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Unread May 16th, 2010, 01:50 AM
ToddStark ToddStark is offline
Join Date: Jul 2004
Posts: 174
Post Review of "The Genius In All Of Us" by David Shenk

Hi Jim,

I hope things are going well and you don't mind me posting a recent review of mine here to get your thoughts. I thought of you a lot while writing it.
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A link to the Amazon review (which I've revised since posting this version)

A review of "The Genius in All of Us," David Shenk (2010), Doubleday.
by Todd I. Stark

Shenk's book is a very good deconstruction of hereditary talent, a competent but one-sided review of supporting research in several fields, and an interesting but abbreviated practical introduction to the interactionist (gene X environment) paradigm of development.

I wanted to love this book because I agree with a lot of what the author says and have very similar interests, but it has some serious gaps. The gaps mostly stem from its emphasis on deconstruction rather than scholarship, and especially because it avoids filling the hole it leaves by attacking heredity. In particular Shenk avoids discussing some of the most fascinating aspects of the interactionist paradigm such as the way we tend to construct niches for ourselves in line with our own genes over the course of our lives.

There are two rhetorical objectives to this book: (1) it is a deconstruction of the concept of hereditary talent, and (2) it is a presentation of the interactionist (gene x environment) developmental model.

The first objective is done admirably well I think. Shenk looks at talent from the perspective of developmental genetics, psychometric testing, expertise, behavior genetics, prodigies and savants, and group differences. In each case, he shows how research in each field leaves significant room for plasticity during human development and how heredity surely influences but does not constrain human development. He has a number of interesting examples of how the appearance of hereditary talent is actually an illusion in various situations where it appears aat first to be obvious that someone was born with some special gift. In every case he surveys, Shenk finds that the exceptional performer was actually motivated to work very hard to master their subject. It is motivation and persistence that explain exceptionality, Shenk finds, not gifts of ability.

Shenk offers this as the "new paradigm" of interactionism although serious interest in this model actually goes back quite a while. Shenk is right however that it has been slow to be widely recognized and applied as such.

I think Shenk may overstate the case against hereditary talent just a little bit in spots. He seems reluctant to even concede that there are such things as predispositions for particular kinds of interests. That's a mistake because the very model of gene x environment interaction that Shenk bases his arguments on assumes that people tend to construct niches for themselves that fit their genetic predispositions. That's how they explain things like the increasing heritability of IQ over a person's lifetime. People tend to build environments for themselves that increasingly fit their genes.

I'm speculating that Shenk is so focused on deconstructing talent that he would consider this to weaken his case. I don't think he needs to be worried, predispositions to interests in some form don't constrain us in the sense Shenk is concerned about and they do potentially explain a great deal that Shenk leaves unexplained, such as the origin of the "rage to master" that is found on close observation of prodigies and savants.

The second objective, the one most reviewers seem most fascinated by, is actually more weakly accomplished in my opinion. The problem here is that Shenk accomplished the first objective of deconstructing talent so well and that detracts from the second effort. Deconstruction really requires us to take a concept assumed to be a cultural construction, show how it was constructed, show from all sorts of angles why it can't be relied upon, and then celebrate about why we are better off without using it. This is exactly what Shenk does so well with hereditary talent. But deconstruction requires a forceful one-sided argument, not a balanced scholarly treatment of pros and cons. Shenk admits deliberately taking a one-sided approach to his subject and most reviewers seem ok with it.

Conceding that the concept actually has some valid uses that can still be salvaged significantly weakens a deconstruction and Shenk is a good deconstructionist. When social activists deconstruct race or gender they don't deny the obvious, they just avoid talking about it. They deliberately avoid the obvious fact that people have different features and skin tones and have different sex organs and chromosomes because those things are assumed better explained by other concepts. In the same style, Shenk doesn't deny that people have personalities and interests and eventually even talents, he just doesn't want the obvious to weaken his argument that there is nothing fixed in our genes about these things.

In deconstructing talent, Shenk leaves no room to think about what little the scandalously politically incorrect Galton, Spearman, and Terman might have somehow gotten right, what stable developmental trajectories genes might actually provide us under a wide range of environments, and what sorts of things the people Shenk cites favorably might actually disagree with him about.

For example, foremost intelligence researcher Robert Sternberg, frequently quoted by Shenk, does not share his view that psychometric testing is a farce. He knows well that it pigeonholes people when abused (as it was once used against him personally) but he is also a stellar scholar and recognizes that it does tell us something real about human abilities. Sternberg's view is in line with the expert consensus Shenk seems to want to elevate himself above and beyond, that psychometric testing reveals something real even though it is really only a small part of thinking ability. Sternberg distinguishes psychometric IQ from practical intelligence and creative intelligence in his triarchic model. Shenk doesn't even want to admit that such a thing as Sternberg's concept of analytic intelligence has any meaning ,just as he is reluctant to talk about how genes may lead us to construct niches in line with those same genes.

Related Reading:

See also this classic manifesto of genetic interactionism: [[ASIN:0674006771 The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment]](Lewontin R (1998/2000) Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, Environment. Cambridge, MA, Harvard)

This superb earlier popular introduction to the emerging model Shenk offers: [[ASIN:006000679X The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture]](Ridley, The Agile Gene)

This similar but somewhat more constructive treatment of trait development in interactionist terms: [[ASIN:1932594507 The Temperamental Thread: How Genes, Culture, Time and Luck make Us Who We Are]](kagan, temperamental thread)

This alternative and original interactionist account of how personality develops: [[ASIN:0393329712 No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality]] (Judith rich harris no two alike)

This interesting challenge to some of Shenk's perspective on genetic influence: [[ASIN:0471319228 Stranger in the Nest: Do Parents Really Shape Their Child's Personality, Intelligence, or Character?]](Stranger in the Nest, D. Cohen)

This little known treasure by an old friend that offers its own unique challenges about human uniqueness and what it means: [[ASIN:0595429556 rebellion: physics to personal will]] (Brody, Rebellion)

And finally this wonderful broad account of biology and the role of heredity that appreciates the complexities of gene function in a demanding but uniquely engaging way: [[ASIN:0691000425 The Logic of Life]](The logic of life, francois jacob)

Last edited by ToddStark; May 20th, 2010 at 10:40 PM. Reason: Added link to Amazon review.
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Unread May 16th, 2010, 04:12 PM
James Brody James Brody is offline
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Join Date: Jun 2004
Location: Philadelphia area
Posts: 1,143
Cool Re: Review of "The Genius In All Of Us" by David Shenk

Synchrony between similar minds is a fact and usually a blessing - it simplifies for every one of us making worlds that suit our nature. Facebook, for example, gives me lots of "friends" that I have never and never will meet. And my acceptance rate for making friends with total strangers is about 90%. No surprise because I started with a few conservative republicans who led (and lead) to hundreds of other conservatives...all of whom believe in self determination.

There is also a burst of conservative newsletter and its site sometimes carries a paragraph that I can link to a book review on BoL. And there are sometimes hints that the traffic goes two ways.

Thanks for your review...Sowell gives me magnificent reasons for me not to believe Schenk!

Stay in touch....

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Unread May 17th, 2010, 12:06 AM
ToddStark ToddStark is offline
Join Date: Jul 2004
Posts: 174
Default Re: Review of "The Genius In All Of Us" by David Shenk

Shenk's message is more nuanced that it first appears, and the title belies it a bit. He draws from Patrick Bateson's idea of alternative developmental trajectories and emphasizes how gene x environment interaction is complex and how Galton got it wrong, but when he gets into the case studies you see the patterns of people working very hard at creating environments to suit themselves. What are they suiting? It always comes down to some accumulation of tiny gene x environment interactions. It makes me wonder how we ever get from conception to maturity without going off in some weird direction, or why children end up resembling their parents. He seems to mostly have environments as a stabilizing effect directing the canalization of development. I wonder. Complex models are hard to draw recommendations from.

David seemed intrigued by my review, he is starting a dialog about it. Be interesting to see how it plays out.

Thanks for your thoughts.
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