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The Genius in All of Us (salon.com)
29 points by onoj on March 9, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 21 comments

This sounds like a humanist reaction to the increasing amounts of research and evidence that intelligence does in fact have a large genetic component. Nobody says environment and hard work aren't vital factors for success, but it's already understood that intelligence doesn't equal success anyways. Still, that doesn't mean intelligence isn't by and large an innate quality. Stephen Pinker's The Blank Slate goes into this in detail, but his point was virtually the opposite of this author. He was instead making the case that much more about a person than most people expect is a direct result of their genotype, and that it's best if we face up to reality and talk about these things in the open rather than pretending that everyone is equal. As for success, it seems there is wide agreement that insane amounts of practice and perseverance are are sure fire recipe. I wonder how much the ability to persevere in the face of difficulty is affected by a persons genes?

I wonder how much the ability to persevere in the face of difficulty is affected by a person's genes?

Exactly. The authors of that famous paper, "The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance," said something along these same lines in their conclusion: that we should begin "viewing expert performers not simply as domain-specific experts but as experts in maintaining high levels of practice and improving performance."

I agree. One thing that came to mind is that if we take a pure scientific view then humans are 99% like apes, and apes are reasonably intelligent and can learn. Are we to believe we can extrapolate and say that environment has more to do with the intelligence averages of apes than genes, and further, that they too can potentially be geniuses?

It's a more scientific view of the human genome to focus on the genetic differences that are "fixed" in distinction between the genomes of Pan troglodytes (or Pan paniscus) and Homo sapiens. There is something profoundly different about the intelligence of any human being as contrasted with the intelligence of any chimpanzee (or gorilla, or more distantly related animal).

I have Pinker's book at hand as I type this. Pinker's detailed chapter on that issue is based on an article by Turkheimer, the author whose more recent paper I already cited to this thread as the first reply here. Pinker by no means has done anything at all to show that intelligence is "by and large an innate quality." The new and emerging rethinking of the interaction between genome and environment, which Turkheimer is doing a lot to pioneer, is driven by the data, not so much by any reaction from people in other disciplines.

"I wonder how much the ability to persevere in the face of difficulty is affected by a persons genes?"

That's character, and based on lingual evidence alone (which I'll take to be a summation of collective knowledge) "the development of character" is very much an individual endeavor.

Well, it's not like this author isn't providing evidence to back up his argument. I haven't read The Blank Slate (though I've heard of it, and like to hear Steven Pinker speak), nor have I read The Genius in All of Us, but now they are both on my Amazon Wish List. :-)

Soon... I have finally have the answer to this age-old debate, and I suspect the nuances in it will be enough to fill a book on its own.

"Instead, 'one large group of scientists,' a 'vanguard' that Shenk has labeled 'the interactionists,' insists that the old genes-plus-environment model (G+E) must be jettisoned and replaced by a model they call GxE, emphasizing 'the dynamic interaction between genes and the environment.' They don't discount heredity, as the old blank-slate hypothesis of human nature once did. Instead, they assert that "genes powerfully influence the formation of all traits, from eye color to intelligence, but rarely dictate precisely what those traits will be."

That's a pretty good summation of current human behavioral genetics research. An earlier comment of mine here on HN


cited and linked to a recent publication on this issue,

Johnson, Wendy; Turkheimer, Eric; Gottesman, Irving I.; Bouchard Jr., Thomas (2009). Beyond Heritability: Twin Studies in Behavioral Research. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 4, 217-220.

with some interesting new ideas from researchers who have been working on human behavioral genetics longer than most HN readers have been alive.

Agreed. GxE is certainly better then G+E, but that doesn't mean there's a genius in all of us.

I see this kind of response to progress in science all the time. If you change the way you conceive of a problem, like genes and environment, people suddenly think that all the beliefs about genetics from the past are wrong. But GxE doesn't mean that genetics isn't important all of a sudden, simple because in the days of G+E it was important. In fact, I would argue that GXE makes G MORE critical.

In a computer science class I took, our professor would multiply our homework and our exam grades instead of adding them. This way, even if you aced your homework, a 0 on an exam would give you a 0 overall (a solution to the inherent problems of team projects). The same is true for genetics- you can have all the good environment you want, if you ain't got the genes you're screwed (Down's syndrome). Of course, the same is true for environment; take a child with the best genes in the world and put it in a box during the early periods of its life, and it will never learn language well enough to even take an IQ test.

This reminds me when epigenetics started getting a lot of press, IDers were coming out in droves saying, "look! Richard Dawkins is wrong! The evolutionists are wrong!". But epigenetics doesn't mean evolution is wrong any more than GxE means that genetics aren't pretty damn significant.

The studies most favorable to Shenk's position put the heritability of IQ at around 0.5. That is, parents account for 50% of their descendant's IQ variance. Environmental factors would account for the other half. More recent meta-studies (http://www18.homepage.villanova.edu/diego.fernandezduque/Tea... for instance) put IQ heritability at around 0.8.

Even if the studies most favorable to Shenk are correct, the best way to be smart is still to choose your parents. Parents determine genes and a large amount of environment, which together are the largest influences on intelligence.

This is a bit off-topic, but I want to point out a distinction that is often overlooked. Heritability is not quite the same as genes. Genes definitely influence intelligence. If you could edit someone's genes, you could quite easily make them very sharp or very dumb. Scientists have identified individual genes and groups of genes that drastically influence intelligence. Down's syndrome is an obvious one. Single genes affecting intelligence include GDI1 (http://hmg.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/11/21/2567) and ALDH5A1 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aldehyde_dehydrogenase_5_family...). There are others that cause problems such as autism and schizophrenia. (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v455/n7215/full/nature0...)

I really think the "ignore genetics, work hard to succeed" people are going about their argument the wrong way. Instead of disregarding the evidence, they should acknowledge it while stressing a caveat: Intelligence, to be useful, must be used effectively. The smartest person in the world might not be best-suited to solve a problem; similar to how the strongest person in the world might not be the best fighter.

heritability of IQ at around 0.5

Heritability of IQ has nothing whatever to do with malleability (or, if you prefer this terminology, controllability) of human intelligence. That point has been made by the leading researchers on human behaviorial genetics in their recent article that I cited in the first reply to this submission on HN. It is a very common conceptual blunder, which should be corrected in any well edited genetics textbook, to confuse broad heritability estimates with statements about how malleable human traits are. The two concepts actually have no relationship at all. Highly heritable traits can be very malleable, and the other way around. It looks like the author of the new book mentioned in the submitted article has gathered a lot of evidence about malleability of human intelligence, which I will check as I read the book. (I've read other writings on this subject, and regularly participate in scholarly discussion of the latest research on this with Ph.D. psychologists.)

Intelligence, to be useful, must be used effectively.

I do agree with this point.

According to Shenk, we are erroneously led to believe that stars like Tiger Woods and cellist Yo-yo Ma were born to climb to the top of their fields, when in fact the environments they grew up in are just as responsible (if not more so) for their spectacular feats.

I would love to see this Shenk guy raise a Tiger Woods/Yo-yo Ma 2.0. Do that and you have an immensely more powerful argument, otherwise you're just another wave in the ocean.

I would say László already won this argument:


She and her two older sisters, Grandmaster Susan and International Master Sofia, were part of an educational experiment carried out by their father László Polgár, in an attempt to prove that children could make exceptional achievements if trained in a specialist subject from a very early age. "Geniuses are made, not born," was László's thesis. He and his wife Klara educated their three daughters at home, with chess as the specialist subject. However, chess was not taught to the exclusion of everything else. Each of them has several diplomas and speaks four to eight languages. Their father also taught his three daughters the international language Esperanto.

So you're saying that László and Klara were poor genetic material?

This kind of anecdotal evidence means nothing. Undoubtedly these girls had great genes, in addition to being trained quite well. If both G and E are high, the product of the two is quite high.

I'd like to see him try this with a kid he adopted.

So you're saying that László and Klara were poor genetic material?

Where do you see me say anything of the kind?

No, what I would say is the myth of genius being a special constellation of traits that the gods bestow upon that rare soul, which can only be seen ex post facto, is false. High G is quite common. What isn't is a specially tuned E.

If someone known to be a mediocre chess player can thrice create chess grandmasters, then that is a strong argument, and frankly, anecdotal is about as good as you can get with this stuff.

I suppose if you're arguing for "genius" in the ex post facto sense, you could say "wow, what a coincidence that he had 3 children with that amazing chess grandmaster gene." To me, saying anyone with high G could be Einstein given the correct E says something very different about genius than the idea that Einstein was one of a kind and had some innate, unique genetic gift.

META: I would just like to point out to all potential commenters that the degree to which IQ is genetic is one of the most controversial unresolved recurring topics on Hacker News. The arguments never really seem to go anywhere.

The 'great man' theory of history is ingrained into most of us in early childhood as we learn about larger than life historical figures such as Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Abraham Linchon, and the like (obviously I'm an American, but I imagine other nationalities have similar figures). A lot of people consider themselves 'normal', and thus not capable of great things. This is of course bullshit... While everyone may not be able to be a 'genius' as the article claims, most people are capable of a whole lot more than they think.

> Instead, they assert that "genes powerfully influence the formation of all traits, from eye color to intelligence, but rarely dictate precisely what those traits will be."

Man, eye color is a bad one to pick if you're making the case against genes being predictive of traits. I reckon you could get something like 60-80% of the world's eye color right based on knowing the descendency of their parents.

eye color is a bad one to pick if you're making the case against genes being predictive of traits

Not so, actually. The author of the article did research before writing that rather than just misremembering something taught in school based on obsolete research. Eminent geneticist Victor McKusick developed his interest in human genetics in large part because eye colors of his immediate family members were not always as expected on the basis of naive views of the inheritance of eye color.




Surely you could get 60-80% right just by saying "brown".

404 for everyone or just me?

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