Pulse March / April 2016 - Page 64

ASK THE EXPERT DAVID SHENK In The Genius in All of Us, author DAVID SHENK debunks long-held notion that geniuses are born and that genetics dictate greatness. According to Shenk, our DNA does not determine our ability to excel and succeed. In fact, he argues that “our problem isn’t our inadequate genetic assets but our inability, so far, to tap into what we already have.” So if DNA alone does not make us geniuses, the next logical question is: How much of a factor does environment play? Shenk offers some thought-provoking insights. Pulse: What inspired you to write this book? David Shenk: In my experience, books find the author. In researching my last book, about the extraordinary history of extraordinary chess players, I stumbled onto the whole new field of “expertise studies.” It amazed me how little was publicly known about this new research. It was a story that had to be told. P: Based on your research, what do you think is the biggest myth told about our genes? S: Scientists have been updating their understanding of genetics for a hundred years, but very little of that new understanding has gotten out to the rest of us. The general public is still stuck with the very old notion that genes contain direct blueprint designs for traits—our eye color, height, intelligence, musicality, athleticism, etc. The truth is that genes contain information about how proteins are constructed, and nothing more. How that information turns into the actual construction of traits is a complex process that involves critical input from the environment. The notion of “innate” gifts is a flawed one. P: Can you cite a few pieces of research that support the epigenetics or gene expression model? S: My book cites hundreds of pieces of research—in fact, the entire back half of the book is a compendium of citations. Forced to pick a single scientific article, I would choose “Nature, nurture, and the disunity of knowledge,” published in 2001 in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, by Michael Meaney, who 62 PULSE ■ March/April 2016 is the director, program for the study of genes, behavior and the environment at McGill University. According to Meaney, “there are no genetic factors that can be studied independently of the environment.” He continues to elaborate that “there are no environmental factors that function independently of the genome” and that [a trait] “emerges only from the interaction of gene and en