The Genius in All of Us:
Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent and Intelligence is Wrong

David Shenk

Icon Books 2010
A book review by Danny Yee © 2014
The title of The Genius in All of Us suggests some kind of self-improvement book and it starts with an example — an ace baseball hitter whose success depended on fanatical practice over many years — which may not resonate so well outside the United States. Its core, however, is a lucid and effective explanation of some important but widely misunderstood aspects of human biology and psychology, along with a look at some of their implications.

"How Genes Really Work" explains how genes and environments interact in a dynamic, non-linear process to produce traits and characters; this is sometimes abbreviated as GxE, replacing the more familiar G+E conception in which gene and environment effects are separable and additive. (The latter is an over-simplification that afflicts even biologists, whose textbooks mention in passing that this assumption doesn't hold in reality but go on to make it anyway in order to keep the mathematics simple.)

"Intelligence is a Process, Not a Thing" tries to cut through some of the myriad of misunderstandings about human intelligence. This is not some stable, innate quantity, but rather a continuously developing set of competencies. And "The End of 'Giftedness'" tackles similar confusions about giftedness and talent. It is possible to create apparently extraordinary talents by training and even "Mozart's true greatness as a composer developed slowly and steadily over time".

The next three chapters look at some special cases which might be considered counter-examples to these ideas: twins, prodigies, and ethnic and geographical clusters in sporting success. It turns out that these are more complicated than the simple, easy stories that are continually repeated.

Three chapters address some of the implications of all this, with tips for those who want to excel in some domain, advice on raising children, and suggestions for encouraging a broader culture of excellence. And a final chapter touches on epigenetic inheritance. Here Shenk ventures onto less firm terrain — one might not agree with him about child-raising goals, after all, and he perhaps makes too much of epigenetic inheritance — but he keeps his footing.

And the rest of The Genius in All of Us is solidly grounded. The actual text is only one hundred and forty pages long, with just as much space devoted to notes providing additional quotes and references. These are not marked in the text and so don't interrupt the flow; the result is an accessible read with some extra material and pointers for those who want a bit more.

January 2014

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%T The Genius in All of Us
%S Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent and Intelligence is Wrong
%A Shenk, David
%I Icon Books
%D 2010
%O hardcover, notes, bibliography
%G ISBN-13 9781848311374
%P 307pp