06 September 2010
Eastman Dental Hospital, UCLH NHS Foundation TrustAppeared in BioNews 574
The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genes, Talent and Intelligence is Wrong
By David Shenk
Published by Icon Books
ISBN-10: 1848311370, ISBN-13: 978-1848311374
Buy this book from Amazon UK
David Shenk's book sets out its stall as an exploration and explanation of the nature of 'genius'. You'll be encouraged to know that we can all be one if we really want; hence the title. I'd like to suggest, though, that it really tells us something about the nature of 'science'. Namely that despite how science likes to represent itself, it is manifestly not an objective enterprise, only properly done when scientists see the world 'essentially as it is' and not through the dark lens of their own psychology and culture.
The author's thesis is that we have been grievously misled by science, particularly by genetics, into believing that our various abilities or the limits on them are fixed by our genes. In other words that whatever talent we have, or lack of it for that matter, is something we are born with. It is already hard-wired into us before we begin experiencing the world. He quotes from Herrnstein and Murray's best-selling book 'The Bell Curve' where they say: 'Putting it all together, success and failure in the American economy, and all that goes with it, are increasingly a matter of the genes that people inherit'.
The reality, Shenk argues, is exactly the opposite. When I was much younger than I am now there was a joke that went like this. Old lady, lost in London, to hippy: 'How do I get to the Albert Hall, young man?'Hippy: 'Practice, ma'am, practice'. In a nutshell, that's David Shenk's book. It is worth pointing out that Stephen Jay Gould roundly rubbished 'The Bell Curve' in his own scholarly and compelling book, 'The Mismeasure of Man' and what he described as: '… the theory of unitary, genetically based unchangeable intelligence'.
However, it is important to clear one thing out of the way. Whatever its title, this is not really a book about 'genius'. It isn't even about 'creativity'. It is about skills. And mostly about skills which, however prodigiously developed, are fairly circumscribed like being a long-distance runner, an Olympic rower or an international table tennis champion - or maybe even an art expert.
I pulled this quote by Brian Sewell out of the Evening Standard recently: 'The man who matters is the man with an eye - and by eye is meant a man whose instinct for the rightness and wrongness of pictures is informed by a prodigious visual memory, whose brain and stomach respond like Geiger counters, whose intuitive judgement is a thousand times more accurate than any instrument of academe...'In other words, the 'man who matters' has put in a huge amount of time - not only looking at pictures - but 'observing' what's in them - to borrow from Sherlock Holmes - and remembering what he has observed.
It has been said often enough that, '…hard work is good, but it is no substitute for talent'. David Shenk begs to differ. In fact he believes that 'talent' is really just the result of hard work. The problem with this view, as he freely admits though, is that it asks as many questions as it (possibly) answers. How do you (or someone else) 'choose' what to practice at? How do you learn to practice effectively? Do your circumstances let you practice the number of necessary hours? What are you prepared to give up for your art?
Olympic table-tennis champion, Matthew Syed writing in his book, 'How Champion Are Made' said about this: 'In 1978, my parents, for reasons they are still unable to explain, decided to buy a full-size tournament specification table-tennis table'. Lara Omeroglu, the sixteen year old pianist and 2010 BBC young musician of the year comes from a strong musical family, has an older sister whose piano playing she emulated when still an infant, attends the specialist music Purcell School - and practises six hours a day, every day. World-class, mezzo-soprano, Alice Coote, recently asked: 'Who or what have you sacrificed for your art?' replied: 'Golly - I've pretty much sacrificed everything: time with my parents; a home life: my own personal happiness'.
But isn't all this self-evident? Why should scientists, whether geneticists or psychologists, think they have any insights to offer us about why some people are good at things and others aren't? One reason is they want their contribution to knowledge, however small it is, to be important. It is natural enough to want to stretch the significance of what you see as a novel insight to providing a solution for a big problem, and no problem is bigger than that of people's abilities. Another is scientists tend to be ignorant of what goes on outside their own bit of research. So they don't know that what they are discovering is already known.
The author refers to psychologists discovering that people with outstanding memories have developed 'strategies' for remembering. Sure they have. Any society for which a trained memory is of vital importance has developed memory systems. Think about the Ancient Greeks. Read Frances Yates's masterly book, 'The Art of Memory'. Scientists don't care about history. They think it is just mistakes that they are correcting.
The impression the book creates is, that at least with the benefit of hindsight, the doctrine that 'talents equal genes' was an aunt sally that had to be stood up before it could be knocked down. Of course the question of the roots of genius remains. Skills are one thing. The great thing about athletic skills is that they can be measured, for instance.
But, to return to the book's title, genius is surely much more elusive and much more subjectively attributed. David Schenk points out the unusual early lives of Mozart and Beethoven were the keys to their genius. It may be true, but we need a lot more evidence than is presented here. The whole point of genius - surely - is the extent to which it breaks, or breaks out of, what was thought to be good at the time. It represents discontinuity. The important question may well be - not what is and makes a genius - but what makes us think they are one. Could science answer that?
Buy The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genes, Talent and Intelligence is Wrong from Amazon UK.