The Genius in All of Us: Why everything you've been told about genetics, talent, and IQ is wrong

Review of The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk

In The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ published in 2010, the author David Shenk uses research to argue the nurture vs nature debate and states that intelligence is a result of interactions between environment and genetics rather than either alone.

He discusses different studies and gives examples of how we overestimate the contribution of DNA to intelligence. He also states that evidence indicates that IQ tests are more akin to achievement tests rather than tests of an innate “intelligence.” Though we as a society place much emphasis on IQ, we should be aware that they are probably better indicators of the level of formal education one has had as well as one’s socioeconomic background rather than one’s inherent ability to grasp information and use it.

Human Potential

One’s genetics only tell part of the story. Even when we acknowledge that hard work and effort are important to achieve success, we still may have some damaging ideas about the role of the scope of genetic contribution to success. For example, you may know that you must work hard to become great at something, but you may think that there is a limitation you can reach because you don’t have the right genes or natural talent. Though Shenk acknowledges that we cannot be whatever we want to be and that there are some natural variations from person to person, he deemphasizes the importance of genetics and highlights the fact that success can be achieved through hard work.

Rather than physical traits being unmolested emergent properties of our DNA or byproducts of our environments, observable traits are the result of an interaction between the two, GxE. Great athletes such as Ted Williams and Michael Jordan were great because they were relentless at practicing and improving their skills. Beethoven and Mozart were pushed as children to eventually become great composers.

Speaking of child geniuses, the traits that make a successful child are not the same ones as those of a successful adult. Lives of Promise by Karen Arnold, whose work has recently received some attention due to the book Barking Up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker, supports Shenk’s statement. Those who are successful students or exhibit great achievements at a young age fall into the routines of having great technical expertise, but no boundary pushing achievements later in life.

This book plus Lives of Promise by Karen Arnold indicate what many people say, that school does not prepare you for life or to be great influencers that change the system, but rather good employees that feed into the system. Valedictorians go on to run the world well, but they don’t change it. They’ve learned and adapted to a system that teaches them how to enter the workforce. Instead, to raise kids to become creatives and push social boundaries it seems like an unconventional education or experiences are also needed. What would that structure look like? Can it be created or is it left to serendipity? Do you create it in addition to the traditional education system or do you replace the traditional education system?

Nature vs Nurture

Though the most important point of the book is that hard work is more important than your genes, Shenk does state other factors influence success as well. Some factors include personal motivation, delayed gratification, and culture. Certain cultures on a small and large scale are conducive to success. During the renaissance era, there was a culture that promoted artistic creativity. Environments that support competition also produce high achievers.

Conclusion

If you’re familiar with the work of K. Anders Ericsson, Malcolm Gladwell, or Robert Greene, you won’t be surprised by the overall conclusion, which is that your genes do not limit your capabilities and with hard work, you can be a genius.

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