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Book Review: The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong by David Shenk

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According to David Shenk, no one is born a genius. Nor are special talents the result of inspiration or to be attributed to "giftedness." His premise, backed by a plethora of impressive studies in disparate disciplines, is that outstanding performance in any field is mostly the result of practice. Think of the cute and amazing child violinists, graduates of the Suzuki Method.

Perhaps that is too simplified. Outstanding achievement, he explains, is the result of a process, the interactions of genes and their environments: G x E, with the emphasis on the interactions. He says most all of us can display genius, thus firing up the Human Potential Movement once more.

But first, a word about what contributes to the aura of authenticity surrounding Shenk's new work. The text covers less than 134 pages of the 302-page production by Doubleday Publishing. It may well win a prize for the highest back-matter-to-text ratio, as well as the longest subtitle of the year award. There's no denying the great effort that went into assembling and assimilating research studies from education, psychology, biology, and genetics reported in books, journals, and online. Even from television and conversations.

Shenk says it took him about three years to track down this material, develop his "new paradigm" of thinking and present it in book form. Three years is not a long time to research, review, and write a nonfiction book, especially one involving the leading edges of scientific topics. But one must wonder about the author's claim to "routinely write and rewrite a sentence, paragraph and/or chapter 20, 30, 40 times" seeking satisfaction. Or is it perfectionism?

I've never rewritten anything more than three times, but then I'm not great, only cursed with the label "gifted" and familiar with others who have high IQs. My first reaction to reading about Shenk's book was to wonder how fellow Mensans would react to the "new paradigm" — two words that he uses ad nauseum. Giving up the identity of being "gifted" might be difficult, especially for those who have nothing else going for them.

Worse yet, he demolishes some of the foundations of my higher education in Psychology as recent as 1993 when professors still taught that intelligence was an inherited trait, just like eye color and height. Worse yet, some insisted that intelligence varied by race, a shock to my liberal left leanings.

Shenk approaches the issues surrounding talent, giftedness, IQ as if most of us were born as equally clean slates, full of potential only needing development. But it is a special kind of a process that produces the high achievers (or any achievement?) If anyone can develop any talent (like one for taking IQ tests, no matter if they measure nothing definable) by dint of a lucky coincidence of genetic and environmental interactions, then anyone can qualify for Mensa — but they don't. Less than 98% of any population that takes any standard IQ test measures higher than the arbitrary cutoff score for membership.

Shenk might argue that they just didn't try hard enough — needing the special training and "deliberate practice" he lists as key factors in developing high achievers, along with a mysterious superdrive like Ted Williams had for practicing hitting baseballs. He might also suggest that those who don't hit the 98th percentile in IQ just haven't tested their limits yet. (How many IQ tests would it take? How do you study for an IQ test?) And how does this notion of limits square with Shenk's initial arguments that most all of us have endless potential?

Indeed, after demolishing the ideas that outstanding talent and IQ are inborn, then describing how anyone can achieve greatness, he ends with this cryptic statement:

"Somewhere in a freshman writing class, a kid with more ability than I'll ever have is wondering if he could ever write books for a living. The answer is yes, if he never gives up and is lucky enough to get with the right people." (Italics mine.) It seems that words like "ability" and "limitations" have rather vague, shifty definitions, given their various uses.

Many disbelievers in Shenk's theory are disputing it and arguing with him online. On the book's page at Amazon, you'll find an amazing array of customer reviews and a video that you can link to directly. A Google Search on the author's name will lead you to many sites where these issues are debated.  Some people accuse Shenk of misinterpreting the studies he used and others point to faulty logic.  The blizzard of data cited in the book tends to obscure the reality that he is theorizing a posteriori or post facto (after the facts), a practice frowned upon in research.

Despite all the high level scientific mumbo jumbo cited in the book, it is easy to read.  Shenk writes in a very approachable everyday conversational style, which may have been just what the publisher wanted. Apparently with no advanced degree to boost credibility and no authoritative co-author, Shenk has pulled off a good one. The end notes are a fascinating read, and the bibliography provides a long term reading list.

Too bad he came to an inaccurate conclusion.  All my 66 years of experience with giftedness, achievement (or lack or it), and people at the far-out end of the IQ spectrum provide a strong gut feeling of wrongness about The Genius in All of Us.

Perhaps journalists should stick to reporting the news from areas like epigenetics and cognitive science and the psychology of high achievement instead of creating a mashup that offers false hope and clashes with the realities of human life.

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About Georganna Hancock

San Diego publisher, freelance editor and writer, blogged almost daily for eight years at A WRITERS EDGE. She helps writers on the path to writing success with critiques, edits and publishing advice. Find her author page on Amazon and her epublications in her Amazon Shop. Her business profile is on LinkedIn and her tweets on Twitter, where she's aka @GLHancock. Georganna's first writing appeared in print in the 1960s. She worked as a journalist for many years. She reviewed books for the FORT PIERCE NEWS TRIBUNE and THE LOUISVILLE COURIER-JOURNAL and wrote for THE MIAMI HERALD, regional publications, and many national magazines. She was a member of the National Book Critics Circle, the San Diego Professional Editors Network and the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild, for which she served as Web Manager. Books reviewed may have been received as gifts. All her writings are protected by U.S. copyright law.
  • http://geniusblog.davidshenk.com David Shenk

    Hi Georganna,

    Thanks for your consideration of my book and sorry it didn’t resonate with your personal experience.

    I have to admit that I was very surprised to read that, “Shenk approaches the issues surrounding talent, giftedness, IQ as if most of us were born as equally clean slates…”

    Surprised, because three times in the book I explicitly distance my ideas from the outdated notion of the blank slate, including this passage:

    “Nothing in this book, therefore, is meant to suggest that any of us have complete control over our lives or abilities—or that we are anything close to a blank slate. Rather, our task now is to replace the simplistic notions of “giftedness” and “nature/nurture” with a new landscape: a vast array of influences, many of which are largely out of our control but some of which we can hope to influence as we increase our understanding.”

    I also write in the book’s Introduction: “This is not to say that we don’t have important genetic differences among us, yielding advantages and disadvantages. Of course we do, and those differences have profound consequences.”

    I do think the public is capable of understanding that genes obviously have influence but don’t determine our abilities directly, and that describing the intelligence as a process isn’t the same thing as saying that we can completely control that process.

    I also wonder if it would have been reasonable — since you mention some nameless online criticism of my interpretation of the science — for you to mention as well that the book has been endorsed by a number of extremely prominent scientists and award-winning science writers.

    I’d be happy to discuss any of this further, online or privately. I’d be curious to hear more about which parts of the book you think I got wrong.

    best,

    David Shenk

  • http://www.writers-edge.info/ Georganna Hancock

    Undoubtedly my ramblings were unclear. I wrote from an emotional perspective rather than an intellectual analysis. Perhaps I should have used a term like “equal slates” or not mentioned slates at all, since that seems to be a hot spot, as is “nature vs. nurture”, a phrase which you do, indeed, demolish.

    Simplification runs the risk of leaving out aspects that another person feels are important or that refute a stance. It appears to me that THE GENIUS IN ALL OF US builds support for the idea that almost anyone can develop any talent, and then the writing waffles and fudges the point with passages like the ones you cite here.

    Did I get that wrong? Perhaps all the hype and positive testimonials–that are difficult to miss–skewed my impression of the thrust of the work. I purposefully did not identify other naysayers because I do not want to fuel further dispute over Herrnstein & Murray’s ideas, at least not now.

    Anyone who visits the book’s page on Amazon can find general support for it and for parts of it as well as the popular science writing. I don’t see anyone standing up for the main idea and shouting, “He’s got it! This is revolutionary thinking, and we must design confirmatory studies right away to prove this theory.”

    I’m still hoping to obtain responses from Mensans, especially ones who can articulate better where the logic fails and results are misinterpreted. Or not. That’s a conversation I’d like to share with you.

    I plan to elaborate this review with more personal material, especially about my experiences with giftedness and Mensans, in another review available in the Kindle Store on Amazon. I’ll be happy to send you a copy.

    Thank you for your time and attention. I’m flattered that you’d bother to find my little blog and respond there.

    I do appreciate and admire all the research, notes and citations your book provides. My readers know I’m a big fan of back matter. In that, THE GENIUS IN ALL OF US certainly satisfies.