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Old 06-03-2010, 02:06 PM
David Shenk David Shenk is offline
Join Date: Mar 2010
Posts: 3
Default Re: None of what you told us is new to me

The problem is that by describing phenotype as a process rather than an innate thing, you diminish the role of the genotype to back seat status.

I think this is very helpful in clarifying the discussion, because of course you are right that inputs matter. And of course you are right that genes should not be relegated to back-seat status. But if you read my book you'll see that I'm actually not doing that. Yes, I'm putting an awful lot of focus on trying to better understand the intricacies and influence of environmental inputs, but I also make it crystal clear that genes are critical, powerful actors.

If it feels to you like I am emphasizing environmental influences at the expense of genetic influence, that's because I do think we need a correction in the public understanding of the relative power of each influence. To use your analogy, what I'm trying to do is bring the environmental inputs up to the front seat *with* the genes, and I'm pointing out that this is one of those wacky cars where both genes and environment each have their own steering wheel. The direction of the car is going to depend very much on both steering wheels. Words/phrases like "innate" and "gifted" and "natural talent" imply strongly that the genes have the only steering wheel and that the environment can merely give directions -- or at least that the genes drive the car on their own for the first few miles. Which is not true.

Let's take a closer look at your plant seed analogy:

If I took two seeds, one natural, the other was engineered by some biotech company to be more pest resistant and drought resistant and planted each in identical soil types, it is true the the environment has a great influence on the outcome of those seeds.

But none of that acknowledgement negates the fact that the engineered seed is more resilient to lower levels of water in the soil. It does not change the fact that to get the SAME yield from the budding plants in arid soil you would have to add more water to the natural seed, if it could survive at all.

No matter how you try to couch it, to sterilize the descriptions of any reference to innate differences having an effect on outcome, they still matter to varying degrees. And a myopic focus on the areas we can currently control (environment) and diminishing the areas we cannot (nature) does nothing but tell me your goal is to propagate an incomplete picture of reality. A reality that favors the egalitarian description and denies/plays down the roll of innate difference having any real effect.
Yes, for sure, we have genetic differences. I've never said otherwise. I'm quite explicit about that in the book. My argument is *not* egalitarian. I'm not arguing that each seed has exactly the same potential, but that even the lesser seeds have much more potential than we're acknowledging.

I'm interested in the actual potential of each seed. Population studies tell us that our genetic differences matter. They tell us that, to the extent that we are able to standardize environments, some people have genetic advantages in certain areas and others have genetic disadvantages. But population studies don't tell us what *my* individual potential was when I was conceived, or what yours was.

To learn more about individual potential, we need to first acknowledge that every individual is subject to a dynamic process. The reality of differences in genes -- even better and worse genes -- does not mean that outcomes are predetermined by the genes themselves.

Second, we need to understand as much as possible about all the environmental variables and how powerful they are in impacting an individual's potential. Is the aggregate environmental impact mild or profound? That's where all the work from Carol Dweck, Robert Sternberg, Anders Ericsson, and others comes in, and work on "grit" and "flow" and "drive," and work on fetal brain development, and insight into the impact of early spoken words, and understanding what particular talents are actually made of, where they come from. And Gladwell's observations on the importance of social and cultural circumstances.

And that's why it's so instructive to demythologize Mozart, Michael Jordan, and other extraordinary achievers: to understand that their achievements are not the product of some mysterious, inexplicable phenomenon, but rather are connected to a very methodical process of skill-building. Understanding and articulating that process doesn't mean that genetic differences didn't play a role. It does strongly suggest that there is a vast amount of untapped potential out there if we can help people tap into certain attitudes and skill-building approaches.

You may disagree, but I think the evidence from all these arenas strongly suggests that, whatever our genetic differences, the "unactualized" potential in each of us is quite substantial and really cannot be known unless and until each of us are able to maximize our resources and influences.

Does bringing the environment to the front seat automatically push genetics to the backseat? I don't think so.

- David
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