The Surprising Truth About Genes and Ability

March 29th, 2010, by DAVID SHENK

In 1994, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray warned us in The Bell Curve that “genetic partitioning” was increasingly responsible for economic and intellectual disparity. “Success and failure in the American economy, and all that goes with it,” they wrote, “are increasingly a matter of the genes that people inherit.”

They were neither the first nor the last to insist in the idea of a genetic underclass. In fact, we’ve all been taught to think that humans are somewhat segregated from one another by lucky and unlucky batches of good and bad genes. Some groups, or random individuals, are said to be genetically less intelligent than others, while other groups have gene-driven athletic or musical or artistic ability.
I believe science now strongly suggests that this gene-gift paradigm, which so powerfully has shaped our thinking for a century, is fundamentally incorrect. There is no genetic underclass or overclass, and most of us are not genetically doomed to mediocrity. Quite to the contrary: the human genome that we all share is itself designed to respond to challenges and demands, and that — as Cornell University developmental psychologist Stephen Ceci says — “We have no way of knowing how much unactualized genetic potential exists.”

Because we have been trained to think about “nature vs. nurture” in such stark terms, a lot of people will read the above statement and think that I’m just trying to swing us back to the nurture side of the argument and am denying the influence of genes. But I’m really not.

There’s a whole new way to think about these matters, one which embraces genetic differences and their profound influence. We now have an opportunity to help the general public understand what geneticists and most other scientists have already understood about genes for years: that all genetic influence happens in dynamic interaction with environmental inputs.

“There are no genetic factors that can be studied independently of the environment,” explains McGill University’s Michael Meaney. “And there are no environmental factors that function independently of the genome. [A trait] emerges only from the interaction of gene and environment.”
Genes are not like robot actors who always say the same lines in the exact same way. It turns out that they interact with their surroundings and can say different things depending on whom they are talking to. This obliterates the long-standing metaphor of genes as blueprints with elaborate predesigned instructions for eye color, thumb size, mathematical quickness, musical sensitivity, etc. Instead, genes are more like volume knobs and switches that get turned up/down/on/off at any time — by another gene or by any minuscule environmental input.

This flipping and turning takes place constantly. It begins the moment a child is conceived and doesn’t stop until she takes her last breath. Rather than giving us hardwired instructions on how a trait must be expressed, this process of gene-environment interaction drives a unique developmental path for every unique individual.

And here’s the best part: we can impact that process. We can’t ever control it completely, of course, but as parents, as teachers, and as a culture, we can impact it. I was thrilled to talk to Tavis about how this works. It begins with an understanding of what genes really are, and continues with revelations about the real sources of intelligence and abilities.

David Shenk is an award-winning author of six books. His most recent, The Genius in All of Us, has been hailed by The New York Times as “deeply interesting and important.” For more about Shenk and his book, visit GeniusBlog.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 11:07 am