Sunday, May 2, 2010

Talent, Genius, and Genes

In a piece for the Observer, Robin McKie asks David Shenk a few questions anent Shenk's The Genius in All of Us (link thanks to oursin). McKie begins:
Talent is like the marksman who hits the target others cannot reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target others cannot even see. Thus Arthur Schopenhauer defined the concept of genius – as a gift displayed by semi-mystic beings whose innate qualities sets them apart from other mortals. Mozart, Einstein, Newton, George Best: all were blessed by their genes and achieved a greatness that the rest of us cannot hope to possess.
Shenk's book takes issue with the gift being "innate" and argues that the amount of work that one does has everything to do with being great at what one does.
McKie: Most people look at child geniuses like Mozart and conclude that his gifts had to be the result of fortuitous genes. Presumably you disagree?

Shenk: Every piece of evidence we have about how genes work, how brains work, where musicality actually comes from, are consistent with the idea that there is nothing that mysterious about Mozart. I am not trying to diminish his achievements, of course. But the more you look at his life, or the life of any other genius, you realise that this was a process. He reacted to an environment that was almost uniquely perfect for moulding him into a child star.

The myth of Mozart's innate talent persists because people conflate different things in his life. We know he was interested in composing early on and we know he was a prodigy as a performer. The untrained mind reacts by concluding he was born that way. And that kind of reaction has been going for a century. Every time we are confronted with prodigious talent, we say it must be genes because we cannot think of any other explanation. In fact, in the case of Mozart, it is clear his upbringing was also remarkable in terms of stimulating his abilities.

The trouble is that this problem is getting worse. The more we read about new genes being discovered for human conditions, the more our belief in genetic determinism gets stronger. Yet the vast majority of geneticists would not want that to happen.
Oursin notes that Mozart's sister offers a point of comparison confirming Shenk's point. And of course Felix Mendelssohn's sister Fanny would be another. And maybe this would be a good place to allude to Virginia Woolf's famous speculation on "Judith Shakespeare" in A Room of One's Own?

I found this bit the most interesting, though, since it goes right to the heart of how the US educational system loads the dice:
Shenk: Our genes influence our lives, but equally our lives influence our genes. And I think that that has important implications. Certainly, in the US, we tend to quietly give in to the suspicion that some people are not as capable of being educated as others.

The thing is that if we decide that we need to do a lot more to exploit human talent, then we will all benefit. These things take resources, of course. But the overall message is clear. Our problem is not that we possess inadequate genetic assets but that we are suffering from an inability, so far, to tap into what we already have.

Few of us know our true limits and the vast majority of us have not even come close to tapping what scientists call our "unactualised potential".
Fatalism, I've always thought, is the most insidious form of despair. It's endemic here in the US. Does belief in "unactualized potential" sound utopian? Well, it is. But that doesn't make it impossible. (Only just improbable.)


Athena Andreadis said...

Shenk's book is interesting. I found out about it and read it just after filing an article with H+ Magazine that discusses an overlapping issue:

Miranda Wrongs: Reading too Much into the Genome

Vandana Singh said...

Shenk's ideas seem to be consistent with those of Carol Dweck, the Stanford U psychologist who has been making waves in education through her book Mindset, which is a popular account of the results of her research. I find these ideas inspiring in my attempts to convince students that they can actually do physics. Coming from another educational system (the Indian one has its issues too but they are not all the same issues) I find the US educational system in grade school to have very low standards and indulge in dangerous labeling.