David Shenk's new book, “The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong,” is 300 pages long, and more than half of those pages are endnotes. You need to offer up a lot of evidence when your goal is to overturn a concept as commonplace as the idea that genes are the “blueprints” for both our physical bodies and our personalities. Above all, what Shenk wants to communicate is that “the whole concept of genetic giftedness turns out to be wildly off the mark — tragically kept afloat for decades by a cascade of misunderstandings and misleading metaphors.” Instead of acquiescing to the belief that talent is a quality we're either born with or not, he wants us to understand that anyone can aspire to superlative achievement. Hard, persistent and focused work is responsible for greatness, rather than innate ability.
Shenk does have a lot of evidence for this assertion, most of it coming from geneticists and other biological researchers who are perplexed at the way their disciplines get depicted in the media. “Today's popular understanding of genes, heredity and evolution is not just crude, it's profoundly misleading,” Shenk writes. While most scientists long ago rejected the idea that nature and nurture are two separate factors competing in a zero-sum game to dominate human behavior, laypeople still cling to the idea that whatever aspect of ourselves isn't caused by our environment must be caused by our genes, and vice versa. In recent decades, heredity has gotten most of the credit; the host of the brainiest NPR talk show in my area inevitably prompts every expert to confirm that whatever they're discussing — mathematical ability, wanderlust, ambition, mental illness — is genetically determined.