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Saturday, March 20, 2010

"The Genius In All of Us"

"The Genius In All of Us" by David Shenk

Certain thematic conflicts in biology arise over and over in popular writing, the most obvious or frequent one being, evolution versus intelligent design. But right behind it, and slightly related, is "nature versus nurture"... are we humans more the product of our genes or of our environment? And unlike scientific controversies that tend to move toward resolution, this one just seems to fluctuate back and forth over time.

Into that controversy steps journalist David Shenk with his new book, "The Genius In All of Us." The book cover's subheading, "Why everything you've been told about genetics, talent and IQ is wrong," somewhat annoys me. Of course some things we know are wrong, but plenty we've been told is no doubt right, and much else, while debatable is not necessarily "wrong." I won't make too much out of this, since such hyperbole is commonplace in publishing these days, but it does I think detract a tad from one's initial impression of the book's credibility.

In some ways Shenk's book is a sort of counterbalance to Steven Pinker's popular "The Blank Slate" from some years back, which argued forcefully for the influence of genes. Shenk contends that the sort of genetic influence postulated by Pinker and others " is easily -- and perilously -- misinterpreted." He calls the whole "nature versus nurture" dichotomy "bankrupt," and I'm not so sure many scientists wouldn't, at some level, agree with that, in the sense that it tends to be too simplistic or black-and-white a distinction. The interplay of nature and nurture is hugely complex and variable from person-to-person. It is what Shenk calls a "dynamic" process, not some set-in-stone static effect, as some may be led to believe.

Shenk is not himself a geneticist or scientist, but does make reference to many scientific studies throughout the volume to state his case. And the book is a bit quirky in that the main text (called "The Argument") is less than 140 pages long, but then followed by almost 140 pages (called "The Evidence") of "Sources, Notes, Clarifications and Amplifications." Many of these endnotes are indeed just brief clarifications of earlier material, but several are extensive and interesting enough that one wonders why they weren't incorporated into the main text, rather than being slapped on at the end, where they may get missed. The author seems to use the main body to paint his thesis with a very broad brush for a general audience, and leave more detailed or technical information for the last half, but I'm not sure this was the most effective use of material. The book does not include much molecular biology, so most of the more technical endnotes could have been easily/appropriately worked in earlier to good effect.

The book starts off (and ends) using great baseball icon Ted Williams as an example of someone who many pointed to as a person with super innate talents, but who in fact (Shenk argues) developed his skills through assiduous practice and hard work.
Shenk calls the old model of development "G + E," for genetics plus environment, and the new model "G x E," for genetics times environment, or the idea that the two components, rather than being additive, are eternally dynamic, constantly playing off one another. As he writes at one point:
"The reality of G x E assures that each person's genes interact with his climate, altitude, culture, meals, language, custom, and spirituality -- everything -- to produce unique life trajectories. Genes play a critical role, but as dynamic instruments, not a fixed blueprint."
So while acknowledging that genes may set certain limits for individuals, Shenk stresses that no one is "doomed to mediocrity" by their genes, and that we all have potential for greatness. That is the hopeful take-home message of Shenk's treatise, that readers will like.

Many interesting topics are overviewed in the book, including intelligence and IQ-testing, the famous "twin studies" (usually used to argue for the influence of genes, but here used to argue for the input of environment), mental savants and "giftedness" more generally, the Suzuki teaching method, and the controversial subject of innate differences in sports abilities between ethnic groups, and also practical suggestions for improving one's environment. Epigenetics and Lamarckianism are other key topics coming up here. The treatments are a bit superficial (intended for a general audience), and spun by Shenk to bolster his case, but no harm in that.

When all is said-and-done, nativists often figure that 60% or more of who we are is determined by genetics or "inheritability" while 40% comes from environmental factors. Shenk might want to reverse those figures, to the limited degree that one can even slap such percentages on the data at all. It all remains grist for debate because to some degree one is comparing apples and oranges when discussing nature and nurture in the same breath: genes (nature) are somewhat discrete, though highly-complicated, biochemical entities, whereas environment (nurture) can include a broad, amorphous, and ill-defined array of factors --- psychological, physical, chemical, biological in nature. How all these interact will indeed be difficult/impossible to tease apart. Shenk also notes that even in the first 9 months of life a human child (and their genes) is bombarded by powerful environmental influences within the womb.

Overall, I rate the book a "B," a good enough read for lay people who may enjoy a different slant on genetics than they're accustomed to. Scientists may not find that much new here; moreover, by now most scientists are entrenched enough in their own view of the nature/nurture spectrum, that this material may not move them.
The particular value of the volume, I believe, is in helping put the daily headlines of human (and other) genome research somewhat in its place, as less precise, advanced, and deterministic than it's often perceived to be. The headlines tend to oversell. We are still in the very primitive, early stages of truly understanding genetics, and the public needs to know that. Shenk has done his part to tell them.

More here:


And a recent hour-long interview with David Shenk here:



Anonymous said...
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Priscilla said...

Thanks for spotlighting Shenk--I wasn't aware of the book. But what he's saying about the nature-nurture debate matches what I've been reading in Science and elsewhere for some time--for instance, Gene Robinson's summary, “Beyond Nature and Nurture,” Science 304 (April 16, 2004): 397–99. In the public mind nature & nurture are still separate, but geneticists appear to have moved toward a new understanding--that nature & nurture are locked in a tango, together dancing their way into our makeup.

Ms. Smartypants said...

Thanks for adding your write up to the Book Review Blog Carnival!