We Can’t All Be Mozart

Genius may be 90 percent perspiration, but it helps to have the right starting point.

A comment by Jack Davis on my last blog entry leads me to write something about talent, genes, environment, and how we succeed. Jack asks about a new book by David Shenk, The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong. I can’t comment on the book itself, having not yet read it, but I visited the Amazon.com page, watched the video, read the excerpts and the interview with the author, and read some of the commentary.

This is an area of science I have been following and thinking about all my life. I just published a 960 page book (The Evolution of Childhood, Harvard University Press) about the interplay of biology (including genetics) and environment (including learning, culture and other influences). While I always want to learn more, I’m not optimistic that Shenk’s book will supply much information that I don’t already have.

For example, the chapter provided by Amazon in pdf form (Chapter 2) contains good basic information about how genes work. It quotes Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s 1994 book The Bell Curve unfavorably, as I do, and it quotes leading scientists like Michael Meaney, Victor McKusick, and Patrick Bateson, all favorably, as I also do.

On pages 23-24 Shenk recounts a 1958 rat study that I also like a lot; in fact, the second chart is one I have been drawing on blackboards since 1974, when I first taught human behavioral biology–and when there still really were blackboards. It shows that you can’t predict what will happen when you continue to enrich the environment, and that the impact of genes depends on the environment.

But I have to say that this is not exactly news, and that the subtitle of the book tells you a lot about what is going on here: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong. This is not just a bold statement, as Shenk tells the interviewer, it is the setting up of a straw man. The straw man says that it’s all in the genes and you as a poor, put-upon, gullible reader believe that, so someone has to come along and tell you that the environment matters too.

In fairness to Shenk, authors rarely control titles, and of course our current cultural context matters. Back in 1974, when I first drew that chart on the board and asked my students to explain it, you couldn’t say much at all about genetic influences on behavior without being pilloried. Sandra Scarr was spat upon on a visit to a leading university and E.O. Wilson had ice-water poured on him on the platform at a national scientific meeting (“Professor Wilson, you’re all wet!” was the clever contribution of the pourers.)

Why? Because they both said that genes had some influence on behavior. Both had also written about the power of the environment, but that didn’t matter; they gave some power to genes, and that was all their opponents needed to know.

That course I first taught in 1974 grew into the first edition of The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit, published in 1982. I wasn’t doused or spat upon, but some reviews included accusations of genetic determinism, which anyone who had actually read the book would know were false. In fact I hemmed and hawed so extensively that when I rewrote the book twenty years later I had to purge it of countless apologies-in-passing.

By then the culture had changed. Genetic and evolutionary explanations had caught on much faster than I expected. A turning point for me came when Newsweek, in a special issue on children, had the headline, “Scientists Estimate That Genes Determine Only About 50 Percent of a Child’s Personality,” spread across the top of two pages. The year was 1997, and genes had become so accepted that “only about 50 percent” was considered news.

And it still is. The Amazon page for Shenk’s new book has an invited review by a distinguished psychiatrist, Louann Brizendine, who writes in praising the book, “Ambition, persistence, and self-discipline are not just products of genes, but can be shaped by nurture and environment. Certainly it is important to have good genes, but that determines at most only 50 percent of your talent.”

My reaction to “at most only 50 percent” of talent in 2010 is like my reaction to “only about 50 percent” of personality in 1997: Wow! I remember 1974 and 1982, when you would be slapped down hard for saying 10 or 20 percent!

But: I do understand the dangers in today’s gene-soaked culture. I endorse the need to encourage every child to be every thing she can be. I did that with my children, and I do it every time a struggling student comes into my office. I have yet to tell a single one “you can’t do this,” and I won’t.

Not to brag, but this past weekend I saw my daughter perform a dance duet, which she and her partner had choreographed, onstage at the Kennedy Center in Washington, in the National College Dance Festival. The  odd thing is, she was the second of our daughters to dance at the Kennedy Center. And the  odd thing about that: they are not genetic related, nor is any of their four parents a dancer.

Logan Kruger, my stepdaughter, who is 19 months older, is a brilliant dancer who performed there last year with Shen Wei Dance arts (she’s now with the Limón Dance Company). When our families began to blend a decade ago, Sarah Konner (then 13) began to follow in Logan’s footsteps. Logan, who had been dancing all her life, achieved an amazing blend of skill and artistry. Sarah progressed rapidly and achieved a lot in both but leaned toward choreography as well as dance.

Imagine if I or her stepmother had told her that the chances of her succeeding as Logan had were very low? Both of them showed talent, both showed intense motivation and discipline, both put in their ten thousand hours and more of practice, both succeeded against long odds.

But I’ve lived long enough to see some young people fail at some things no matter how hard they tried. Genes do play a role, albeit a complex one, and “you can be anything you want to be” can become a way of blaming the child. Still, perspiration is good. We can’t all be Mozart, but we can be the best version of ourselves.

Finally, as I pointed out in my last blog, let’s not forget that we are in a new era in another way: Finding a clear genetic influence can be the first step in finding an environmental fix—a diet, a medication, a specific learning program. Today genes are part of the solution, not just part of the problem.


  1. Jack Davis says:

    Dr.K, thanks for answering my question. When I asked you about Shenk’s book, I didn’t know you were completing a 960 page book, so forgive me:-) Funny story: I was reading Shenk at a Starbucks and a woman at a nearby table was talking about how her kid wanted to be like Einstein. Maybe she had read it.

    Evolution of Childhood was discounted so much at Amazon I may actually be able to afford it.

  2. Mel Konner says:

    Dear Jack,

    I just expanded the blog entry to make it more personal, since I’ve seen the role of motivation in my own family. You’ve been a strong supporter of this blog, and I appreciate it. If you write me at Emory (Dept. of Anthropology, Atlanta 30322) with a snail mail address, I’ll send you a copy. But be forewarned that it’s a very challenging book.


    Dr. K

  3. Logan and Sarah shared something in addition to talent, motivation, and a strong work ethic. They had the same inspiring and demanding teacher, Annette Lewis. Humans teach; they are persistent and devoted to teaching in a way no other species can match. When a student is lucky enough to have a truly gifted teacher, that student is guided, cajoled, dared, and challenged to recruit and refine her abilities and to create meaning in the process. The spiraling, interwoven contributions of genes and environment in the teacher-student relationship defies easy analysis and is beautiful in its complexity and success.

  4. Mel Konner says:

    Dear Ann,

    So beautifully said, so obviously true!



    PS: Ann is Logan’s mom and Sarah’s stepmom, and never was a more devoted dance mom ever born. But as for Annette Lewis, she is a genius as a teacher, and teaching is indeed a hallmark of humanity.

  5. Jack Davis says:

    I will take advantage of your very generous offer. I do live in California, so it might be a while before I get it, but I do look forward to reading it. A nice change of pace from the accounting/tax textbooks I’ve been studying.

    Best wishes,
    Jack Davis

  6. Travis says:

    It seems to me that the argument between genetics and environment changes slightly when time is removed from the equation. We now know that our genes are simply–or rather not so simply–a collection of mutations which remained in the gene pool due to environmental influences. Therefore our genes are the accumulated environments of our ancestors. We each carry unique summations of these environments in our genes plus our current environment.

    Our ancestral environments may have required our ancestors to develop infinitely various skills. The environmental memories stored in our genes were mingled over thousands of generations, and we can see the current end-products in each individual today.

    So it seems our ability to allow development and expression of our ancestral environment guided genes through behavior is limited only by the environment we find ourselves in today. Ever so often, perhaps serendipitously, people like Mozart or Einstein are put in precisely the appropriate environment for their genes to flourish to their great potential. Meanwhile, the vast majority of us are stuck trying to fit our squares into circles. Therefore, I guess the only solution is to try as many environmental variations as possible until we find the most comfortable fit.

  7. Mel Konner says:

    Dear Travis,

    Wonderful comment! Sorry I missed it until now. I agree with all that you say, which I can’t say very often : )

    All life is order, which means resistance to entropy and random degeneration. Life accomplishes this resistance by accumulating information about the environment that can be used to elude “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” It stores this information first of all in strings of DNA and RNA, then in stable modifications of networks of excitable cells (ultimately, brains), then in social systems, then in culture. It’s all about responding to the environment on one time scale or another.

    I also agree that Mozart and Einstein were lucky enough to be born in the right times and places, without which one might have been plucking brilliantly but anonymously on a thumb piano under an African sky, and the other just exceptionally good at reckoning raft voyages by the stars. Each of their actual lives was a series of events of vanishingly small likelihood, but each began, as you say, with a rare and extraordinarily favorable concatenation of genes born into exactly the right place at the right historical moment (and in Mozart’s case with exactly the right father).

    The rest of us, as you say, are just hoping for the right fit, the one that will make us into the best version of ourselves that we can possibly be. Here’s hoping you find yours.

    Thanks for writing,


  8. Freda says:

    My dad was actually the one who came across your blog, and I find it fitting in some ways given this post. My parents always held the ideal that if they poured their energies and resources into providing the widest possible range of opportunities (thus environments?) for my sister and I, that we would one day find our unique ways of succeeding.

    Like your daughter, my sister and my chosen paths of terrestrial ecologist and physician/musician, respectively, were not quite expected paths following the shoes of a businessman and statistician/linguist-turned-housewife. Nonetheless, it makes me wonder if subtle characteristics that drive our approach to life and share with our parents – whether genetically determined or taught through environment/circumstance – led us down our chosen paths.

    Maybe genetically defined characteristics like height and physique limit our future career choices, but sometimes I wonder how much things like rhythm, coordination, memory, perseverance (or stubbornness?), etc. are trained versus genetically determined. Granted, some individuals seem to require less “training” than others, and this is perhaps what we consider genius. I question, though, how much of genius is simply an artificial construct describing early successes that resulted from the serendipitous activation of random “impressionable” neural circuits in a child by some combination of environmental exposures.

    Perhaps my parents’ approach was right — exposure to as many environments as possible increases the chance that you will find that best version of yourself, and hopefully make use of those genetics that we have yet to completely understand. There remains the question of those students who you speak of (who fail repeatedly despite their repeated attempts), though. Have these individuals simply not yet found their proper environment or are we imposing too strict of a definition of success on them? I’m not sure if the whole genetics vs environment debate, regardless of new contributions to it each day, will ever be able to clearly resolve that…

    • Mel Konner says:

      Dear Freda,

      Thanks for this very good comment. I decided I had to write a new blog to answer it properly!


  9. diana says:

    “But: I do understand the dangers in today’s gene-soaked culture. I endorse the need to encourage every child to be every thing she can be. I did that with my children, and I do it every time a struggling student comes into my office. I have yet to tell a single one “you can’t do this,” and I won’t.”

    Again, sorry for being late to the discussion.

    I agree that our society has become obsessed with genes. That said, I’d definitely discourage most boys (and all girls) not to become professional boxers. They don’t have the genes, and they could become brain-damaged.

    Am I making a frivolous point just to argue? No. I’m a big sports fan; it’s a huge part of our society. If you are a kid from a poor neighborhood sports is still for many the only viable ticket out.

    I am making a point that the “be all you can be movement” is a very middle-class one that reflects middle-class concerns and preoccupations. It’s one thing to try to pass the bar exam and fail. It’s another thing to get your head handed to you in a physical competition.

    Or is it?

  10. Mel Konner says:

    Dear Diana,

    I think it hurts either way. But your point is very, very well taken. I remember I once was a guest on a popular local radio show with an African-American host and a predominantly African-American audience. It so happened that I followed a segment about the sports aspirations of African-American boys. Well, this talk show host read the riot act to all those who encourage those boys to give up all other aspirations in order to nurture vain hopes of huge success in professional sports. He said in no uncertain terms that not one in a thousand of those who give up so much for those goals will reach them. Who is doing those 999 boys a favor? The coach who says, “Reach for the stars, you might be an NBA star even at 6’2”? Or the math teacher who says, “Back up your sports dreams with a decent math grade. You have the real potential to be an accountant or math teacher”? In my travels, I’ve seen “You can be anything you want to be” do a lot of harm to a lot of kids. How about, “Let’s talk about how to make what you have a good chance to be meet up with some of your dreams.”?

    Thanks for your thoughtful message,


  11. Jana Muschinski says:

    I just recently discovered this blog because of my interest in the Emory Anthropology Department (I am currently a senior in high school in the process of applying), hence the very late comment.

    In my psychology class we read an article by the name of “Do Parents Really Matter?” by Annie Murphy Paul, and though not a very complex article, it asked some interesting questions regarding the effects of environment and genetics on personality. One section was about a psychologist by the name of Judith Rich Harris, who argues that it is the peer socialization part of environment, not the parents, which is more instrumental in the shaping of personality. Harris says that our behavior depends on our surroundings, and that eventually our “peer presented” personality trumps our “home personality.” She goes to the extreme of arguing that everyone would still be the same if all of the parents were switched around, as long as peer groups remained the same.

    Though an interesting idea, I have got to say that I strongly disagree with this. After all, our parents are the ones who originally impress upon us the importance of values and encourage traits such as a strong work ethic. I feel that what we are taught by our parents constitutes the basis of parts of our personalities such as the moral reasoning process we use. Though teenagers are more likely to be rebellious (and this is usually because of peer groups), I think that peers only overshadow parenting in this one developmental stage, and not even for everyone.

    The last paragraph of your blog, especially the following sentence, really made me stop and think for a moment.
    “Finding a clear genetic influence can be the first step in finding an environmental fix—a diet, a medication, a specific learning program”
    You mentioned that we live in an era that is very focused on genetics, but does finding a clear genetic influence necessarily meant that we should try to find a way to change it? I agree that we should use the environment to maximize on genetic potential, but I think there are some issues that come up if we start trying to change too many things. For example, if a “gay gene” was found, there would inevitably be scientific attempts with the final goal being to make a gay person straight. A gay friend of mine mentioned a while back that he would not be happy if such a gene were found because people would try to “fix” him. How far is too far when modifying genetics with environment?


  12. Mel Konner says:

    Dear Jana,

    You are obviously a very thoughtful person (I answered your comment on “Human Nature in High Places” as well) and I hope to see you at Emory. Judith Harris created quite a stir in the 1990s with her view about parents, and the reason was that it was not easy to refute. Most of the environmental impact in most genetic studies of personality, intelligence, etc., turns out to be the environment making siblings different from each other. Most of the similarity between siblings is explained by genetic factors. This suggests that parents, hard as we try to influence our children and treat them similarly, don’t have a big impact.

    This view is subject to some technical criticisms–for example, parents’ behavior may not be different enough from one family to another in the kinds of studies Harris talks about. Also, parents, by choosing their children’s neighborhoods, churches, schools, etc., have a big influence on the peer groups children are exposed to, and which Harris finds to be so important. I continue to believe, like you, that parents give children an important foundation, but I think that what we learned from Harris’s work is that many parents are taking too much credit or blame for things that are also highly influenced by genes and peers.

    Best wishes and thanks for your comment,

    Dr. K

Leave a Reply