The Genius in All of Us: A book review by Bob Morris

Genius in All of UsThe Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ
David Shenk
Anchor Books/Random House (2011)

How and why “genetic influence itself is not predetermined, but [rather] an ongoing process”

Whereas in Denise Shekerjian’s book, Uncommon Genius, the focus is on 40 recipients of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship grant (often referred to as “the genius grant”), David Shenk’s focus is on how and why, “dynamic development,” greatness of achievement, “is something to which any kid – of any age can [and should] aspire.” If not in all of us, there is potential genius in most of us. “I am arguing that few of us ever get to know our own true potential, and that many of us mistake early difficulties for innate limits. I am arguing that genetic influence itself is not predetermined, but an ongoing process.”

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.

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