What I’m going to do now is I’m going to take some legitimate science, I’m going to draw a trivial truth from this, and I’m going to word it in such a way as to mislead you into thinking that you can be a genius. I am going to finish by justifying what I’m doing by using the same defence as I would give a placebo. Got it?
Legitimate science: “A trait [such as being a genius] emerges only from the interaction of gene and environment.”
Misleading triviality: “Everything about us is determined by the lives we lead.”
So perhaps: You could be a genius*.
What’s more: People who believe this seem to benefit.
Now, what I’m not going to share with you is why this is a grossly misleading portrayal of our understanding of genetics.
I’m not going to say why the statement “everything about us is determined by the lives we lead” is inane (because the minimum we need to support it is the fact that if e.g. Einstein was malnourished, or raised by wolves, or shot in the head, he wouldn’t have become a genius, and that parallel logic can be applied to any trait).
I’m not going to mention how scientists analyse the variance of traits within and between groups to carefully determine what difference a difference in genes makes. No, the appeal of my argument can rest entirely on an attack of the Scary Old Genetics – the one which says that we may have e.g. a ‘genius gene’ and that some people are just fated to be geniuses.
Instead, I think it’s fine to just mislead people into thinking that there’s nothing precise in how genetics determine traits, and that “everything we are is a developmental process.”
And does it matter that I’m glossing over the work of psychologists who investigate the contribution made by genetics to e.g. your IQ? Not really, because if people understand “intelligence is malleable” then they’re more likely to be “ambitious and successful.” And that’s the point of science at the end of the day – to tell them the things that make them feel better about themselves – isn’t it?
* disclaimer: you probably won’t actually be a genius, because we each have our own “theoretical potentials”
– – –
Just to explain: all of the quotations here are from an article by David Shenk on the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-12140064 . Now, despite the fact that here I’ve tried to mock the main thrust of his argument, the article makes many good points and refers to many pieces of good research. You will probably gain more from reading that article than this one. What I fear is that this sort of writing replaces one caricature of genetics (‘Some people have a genius/fat/gay/evil gene’) with another (‘Genes don’t determine things completely, therefore anyone can be anything’). Although it is a caricature, it is a fashionable one, and one I’ve seen brought out on many occasions.
It is clear that Shenk himself does not actually side with this caricature, for example when he admits that there was never any chance of him becoming Cristiano Ronaldo. But by this logic, it’s reasonable to say he could not have become a genius, and that nor could most of us, and that we can return to the question of whether or not genes contribute to who can or cannot be a genius.
Shenk sensibly cautions: “it would be folly to suggest that anyone can literally do or become anything.” But if people are misled into thinking that genes don’t make any real difference, they will continue to fall to this folly.