ASK THE EXPERT
In The Genius in All of Us, author DAVID SHENK debunks long-held
notion that geniuses are born and that genetics dictate greatness.
According to Shenk, our DNA does not determine our ability to excel
and succeed. In fact, he argues that “our problem isn’t our inadequate
genetic assets but our inability, so far, to tap into what we already
have.” So if DNA alone does not make us geniuses, the next logical
question is: How much of a factor does environment play? Shenk
offers some thought-provoking insights.
Pulse: What inspired you to write this book?
David Shenk: In my experience, books find the author. In
researching my last book, about the extraordinary history of
extraordinary chess players, I stumbled onto the whole new field
of “expertise studies.” It amazed me how little was publicly
known about this new research. It was a story that had to be told.
P: Based on your research, what do you think is the biggest
myth told about our genes?
S: Scientists have been updating their understanding of
genetics for a hundred years, but very little of
that new understanding has gotten out to the
rest of us. The general public is still stuck with
the very old notion that genes contain direct
blueprint designs for traits—our eye color, height,
intelligence, musicality, athleticism, etc. The truth
is that genes contain information about how
proteins are constructed, and nothing more. How
that information turns into the actual construction
of traits is a complex process that involves critical
input from the environment. The notion of “innate”
gifts is a flawed one.
P: Can you cite a few pieces of research that support the
epigenetics or gene expression model?
S: My book cites hundreds of pieces of research—in fact, the
entire back half of the book is a compendium of citations. Forced
to pick a single scientific article, I would choose “Nature, nurture,
and the disunity of knowledge,” published in 2001 in the Annals
of the New York Academy of Sciences, by Michael Meaney, who
is the director, program for the study of genes, behavior and the
environment at McGill University. According to Meaney, “there
are no genetic factors that can be studied independently of the
environment.” He continues to elaborate that “there are no
environmental factors that function independently of the
genome” and that [a trait] “emerges only from the interaction of
gene and en