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.