Mathematical flair, musical ability or a way with words have come to be thought of as innate talents or, biologically speaking, in our genes. But now David Shenk, the American writer on genetics, asks people to think again.
Stepping into the nature v nurture fray, he argues that the case for genetic predisposition has been vastly overstated and that this view is causing us to overlook our potential. “There is a profound misunderstanding about what great achievements are all about. Our genes don’t limit us to mediocrity or worse than mediocrity,” he says.
In his new book The Genius in All of Us, which is drawing comparisons to the work of the Canadian pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell, Shenk describes an emerging view that far from being a static blueprint, our DNA is open to continual influence by external factors.
Nature and nurture are constantly interacting: genes can be turned on or off or expressed to different degrees, depending on our environment. The slate is not, as was once assumed, wiped blank for the next generation. The field of epigenetics is increasingly showing that environmental experiences during our lives leave imprints on our genome that are passed on to our children.
Shenk’s view is that by directing these environmental influences we can surpass what we may have thought of as our inherent limitations. He takes as an example musical ability. “I have had so many people say to me, ‘I was born with no musical talent’ or ‘I’m naturally musical’,” he says. “The fact is that no one is born with innate talent. Everyone is born with a potential for musical pitch.”
This is evident in the much higher prevalence of perfect pitch in countries where tonal languages, such as Chinese, are spoken, he says. Because pitch plays an important part in everyday communication, people get better at it.
Even the plausible theory that certain ethnicities have a genetic advantage in certain sports is called into question. Shenk attributes the success of Kenyan marathon runners, for example, to an ingrained culture of running, as many Kenyan children run eight to ten kilometres a day from the age of 7.
He says: “There is a joke among elite athletes: how can the rest of the world defuse Kenyan running superiority? Answer: buy them school buses.”
Even personality traits such as tenacity or diligence, likely to influence success in any sphere of life, are malleable rather than fixed products of our genes. He cites a classic study by Walter Mischel, the Stanford psychologist, which examined self-discipline in children.
In the experiment, four-year-old children were given the option of receiving one marshmallow immediately or waiting 15 minuts to get two. A third of the children immediately opted for the single marshmallow; a third waited a few minutes but caved in to temptation; a third patiently waited to receive two marshmallows.
When comparing their school assessment test scores taken at 18 years, Professor Mischel found that the children who had waited scored 210 points more than those who opted for instant gratification.
The message that some took from this was that some children are naturally more self-disciplined and are destined to do better. Subsequent research has shown that children can be taught the benefits of delayed gratification. Shenk says that all parents could learn from this. “Every time we learn about which things are teachable, we can improve the way we educate people and make changes on a policy level.”
He says that a perception of self-limitation is one of the biggest barriers to great achievements or genius. “There is a circular logic about talent. When you look at someone who is great, say David Beckham as a footballer, they are so far away from what you are capable of, you assume that you can’t get there.”
Not everyone is convinced by Shenk’s arguments. “The idea that all of us have genius inside us is so desirable,” said Wendy Johnson, a leading researcher on intelligence and genetics at the University of Edinburgh. “But it is completely and totally wishful thinking. The truth is that we don’t know how to create it and we don’t know how to inspire it.”
Professor Johnson agreed that people often have greater potential than they imagine, for example in mathematics. But to equate that with genius was taking the theory too far. “We can teach every 12th-grade student to do calculus. Genius is not being able to calculate a derivative — it is doing what Newton and Leibniz did: inventing it.”
Shenk concedes that the title of his book is meant to be provocative but says that the basic thesis is sound. “I am not saying that anyone can be anything, but nobody can be great at anything unless they have a fundamental belief that it is possible.”