Not Too Late To Tap Into 'Genius In All Of Us'

David Shenk i i

hide captionDavid Shenk is also the author of The Immortal Game and Data Smog.

Alexandra Beers
David Shenk

David Shenk is also the author of The Immortal Game and Data Smog.

Alexandra Beers

Envious of Einstein's massive intellect? Jealous of Jordan's mastery of basketball? Fear not. It's never too late to become the prodigy you always wanted to be, according to David Shenk, author of The Genius In All Of Us.

Unlike conventional wisdom, which treats genetic makeup as a fairly inviolable blueprint for a person, Shenk says environment plays a key role. Genes don't determine physical and character traits on their own — they're simply switches that can get turned on and off.

What does this mean for you? Shenk says it means IQ is not innate, and you can still train your brain to do remarkable things.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan, in Washington.

Known simply as the Chaconne, the finale of Johann Sebastian Bach's D-Minor Partita is so fiendishly difficult that, at the time it was written, it was considered practically unplayable.

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CONAN: Not anymore. That's Hilary Hahn playing the Chaconne at 17. What's more, Bach's virtuoso challenge is now standard in violin repertoire, and musicians aren't the only group of humans to improve over time.

We are measurably better, faster and smarter over the last few hundred years. Writer David Shenk argues there is no way that evolution and DNA can explain those results, and he has good news. You, too, can play the Bach Chaconne. The paradigm of innate talent, he says, is dead. Our genes are not a blueprint that tells us whether or not we can play basketball or violin brilliantly. Instead, it is how our genes interact with the environment that matters. We can all get smarter, play better, run faster, as long as we're willing to work hard to mold our brains and our bodies.

Later, we'll talk with Theodore Olson. As solicitor general, he argued for Bush in Bush v. Gore. Now he and his opponent in that case take up the case for gay marriage in federal court.

But first, we want to hear from you. If you know a genius, tell us how he or she got that way. And if you'd like to weigh in on this latest dispatch from the nature-nurture debate, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

David Shenk's book is called "The Genius In All Of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ is Wrong." He's a journalist and a former producer here at NPR, indeed a TALK OF THE NATION alum, and he joins us from our bureau in New York. And David, like all prosperous alums, we're going to hit you up to fund the physics wing.

Mr. DAVID SHENK (Author, "The Genius In All Of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ is Wrong"): Absolutely. As the book climbs, so does my contribution to NPR. Thanks for having me back, Neal.

CONAN: Nice to talk to you, David. Among the arguments you muster, 10 stems from one of the most spectacularly difficult tests in the world, and that is to become a London cab driver.

Mr. SHENK: Yes, there's a fantastic study from not too long ago that looked at the brains of London cab drivers. And what they discovered was - and this is so consistent with a lot of other recent studies looking at the brains of performers or achievers in particular categories, the particular part of the brain that is requisitioned to help people have place memories, to kind of form an inner geography, a map in the mind of what's going on out there in these cab drivers is larger than in other people.

And in fact, the cab drivers with more experience and with more knowledge have larger and larger hippocampi, or a portion of the hippocampi. And the same thing is true if you look at violin players or Braille readers, or you look at the particular skills of a recovering stroke victim, you can actually track how the physiology of the brain changes as they acquire particular skills.

CONAN: So the brain is that part of your intelligence is not innate. You can develop it.

Mr. SHENK: No, and I think what I'm trying to do in the book, and this will come off, you know, quickly sounding as one extreme or another because we're used to talking in extremes, but I'm trying to talk kind of in the middle here and bring it to more nuance.

I'm trying to blow up the word innate and the word gifted and things like that, that conjure up this idea of something coming directly from a gene or a collection of genes, and replace that with a couple of different levels of understanding.

One of them is that, and this comes from scientists, obviously, I'm not just making this up, but one of them is this new understanding of genes that scientists already have that just hasn't filtered into the general public of genes interacting, as you said in your introduction, with the environment. And everything that we are, everything that we are, being a consequence of that interaction. Not to say that we can control it just because it's an interaction and just because it has environmental variables, but we can learn more about it. And as we learn a little bit more, of course, we can control a little bit more.

CONAN: And indeed, some of the people you talk to who many of us would describe as geniuses of one sort or another, what they seem to share in common is a rage to succeed.

Mr. SHENK: Yes, well, clearly you cannot have this these incredible levels of success without an extraordinary amount of persistence and drive. And then people want to know, well, where's the drive from? Isnt that partly innate because, you know, people will...

CONAN: Could that be a gene, yeah.

Mr. SHENK: Right, could that be a gene? And then the answer to that is, well, no it's not a gene because that's not how genes work. There isn't a gene for a particular thing. Yes, there are people with genetic advantages and disadvantages in every realm, but these causes are always indirect. And in almost every instance, we can either have an effect on these interactions or we can at least understand all the different variables that are coming into play.

CONAN: And these are illustrated in a lot of different cases. You accept as genius, for example, Ted Williams, betraying your age, or Michael Jordan.

Mr. SHENK: Ted Williams, Michael Jordan, Yo-Yo Ma, Mozart. It doesn't really matter who you look like excuse me, look at. The themes all resonate with the science that we're now seeing in these different pockets, and the themes are that these people somehow had an extraordinary will, even leagues above their peers, even on the professional level.

And they had some other traits in common. They had this drive to fail. They had this notion that every day they were going to go out on the baseball field or into the practice room or into the gym, and they were going to push themselves well beyond their limits, and then they were going to study that part that wasn't quite working and trying to figure out how they could improve it, kind of welcoming failure into their lives instead of running away and shrinking from that failure.

CONAN: So the process of learning to hit 400, in Ted Williams' case, or learning to write great symphonies, in Mozart's case, is not merely the abilities that were born in them with their genes but that ferocious desire to succeed and to accept thousands and thousands and thousands of hours of what you describe as unpleasant practice.

Mr. SHENK: Well, yeah, and of course, whether it's unpleasant or not, that's also subjective. I'm taking my cue there from Anders Ericsson, the psychologist who's helped to kind of lead off this whole new world of expertise studies. And he tries to articulate how it's a different sort of satisfaction or different sort of thrill from the more casual practice.

This is what he calls deliberate practice. He's put a name on the type of practice that, as I just said, does seek to fail instead of just kind of stay in your comfort zone. And it's not as comfortable as just kind of going out of there on the golf course and kind of doing what you can already do. You are kind of pushing yourself to some discomfort.

And then, of course, the people who do that do take a measure of satisfaction from that, but it's not the same sort of short-term satisfaction that you get just from doing what you can already do.

CONAN: And the example you give is, again, going back to Michael Jordan, a lot of people in pick-up games, where there aren't any coaches around, this is when he was in college, would, well, just go back to what they do well. Going to your right, for example, if you're a right-handed player. Michael Jordan would deliberately work on the games that parts of his game that he wasn't so good at.

Mr. SHENK: That's absolutely right, and then he was also, you know, fortunate in so many respects. One of them was to have coaching that also played to that ambition. So his coach, his college coach, would actually stack him against stack him on weaker and weaker teams so that he was kind of always kind of fulfilling this desire to increase his level of challenge and then trying to play up to that challenge.

CONAN: We're talking with David Shenk. His new book is "The Genius In All Of Us." If you know a genius, give us a call and tell us how he or she got that way, or if you'd like to weigh in on this latest debate over genetics and intelligence, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And Kristen(ph) is on the line, calling from Tucson, Arizona.

KRISTEN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Kristen, go ahead, please.

KRISTEN: Hi. This talk reminds me of Mr. Suzuki from Japan, who promoted talent education for music. And both my sons have been involved in Suzuki cello, and I don't know if you speaker is aware of Mr. Suzuki.

Mr. SHENK: Oh yes, oh yes.

KRISTEN: Okay.

Mr. SHENK: No, thank you for bringing that up.

KRISTEN: It just reminded me so much of what he has to say about children and talent is that you raise up a musician, a musician isn't born. It's you know, any child has that capacity if exposed to the right environment.

CONAN: And David Shenk, in fact, writes that his precursor, Mr. Suzuki's precursor, was Leopold Mozart.

KRISTEN: Yeah.

Mr. SHENK: In a way, that's true. You know, Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang's father, was actually an extraordinary teacher, really one of a kind in that era in terms of his ability and his ambition to teach very young children and first, essentially tested out his approach on Mozart's older sister, Nannerl, and then kind of a combination of Nannerl and her father worked together on Wolfgang from the very earliest days.

And when you look closely at the life of Mozart, not the myth of Mozart, but the life of Mozart, it actually does start to make developmental sense, not to say that it's any less impressive. In fact, I think it's more impressive when you understand these things as a developmental process and you take it out of this kind of mysterious ascription of genes and genetic causes.

CONAN: Kristen...

KRISTEN: Yeah.

CONAN: Go ahead.

KRISTEN: Oh, I was just going to thank him for his response.

CONAN: Oh, well, we thank you for your phone call.

KRISTEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye, and good luck to your sons.

KRISTEN: Okay, thank you, bye-bye.

CONAN: And this is also - one of the things that you try to answer is the, well, I call it the San Pedro De Macoris factor - why is it that so many great shortstops come from the Dominican Republic?

Mr. SHENK: Right, so a big part of this question is and this is another kind of nuance that people will kind of look over unless we stop and kind of force people to recognize it. A big part of this is that there's a cultural dynamic to this, most of which we actually dont control as individuals or as parents or as teachers.

There are so many variables in culture, most of which we actually inherit from the culture that came before our own, that has certain values, that points us in certain directions, certain even philosophies, ways of thinking about things.

So it's not surprising, really, when you think that way, that you can that we're getting certain types of proficiency or excellence coming from certain parts of the world, you know, certain pockets of tennis excellence coming from parts of Florida or parts of Russia, you know, great basketball players coming from, you know, from this country, et cetera, et cetera.

CONAN: Okay, we're talking with David Shenk. His new book, "The Genius In All Of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ is Wrong." So if you know a genius, how did he or she get that way? Or if you'd like to weigh in on this latest dispatch from the nature-nature debate or nurture-times-nature, depending on how you would put it, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan, in Washington.

There is no such thing as innate or gifts, David Shenk argues in his new book. Born to be small, born to be smart, born to play music, born to play basketball, it's a seductive assumption, one we've all made. But when one looks behind the genetic curtain, he writes, it most often turns out not to be true. In other words, we are more than a product of our genes, and anyone can be smarter, faster or better, as long as you're willing to work at it.

For more of an explanation on the dynamic between our genes and our environment and how height helps demonstrate that - head to our Web site. You can read an excerpt from "The Genius in All of Us" at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We also want to hear from you. If you know a genius, tell us how he or she got that way, and if you want to weigh in on this latest dispatch on the nature-nurture debate, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation at the Web site. Again, thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

CONAN: And David Shenk is with us from our bureau in New York, and let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Don(ph), and Don with us from Kelso in Washington.

DON (Caller): I understand the genetic makeup of your body determines how much muscle you carry. And Dara Torres of the Olympics is carrying more muscle now, and she cannot therefore compete after many years of being still an Olympic champion. And that is entirely inherited and has nothing to do with what you can do.

So I, as a bicycle racer, can climb hills better than most people because of my weight and the genetic makeup of my (unintelligible), and the harder I train, the tendency is to become less of a good hill-climber. There's a magical amount, and it's a very small amount, 12, 15 minutes a week is all you need.

CONAN: So you're saying the genetics does play an absolute role in these kinds of athletic accomplishments?

DON: Yeah. It's like, for example, I can race in the Olympics in sailboat racing. I'm good enough to do that. But I'm the wrong weight.

CONAN: Well, David Shenk?

Mr. SHENK: Sure. First of all, I'll go back to what I already said once or twice, which is I'm not saying there aren't genetic advantages and disadvantages, but I would caution people strongly when they ever hear anyone say that something is 100 percent inherited.

That's really a misreading of how genes work. There is an interaction going on in there between the genes and the environment. And you can have clones - you could clone yourself and you're not going to turn out in many, many ways, you're going to turn out quite differently because of how - because of the nature of that interaction from the very first moment of conception.

This is what geneticists this is how they talk to one another. That's why we hear things like there's a baldness gene, but only 80 percent of the people with that baldness gene have baldness. It's because it's an interaction, and the way they get those stats is they look at a group of people, and so there's something about the environment and the gene that is creating, that is leading to this specific trait. But the more we can understand about that interaction, the more we can see the process of development, which is a far cry from saying that we can train all of us can train ourselves into, you know, this extraordinary ideal of the best ever or, you know, the most amazing athlete. There are going to be limitations, of course.

CONAN: There's a great picture, Don, in David Shenk's book of two identical twins, one who has trained himself to be a distance runner and looks like distance runners look, thin and whippy, and another who has trained himself to be a weight trainer and looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

DON: Right, and the difference between the two is the amount of myostatin that they carry within their system. And when you'll go and test that out, you find the weightlifter had very little, and the runner had a whole lot. That's the difference.

CONAN: Need I repeat - identical twins?

DON: Yes, identical twins. You're going to find a difference in the myostatin within those systems.

Mr. SHENK: Exactly right, exactly right, and this is a great way to talk this is a great example. So the point is I don't actually I can't speak to myostatin in particularly, but what we're all acknowledging here is the exact same thing, which is you can have the same gene, and somewhere in the developmental process, usually very, very early on or often very early, early on and well out of our control, at least at this point, there is going to be a gene-environment interaction.

And what we need to do is not shift the conversation to the kind of the other side of the cartoon to say that we can all just get to this place through practice but shift it to where we're not talking about genes as causing stuff and saying that it's not always a fait accompli. In fact, it's rarely a fair accompli. It's more a matter of process, and we need to understand the process better on every level: biologically, educationally, attitudinally, parentally, et cetera.

CONAN: Let's go next to Paula(ph), Paula with us from Toledo.

PAULA (Caller): Hi there. I was interested in knowing if the author's work examined personality structure vis-�-vis a person's capacity to excel. One of the things in particular I'm wondering about, I'm personally a big believer in the Myers-Briggs Type, and if you read any Myers-Briggs typology, you'll see a lot of stuff where, you know, this type tends to favor this type of activity. Another type will favor a different type of activity.

And I'm wondering: is there any way to overcome what you like? I guess that's a core issue. I mean, can you train yourself to like something that you're not disposed to?

Mr. SHENK: Well, that's a great question. And, of course, speaking to personality is key here. And, you know, a couple things to say. One is that for the people listening out there who are skeptical, and I don't blame you, let me reiterate that genes do have an influence on personality.

Genes turn out to have an influence on everything, but again, it's the nature of that influence, and what we're understanding more and more is it's about the process.

So when you're talking about someone who already has a personality, obviously they're kind of already going down a path, a certain pathway, largely, you know, not through their own control. Many different things have shaped that personality, including, indirectly, quite a number of genes.

And then the question of whether you can turn, of course, is going to be a matter of psychology. And that's not really something I can speak to with much specificity, but generally speaking, we can shape our we can do something to shape ourselves at any point in life. It's obviously going to be more and more difficult as we get older and as we get kind of more fixed and more down a certain developmental path in every respect.

PAULA: Well, I think one of the reasons why it was particularly interesting to me, Ive been an entrepreneur for 20 years, and in that capacity, you have to do all kinds of things, many of which are your aptitudes, and many of which are your weaknesses. And I've struggled for many years in trying to avoid avoiding what I don't like doing. And I'm wondering if your research can inform me in any way about that.

Mr. SHENK: Avoid avoiding? Yeah, I think...

PAULA: You know what I'm saying?

Mr. SHENK: Yeah, I think I do, and what you're saying jives with what I'm saying, which is that you're going to be best off if you can actually turn into the wind of your weakness and try to understand them.

Of course, we're all dealt all sorts of cards, including our genes and our environment and our, you know, mostly our nutrition and the language you speak and the attitudes we inherit in so many ways from our media and from our parents and, you know, what they got from their parents.

So, all sorts of things go into shaping ourselves before we're actually really making decisions on our own of what we want to do and what we want to be. And so, when we get to that point in our life, whether it's, you know, in adolescence or later, where we decide we want to be a little bit different or we want to pursue something a little bit more vigorously, then of course it's going to be a terrific challenge. And part of the key to that challenge is going to be facing into it and embracing failure and knowing that that it's a process.

That's a big, big key about this is part of the importance of what I'm trying to say on behalf of all these scientists is that - and psychological studies have shown this over and over again, is that when we take it, when we take the philosophy of greatness out of the realm of something that's just been kind of given to us and theres nothing we can do anything about and put it in the realm of malleability and understand that we can actually make somewhat of a difference here, that in itself is a hugely empowering idea and propels us forward.

PAULA: Thank you, that's really good food for thought.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call, Paula. How do you address the apparently you'll excuse the expression, innate gifts of some autistic people? We think of the real "Rain Man," for example, with his ability to deal with numbers. And people will remember we had Temple Grandin on recently, talking about her, she said, ability, born ability to see things in pictures that she did not realize anybody else couldn't do until quite late in life. And, of course, people may have seen the wonderful TV movie about her.

Mr. SHENK: Right. I actually write quite a bit about this in my book, and I don't know if we'll have time to address the whole nuance, but it is actually consistent with what I'm trying to say kind of at the most subtle form.

Now, to be clear, what we call, you know, autistic savants are born with some sort of, you know, pretty severe brain damage or different kind of brain. And that, in turn, will lead them to be pretty severely deficient at some abilities and then - and also to focus and have a tremendous focus on just a couple of narrow abilities. And then it's that focus and that process which then leads to the extraordinary ability.

So I don't know if this is - if people can follow this, but actually that's why one of the world's foremost on savants actually speaks a lot about the possibility of, quote, "the Rain Man in all of us" because it actually ends up being a process, even though there is savants themselves have a certain damage which starts that process. Since we know that we can change our brains, the interior shape of our brains somewhat, we can actually, in a way, mimic what happens among the savant community. And obviously, this is all in degrees.

CONAN: Hmm. Here's a question. Based on what you've learned in writing this book, what do you think about the Harvard Research that says the best way to deal with the achievement gap is to make schools that are mostly middle class, and the lower-income kids will then achieve up?

Mr. SHENK: Well, I think if I can restate that, I think what you're saying is that we need to have higher expectations for kids who are underachieving.

CONAN: And higher achievement norms for kids who are achieving, at the moment, lower.

Mr. SHENK: Yeah. Well, I think that that's absolutely - there's a couple of critical things to say about education, and I should be clear that I actually did not venture very far in education because I was so busy trying to explain the science. And, hopefully, that's kind of a second chapter to this whole conversation that's starting now.

But one is that having high expectations is always crucial. Another is that - and this - I do not envy teachers in this, but it's - the critical thing in a classroom of 20 kids or 30 kids or, God forbid, more than 30 kids is trying to find out the level of all these different kids and hit all of them just slightly above their level - not too far above, because that's going to be discouraging to anyone, certainly not too far below because that's going to feel really boring and be discouraging for a different reason, and also trying to find, in each of these distinct personalities, what gets them going.

So I just - I don't know how you are a successful teacher. That's a complete mystery to me, because it ends up becoming mostly about trying to find the individual level of inspiration and a scaffolding. And to do that kind of among a large group of people is just an inherently very difficult kind of thing. I think we're seeing that with our, you know, with our school challenges today.

CONAN: This email from Paul(ph) in Minneapolis, who says it's a possibly apocryphal story. Somebody once said to Linda Ronstadt, I'd do anything to sing like you. She replied, really? Would you practice three hours a day for 10 years?

Mr. SHENK: You know - and that's not to say that anyone could be anything that they want to be. Obviously, you know, I'm not going to be Michael Jordan, et cetera, et cetera. But there is this theme that emerges when you study the lives of high achievers. And one of them is the extraordinary amount of sacrifice, which is far greater, usually, than what people conceive of. And you imagine - you see this person with what looks like by the time they're, you know, performing at this amazing level, it looks like a natural ability.

But, in fact, most of these people have lived very unusual lives, given up most of what we think of is a healthy, balanced life, given up a lot of relationships, a lot of time spent enjoying and cooking great meals, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, in order to these one thing very, very well - which is to say to a parent or a child who's thinking about wanting to be great, you know, it's more a matter of choice and what kind of level you want to be at and trying to determine the level of sacrifice you want to make in your life than it is just trying to figure out what innate level you were born at.

CONAN: We're talking with David Shenk. His new book: "The Genius in All of Us."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go the Kathleen, Kathleen with us from Clifton, Colorado.

KATHLEEN (Caller): Hi, there. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Thanks for calling.

KATHLEEN: I agree with some of what your guest is saying there. I was born into a family of five. My oldest sibling is my brother, and is a genius in music and composing. He's basically a modern day Mozart - who is, of course, his hero. And I - he was born wanting to be a composer from a very tiny, tiny age. And it was encouraged.

I came from a musical family, or come from a musical family. And our innate abilities that we seemed to exhibit were very much encouraged at home, and sometimes followed through at school, too. And the sacrifices that you were just talking about, I have seen it in his life. He has given up all - just about everything to satisfy the absolute obsessions he seems to be having.

CONAN: There's a scene, Kathleen, in David Shenk's book where he describes Yo-Yo Ma at two years old critiquing his older sister's piano performance note by note.

KATHLEEN: Yes. When he - my brother was 15. He played in some piano competition in Denver, and there were critics from all over whatever. And I wasn't alive then, of course, but this is what happened. I've got an article on it. And the people who were listening to him, the experts, went to my mother and father and said, give him to us for a year. And in a year, he will be a world-renowned pianist. And my mother and father went to him, and he said no. I am composer. And they said, but if you go out and play, you know, become well-known in this way, you'll be able to play all of your own music.

CONAN: Let me just add in this email we have from Peggy in Santa Rosa, California: My mother, the 20th-century composer Vivian Fine, was a musical genius. She began at five as a prodigy and started composing at 13, continuing for the next 68 years, becoming one of the great 20th-century composers. I think a distinction needs to be made between performance genius and creative genius. I'm not sure originality and profundity of my mother's compositional genius could be taught.

David Shenk, we just have a couple of minutes left, but I wondered if you could address Kathleen and Peggy.

Mr. SHENK: Well, there's a lot here that's just very consistent with my book. Where to start? I mean, I think that what's emerging in this conversation is - are insights into all the different developmental pieces here. Obviously, there - you know, in my book, I talk a lot about prodigies. Prodigies, obviously, exist, but it's important to understand what prodigies are and how separate they are from adult performers and how, actually, it ends up being usually two separate groups of people.

Most prodigies don't go on - most very, very early achievers don't go on to be adult super achievers, and there are lots of reasons for that. Most - all very young achievers are achieving a certain level of technical skill and not really any sort of adult-level creative performance. And there are very particular reasons for that.

So there's ways of understanding what all these things are and mostly where they come from, and filling in these kind of mysterious gaps and getting away from, oh, it must be from a particular gene, or what have you.

CONAN: Kathleen, thanks so much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

And, David Shenk, good luck with the book so you can fund the library, the Shenk library, here at National Public Radio.

Mr. SHENK: You've got it. You got it, Neal.

CONAN: Okay. David Shenk's book is "The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ is Wrong."

Coming up, an unlikely advocate for gay marriage. Why is President Bush's former solicitor general now battling to overturn Proposition 8? Ted Olson will join is next. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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Excerpt: 'The Genius In All Of Us'

Cover of 'The Genius In All Of Us'

Chapter One

Genes 2.0

How Genes Really Work

... On their own, most genes cannot be counted on to directly produce specific traits. They are active participants in the developmental process and are built for flexibility. Anyone seeking to describe them as passive instruction manuals is actually minimizing the beauty and power of the genetic design.

So why do I have brown eyes like my mom and red hair like my dad?

In practical terms, there are many elementary physical traits like eye, hair, and skin color where the process is near Mendelian — where certain genes produce predictable outcomes most of the time. But looks can be deceiving; a simple Mendel-like result doesn't mean that there wasn't gene environment interaction. "Even in the case of eye color," says Patrick Bateson, "the notion that the relevant gene is the [only] cause is misconceived, because [of] all the other genetic and environmental ingredients." Indeed, Victor McKusick, the Johns Hopkins geneticist widely regarded as the father of clinical medical genetics, reminds us that in some instances "two blue-eyed parents can produce children with brown eyes." Recessive genes cannot explain such an event; gene-environment interaction can.

When it comes to more complex traits like physical coordination, personality, and verbal intelligence, gene-environment interaction inevitably moves the process even further away from simple Mendelian patterns.

What about single genetic mutations that predictably cause diseases such as Huntington's disease?

Single-gene diseases do exist and account for roughly 5 percent of the total disease burden in developed countries. But it's important not to let such diseases give the wrong impression about how healthy genes work. "A disconnected wire can cause a car to break down," explains Patrick Bateson. "But this does not mean that the wire by itself is responsible for making the car move." Similarly, a genetic defect causing a series of problems does not mean that the healthy version of that gene is single-handedly responsible for normal function.

Helping the public understand gene-environment interaction is a particular burden, because it is so enormously complex. It will never have the same easy, snap-your-fingers resonance that our old (misleading) understanding of genes had for us. Given that, the interactionists are lucky to have Patrick Bateson on their side. A former biological secretary to the Royal Society of London and one of the world's leading public educators about heredity, Bateson also carries a powerful symbolic message with his surname. It was his grandfather's famous cousin, William Bateson, who, a century ago, first coined the word "genetics" and helped popularize the earlier, simpler notion of genes as self-contained information packets that directly produce traits. Now the third-generation Bateson is helping to significantly update that public understanding.

"Genes store information coding for the amino acid sequences of proteins," explains Bateson. "That is all. They do not code for parts of the nervous system and they certainly do not code for particular behavior patterns."

His point is that genes are several steps removed from the process of trait formation. If someone is shot dead with a Smith &Wesson handgun, no one would accuse the guy running the blast furnace that transformed the iron ore into pig iron — which was subsequently transformed into steel and later poured into various molds before being assembled into a Smith & Wesson handgun — of murder. Similarly, no gene has explicit authorship of good or bad vision, long or short legs, or affable or difficult personality. Rather, genes play a crucial role throughout the process. Their information is translated by other actors in the cell and influenced by a wide variety of other signals coming from outside the cell. Certain types of proteins are then formed, which become other cells and tissues and ultimately make us who we are. The step-by-step distance between a gene and a trait will depend on the complexity of the trait. The more complex the trait, the farther any one gene is from direct instruction. This process continues throughout one's entire life.

Height can provide a terrific insight into the gene-environment dynamic. Most of us think of height as being more or less directly genetically determined. The reality is so much more interesting. One of the most striking early hints of the new understanding of development as a dynamic process emerged in 1957 when Stanford School of Medicine researcher William Walter Greulich measured the heights of Japanese children raised in California and compared them to the heights of Japanese children raised in Japan during the same time period. The California-raised kids, with significantly better nourishment and medical care, grew an astonishing five inches taller on average. Same gene pool, different environment — radically different stature. Greulich didn't realize this at the time, but it was a perfect illustration of how genes really work: not dictating any predetermined forms or figures, but interacting vigorously with the outside world to produce an improvised, unique result.

It turns out that a wide varied of environmental elements will affect the genetic expression of height: a single case of diarrhea or measles, for example, or deficiencies in any one of dozens of nutrients. In Western cultures of the twenty-first century, we tend to assume a natural evolutionary trend of increased height with each generation, but in truth human height has fluctuated dramatically over time in specific response to changes in diet, climate, and disease. Most surprising of all, height experts have determined that, biologically, very few ethnic groups are truly destined to be taller or smaller than other groups. While this general rule has some exceptions, "by and large," sums up The New Yorker's Burkhard Bilger, "any population can grow as tall as any other . . . Mexicans ought to be tall and slender. Yet they're so often stunted by poor diet and diseases that we assume they were born to be small."

Born to be small. Born to be smart. Born to play music. Born to play basketball. It's a seductive assumption, one that we've all made. But when one looks behind the genetic curtain, it most often turns out not to be true.

Excerpted from The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk Copyright © 2010 by David Shenk. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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