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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


En español | Do you know someone who was born to play the piano? Or has a knack for numbers? Or possesses the perfect golf swing?

And then do you shrug your shoulders, believing such talents must be in the genes?

Well, you’d be dead wrong, says David Shenk, author of The Genius in All of Us. In his latest book, Shenk distills the latest scientific research—the research that scientists are too busy to tell us about because they’re absorbed in their research, Shenk says—and explains how an intricate cocktail of factors can determine the difference between playing at Carnegie Hall and teaching piano lessons to fourth graders. And genes are only a small portion of the mix.

But if pure genes, then, aren’t the great determiners of talent, intelligence and certain success, perhaps anyone, regardless of age, can be optimistic about learning, and even perfecting, new tricks.

Oh, yes, says Shenk. Very optimistic. He explained to the AARP Bulletin what science is telling us about intelligence.

(Read an excerpt from The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About, Genetics, Talent, and IQ is Wrong)

Q. How have we generally viewed talent?

A. The old thinking is there is innate intelligence and innate talent and that it comes to us through our genes. There’s also the idea of nature and nurture, and that they are separate. You get your nature first—it’s your rough stone and it comes with a certain level of intelligence and other abilities. Your nurture is your chance to make the most of what you’re born with.

Q. What is wrong with this?

A. What scientists are helping us to understand is—and it’s going to take a while to sink in—you can’t really separate out the nature part. There is no pure genetic bequest of intelligence, or any ability, because the genes really do get activated and interact with the environment from the first moment we’re conceived and throughout the rest of our lives.

Q. What is the role of our genes, then?

A. It’s the way those genes lead to differences that is really important to understand. I think we’re under this illusion—that actually seems to have increased over recent years—that if you were able to clone yourself, your clone would have the same traits that you have. But that’s not how genes work.

Q. What would you get if you cloned a human?

A. Not the same person. Identical twins may look alike but that’s not what a human clone would be at all. With 100 percent of the same genetic material, clones would have similarities. But even basics, like hair, face, height, would all be different because of that gene-environment interaction.

Q. Suddenly cloning humans is not quite as creepy.

A. Cloning doesn’t have the extreme reach as we think it has. A pet owner in Texas cloned her cat Rainbow in 2001, which gave us a great realistic example. The differences in the two pets are staggering.

Q. What does studying twins reveal about genetics?

A. Twin studies are incredibly misleading and even abusive to your understanding of genetics.

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