to Hannu Rajaniemi’s “Lions and Gazelles.”

Take a random selection of athletes at any Olympic Games. No matter their discipline, they will have one factor in common: a burning desire to win, and a motivation to be the best in the world. Imagine if we could develop a short cut to that kind of passion.

In “Lions and Gazelles,” Hannu Rajaniemi’s protagonist Jyri is an athlete of the near future taking part in a super-exclusive ultramarathon exclusively for bioengineered people. A primary point of the competition is to show off the latest in genetic doping, and other enhancement technologies, for prospective investors who show up to see the latest in body hacking. There are people taking part in Rajaniemi’s race with genetic tweaks to their myostatin genes to boost their muscles, while others have been gene-edited to produce more red blood cells. Some have undergone surgery to give themselves a more efficient running action. Jyri has hacked himself in a different way: by artificially boosting his motivation. Activated with a drug that switches the urge on and off, he can call up the unquenchable fire in the belly that you only usually see in totally dedicated world-class athletes.

Something like the Race could happen in real life in the near future. Some 200 gene variants have already been discovered with links to extreme sporting performance, and there has already been a cyborg Olympics, for people with prosthetic enhancements. Tweaks to individual genes that might increase muscle mass or red blood cell count also seem within the realm of possibility, modifying motivation is a completely different proposition. There are myriad personal factors that contribute to motivation—our psychology and personality, and our mental as well as physical health.

As Ranjaniemi notes, champion ultrarunners are special creatures: To be one, your body needs to strike the right balance between using up the energy-giving glucose and clearing itself of glucose’s byproduct, lactate. Better athletes can work harder for longer, because they are good at recycling the lactate that’s building up in their muscles. Many East African distance runners seems to have “structural” physical advantages, such as a longer Achilles tendon. Runners with long Achilles tendons have calf muscles that attach relatively closer to the knee, which reduces the inertia of the leg and so improves running economy. Other extraordinary runners, as Ranjaniemi mentions, include the Tarahumara of Mexico. As in parts of East Africa, where children run to and from school every day, running is a central part of Tarahumara culture. If running is commonplace in your society, it can only help nurture brilliant athletes.

But physiology or genetics or culture alone will not make you a champion. You need motivation. Easy enough to define in broad terms, but tricky to measure scientifically, a strong sense of motivation was a quality I found in many of the subjects I met while researching my book Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity. I sought out and met people who are the best in the world in a range of traits, from happiness to endurance running. I also talked to researchers about the neuroscience, genetics, and physiology of talent and ability. Their work sheds much light on which traits will be hackable in the future.

Here’s what I learned. First, geneticists have teased out the inherited component for particular traits by using twin studies. It turns out that for complex traits such as intelligence and running ability, about 50 percent of the variability of ability between people is inherited. That means approximately half of how good you are at running depends on your genes. For a while, scientists thought this meant there would be a “running gene” that we could locate and which would explain a good chunk of people’s ability. If there were such a gene, we could imagine engineering people to have it and make them superhuman runners.

However, no such gene has been forthcoming. In fact, we haven’t discovered a gene or gene variant that explains even 5 percent of the variability in physical ability between people. The pattern is the same with other complex traits, such as intelligence or singing. There are just far too many genes involved for any single gene to have a big effect. It means hacking these traits using techniques such as gene editing is a near-hopeless task.

This is not something that seems to bother the startups of Silicon Valley. The culture there is that anything is up for grabs—and only ambition is holding us back. There are certainly some aspects of our physiology that it’s possible to enhance, above and beyond the intense training that top athletes already do. But the idea that we can and even should enhance something as deep and personal as motivation is misguided. Take Dean Karnazes, whom I interviewed for my book. He once ran 50 marathons in 50 days in 50 different states. He’s also won the Badwater Ultramarathon, which proclaims itself the world’s toughest foot race (it even pops up in “Lions and Gazelles”). His name is routinely prefixed with the words “superhuman athlete”—he’s the sort of person Jyri would want to model himself on. I asked Karnazes what makes him superhuman, but he said he thought anyone can do what he does. They just need the same passion, drive, commitment and resolve: They need the motivation. Easier said than done.

I also met the 2018 winner of a six-day track race in Flushing Meadows, New York, the kind of ultramarathon where the aim is just to run as far as you can in a time limit. Petra Kasperova ran an incredible 370.4 miles over the competition’s six days. Kasperova runs because she wants to explore what is possible, what human nature is capable. She runs, she told me, because she discovers something magical on the track. Is it possible to mimic or synthesise the emotions and the history and the personal motivations behind people as different but as successful as Karnazes and Kasperova? Sadly for Jyri (and Alessandro Botticelli, and the Whales), I don’t think it is.

Despite what many feel-good books about achieving peak performance might say, motivation isn’t just something you can will yourself to have. Even much of the effort put into practising something—the sort of discipline that sets champions apart from the rest of us—is itself genetic. There are people who seem to have an inner drive, a determination and motivation that carries them on when most would give up. This drive itself seems to have a genetic component.

After Jyri’s hack goes wrong, he eventually finds some inner motivation based, at first, on negative emotion. But all the superhumans I met cited curiosity, positivity, and a refusal to be put off by failure. Jyri seems to finally realize this by finding compassion rather than hatred as the motivation to keep running.

In years to come, enhancement will work just fine for purely physical traits, and pharmaceutical manipulation of mood and focus is certainly possible on a crude level, as we see with drugs such as modafinil. But anyone hoping for a quick route to the kind of desire you see in Olympic-level athletes will be disappointed, and anyone trying to mess with the qualities that make each of us who we are on a deep level will stumble well before the finish line.