Magazine

Is there a genius in all of us?

  • 13 January 2011
  • From the section Magazine
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Boy

Those who think geniuses are born and not made should think again, says author David Shenk.

Where do athletic and artistic abilities come from? With phrases like "gifted musician", "natural athlete" and "innate intelligence", we have long assumed that talent is a genetic thing some of us have and others don't.

But new science suggests the source of abilities is much more interesting and improvisational. It turns out that everything we are is a developmental process and this includes what we get from our genes.

A century ago, geneticists saw genes as robot actors, always uttering the same lines in exactly the same way, and much of the public is still stuck with this old idea. In recent years, though, scientists have seen a dramatic upgrade in their understanding of heredity.

They now know that genes interact with their surroundings, getting turned on and off all the time. In effect, the same genes have different effects depending on who they are talking to.

Malleable

"There are no genetic factors that can be studied independently of the environment," says Michael Meaney, a professor at McGill University in Canada.

"And there are no environmental factors that function independently of the genome. [A trait] emerges only from the interaction of gene and environment."

This means that everything about us - our personalities, our intelligence, our abilities - are actually determined by the lives we lead. The very notion of "innate" no longer holds together.

"In each case the individual animal starts its life with the capacity to develop in a number of distinctly different ways," says Patrick Bateson, a biologist at Cambridge University.

"Like a jukebox, the individual has the potential to play a number of different developmental tunes. The particular developmental tune it does play is selected by [the environment] in which the individual is growing up."

Is it that genes don't matter? Of course not. We're all different and have different theoretical potentials from one another. There was never any chance of me being Cristiano Ronaldo. Only tiny Cristiano Ronaldo had a chance of being the Cristiano Ronaldo we know now.

But we also have to understand that he could have turned out to be quite a different person, with different abilities. His future football magnificence was not carved in genetic stone.

Doomed

This new developmental paradigm is a big idea to swallow, considering how much effort has gone into persuading us that each of us inherits a fixed amount of intelligence, and that most of us are doomed to be mediocre.

The notion of a fixed IQ has been with us for almost a century. Yet the original inventor of the IQ test, Alfred Binet, had quite the opposite opinion, and the science turns out to favour Binet.

"Intelligence represents a set of competencies in development," said Robert Sternberg from Tufts University in the US in 2005, after many decades of study.

Talent researchers Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Kevin Rathunde and Samuel Whalen agree.

"High academic achievers are not necessarily born 'smarter' than others," they write in their book Talented Teenagers, "but work harder and develop more self-discipline."

James Flynn of the University of Otago in New Zealand has documented how IQ scores themselves have steadily risen over the century - which, after careful analysis, he ascribes to increased cultural sophistication. In other words, we've all gotten smarter as our culture has sharpened us.

Most profoundly, Carol Dweck from Stanford University in the US, has demonstrated that students who understand intelligence is malleable rather than fixed are much more intellectually ambitious and successful.

The same dynamic applies to talent. This explains why today's top runners, swimmers, cyclists, chess players, violinists and on and on, are so much more skilful than in previous generations.

All of these abilities are dependent on a slow, incremental process which various micro-cultures have figured out how to improve. Until recently, the nature of this improvement was merely intuitive and all but invisible to scientists and other observers.

Soft and sculptable

But in recent years, a whole new field of "expertise studies", led by Florida State University psychologist Anders Ericsson, has emerged which is cleverly documenting the sources and methods of such tiny, incremental improvements.

Born to be a footballer?

Bit by bit, they're gathering a better and better understanding of how different attitudes, teaching styles and precise types of practice and exercise push people along very different pathways.

Does your child have the potential to develop into a world-class athlete, a virtuoso musician, or a brilliant Nobel-winning scientist?

It would be folly to suggest that anyone can literally do or become anything. 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.

David Shenk is the author of The Genius in All of Us.