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The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong Hardcover – March 9, 2010
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Louann Brizendine Reviews The Genius In All of Us
Louann Brizendine, M.D.,author of The Female Brain and The Male Brain, is a diplomat of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and the National Board of Medical Examiners, and is clinical professor of psychiatry at UCSF. She is founder and director of the Women's Mood and Hormone Clinic and the Teen Girl Mood and Hormone Clinic. After receiving her medical degree from Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, she completed an internship in medicine and neurology at Harvard Medical School's Brigham and Women's Hospital, and a residency in psychiatry at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center of Harvard Medical School. She sits on the boards of many prestigious peer reviewed journals and is the recipient of numerous honors and awards. Read Brizendine's guest review of The Genius In All of Us:
In The Genius in All of Us Shenk beautifully explains why the nature-nurture debate is dead. It is not just the genes we are born with, but how we are raised and what opportunities are open to us that determine how smart we will become. Nurture and experience reshape our genes, and thus our brain. Shenk argues that the idea we are either born with genius or talent, or we aren’t, is simply untrue. The notion that relentless, deliberate practice changes the brain and thus our abilities has been undervalued over the past 30 years in favor of the concept of “innate giftedness.” Practice, practice, practice (some say 10,000 hours or more) is what it takes. Shenk argues that it is just some fantasy that effortless, gifted genius is born and not made. He marshals evidence to show that genetic factors do not trump environmental factors but rather work in concert with them. Shenk notes that by the sweat of our brow we can train ourselves to be successful--even if we are born with only average genetic talent. Scientists know that how we are raised and how we are trained affects the expression of our genes. If you think you’ve reached your talent limit, think again, Shenk says. It’s not just in your genes, he says, but in the intensity of your motivation. 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. He underscores the point that intelligence is made up of the skills that a person has developed--with an emphasis on “developed”--through hard work. Encouraging ourselves and our children to work hard requires being surrounded by others also wanting to achieve striving for excellence. Moreover, Shenk gives the hopeful message not just for kids, but also for adults. Happily for us, the human brain remains plastic, changeable and trainable well into old age. So no matter how old you are, if you’d like to be smarter--get to work! --Louann Brizendine
A Q&A with David Shenk
David Shenk: It is a bold statement, and it reflects how poorly the public has been served when it comes to understanding the relationship between biology and ability. The clichés we’ve been taught about genetic blueprints, IQ, and "giftedness" all come out of crude, early-20th century guesswork. The reality is so much more interesting and complex. Genes do have a powerful influence on everything we do, but they respond to their environments in all sorts of interesting ways. We’ve now learned a lot more about the developmental mechanisms that enable people to get really good at stuff. Intelligence and talent turn out to be about process, not about whether you were born with certain "gifts."
Question: In The Genius in All of Us you state that the concept of nature versus nurture is over. Scientists, cognitive psychologists, and geneticists are moving towards an idea of ‘interactionism.' What does this mean? If the battle of genes versus environment is over, who has won? Which is more important?
David Shenk: They both won, because they're both vitally important. But the new science shows us that they do not act separately. Declaring that a person gets X-percent of his/her intelligence from genes and Y-percent from the environment is like saying that X-percent of Shakespeare's greatness can be found in his verbs, and Y-percent in his adjectives. There is no nature vs. nurture, or nature plus nurture; instead, it's nature interacting with nurture, which is often expressed by scientists as "GxE" (genes times intelligence). This is what "interactionism" refers to. A vanguard of geneticists, neuroscientists, and psychologists have stepped forward in recent years to articulate the importance of the dynamic interaction between genes and the environment.
Question: You describe genes and environment as a sound board. How so?
David Shenk: In the past, we’ve been taught that each distinct gene contains a certain dossier of information, which in turn determines a certain trait; if you have the blue-eyed gene, you get blue eyes. Period.
It turns out, though, that the information contained inside genes is only part of the story; another critical part is how often genes get "expressed," or turned on, by other genes and by outside forces. It’s therefore helpful to think of your genome as a giant mixing board with thousands of knobs and switches. Genes are always getting turned on/off/up/down by hormones, nutrients, etc. People actually affect their own genome’s behavior with their actions.
Question: How do these new findings affect the concept of the "The Bell Curve"--that we live in an increasingly stratified world where the "cognitive elite," those with the best genes, are more and more isolated from the cognitive/genetic underclass? Is that idea now completely obsolete?
David Shenk: Yes, it is obsolete. The idea that there is a genetic super-class that has a corner on high-IQ genes is nonsense. This comes out of a profound misunderstanding of how genes work and how intelligence works, and also from a misreading of so-called "heritability" studies. I am not saying that genes don’t affect intelligence. Genes affect everything. But by and large I think the evidence shows that people with low intelligence are missing out on key developmental advantages.
Question: Lewis Terman invented the IQ test at Stanford University in 1916. He declared it the ideal tool to determine a person’s native intelligence. Are IQ tests accurate? What are the benefits and fallout of the IQ test?
David Shenk: IQ tests accurately rank academic achievement. That’s quite different from identifying innate intelligence, which doesn’t really exist. Tufts intelligence expert Robert Sternberg explains that "intelligence represents a set of competencies in development." In other words, intelligence isn’t fixed. Intelligence isn’t general. Intelligence is not a thing. Instead, intelligence is a dynamic, diffuse, and ongoing process.
The IQ test has valid uses. It can help teachers and principals understand how well students are doing and what they’re missing. But the widespread belief that it defines what each of us are capable of (and limited to) is disabling for individuals and society. People simply cannot reach their full potential if they honestly believe that they are so severely restricted.
Question: How do we go about finding the genius in all of us? What steps we can take to unlock latent talent?
David Shenk: Find the thing you love to do, and work and work and work at it. Don't be discouraged by failure; realize that high achievers thrive on failure as a motivating mechanism and as instruction guide on how to get better.
(Photo © Alexandra Beers)
*Starred Review* Intent on burying the concept of inborn genius, Shenk uses the 128 pages of “The Argument” to drive home how mistaken the notion of being genetically destined at birth to be a Mozart or a Michael Jordan is. For genes aren’t the inalterable essences that environmental effects merely help out; rather, genes and environment interact to realize a person’s potential in a constant and complicated process that Shenk attractively exemplifies through the athletic life of Ted Williams, who began hitting practice at age six and, equally important, never gave it up; also, considered to have magically sharp sight, he tested only high normal upon entering naval aviation—the thing was, he developed himself to, as Ty Cobb said, “see more of the ball than any man alive.” En route to the startling revelation that Lamarckism (variation by inheritance, not Darwinian natural selection) has truth in it, after all, Shenk corrects common knowledge about what twin studies and IQ tests really show; clarifies the arguably most misunderstood genetics term, heritable; and scientifically revives faith in not just practice and determination but also parenting and lifestyle as crucial factors, along with genes, in the realization of talents. Since this flies in the face of a century of genetic determinism, Shenk employs the equally engrossing 141 pages of “The Evidence” to cite, quote, paraphrase, and comment upon the sources for virtually every assertion in “The Argument.” --Ray Olson
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Format and Structure: The paperback edition is 348 pages, the first 166 pages contain The Argument; pages 167 through 348 contain The Evidence (Chapter Notes). In the first part of the book, Shenk used five footnotes , which appeared in the good old-fashioned way: on the same page of the reference. However, nowhere in the body of the work is there a reference to the Chapter Notes. Only after I finished the main content did I realize the latter portion of the book was as informative as the former, without reference thereto. Perhaps I missed something when I earned my Masters in English, only having been required to follow APA or MLA protocols (neither of which did I entirely agree with). Reading this book would have been more enjoyable had the two (split) portions been integrated/collated so that the details of The Argument and The Evidence could have been read and absorbed together.
Recommendation: Notwithstanding the above comment, I really enjoyed this book and will keep it for reference as I continue to expand my mind which is composed of GxE.
Shenk has done his homework, citing in his 25-page bibliography eight seminal articles published by K. Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University. For almost four decades, they have conducted research on the process of achieving peak performance. Their influence on Shenk soon becomes evident: He names Part One, Chapters One to Six, "The Myth of Gifts." The Ericsson research leaves little (if any) doubt about the importance of (on average) 10,000 hours of "deep, deliberate practice under strict and expert supervision. Natural talent ("gifts") and luck can also be factors. For example, when members of youth sports teams are grouped according to calendar year birthdays, those born during the first six months have an advantage and those born in January-March have a significant advantage.
Shenk suggests another factor to consider, also. "The genius-in-all-of-us is not some hidden brilliance buried inside of our genes. It is the very design of the human genome - built to adapt to the world around us and to the demands we put on ourselves. With humility, with hope, and with extraordinary determination, greatness is something to which any kid - of any age - can aspire."
These are among the dozens of observations of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of the book's thematic scope. All but the first and last are Shenk's.
o "Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our physical and mental resources...Stating the thing broadly, the human individual lives far within his limits." William James)
o "Contrary to what we've been taught, genes do not determine physical and character traits on their own. Rather, they interact with the environment in a dynamic ongoing process that produces and continually refines an individual." (Page 15)
o "Intelligence is not an innate aptitude, hardwired at conception or in the womb, but a collection of developing skills driven by the interaction between genes and environment. No one is born with a predetermined amount of intelligence. Intelligence (and IQ scores) can be improved. Few adults come close to their true intellectual potential." (34)
o "Child prodigies and superlative adult achievers are often not the same people. Understanding what makes remarkable abilities appear at different phases of a person's life provides an important insight into what talent really is." (84)
o "The old nature/nurture paradigm suggests that control over our lives is divided between genes (nature) and our own decisions (nurture)). In fact, we have far more control over our genes - and far less control over our environment - than we think." (115)
o "It must not be left to genes and parents to foster greatness; spurring individual achievement is also the duty of society. Every culture must strive to foster values that bring out the best in people." (144)
o "We have long understood [believed to be true] that lifestyle cannot alter heredity. But it turns out that it can..." (155)
o "Evidence for the contribution of talent over and above practice has proven extremely elusive...[In contrast] evidence is now emerging that exceptional performance in memory, chess, music, sports and other arenas can be fully accounted for on the basis of an age-old adage: practice makes perfect." David Shanks (171) However, Ericsson and his colleagues have concluded that there are many different types and degrees of practice that produce different types and degrees of result.
As indicated, David Shenk`s approach in this book is to review the situation: misconceptions about individual differences in talent and human intelligence; identify the problem: very few of us ever get to know or are even aware of our human potential; offer a solution in the form of an argument: use dynamic development to "tap into the genetic assets we already have"; and then present 178 pages of evidence in support of that argument.
Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out Shekerjian's aforementioned Uncommon Genius as well as Doug Lemov's Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better, Geoff Colvin's Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How, and Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success. All of these authors express their substantial debt to Ericsson and his pioneering research. If you really want to put some white caps on your gray matter, read Gerald Edelman's Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On The Matter of The Mind.
One of the central themes of this book is, "Everything shapes us and everything can be shaped by us. The genius in all of us is our built-in ability to improve ourselves and our world." (p.131). It's a book about permission - permission to move beyond the myths that heretofore have hampered our ability to imagine the plausibility of becoming more than we are, by virtue of the common knowledge that is broadly distributed regarding intelligence, genetic predisposition and talent. Listen to Shenk: "But the new science suggests that few of us know our true limits, that the vast majority of us have not even come close to tapping what scientists call our "unactualized potential." It also suggests a profound optimism for the human race." (P.9). Now that's empowering!
David Shenk is a national bestselling author with five previous books, including The Immortal Game, Data Smog and The Forgetting - is also a correspondent and contributor to NPR, PBS, The New Yorker, The New York Times, National Geographic and The [...] This guy is incredibly insightful and an incredible researcher. This book has appendices ("Sources, Notes, Clarifications and Amplifications" that run some 160 pages) that are an integral part of the sumptuous fare provided for the reader - and comprise the body of evidence that support the authors arguments....don't overlook these.
Shenk argues: "We need to replace "nature/nurture" with "dynamic development." (P. 27). What does he mean?
"Dynamic development is the new paradigm for talent, lifestyle, and well-being. It is how genes influence everything but strictly determine very little. It forces us to rethink everything about ourselves, where we come from, and where we can go. It promises that while we'll never have true control over our lives, we do have the power to impact them enormously. Dynamic development is why human biology is a jukebox with many potential tunes not specific built-in instructions for a certain kind of life, but built-in capacity for a variety of possible lives. None is genetically doomed to mediocrity." (Pp.27-28.)
Once again, a myth-busting - empowering insight. His thesis is that "talent is not the cause but the result of something." (P.49)
He doesn't stop there. Listen to the following excerpts that evidence additional dimensions of his arguments:
"What we do know is that our brains and bodies are primed for plasticity; they were built for challenge and adaptation. This is true from life's earliest moments." (P.106).
"each of us is a dynamic system, a creature of development." (P.17).
"No one knows. We do not-and cannot-know our own limits unless and until we push ourselves to them. Finding one's true natural limit in any field takes many years and many thousands of hours of intense pursuit. What are your limits?" (P.58).
In a world that is desperately yearning to empower people to explore frontiers that will contribute to ameliorating current societal ills and providing new pathways to a better future, Shenk's argument obliterates our tendency to become complacent and/or accepting or mediocrity, when he writes:
"But the new science tells us that it's equally foolish to think that mediocrity is built into most of us, or that any of us can know our true limits before we've applied enormous resources and invested vast amounts of time. Our abilities are not set in genetic stone. They are soft and sculptable, far into adulthood. With humility, with hope, and with extraordinary determination, greatness is something to which any kid - of any age - can aspire." (P. 10)
Solid journalistic research, powerful prose, and penetrating arguments in habit this work by David Shenk. However, this particular book is actually much, much more than that. From time to time certain literary works unmask the fallacy behind "common knowledge" masquerading as "certainty." The Genius In All of Us - Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ is Wrong, is one of those.
Thinking and the collective consciousness that any society tends to develop over time has an inertia behind it - an energy that maintains the body of widely held beliefs and assumptions about "what we think we know," including all the rationalizations behind our "certainty. However, as it pertains to genetics, talent and IQ (like a myriad of topics every society comes to be "certain" about) - this "certainty" has unconsidered consequences. What do I mean? Listen to David Shenk: "I believe the answer lies in the profound inertia of human thought. When an entire society believes something is impossible, it suppresses, by its very way of life, the evidence that would contradict that belief." p.123.
In David Shenk's The Genius In All of Us - Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ is Wrong he provides a new inertia that unmasks the myths masquerading as talent, intelligence and genetic predisposition. It's a book written in a way that can be consumed by a broad audience. It's a book about permission - permission to embrace the new inertia contained in the following truth:
"The genius in all of us is our built-in ability to improve ourselves and our world." P.131.
Buy this book! One of my favorites for 2010. Required Reading.
(1) Burton, Robert A. M.D. On Being Certain - Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not, St. Martins Press, New York, NY Copyright © 2008 by Robert A. Burton, M.D. p.223-224