Sunday, August 28, 2011

Review of "The Genius in All of Us"

Subtitled "Why everything you've been told about genetics, talent, and IQ is wrong" by David Shenk.

I first saw this book at a swim meet. A parent sharing at our table was reading it and I dismissed it based on the cover main title alone. Through a discussion with the reader's wife she asked me "Are you judging a book by it's cover." My prejudice was exposed therefore I was determined to read it if only for penance.

I recommend this book especially since it is only 134 pages (with 168 pages of notes and bibliography). It starts with a story about Ted Williams that shows the dedication it took for him to become the best hitter in baseball. This theme is repeated many times.The author introduces you to the developmental systems theorists concept of GxE (genes times environment). The book attempts to debunk the myth that your abilities (and to some degree who you are) are mainly determined by genes. GxE will admit genes play a role, but that the choices one makes have a far greater impact than genes.

He then beats up Lewis Terman, but anyone who has read "Outliers" already knows the punch line: you can't predict the future based on some test, specifically one as limited as IQ. He lists some environmental triggers that I like:
  • Speaking to children early and often
  • Reading early an often
  • Nurturance and encouragement
  • Setting high expectations
  • Embracing failure
  • Encouraging a "growth mindset"
Next he introduces us to the with the work of Dr. K. Anders Ericcson. Ericsson and William Chase did studies on improving memory of "average" students. They concluded "With practice there is seemingly no limit to memory performance." From there he articulates the various myths people have spouted over the years about genius; focusing on Mozart (BTW his father was obsessed with making him the greatest composer in Europe as he had failed). He provides these themes for greatness:
    • Practice changes your body
    • Skills are specific
    • The brain drives the brawn
    • Practice style is crucial
    • Short-term intensity cannot replace long-term commitment
    Then he dives into a famous twin study (from 1981) that "proved scientifically" that genes determine 60% of intelligence and personality; 40-66% of motor skills and 21% of creativity. In case you haven't already guessed the author rips holes in this study and explains the results using GxE theory. Next he lists some emergent ideas from genetic testing of  high performers (Kenya long distance runners, Navy SEALS, Jamaican sprinters, etc):
    1. Despite appearance to the contrary, racial and ethical groups are NOT genetically discrete
    2. Genes don't directly cause traits; they only influence the system
    Guiding principles suggested by author for people who wish to be great:
    • Find your motivation
    • Be your own toughest critic
    • Beware the dark side (bitterness and blame)
    • Identify your limitations; then ignore them
    • Delay gratification and resist contentedness
    • Have heroes
    • Find a mentor
    More recommendations by the author on how to ruin (or inspire) a kid:
    1. Believe
    2. Support, don't smother
    3. Pace and persist
    4. Embrace failure
    His final point is: "Lifestyle can alter heredity."

    I admit I was surprised how much I didn't know about recent theory. I knew IQ tests were bogus. I had read Gladwell's "Outliers" and knew of his 10,000 rule, but I still held on to this idea that my genes had a lot to due to who I was. Reading this book didn't change my outlook on life, but it did change some of the dialogue around it.