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5.0 out of 5 stars Well written, with a vital message
"This book is not a dispassionate presentation of all scientific points of view. Instead it embraces the arguments of the Interactionists, whose views I came to trust most after much reading, conversation and consideration."(p. 148)
So writes David Shenk in The Genius in All of Us, and true to his word he is. Shenk's book is not a strictly scientific...
Published on April 21, 2010 by Marcus Anthony
46 of 55 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Neo-Lysenkoism for dummies
"Sophisticated people sneer at feel-good comedies and saccharine romances in which all loose ends are tied and everyone lives happily ever after. Life is nothing like that, we note, and we look to the arts for edification about the painful dilemmas of the human condition. Yet when it comes to the science of human beings, this same audience says: Give us schmaltz!"-Steven...
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77 of 90 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well written, with a vital message,
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This review is from: The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong (Hardcover)
"This book is not a dispassionate presentation of all scientific points of view. Instead it embraces the arguments of the Interactionists, whose views I came to trust most after much reading, conversation and consideration."(p. 148)
So writes David Shenk in The Genius in All of Us, and true to his word he is. Shenk's book is not a strictly scientific investigation of intelligence or giftedness, but a personal presentation for the case that intelligence is highly malleable, and that it emerges from the interaction of genes and environment. His case differs from many mainstream representations of intelligence in that he finds environment plays a far greater role than many intelligence theorists acknowledge. Intelligence, states Shenk, is a process, more so than a discrete entity which sits in the physical structure of the brain. He writes:
"...intelligence isn't fixed. Intelligence isn't general. Intelligence is not a thing. Intelligence is a dynamic, diffuse and ongoing process." (p.42)
So, David Shenk does not even attempt to be even-handed, and barely addresses the criticisms to the interactionist position. Some readers won't like the book for that reason.
I had no problem with reading the book. There is no law which says that a non-fiction book has to take a critical approach to its own thesis. If you are looking for a look at the arguments from multiple perspectives, this is not the book for you. You might instead try Howard Gardner's Intelligence: Multiple Perspectives, or Ken Richardson's brilliant little book, The Making of Intelligence (though both books largely comply with Shenk's position). These are very readable and concise volumes.
Personally, I liked The Genius in Us All a great deal, and no doubt this reflects the fact that I agree with Shenk's essential argument. I have spent many years investigating cognitive development, including researching and practicing "learning how to learn", accelerated learning, intelligence theory, and neural plasticity. On top of this I have explored other ways of knowing, including the meditative and intuitive. Many years ago my older brother (who just happened to nick-name me "Dope" as a child - children are cruel!) was diagnosed with some mental problems. He was given an intelligence test. His IQ attribution was about half of the score I have been assigned in such tests, and it struck me that genetics are probably a poor explanation for the very different adults we had turned out to be. As a child, my brother had no interest in the scholastic at all, while I was obsessed with reading and writing. Later I developed myself further through years of mental work. I have come to strongly believe that mental ability is far more malleable than what is popularly depicted in mainstream science and the mass media. Given this, I am very sympathetic to Shenk's argument.
The Genius in All of Us is well written. Shenk's writing style is highly lucid, and he embellishes his ideas with interesting examples from real-life case studies. The book is divided into two sections. The first is some 130 pages of easy-to-read prose, which outlines Shenk's thesis, without the interruption of excessive references and quotations. These he leaves for the second half of the book. Those who wish to follow up with a more critical investigation of the subject, can proceed to this section after completing the first. Personally, I found the second half just as fascinating, but many may wish to conclude with the first. In short, The Genius is an excellent layman's account of the argument for the plasticity of intelligence. Shenk's enthusiasm for the subject shines through on all pages, and so I give it five stars. It achieves exactly what it sets out to do.
David Shenk believes that the concept of "g" (IQ), may have developed from the fact that western education teaches the very abilities that IQ tests test for. The entire IQ game then become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as those who work hard and succeed in the education system then test higher in IQ assessment. An interesting aside, although Shenk does not state this himself, is that the success of Asians in IQ tests can probably be attributed (in part) to the endless schooling and tests they do in their exceedingly rote-centred education systems (I have taught in Asia for ten years at all levels of the system). In this sense, IQ tests may reflect academic achievement as much as innate intelligence.
Shenk does not dismiss genetics and natural ability altogether as contributing to human intelligence. He simply states that their contribution is overstated. Something as complex as intelligence cannot be attributed, reductionist style, to the micro-processes within cells. Shenk quotes Cambridge university psychologist Patrick Bateson as saying that genes:
"...store information coding for the amino acid sequences of proteins... That is all. They do not code for parts of the nervous system and they certainly do not code for particular behavior patterns." (p. 21)
Hard work, discipline and self-sacrifice lie at the heart of many a story of "genius", Shenk finds. Amongst many examples, the author refers to the biography of Mozart, whose life is often cited as an example of innate giftedness. In fact, according to Shenk, Mozart was exposed to an extraordinarily stimulating musical environment almost from the moment he was born; and thus his remarkable achievements were at least in part a function of the environment in which he was raised, not to mention his extreme dedication to his chosen profession.
A related point raised by Shenk is that some evidence suggests children diagnosed as "gifted" rarely go on to be adult creators of note. Citing research from Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, Shenk argues that a belief that intelligence is innate, rather than an interactive process, actually retards the full development of ability. Those with an interactionist perspective of intelligence tend to be far more intellectually ambitious and successful. (p. 235). It may be an irony that thinking you are born smart makes you dumb - well, dumber than you might otherwise have been. Further, child prodigies can become "frozen into expertise", and turn into risk avoiders. In short, their capacity for innovation is reduced by attitudes which emerge from their childhood self-concept and worldview. The reverse side of this coin is where people believe that they have an innate lack of intelligence and ability, and don't even try to express their potential capacities.
One recurring reference in The Genius is that of the Flynn effect - the fact that IQ scores are increasing about three points per generation. A fascinating statistic is that ninety-eight per cent of IQ test takers do better today than their counterparts did in 1900. Shenk rightly points out that if intelligence is purely genetic, IQ scores should remain stable from generation to generation. Clearly then, there is something important happening here. Shenk puts it down to the demands of modern education, and the fact the industrial and information society demand the development of a greater cognitive complexity, especially in the workplace. Increased leisure time may be another factor, including the influence of radio, television and the internet placing increasing demands on the intellect. Shenk also argues that dominant concepts within society help facilitate the expansion of intelligence. Recent centuries have seen the emergence of the idea of evolution, and the development of abstract thought, and the deep questioning of information. Flynn himself described the generations expansion of intelligence as a "cultural transition from pre-scientific to post-scientific thinking", and that it represented "nothing less than the liberation of the human mind." (p.36) These culturally mediated shifts in thinking are deeply ingrained in western populations today, but this was not always the case.
Another strong theme in the book is that genes do not encode for intelligence, and that the function of genetics in intelligence theory has been overstated (and in many other domains of inquiry). This oversell has occurred both in scientific and popular circles.
Personally, I would go even further than Shenk in the evaluating the implications of intelligence as malleable process.
Shenk states that the developmental paradigm "will... require not just a new intellectual leap, but also a moral, psychological, and spiritual leap." (p. 95) He cites biological, economic, cultural, nutritional, parental, and ecological" influences on cognitive development." (p.95). Quoting neuroscientists Mark H. Johnson and Annette Karmiloff-Smith, Shenk finds that cognitive development "is an activity-dependent process at the molecular, cellular, and organismal levels involving probabilistic epigenisis (biodirectional relatio0ns between genes, brain and behavior)." (p. 106)
Shenk is right to point out (citing McGill's Michael Meaney) that the intracellular environment (within cells) emerges from the genetic makeup of the cell and the extracellular environment (e.g. hormones, the immune system, neurotransmitters and nutrients), and that these in turn are influenced by the individual environment (p. 159). Neurotransmitter and hormonal activity, for example, are influenced by social interactions.
Yet beyond all these regulators of cognitive development there is the domain of "motivation", and this is what really fascinates me. Shenk addresses human intention briefly, but does not explore it depth, preferring to leave it as a kind of mystery. The author quotes Ellen Winner as saying that creators have a desire to shake things up, and are restless, rebellious, and dissatisfied with the status quo. They are "courageous and independent" (p. 226) But where do such qualities come from? It is here that mainstream science is at its weakest, and quite surprisingly, Shenk also.
At this juncture we begin to address the intangible, qualitative domains of consciousness, and ultimately the "spiritual". What is it that drives a person to dedicate the "magic" figure of 10 000 hours to develop his/her genius to a level of mastery?
Shenk has stretched the dominant paradigm -but I believe that it will be stretched even more in the coming decades and centuries, and that eventually it will "bust". Constricted by an overly reductionist model of mind and biology, Shenk stops enticingly short of expanding into the real frontiers of human intelligence - consciousness itself. He states that "any individual gene or environmental event produces an effect only by interacting with other genes and environments." (160, my italics) In other words intelligence is only ever gene or environment mediated. This is an unnecessary delimitation.
For example, he writes:
If genes are merely the bricklayers, where's the foreman. Where's the architect?
Amazingly, there's no architect. Like ant colonies, galaxies, and other complex emergent systems, the human body is a dynamic assembly abiding by certain strict laws of science but not following any master set of instructions. The outcome is a function of the ingredients and the process. (p. 159)
It appears that Shenk sees ontogeny (individual development) as an essentially random process, parroting the very worldview of the mechanistic views of mind and body that he seeks to discredit. This is an almost inexplicable contradiction to Shenk's a central tenet of his main thesis - that motivation is a prime driver in the development of intelligence and genius.
The next great step in the examination of intelligence will incorporate an expansion of the understanding of consciousness itself (though this may be a long way off). At one level, for example, we have human intention - the myriad of thoughts and emotional energies that run through the mind, generated both consciously and unconsciously by the individual. Thinking affects physiology, and in turn, the expression of genetic potential. So, first-person thought, or human intention will have to be added to the genetic and environmental mediators of intelligence that Shenk refers to . This is just common sense, and a surprising omission from Shenk's thesis.
Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. Increasing evidence points to the fact that consciousness, like intelligence, is not a discrete entity which exists in finite brains, but is a system of information (much as I hate the word, I cannot think of a better one) which transcends the brain. There is no physicalist framework which adequately accommodates this expression of mind. Ultimately we will need to incorporate the concept of consciousness fields.
It won't be long before the whole book has to be re-written. In just one recent paper published in Nature (463, 644-647 -4 February 2010). Elisabetta Collini and other scientists presented evidence " that long-range quantum coherence between molecules can... be sustained in complex biological systems." The evidence is only going to become greater, and it won't be confined to cellular biology. Once it is established that "environment" incorporates consciousness fields that extend (theoretically) into infinite space (and beyond), the entire field of cognitive development, indeed cognitive science, will have to expand massively beyond its currently narrow confines. Once that happens, David Shenk's thesis will not appear so outrageous - in fact it will appear relatively conservative.
Flynn saw the development of scientific thinking as liberation from pre-scientific thinking. But the liberation is not yet complete. This recent "critical rationality" (as I call it) will eventually be enhanced by an intelligence which embraces the transrational intellect, and which incorporates brain-transcendent cognition - or what I call "integrated intelligence".
Still, one cannot blame David Shenk for simply "nibbling" at the periphery of the frontiers of human intelligence. As futurist John Naisbitt has commented, if you get too far ahead of the parade, nobody will be able to see you. No doubt I've lost a few readers since the beginning of this review!
David Shenk is correct. A whole new definition of intelligence will soon be required, and he has done a noble job in getting the ball rolling.
Marcus T. Anthony (PhD), author of the novel "The Mind Reader"; and "Extraordinary Mind"
46 of 55 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Neo-Lysenkoism for dummies,
This review is from: The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong (Hardcover)
"Sophisticated people sneer at feel-good comedies and saccharine romances in which all loose ends are tied and everyone lives happily ever after. Life is nothing like that, we note, and we look to the arts for edification about the painful dilemmas of the human condition. Yet when it comes to the science of human beings, this same audience says: Give us schmaltz!"-Steven Pinker
1. MISUNDERSTANDING HERITABILITY
In the first chapter of The Genius in All of Us David Shenk writes that Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein (henceforth, M&H), the authors of The Bell Curve, "fundamentally misinterpreted a number of studies, becoming convinced that roughly 60 percent of each person's intelligence comes directly from his or her genes." For at least two reasons, this claim is not a very auspicious start for a book that purports to challenge the vast research literature showing that genetic differences are important determinants of success. Firstly, no such claim is made anywhere in The Bell Curve. On the contrary, M&H write (p. 106) that "heritability describes something about a population of people, not an individual. It makes no more sense to talk about the heritability of an individual's IQ than it does to talk about his birthrate." Secondly, the fact that Shenk nevertheless thinks that M&H's thesis is that "60 percent of each person's intelligence comes directly from genes" indicates that Shenk does not understand what it means to say, as M&H do, that the HERITABILITY of a trait is such and such.
Heritability is a measure of the extent that DIFFERENCES among individuals have genetic causes, not a measure of the extent that genes have contributed to any individual's ontogenic development. For example, the heritability of height is at least 80 percent in first world countries, but that does NOT mean that 80 percent of any person's (or the average person's, as Shenk appears to interpret it) height is due to genes and the remaining 20 percent due to the environment. Heritability is a population statistic indicating the causes of VARIATION between individuals. Shenk doesn't understand this, and his discussion of genes and environments throughout the book is seriously handicapped by this fundamental mistake. Unfortunately, this is far from being the only instance of conceptual misunderstanding and misrepresentation in the book.
2. OVERSTATING GENOTYPE-ENVIRONMENT INTERACTION
Shenk continues by claiming that M&H are mistaken because they are unaware of genotype-environment interactions (GxE for short). This assertion would undoubtedly have surprised the late Richard Herrnstein who wrote about GxE at least as far back as in his 1973 book I.Q. in the Meritocracy, but let's leave that aside for the moment. Shenk writes that there's recently been a revolution in genetics: scientists used to think that genes cause phenotypes deterministically and in exactly the same way across all environments, but now they have realized that phenotypes in fact develop through complex interactions between genes and environments, or GxE. This account of the history of genetics is, of course, farcical, and bears no resemblance to reality. There's been no such revolution, and geneticists (as well as the general public) have always understood that interactions between genes and environment are crucial for the development of phenotypes. I'll write more about Shenk's bizarrely distorted view of the history of genetics later in this review, but I'll give one illustrative example here. He cites a 1957 study by Stanford anatomist William Walter Greulich which found that Japanese Americans grew up to be considerably taller than their cousins in the old country. Shenk suggests that Greulich was mystified by this result, but if you read the actual study, you'll see that Greulich sensibly attributed the difference to better nutrition in America. Astonishingly, Shenk appears to think that just about everybody was unaware of the link between malnutrition and stunted growth even as recently as the 1990s.
Over the last century, there have always been people who have maintained that it's a mistake to speak of nature and nurture as independent forces or to wonder whether it's genes or the environment that is more important in determining human differences. Joining this long line of people who don't understand quantitative and behavioral genetics, Shenk asserts that both genes and environment are needed and that it's wrong to speak of them as separate sources of influence. This is, of course, true and self-evident in a certain sense: an organism cannot exist if it doesn't have both a genome and an environment. Moreover, some individuals are, inevitably, born and raised in more favorable environments than others. However, this sort of GxE interaction poses no problems for quantifying the independent effects of genes and environment because heritability is not estimated at the level of an individual but rather at the population level. If you look at a single individual, trying to disentangle the effects of the environment and genes in producing a particular phenotype is indeed often a hopeless task. That's why quantitative geneticists step back from a single individual and instead look at a representative sample of individuals, asking whether similarities and differences in genotypes and environments correlate with phenotypic similarity among them. In animal and plant research, environments and genotypes can be directly manipulated (by using inbred strains and controlled environments, for example) in order to estimate heritability whereas in human research natural experiments (such as twinning and adoption) are utilized.
M&H noted in The Bell Curve that the more equal the environmental circumstances in America get, the more strongly differences in intelligence will be determined by genes. Shenk writes that they're mistaken and don't understand how genes work. Here as in many other places in the book, one wonders at the size of David Shenk's ego. He thinks that until recently, almost nobody doing research on these topics realized any of the simple ideas he presents in his book. Had he actually bothered to familiarize himself with the research on which M&H draw, he would have understood that the claim of greater importance for genes in more equal environments is a truism. It follows from the fact that at the population level genetic and environmental sources of variation are complements: when one decreases, the other increases, and vice versa. Thus if (trait-relevant) environmental variation decreases in society, then genetic variation will, by mathematical necessity, determine a larger share of phenotypic variation.
So, it's trivially true that both genes and environments are needed, and that some environments are better for everyone than others. GxE in this sense does not pose great problems for behavioral genetic analysis. However, there is a special sense in which GxE may complicate heritability estimation. This is when the same environment affects different genotypes differently, or, to put it another way, if the sensitivity of different genotypes to the same environment varies. This is usually referred to as 'statistical GxE' to differentiate it from the common, trivial GxE discussed above. Statistical GxE concerns such questions as whether genotype G1 is superior to genotype G2 universally, that is, across all known environments, or whether there are environments where G2 is less inferior, equal or even superior to G1. For example, it could be that in environment E1 individuals with G1 will have a higher phenotypic value P than those with G2, whereas in environment E2 the rank order of individuals on P will be reversed. If strong GxE interaction effects in the statistical sense are present, then it will indeed be impossible to give a meaningful answer to the question of the relative importance of genes and the environment, and heritability estimates may become biased (depending on the research design).
The book discusses a famous example of statistical GxE, the Cooper and Zubek rat study. This old study from the 1950s is often cited because there are very few, if any, other comparable examples of statistical GxE in the literature. Cooper and Zubek had two inbred strains of rats, one of them "maze-bright", the other "maze-dull." They found that the bright rats beat the dull ones in a maze task when both were reared in a normal environment, but the two strains performed similarly when both were reared in either restricted or enriched environments. Shenk interprets this study as a seminal confirmation of GxE. However, in their paper Cooper and Zubek warn against making strong interpretations of the results until the study is replicated. Among other things, they note that the maze task may have been too easy to differentiate between the two strains in the enriched condition; if one of the strains was actually brighter, it could not have been detected. Tellingly, Cooper and Zubek's results have never been reproduced.
The fact that it's theoretically possible that statistical GxE is an important source of individual differences does not mean that it actually is. Whether statistical GxE effects exist for any particular trait is an empirical question. Behavioral genetic research on a wide range of cognitive, personality, and other human traits indicates that statistical GxE is at best a trivial source of variation, accounting for at most a few percent of population variation, and that it therefore cannot bias heritability estimates. For example, twin and adoption studies have demonstrated that statistical GxE effects for IQ are either very small or non-existent. However, the most powerful and direct refutation of the idea that statistical GxE interactions bias estimates of IQ heritability has come from recently developed DNA-based methods of heritability estimation. These new studies show incontrovertibly that the contribution of additive genetic effects to IQ variation is around 50 percent (and this figure is certainly an underestimate of total heritability because the method ignores the effects of rare genetic variants, dominance, and epistasis). The heritability of IQ in childhood is about 40 percent, and it increases linearly with age, reaching about 80 percent in adulthood. These estimates are not biased by any statistical GxE effects. (While it is less relevant for the sorts of phenotypes Shenk's book deals with, there is one domain of human behavior where some evidence exists for substantial statistical GxE effects. A handful of studies have indicated that there are mental and behavioral disorders, e.g., depression, whose occurrence may, to some extent, be dependent on interactions between vulnerable genotypes and bad environments.)
Characteristically, Shenk does not realize that the term GxE is (admittedly confusingly) used in the genetics literature in these two different, "common" and "statistical", technical senses and that the implications of the two are very different. After discussing the rat study, he lists other examples of GxE, such as how temperature around eggs determines the sex of turtles and snakes, or how the color of a grasshopper's skin is influenced by the environment. However, these other examples are just ordinary environmental effects that have nothing to do with statistical GxE. For Shenk, GxE is a buzzword that needs not be precisely defined and can mean just about anything. At times the book's claims about GxE are so expansive that it appears, as one commentator put it, that Shenk would be genuinely surprised if his own children looked anything like him or had any mental traits in common with him.
3. FUNHOUSE VERSION OF THE HISTORY OF GENETICS
The most curious thing about Shenk's book is how he has managed to get the history of genetics so wrong. For example, in his discussion of several works published in the 1990s, he claims that the authors attribute such a large role to genes in behavioral differences only because in the 1990s no one knew about interactions between genes and environment. However, the idea of GxE interaction (in the non-statistical sense) was formally introduced by the German zoologist Richard Woltereck in 1909. He called it the norm of reaction, and it has long been covered in standard textbooks. The absurdity of the claim that GxE in this sense was unknown in the 1990s becomes apparent when one considers that it would suggest that in the 1990s scientists, not to mention the general public, did not understand that, say, crop yields could be improved with fertilizers and pesticides.
The first investigation into GxE in the statistical sense was R.A. Fisher's 1923 experimental study on the effects of different manurial treatments on several varieties of potato. He concluded that there was no statistical GxE (he called it "non-linear interaction of environment and heredity"). Fisher always maintained that statistical GxE effects were unimportant because they were so rare. The case for the importance of statistical GxE was first made by the British zoologist Lancelot Hogben in the 1930s. He drew particularly on a study of fruit flies that showed evidence of (weak) statistical GxE. In contrast to Fisher, Hogben conjectured that statistical GxE effects are widespread in nature, making it an important third source of population variation besides genes and the environment. Later scientific disputes about GxE, such as the IQ debate of the 1970s in which Richard Lewontin, David Layzer, and others were pitted against Arthur Jensen, were essentially reprisals of the original Hogben-Fisher debate, with little more empirical evidence to back up the notion that statistical GxE could be important for human behavioral differences. As noted above, research since the 1930s has amply vindicated Fisher's skepticism about the practical significance of statistical GxE. Books about how everybody can be smarter and better than the average usually draw heavily on the arguments of Lewontin et co., but Shenk's doesn't because he seems to be almost completely oblivious to this long intellectual history, laboring as he is under the misconception that GxE was discovered in the 1990s or so.
Far from being some new revolutionary idea, GxE has been in the conceptual toolbox of geneticists ever since the beginnings of the science. Some vulgar Mendelians of the early 20th century may have had ideas of strictly deterministic genes, but Shenk's argument that this was the reigning orthodoxy in behavioral and developmental genetics until recently is utterly absurd.
4. THE FALLACY OF "DELIBERATE PRACTICE"
Shenk is infatuated with Anders Ericsson's theory of "deliberate practice", according to which the amount and quality of practice determines who will or will not excel in any given field, and innate differences have almost nothing to do with it. Shenk writes that the trick to becoming an expert or a top performer is to be extraordinarily motivated, unfazed by disappointment and lack of progress, and able to delay instant gratification. But this is simply a description of what high achievers are like. It says nothing about WHY they are like that. Just giving a name like deliberate practice to something that high achievers do doesn't explain anything. To think it does is the nominal fallacy.
Shenk writes that not only is it possible to become a high achiever in any field by practicing for 10,000 hours, but also that it is not possible to do it in less time. He cites research on chess players by Guillermo Campitelli and Fernand Gobet who indeed found that titled chess masters needed an average of about 10,000 hours to reach that level. However, note the word 'average' there. Shenk has fallen for the ecological fallacy, that is, making inferences about individuals based on the aggregate properties of the group to which they belong. Campitelli and Gobet have also found that there's a lot of individual variation in how much practice is needed to achieve master level in chess. Some players reach that level in as few as 3,000 hours of practice, whereas others need much more than 10,000 hours. Still others fail to reach master level even after 30,000 hours. The same pattern holds everywhere, not just in chess: some learn things much easier and much quicker than others.
Shenk cites an article by Anders Ericsson published in The International Journal of Sport Psychology where it is claimed that with the exception of body size, genetic differences do not contribute to elite sports achievement. He doesn't cite the article by Klissouras and colleagues, published in the same issue of the same journal (Vol. 38, Issue 1), who report, drawing on twin studies, that "individual differences in most functional abilities, morphological characteristics, motor attributes, personality and cognitive traits linked to superior sport performance are substantially influenced by genetic factors" and that "genetic influence is so ubiquitous and persuasive that we ask not what is heritable but what is not heritable." Stubbornly ignoring such confounding genetic variables indicates that one is only interested in promoting an agenda.
The book's account of the development of excellence is purely descriptive, ending where it should properly begin. Why is it that some people have the energy and the will to practice day in and day out, year after year? Are there ways to becoming more conscientious and motivated? Why do some people reach a top level of performance so much faster that others who work equally hard? Why are there large differences among top performers in any field, independent of the amount of practice? Most of these questions are not even raised in the book.
One of the most replicated and most interesting findings from behavioral genetics is that for IQ, personality, and many other complex traits, heritability increases with age, while the effect of the childhood environment pretty much completely fades away by adulthood. It is believed that this is because genetic differences express themselves only gradually during development, and/or because growing up, people increasingly select environments that better match their natural inclinations, resulting in positive or negative feedback loops. This would tie nicely into Shenk's discussion of how child prodigies often fail to grow up to be high achievers in adulthood, but ignorant as he is of (and hostile to) behavioral genetics, this connection is never made in the book. In general, it's of course expedient for Shenk to ignore the fact that genetic factors become more, not less, important with age, as this finding is difficult to fit together with his overarching interactionist argument.
Charles Murray, who serves as an archetype of the wicked hereditarian in Shenk's book, has argued that the smart and successful are so mainly due to their luck in the genetic lottery, and should therefore be educated in the spirit of noblesse oblige. In contrast, Shenk maintains that genes have little or nothing to do with success, and that anyone who has failed to succeed has only themselves to blame; the successful are simply morally superior. I think Murray's view not only makes much more sense but is also more humane than Shenk's. Where does Shenk think that the personal qualities that he says lead to excellence -- such as perseverance and zeal -- come from? He seems to believe that people freely choose what their personality is like. This presupposes an extent of control over one's own behavior that people simply don't have.
5. UNDERESTIMATING THE POWER OF IQ
The measurement of intelligence is perhaps the greatest success story of psychology. IQ tests are highly reliable instruments measuring a stable human characteristic which has a predictive power stronger and more universal than that of any other social science variable. Shenk grudgingly admits as much, but then argues incoherently that it does not matter and that IQ is in fact highly malleable. The stability of IQ is an empirical fact. To take an extreme example, in a unique study by Ian Deary and colleagues, the correlation between IQ measured at ages 11 and 80 in a Scottish sample was 0.63. With statistical corrections for attenuation and range restriction, the correlation was as high as 0.80, which represents a truly remarkable level of stability over 69 years, especially as IQ is not yet fully developed at age 11 and by age 80 many people suffer from neurodegenerative diseases.
Here, as elsewhere, Shenk is hobbled by his inability to conceptualize things at different levels of analysis. At the level of a particular individual, IQ may indeed show substantial instability, particularly in childhood. The reasons for this are many and include, for example, individual differences in childhood developmental trajectories, accidents of test situation, illnesses and injuries, training effects, and random measurement error in general. However, most people do not experience large score discrepancies between tests, which ensures stability at the population level.
Shenk claims that the large shifts in IQ that some individuals experience mean that we know how to change IQs. This is not correct. Despite much effort, we still do not know how to produce intelligence gains of significant magnitude. We know that test scores may be increased by suitable training, but such coaching does not make people smarter and over time these hollow gains fade away completely. We know that while genetic factors explain the majority of IQ differences, environmental effects play a role, too, but what those effects might be remains a mystery.
The book discusses Hart and Risley's oft-cited study where it was found that children whose parents talk more to them tend to have higher IQs. Shenk is convinced that this correlation represents a causal effect. He quotes the American Psychological Association's 1996 report on intelligence research where it was noted that the results of Hart and Risley's study are causally ambiguous because such correlations may be confounded by genetic effects. Shenk contemptuously dismisses this argument, and asserts that the correlation must be causal because of GxE. It seems that for him, GxE is a magic word that can miraculously convert any correlation into a causal effect, without any need for evidence of causality. The APA report correctly notes that causal interpretations of correlations between IQ and the family environment are difficult to reconcile with evidence from twin and adoption studies. Research shows that after early childhood the shared family environment has a negligible influence on IQ differences, outside of extremes of environmental deprivation. What renders any hypothesis about strong family effects on IQ prima facie implausible is the fact that the IQs of siblings from the same family vary widely, and that the IQs of unrelated people raised together are not more similar than those of two randomly selected people from the same population.
The book also describes Robert Sternberg's "triarchic" intelligence theory. Sternberg's major claim is that IQ tests measure only "academic intelligence", whereas real-life success is dependent on "practical intelligence." In support of this theory, Sternberg has presented evidence showing that, for example, highly experienced manual workers are superior at the sort of mental calculations needed in their jobs than higher-IQ but inexperienced white-collar workers. Shenk asserts that these sort of findings "pose a serious challenge to research psychologists adhering to traditional definitions of intelligence." Of course, he doesn't actually discuss what such research psychologists think about Sternberg's theory.
Perhaps the most thorough refutation of Sternberg's theory was published in issue 4, 2003, of the academic journal Intelligence. In their articles, Linda Gottfredson and Nathan Brody showed that all of Sternberg's findings are explainable in terms of traditional psychometric intelligence theory. They note, for example, that Sternberg's examples of "practical intelligence" represent narrow skills honed through lots of practice. Research has established that general intelligence is very difficult to train, but narrow, task-specific skills and abilities are of course trainable. Shenk himself gives a good example of this in his discussion of the experiment where a man was able to greatly improve his memory for sequences of numbers through intensive practice, but this did not improve his other skills at all, not even the ability to remember sequences of letters. The claim of IQ, or general mental ability, to being a valid operationalization of intelligence rests precisely on the fact that it is not a narrow trained skill but a highly general, context-independent capacity. Higher IQ makes it easier to solve novel problems and to acquire every kind of knowledge and expertise. As a result, those with higher IQs tend to develop a broader and deeper expertise and have careers commensurate with that, with no need to learn skills required in some particular low-skilled job. Sternberg claims that the greater the overlap in the specific skills measured by a test and those needed in a job is, the greater is the test's predictive validity for that job. In fact, the contrary is true: tests of general mental ability with no job-specific content are clearly superior predictors of job performance than tests assessing specific job-related skills.
In his reanalysis of Sternberg's data, Brody dealt a coup de grâce to Sternberg's research program by showing that the intelligence tests Sternberg had developed in order to measure three supposedly independent domains of intelligence were in fact correlated with each other. Damningly, the predictive validity of the tests was entirely a function of the extent that they measured general mental ability.
Shenk asserts that "[i]ntelligence scores of infants are not predictive of future scores or life success." This is a key claim in his critique of IQ, but alas, it's not true. For example, Joseph Fagan and colleagues developed a test of visual memory (which is a pretty good proxy for general mental ability at any age) and then showed in a longitudinal study that the disattenuated correlations of six-to-twelve-month old infants' visual memory skills with adult IQ and academic achievement were 0.59 and 0.53, respectively ("The prediction, from infancy, of adult IQ and achievement." Intelligence, Volume 35, Issue 3, May-June 2007, Pages 225-231). Thus infant test scores do predict adult IQ and achievement. Cognitive inequality is evident already in the cradle.
The book's treatment of the Flynn effect, the observed increase in mean IQ scores across generations, is predictably misinformed. The book appears to argue that the Flynn effect represents an actual increase in intelligence, but statistical analyses show that measurement invariance does not hold in between-generation IQ comparisons. This means that IQ tests do not give unbiased estimates of the IQs of older cohorts when compared to those of younger cohorts. This is somewhat similar to giving an English-language IQ test to a non-native speaker: the obtained IQ score will be downwardly biased and will not reflect the true level of ability. The past is a foreign country in the case of IQ, too. It may be that people have indeed got smarter over the last few generations -- just as the average height has increased -- but this cannot be established based on simple IQ comparisons.
Shenk makes much of the fact that relatively few of the participants in Lewis Terman's classic study of intellectually precocious children made significant creative achievements as adults. He concludes that IQ is thus not associated with creativity. However, as Murray and Herrnstein demonstrated in The Bell Curve, the social and economic value of high cognitive ability increased enormously during the 20th century. Terman's "Termites" were born around 1910, and in those days it was normal for highly intelligent individuals to end up in unremarkable jobs. In the second half of the 20th century the intellectual sorting of American society rapidly intensified as universities and employers started seeking out high ability individuals all over the country. The results of this change can be seen in the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, or the SMPY, an ongoing longitudinal study similar to Terman's but started in 1971 (despite the name, it is not limited only to the mathematically gifted). The results of the SMPY are quite different from Terman's study. What the SMPY has established is that intelligence test scores measured in childhood are robust predictors of later creative accomplishments, including literary works and scientific articles published, PhDs and patents earned, and attainment of tenure-track positions at top research universities.
6. CONFIRMATION BIAS RUN AMUCK
Throughout the book, Shenk's discussion of relevant literature is highly selective and one-sided. He attempts to defend himself by saying that he has a particular viewpoint that he wants to promote and that he relies on those studies and researchers he has found to be the most credible. While I don't mind books making a bold case for something, I think it's reasonable to expect a partisan author to engage the evidence and arguments of the other side and try to refute them. Shenk makes no such attempt. He has not talked to those with views different from his, nor familiarized himself with their work. He misunderstands basic concepts and ideas, constructing straw man versions of opposing arguments to be knocked down. He has simply followed his confirmation bias by seeking out people and studies that lend support to the views he had from the outset. He accepts even the most implausible claims of his favorite authors, while ignoring other views and contrary evidence.
One example is his criticism of the Minnesota Twin Study which found that identical twins separated in infancy grew up to be remarkably similar in numerous ways. He tries to dismiss these results by bringing up the well-worn criticism that many of the twin pairs had been reunited long before the study, arguing that this, rather than shared genes, was what explained the similarities. What he doesn't mention is that the authors of the Minnesota study have responded to this criticism by analyzing whether those twins who had known each other longer were more similar than those who had only recently met. The answer was negative, refuting the criticism. Shenk's criticisms of twin studies are uninformed throughout, and he does not seem to even realize that the results of twin studies have been corroborated by other research designs, such as those based on adoptees and extended kinships.
Shenk repeatedly acclaims that genes are not meaningless, that he's not claiming that humans are blank slates. However, this is mere obfuscation, because the entire book is an attack on the idea that genes are a significant cause of human differences. Shenk's neo-Lysenkoism reaches a crescendo in the last chapter dealing with epigenetics. He claims, among other things, that you can make your future kids innately smarter by being intellectually active. Needless to say, there is no evidence for such an absurd suggestion. In recent decades, cumulating behavioral genetic evidence has dismantled the intellectual edifice of anti-hereditarian thinking. Preposterous, unsupported claims made about epigenetic effects are the last, desperate refuge of this school of pseudo-science.
To sum up, Shenk is hopelessly confused about several key concepts; is astonishingly ignorant of the history of the nature/nurture debate; ignores or misrepresents research that contradicts his claims; places enormous trust on anecdotes and the results of never-replicated experiments; ignores entire research traditions and the best, methodologically most sophisticated studies; and thinks that if he gives a name to a phenomenon he has explained it (i.e., the nominal fallacy). The book is permeated by relentless optimism about human potential but the ideas in it do not support the optimism. Shenk's toxic combination of arrogance and ignorance and the fact that many people have bought into his brand of snake oil make me a bit more pessimistic about humans.
113 of 147 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Gladwellification of Writing,
This review is from: The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong (Hardcover)
Worth reading for a perspective on the debate BUT I call this the Gladwell effect (as in Malcolm). Choose an alluring thesis and ram it home with historical anecdote and a study or two. It makes for an entertaining reading but I couldn't help feel manipulated and skeptical about the writer's fervor. Back in the day, writers felt compelled to present all sides. NOw everything feels so one sided in the service of entertainment.
Plus, the book was very short. More like an magazine piece. Also, if he's going to cite a few scientists over and over, couldn't he have gone to interview them in person? I want to know where they live, who they are, what they look like, how they came to think the way they do....
206 of 271 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Romancing the Brain,
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
Sometimes journalists can make sense of complex scientific topics and sometimes they can't. Unfortunately, in this book, David Shenk falls into the latter category. "The Genius in All of Us" is another example of the romantic fantasy that is gripping some realms of popular psychology and all of public education at the moment (think No Child Left Behind). Yes, human nature is plastic, but it is not as yielding as Shenk would like us to believe. In the real world, our genomes impose tighter constraints. For instance, I doubt that David Shenk has an IQ of 85 which he has re-worked through 10,000 hours of writing practice culminating in the publication of a book.
To be sure, every person can learn and as a result become "smarter." And this process can be optimized through some of the environmental methods Shenk promotes. But the impact of environmental interventions are not nearly as powerful as he implies. The creation of unrealisitcally high expectations can be just as damaging as low expectations to the extent that they result in a mis-match between the individual and the learning strategies that yield the best long-term results. One size does not fit all in the pursuit of maximum potential.
Mr. Shenk's attempt to link epigenetic proccesses to learning capacity is weak, as even he seems to admit. "No one can yet measure the precise implications of these (epigenetic) discoveries, because so little is known (p.129)." Yet, he seems content to generalize like crazy as if the epigenetics knowledge base was robust. He tries to connect the biological dots in his story line with very long, faint, serpentine, dashed lines.
For those of you who read and agree with the general tenor of this book, I urge you to also read Steven Pinker's book on the same topic, "The Blank Slate." Pinker, a Ph.D. psychologist and professor at Harvard, does a much better job of assembling the relevant research and reaching defensible conclusions. Read both books and decide for yourself which is more accurate.
Or simply take a pass on "The Genius in All of Us" as it doesn't offer a realistic or useful perspective on human potential.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An effective deconstruction of hereditary talent, and clues for a new model of exceptional ability,
It is easy to like or dislike this book from a casual reading based on how you feel about the premise: that everyone has the potential for genius, and that heredity is not destiny in any sense.
This sounds at first like a liberal political statement, but Shenk's treatment is far more nuanced than that characterization would imply.
In brief, Shenk's book is a very good deconstruction of hereditary talent, a competent but one-sided (or upon reflection I'll say very selectively focused) review of supporting research in several fields, and an interesting but abbreviated practical introduction to the interactionist (gene X environment) paradigm of development.
Just to be clear, this book is not about the psychometric definition of genius in terms of how far down the bell curve one is on Raven's Progressive Matrices or standardized tests of any sort. Nor is it about clever calculating tricks or precocious abilities, although it does do a very nice job putting those into a larger perspective. This book is more centrally about the expansive and inclusive sense of genius meaning people that accomplish something truly special and significant, and the potential that any given person may be able to get to that point. Somehow. And that's where the nuance is needed and appropriate.
Ok, I didn't like this book all that much when I first read it, and I at first gave it a mediocre 3 star rating on Amazon. I felt it did a great job deconstructing the concept of hereditary talent, but I strongly criticized it for leaving a gap where we need a better theory of where talent comes from and what it is, since obviously we don't all become true geniuses. Even among the folks who appear to have the seeds of genius in them from early on, most don't become genius adults in the broader sense.
In my original review I said this was a one-sided review of the evidence for the interactionist model. I do think it's a very selective review, but one-sided implies that he deliberately ignores contradictory evidence. He doesn't do that. He just doesn't talk about the evidence that led to the model Shenk says is obsolete, that genes are akin to blueprints. That is, the evidence that different variations of allele sometimes have strikingly specific effects in a seemingly "normal" range of environments. The case for the model of heredity that Shenk is deconstructing is not entirely ignored, but it is glossed over in order to make his case for the interactionist model. I think that is why hereditarians like Galton, Spearman, and Charles Murray get so apparently shorted in this book, Shenk focuses entirely on what they get wrong and glosses over the things they may get right. I suspect that we do inherit "predispositions" in some form under a very wide range of conditions, even if the underlying mechanism is more complex than we previously assumed. Even if changes in environments do alter the expression of genes, something like inheritance of traits clearly does happen in a wide range of "normal" environments, and we can't just ignore that completely because of additional complexity and things that change at the extremes. That's why I say this is a very selective review. But no, it isn't really one-sided, the selectiveness is appropriate for a deconstruction, although it does mark this as a deconstruction rather than a scholarly review.
The more important problem is that the model of talent that arises from this book is not particularly easy to understand. The author is strongly against thinking of genes as predispositions, and rather offers the perspective that genes are akin to "settings." So it would be easy to conclude that the author is saying that we have the ability to make anyone a genius just by tweaking a few settings. He isn't. Or, if you read it as I did upon my first reading, you might hear the author saying that "anyone can be a genius, but talent is complicated process, we don't know what is happening at each step, and so we don't know how to help people get there, but we know it's possible." That's perhaps a little closer to the truth, but it didn't seem very helpful to me.
The reason I updated this review and why I'm now expressing more appreciation for David Shenk's accomplishment here is that while the "settings" model of genes doesn't quite convey the message, I did find upon close reading and careful reflection that the author captured a lot with his examples and case studies of individuals. The thing that is missing is some way of tying together how people manage to select and shape environments for themselves to accomplish great things, in spite of all the cultural, social, and physical constraints that tend to make environmental factors very hard to change for most of us. Shenk assiduously avoids attributing "predispositions" to genes, but then speculates that epigenetic factors may predispose us to things like musical ability. If non-genes can do this, why not genes? He just seems a little *too* intent on crushing hereditary talent in some places.
Geniuses don't just see things differently (although that is sometimes also going on), they don't just have unique abilities (although sometimes they do) geniuses are most distinct in that they manage to carve their own niche, exploiting their own uniqueness in a process where they are driven to mastery and are amazingly persistent, even where the goal seems way out of reach. This runs contrary to our popular wisdom that it makes sense to work toward small easily attained goals in most things. What we think of as really deep talent actually requires really deep faith in the long term process and the motivation to keep going. Shenk captures the significance of motivation, but I had to look very closely to see the patterns for it. It requires willingness to do things that others may find bizarre and to learn freely from what is available. The author illustrates this but seems to have a hard time really tying it all together, at least he did on my first reading. I've come to think of it in terms of niche construction, which to me really captures what exceptional people do that brings out and shapes their unique gene x environment combination in a targeted way. My reversal in the rating reflects my feeling that capturing this idea is more important than giving it a catchy name, which is really what the author is missing.
We don't know exactly how to take advantage of the dynamic nature of heredity and development, although the study of achievement and expertise reviewed by Shenk gives us many tantalizing clues to go on. And if knowing that the potential is there inspires the faith to keep going, then more and more of us will eventually learn to become better and better at using our minds, constructing our own niches from our own individuality, and the promise of "The Genius in All of Us" will eventually begin to be realized. There is a lot in this book that will repay careful reading and re-reading, as I discovered by doing exactly that.
See also this classic manifesto of genetic interactionism: The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment(Lewontin R (1998/2000) Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, Environment. Cambridge, MA, Harvard)
This superb earlier popular introduction to the emerging model Shenk offers: The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture(Ridley, The Agile Gene)
This similar treatment of trait development in interactionist terms, but focused on personality: The Temperamental Thread: How Genes, Culture, Time and Luck make Us Who We Are(kagan, temperamental thread)
This alternative and original interactionist account of how personality develops: No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality (Judith rich harris no two alike)
This interesting challenge to some widely help assumptions about influence: Stranger in the Nest: Do Parents Really Shape Their Child's Personality, Intelligence, or Character?(Stranger in the Nest, D. Cohen)
This little known treasure by an old friend that offers its own unique challenges about human uniqueness and what it means: rebellion: physics to personal will (Brody, Rebellion)
This psychometric study of what distinguishes geniuses in terms of personality: Genius: The Natural History of Creativity (Problems in the Behavioural Sciences)
This on the classic view from the perspective of behavior genetics: Genetics and Experience: The Interplay between Nature and Nurture (Individual Differences and Development)(Plomin, Genetics and Experience)
This on the fascinating broader biological implications of interactionism from a gene perspective, how the genes of organisms construct niches even beyond the organism itself: The Extended Organism: The Physiology of Animal-Built Structures(Turner, The Extended Organism)
And finally this wonderful broad account of biology and the role of heredity that appreciates the complexities of gene function in a demanding but uniquely engaging way: The Logic of Life(The logic of life, francois jacob)
46 of 63 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hope that intelligence is a process not a given,
The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong," is a new book by David Shenk, who takes the position that "Talents are not innate gifts but the result of a slow, invisible accretion of skills developed over time." Few are genetically handed greatness, fully formed, and 100% gift wrapped. Even fewer are biologically restricted from attaining greatness.
Nate Colliers blog summarizes the book well:
Intelligence is more a process than a fixed given. The critical difference between success and failure, between achievers and non-achievers, lies with a broken link in their process:
"...non-achievers seem to be missing something in their process--one or more aspects of style of
- intensity of practice, or technique, or
- mindset, or
- response to failure."
Anders Ericsson's powerful concept of deliberate practice** is covered, as well as Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours (from "Outliers": It takes 10,000 hours of work/practice/effort to become good at anything).
"The Genius in All of Us" makes the important point that developing talent should not be left to parents alone, that every society that wishes to strive should foster values that bring out the best in people. The down side of our culture of entitlement is obvious. We promote lottery tickets as the path to prosperity and somehow it has become the unspoken birthright of every American to experience freedom from poverty or want without the responsibility of work. Sort of like the "right" to good health via expensive health care without having to exercise or practice good nutrition habits.
**Deliberate practice, Cliffs Notes version: 1. Focus on technique as opposed to outcome (accept the process), 2. Set specific, measurable, quantifiable goals, 3. Get PROMPT feedback from knowledgeable people; APPLY it immediately.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Whether you agree or disagree, Shenk will make you think,
This review is from: The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ (Paperback)
Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.
One of the most interesting features of this 302-page book (total pages) is that there is only 134 pages of text. There is an 18 page bibliography (pages 279-297), and there is a 138-page "Sources and Notes, Clarifications and Amplifications" section (pages 139-277). There is no index.
Just a note here on the "Sources and Notes. . ." section: Shenk uses 134 pages of text to make his case, and it is engrossing reading. But, if you think "Sources and Notes" would be a long, tedious, boring section of the book, you would be sadly mistaken here. For each and every assertion that Shenk makes in his argument (we'll get to that in a moment), he has a source or note to verify it. This is a highly researched, evidence specific, thoroughly developed argument that is worth every minute you spend with it.
If you are looking for a motivational book that will support all that you do in life, this is where to start. If you think for one moment that you are limited by the genes with which you were born, think again. Shenk claims your genetic heritage may account for only about 50% of your talent, and the other 50% is determined by nurture and your environment. What you do, and how you feel about what you do matters.
If I was looking for support for all of the motivational essays, speeches, articles, and books I have written throughout the years (See, AND THEN SOME WORKS), this would be the book -- and the evidence. What Shenk is saying is that the intensity of your motivation, ambition, persistence, and self-discipline are not genetically determined but are shaped by nurture and environment. Just as you teach children how to take responsibility for their lives, you, too, can have a direct, sustained, ongoing, positive, and productive influence on your own talent and ability. This is good news, and if you don't believe it, read this book, and bathe in the evidence that supports his assertions.
All of the books that have been (and are being) written on neuroplasticity -- "[the] term referring to the ability of the brain and nervous system in all species to change structurally and functionally as a result of input from the environment" -- gain support from Shenk's work. Shenk makes the case for the plasticity of intelligence.
Shenk explains how genes really work, that intelligence is a process not a thing, that talents are not innate gifts "but the result of a slow, invisible accretion of skills," as well as how to be a genius, how to inspire children, how to foster cultural excellence, and how to improve your genes. This is an amazing book!
Having been an advocate of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work on flow, I was delighted to find Shenk referring to Csikszentmihalyi: " . . . intelligence isn't fixed. Intelligence isn't general. Intelligence is not a thing. Intelligence is a dynamic, diffuse, and ongoing process. This finding fits perfectly with the earlier work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and colleagues, who concluded that `high academic achievers are not necessarily born `smarter' than others, but work harder and develop more self-discipline'" (p. 42).
Whether you are a supporter of the interactionist perspective or not, the book will introduce you to the way genius is made. That is especially interesting to read.
I think the author made a superb decision to separate his argument and the evidence used to support his argument. He is an excellent writer, and 134 pages may be all you have to read. I have found that the more technical you become by incorporating all your evidence and references within your narrative turns off more readers than it encourages. Shenk's argument is so well presented, so smoothly offered, and so effective that it should be readable by a large audience -- especially, I might add, educators. Educators are often those prone to picking out and doting upon their brighter students. After reading and absorbing what Shenk has to say may make them think twice about this approach.
The use of examples such as David Beckham, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods, as well as Friedrich Nietzsche, Beethoven, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was delightful information.
Because of Shenk's argument, and because of his emphasis on the interaction between genes, nurture, and environment, I loved the following paragraph: "For deliberate practice to work, the demands have to be serious and sustained. Simply playing lots of chess or soccer or golf isn't enough. Simply taking lessons from a wonderful teacher is not enough. Simply wanting it badly enough is not enough. Deliberate practice requires a mind-set of never, ever, being satisfied with your current ability. It requires a constant self-critique, a pathological restlessness, a passion to aim consistently just beyond one's capability so that daily disappointment and failure is actually desired, and a never-ending resolve to dust oneself off and try again and again and again" (p.55). Talk about motivation to excel!
Now, after writing a paragraph like that, Shenk offers a realistic assessment of what it takes to excel: "It also requires enormous, life-altering amounts of time--a daily grinding commitment to becoming better. In the long term, the results can be highly satisfying. But in the short term, from day to day and month to month, there's nothing particularly fun about the process or the substantial sacrifices involved" (p. 55). Do you wonder why the information in this book -- even when read by those seemingly committed to change -- is likely to go in one ear and out the other?
Oh well. Even if you are familiar with the ideas here, even if you wave off social-science research as bogus, and even if you believe that talent comes primarily from genetic inheritance, this book is a good read. Shenk makes you think -- and that's a healthy thing to do whether you agree or disagree with him. Five stars out of five!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Solid Ideas, Unorthodox Packaging,
Let me start off by saying that I solidly agree with the ideas presented by David Shenk: the human potential for development vastly exceeds our genetic heritage. Shenk's view of human potential dovetails with my own experience in classes in education and psychology and work I have done with children. I very much enjoyed reading this book and hope that it achieves a wide readership -- our country is in desperate need of an expanded understanding of human potential.
However, Shenk has not been well served by his publishers. Less than half of the book is the text proper -- the rest is notes and additional discussion. The problem is that there is no indication in the text (such as a note number) to indicate that additional discussion or elaboration is available. One abruptly reaches the end of the text and is presented with the notes, long after one has passed a passage where additional material would have been instructive. The notes are printed in regular text type and thus are very readable, but they are keyed to quotations and page numbers, which forces the reader to turn back to acquire the complete context. As a result, I skipped the notes -- there is a wealth of material here, but it's inaccessible.
Second, there is no index, which is a major failing in a book of this kind. If you wish to know, for example, whether Shenk discusses Richard Dawkins, you are out of luck unless you page through the entire book and notes peering at every page. There is a wealth of discussion about current research in genetics, education, psychology, athletics, and much, much more -- but locating the discussion of a particular researcher is impossible. This is particularly frustrating because the bibliography seems comprehensive. I cannot imagine the rationale for omitting an index -- if cost were an issue, the notes could have been printed in smaller type to reduce the page count. All this sadly detracts from the usefulness of a very interesting and provocative book.
9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An extreme position, useful only as a counterbalance,
The author makes clear what his goal is in the appendix to this book: to create "a new lingua franca" to discuss human genetics, and to persuade everyone to start using the "helpful new phrases and metaphors" he has provided as a new vocabulary in which to discuss the topic. He claims that there is a group of scientists out there who call themselves "interactionists" who have a formula that they use for a new way to discuss gene-environment interactions, "GxE" ("genes times environment" instead of the old paradigm of "genes plus environment"). The GxE formula, as far as I can tell, comes entirely out of the author's own head; I suppose the author thinks that we, the lay public, will be more likely to believe in the rigor of his new paradigm if he can attach a mathematical formula to it. The formula of course is meaningless, but it is annoyingly repeated over 30 times in a book that is barely over 100 pages: in other words, the author's mechanism to create a "new lingua franca" is to try to beat it into our heads.
This is actually a good metaphor for the book's overall message, which is that many of those we think of as geniuses - Mozart, Beethoven -- became so not by receiving a special gift or message from on high, but by their parents beating something into their head (or their bodies) at a young age. What the parents of these geniuses did to their children, however, would be termed child abuse by 21st century parents. The author does not advocate that we beat children in order to get them to sit at the piano at age 2. What then is he advocating? He cannot really get around the fact that we know that genes play a huge role in determining our individual fates. His ultimate goal is to get us essentially to ignore what we know about genetics and focus on the environment. How to get from what we know to this counter-factual goal?
First, he tries to undermine the most powerful evidence we have of the huge effect of genes, the studies of identical and fraternal twins. Both types of twins share the same environment but the fraternal twins do not share all of their genes. This fact has allowed scientists to make very precise measurements of the effect of genes on a person's intelligence and personality. The author ignores these studies and focuses on the alleged defects of other studies of identical twins raised apart. He claims that the identical twins raised apart actually had more contact with each other than the studies would lead us to believe. But so what? Shenk thinks that pointing this out (and pointing it out again and again, ad nauseum) self-evidently makes his argument for him that genes alone don't make a difference. Without something more, this argument fails. Second, he claims that science has shown that environment plays a huge role in gene expression. He goes so far as to claim that Lamarck was correct in his essential argument and that what we eat, learn, etc. can have an effect on the gene expression of our offspring and their offspring as well. One of his examples is the fact that a cloned calico cat will look nothing like the parent.
All of this is hugely overstated. We know that human genes have some plasticity: gene expression responds and adapts to the environment. We know that this adaptation could last a few generations, but will then usually revert. We know that females have two X chromosomes in each cell and that in order for the organism to function properly one has to be turned off , and in placental mammals the particular X chromosome that is turned off is random. The X chromosome that is turned off is coated with the product of an RNA gene, called X-inactive specific transcript. In other words, it's not the environment that determines which X will be turned off, but the particular random product of genes. In a calico cat each cell will randomly have either an orange fur color gene turned off or a black fur color gene turned off. If you pick just one cell of a calico cat to clone, you are going to get only one or the other, not both, so the clone will not be calico. We also know that diet can affect gene expression, as can cold or heat and many other things. Nothing in this evidence shows that Lamarck was right or disproves the significant body of evidence we have that intelligence and personality are in large measure inherited.
Lost in this maze of dumbed-down science and manipulative language is the fact that we really do not know much about gene-environment interactions. In the face of radical uncertainty our best public policy option as a society is to assume that each individual is infinitely plastic and to try to create learning environments in which humans will have an opportunity to live up to their potential. In part because of the public's belief in deterministic genes, we are too ready to believe that the inner-city child fails because of his innate lack of intelligence, when what we should be focusing on is the poor environment that s/he has grown up in - devoid of encouragement and even of words compared to middle class peers, according to the author -- and doing more to compensate for deficient early environments. What we actually need is a mechanism to allow us to identify and address these deficient environments without being termed racist or paternalistic. On the other end of the scale, those parents who insist on labeling their children as "gifted" by sending them to "gifted" schools or "gifted" summer programs are doing them a disservice because, as established by Carol Dweck, students praised for innate intelligence rather than their effort are afraid to fail. These children won't try new avenues because they are afraid they will be "found out" as "really" no better than anyone else. Finally, those parents who believe that their children are geniuses (just about every upper middle class parent I know) and who chauffeur them around from one activity to another waiting for their gift to descend from the heavens, are also doing these children a disservice. The best thing a parent can do is to be as informed as possible and to encourage a child to focus on a few things at an early age in areas where parents themselves have some talent and can therefore contribute to the child's development. In sum, the book has some valuable things to say in the interstices, but the overall exaggerated environmentalist message is just as wrong as the straw man genetic determinism that the author tilts at, which no scientists actually believe.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good news story for all teachers and educators.,
Shenk: The genius of all of us.
And, the good news is: No-one is genetically doomed to mediocrity!
The great thing about Shenk's book is that it casts out the belief in the immutability of intelligence. I grew up with the concept of "g" (general intelligence) and saw its profound effect on education. It suited stratified societies to continue the myth of "g" but it couldn't explain away drive and motivation. Yong Zhao (2009) also warned of the educational problem of high scores, low ability.
In an equation that acknowledges that intelligence is a function of environment (G X E), the triggers for intelligence growth were identified as:
1. Speaking to children early and often;
2. Reading early and often;
3. Nurturance and encouragement;
4. Setting high expectations;
5. Embracing failure;
6. Encouraging a `growth mindset'. (pp. 39-40)
Suzuki in developing a world famous violin pedagogy, started with a belief that every student has enormous potential, and then with parental support that potential is developed.
Shenk says that at birth the parents of the child have two alternatives:
a. The prodigy that is pushed by narcissistic parents, and then fall back into mediocrity in adulthood; or
b. The emotionally balanced child who will gather skills and develop greatness as an adult. Walter Mischel's marshmallow experiment of delayed gratification is still as relevant today as it was thirty years ago.
Epigenetics is an area of genetic study that is developing, and it claims that the effects of events and trauma can be transferred across generations. John Cloud wrote in Time magazine- Why Your DNA Isn't Your Destiny (January 6, 2010), which shows support for the genetic plasticity theory.
Shenk's contribution to genetics, education and life is his belief in the plasticity of human potential. All educators need to rejoice at this conclusion, and the book should be compulsory reading for all teachers and aspirant teachers.
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The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ by David Shenk (Paperback - March 8, 2011)