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The Author Speaks

Just How Smart Am I?

An interview with David Shenk, author of 'The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ is Wrong'


— Doubleday Publishing

Q. How so?

A. What they have shown recently is that it’s hard to find a trait, a simple or complex trait in humans that doesn’t have significant genetic influence. You can’t make that blanket statement that people did 25 years ago that genes had no influence on intelligence or talent.

Q. OK ...

A. But the problem is that then they take it way, way beyond that. They’re actually looking at these statistical numbers and saying, for example, 60 percent of intelligence is genetic. That’s like saying 60 percent of Shakespeare’s brilliance comes from adjectives. You can’t separate out other influences. That’s not the way biology works.

Q. Because twins, especially by the time they’re adults, won’t necessarily have had the same influences or opportunities?

A. Right. You can’t say what an individual is capable of because you don’t know until he finds himself in the right circumstances, regardless of ability. If the stars align, there’s no telling what is possible.

Q. Even for someone older? Say a 50-year-old wanted to start playing the piano.

A. It’s tougher. But the brain is still plastic at 50 and there are still muscles to build there. If anything, the science is stronger in that regard.

Q. What advantage might age give you?

A. I don’t think it makes the hard work any easier in terms of practicing. But in terms of making intelligent judgment, you have a lot more perception about what you need to do, what you don’t, what’s important and what’s not. Music is a great example. Unless you’ve lived in a cave, your ear is a lot better. Also with the creative arts and scientific endeavors, the wisdom and experience component is a powerful one.

Q. How have our IQ scores influenced our views on intelligence?

A. I think you could make the case that the current over-50 crowd has been a primary victim of the ideology that the IQ test is an insight into your fixed, innate intelligence. That became the central ideology of intelligence for the entire 20th century. And once you grow up with a certain idea of what you’re made of, how smart you are, it becomes fundamental to you.

Q. What, then, does an IQ test measure?

A. It measures your current academic abilities, and it does a good job of doing that. The IQ tests are well produced and measure abstract reasoning and assorted academic abilities, which are skills that people have accrued up to the point they are tested.

Q. Why have IQ scores risen over the last century?

A. We’re thinking better. More than 100 years ago, there wasn’t a heck of a lot of abstract thought. There were intellectuals that could think abstractly, but the common parlance didn’t include phrases and concepts that were strong on abstract thought. Over time, we actually have become a more intellectual culture.

Q. What is talent?

A. Any ability is a process that involves building up skills. And we have to have the resources, right attitude, lots of things have to come together. They often don’t, even if the desire is there.

Q. And time?

A. A big factor. You have to have lots of it. Some people simply can’t afford that.

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