Thursday, May 20, 2010

Updated Book Review: David Shenk's "The Genius in All of Us"

Review of "The Genius in All of Us," by David Shenk, Doubleday, 2010.

An effective deconstruction of hereditary talent, and clues for a new model of exceptional ability

Link to the review on Amazon:

It is easy to like or dislike this book from a casual reading based on how you feel about the premise: that everyone has the potential for genius, and that heredity is not destiny in any sense. This sounds at first like a liberal political statement, but Shenk's treatment is far more nuanced than that characterization would imply.

In brief, Shenk's book is a very good deconstruction of hereditary talent, a competent but one-sided (or upon reflection I'll say very selectively focused) review of supporting research in several fields, and an interesting but abbreviated practical introduction to the interactionist (gene X environment) paradigm of development.

Just to be clear, this book is not about the psychometric definition of genius in terms of how far down the bell curve one is on Raven's Progressive Matrices or standardized tests of any sort. Nor is it about clever calculating tricks or precocious abilities, although it does do a very nice job putting those into a larger perspective. This book is more centrally about the expansive and inclusive sense of genius meaning people that accomplish something truly special and significant, and the potential that any given person may be able to get to that point. Somehow. And that's where the nuance is needed and appropriate.

Ok, I didn't like this book all that much when I first read it, and I at first gave it a mediocre 3 star rating on Amazon. I felt it did a great job deconstructing the concept of hereditary talent, but I strongly criticized it for leaving a gap where we need a better theory of where talent comes from and what it is, since obviously we don't all become true geniuses. Even among the folks who appear to have the seeds of genius in them from early on, most don't become genius adults in the broader sense.

In my original review I said this was a one-sided review of the evidence for the interactionist model. I do think it's a very selective review, but one-sided implies that he deliberately ignores contradictory evidence. He doesn't do that. He just doesn't talk about the evidence that led to the model Shenk says is obsolete, that genes are akin to blueprints. That is, the evidence that different variations of allele sometimes have strikingly specific effects in a seemingly "normal" range of environments. The case for the model of heredity that Shenk is deconstructing is not entirely ignored, but it is glossed over in order to make his case for the interactionist model. I think that is why hereditarians like Galton, Spearman, and Charles Murray get so apparently shorted in this book, Shenk focuses entirely on what they get wrong and glosses over the things they may get right.

I suspect that we do inherit "predispositions" in some form under a very wide range of conditions, even if the underlying mechanism is more complex than we previously assumed. Even if changes in environments do alter the expression of genes, something like inheritance of traits clearly does happen in a wide range of "normal" environments, and we can't just ignore that completely because of additional complexity and things that change at the extremes. That's why I say this is a very selective review. But no, it isn't really one-sided, the selectiveness is appropriate for a deconstruction, although it does mark this as a deconstruction rather than a scholarly review.

The more important problem is that the model of talent that arises from this book is not particularly easy to understand. The author is strongly against thinking of genes as predispositions, and rather offers the perspective that genes are akin to "settings." So it would be easy to conclude that the author is saying that we have the ability to make anyone a genius just by tweaking a few settings. He isn't. Or, if you read it as I did upon my first reading, you might hear the author saying that "anyone can be a genius, but talent is complicated process, we don't know what is happening at each step, and so we don't know how to help people get there, but we know it's possible." That's perhaps a little closer to the truth, but it didn't seem very helpful to me.

The reason I updated this review and why I'm now expressing more appreciation for David Shenk's accomplishment here is that while the "settings" model of genes doesn't quite convey the message, I did find upon close reading and careful reflection that the author captured a lot with his examples and case studies of individuals. The thing that is missing is some way of tying together how people manage to select and shape environments for themselves to accomplish great things, in spite of all the cultural, social, and physical constraints that tend to make environmental factors very hard to change for most of us. Shenk assiduously avoids attributing "predispositions" to genes, but then speculates that epigenetic factors may predispose us to things like musical ability. If non-genes can do this, why not genes? He just seems a little *too* intent on crushing hereditary talent in some places.

Geniuses don't just see things differently (although that is sometimes also going on), they don't just have unique abilities (although sometimes they do) geniuses are most distinct in that they manage to carve their own niche, exploiting their own uniqueness in a process where they are driven to mastery and are amazingly persistent, even where the goal seems way out of reach. This runs contrary to our popular wisdom that it makes sense to work toward small easily attained goals in most things. What we think of as really deep talent actually requires really deep faith in the long term process and the motivation to keep going. Shenk captures the significance of motivation, but I had to look very closely to see the patterns for it. It requires willingness to do things that others may find bizarre and to learn freely from what is available. The author illustrates this but seems to have a hard time really tying it all together, at least he did on my first reading. I've come to think of it in terms of niche construction, which to me really captures what exceptional people do that brings out and shapes their unique gene x environment combination in a targeted way. My reversal in the rating reflects my feeling that capturing this idea is more important than giving it a catchy name, which is really what the author is missing.

We don't know exactly how to take advantage of the dynamic nature of heredity and development, although the study of achievement and expertise reviewed by Shenk gives us many tantalizing clues to go on. And if knowing that the potential is there inspires the faith to keep going, then more and more of us will eventually learn to become better and better at using our minds, constructing our own niches from our own individuality, and the promise of "The Genius in All of Us" will eventually begin to be realized. There is a lot in this book that will repay careful reading and re-reading, as I discovered by doing exactly that.

Related Reading:

See also this classic manifesto of genetic interactionism: The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment(Lewontin R (1998/2000) Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, Environment. Cambridge, MA, Harvard)

This superb earlier popular introduction to the emerging model Shenk offers: The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture(Ridley, The Agile Gene)

This similar treatment of trait development in interactionist terms, but focused on personality: The Temperamental Thread: How Genes, Culture, Time and Luck make Us Who We Are(kagan, temperamental thread)

This alternative and original interactionist account of how personality develops: No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality (Judith rich harris no two alike)

This interesting challenge to some widely help assumptions about influence: Stranger in the Nest: Do Parents Really Shape Their Child's Personality, Intelligence, or Character?(Stranger in the Nest, D. Cohen)

This little known treasure by an old friend that offers its own unique challenges about human uniqueness and what it means: rebellion: physics to personal will (Brody, Rebellion)

This on the classic view from the perspective of behavior genetics: Genetics and Experience: The Interplay between Nature and Nurture (Individual Differences and Development)(Plomin, Genetics and Experience)

This on the fascinating broader biological implications of interactionism from a gene perspective, how the genes of organisms construct niches even beyond the organism itself: The Extended Organism: The Physiology of Animal-Built Structures(Turner, The Extended Organism)

And finally this wonderful broad account of biology and the role of heredity that appreciates the complexities of gene function in a demanding but uniquely engaging way: The Logic of Life(The logic of life, francois jacob)


  1. Todd, your final paragraph summarizes my thoughts on the book. There are some ideas I value and am now developing into writings of my own. Specifically, Shenk mentions, almost in passing, that hope, humility, and determination characterize the an environment in which capacity can increase. While not a major focus beyond that statement (why not a chapter devoted to each?), this insight should provoke thought among parents and educators—e.g., what do our schools do to create & maintain such an atmosphere? and what should our instruction be to develop these dispositions in students.

    My perspective: I think Shenk tries (and to an extent, does) bring some balance to the discussion by his passionate argument for the interactive model. In hearing him interviewed on NPR, he seems more balanced in his thinking than the book suggests.

    Bottom line: there is much, in my opinion, that should be considered and discussed in the book. And, as is often the case, we have to admit we don't know the whole story but also determine to work the parts we do know to our own and to our students' advantage.

    Thanks for your great, in-depth thoughts presented here. I knew you'd approach this with a balance of technical background and personal response.

  2. Thanks for your comments Kevin, and I apologize for taking so long to publish your comment! The comment notification must have gone into my spam filter.