I appreciate the intense reactions to this blog so far, and respect the lingering skepticism. (Some of the nastiness I could do without, but it wouldn't be the Internet without some tasty pot-shots). I certainly didn't expect to win over the entire crowd with a handful of short overview pieces containing little evidence and no depth. I get that smart Atlantic readers are going to scrutinize this stuff.
After three years of discussing it among friends, I also understand that this is an issue that often provokes a visceral response. We all have strong opinions about how we became who we are. We need to have these opinions--it's a part of forming an identity. After a century of genetic dogma, terms like "innate" and "gifted" are baked right into our language and thinking. I don't mean to suggest that we all believe that genes control everything. Instead, most of us believe in "nature" followed by "nurture": genes dispense various design instructions as our body is formed in utero, priming us with a certain level of intellectual, creative, and athletic potential; following this, environmental influences develop that potential to some extent or another. This is what we know to be true, and it makes perfect sense.
Well, it turns out not to work that way. But no one familiar with the new science of development expects these old beliefs to wash simply away in a few weeks or months just because a few smart-ass writers come along and say they know better.
As we try to present this stuff, there are a hundred sand traps of understandable confusion. When I argue that "innate" doesn't really exist, it may seem like I'm making the blank slate argument -- which I'm not. When I argue that talent is a process, it may seem like I'm arguing that anyone can do anything, which I'm not. When I argue that we can't really see our individual potential until we've applied extraordinary resources over many years, it may seem like I'm arguing that genetic differences don't matter -- which I'm not. When I criticize The Bell Curve, it may look like I'm an agent of the left pushing a liberal egalitarian agenda, which I'm not.*
What I am pushing is the consideration of a whole new paradigm. In doing so, I am of course just a conduit.
While their evidence is quite complex, their renewed argument is simple: "nature vs. nurture" doesn't adequately explain how we become who we are. That notion needs to be replaced.
Lead author John Spencer:
The nature-nurture debate has a pervasive influence on our lives, affecting the framework of research in child development, biology, neuroscience, personality and dozens of other fields. People have tried for centuries to shift the debate one way or the other, and it's just been a pendulum swinging back and forth. We're taking the radical position that the smarter thing is to just say 'neither' -- to throw out the debate as it has been historically framed and embrace the alternative perspective provided by developmental systems theory.**
"Developmental systems theory" is a vague mouthful, and the scientists behind these observations readily admit that they haven't yet found the most compelling new language to present their ideas to the public. But the basic idea, as I've written in previous posts, is that genes are not static; they are dynamic. Genes interact with the environment to form traits. The more closely scientists look at claims of so-called "hard-wired" behavior and abilities, the more they turn up evidence that actions and talents are formed in conjunction with the culture around them.
John Spencer again:
Researchers sometimes claim we're hard-wired for things, but when you peel through the layers of the experiments, the details matter and suddenly the evidence doesn't seem so compelling...When people say there's an innate constraint, they're making suppositions about what came before the behavior in question. Instead of acknowledging that at 12 months a lot of development has already happened and we don't exactly know what came before this particular behavior, researchers take the easy way out and conclude that there must be inborn constraints. That's the predicament scientists have gotten themselves into.
Imprinting is one of many examples reviewed by the Iowa researchers. In 1935, Viennese zoologist Konrad Lorenz famously discovered that newborn chicks whose eggs were incubated in isolation will still correctly pick the call of their mother over another animal. It seemed the perfect little proof of innate ability.
But in 1997, Gilbert Gottlieb discovered the flaw in that assumption. It turned out that when fetal chicks were deprived of the ability to make vocal sounds inside their own eggs -- that is, the ability to teach themselves what their species sounded like -- they were unable to pick the correct maternal sound from various animals.
Another famously innate quality is "dead reckoning," the ability of fish, birds, and mammals (including humans) to establish one's current location based on past locations and movement history. How could young geese know how to fly home from 100 meters without trial and error? Being a mystery with no apparent answer, the word "innate" was again used as a catch-all explanation. Then it became clear that mother geese train their gosslings' navigational skills through daily walks.
How could baby chicks find their way back to a mother without clear sight of her? It turned out that they simply reversed the directions they had taken when getting lost.
One by one, the Iowa researchers show, scientists have declared basic abilities to be explainable only by hard-wiring only to later have a slow learning process revealed under closer inspection and better tools. The consistent refrain: abilities form in conjunction with development, community, and context. Genes matter, but actual results require genetic expression in conjunction with the environment.
(One big problem with this new paradigm, explains John Spencer, "is that it's much more complicated to explain why the evidence is on shaky ground, and often the one-liner wins out over the 10-minute explanation.")
The Iowa paper also delves deeply into claims of human language innateness, including what is known as "shape-bias." "Shape bias," the authors write, "simpliﬁes the word learning situation and thereby aids vocabulary development, but it is not innate. Rather, it is the emergent product of a step-by-step cascade."
What does all of this have to do with Einstein's genius or your piano playing? Developmental systems theory tells us that, while genetic differences do matter, they cannot, on their own, determine what we become. From there, the whole idea of innate talent falls apart.
As this blog continues, you'll meet more of the scientists who are documenting and shaping these ideas. One of the things I'd like to do is bring them together as a community and give their umbrella notion a more accessible name. "Developmental genetics" is one possibility. "Environmental genetics" is another.
Suggestions are welcome.
[Thanks to Mark Blumberg, one of the University of Iowa authors and editor-in-chief of Behavioral Neuroscience.]
* I am guilty of being a liberal on most issues, and there are elements of this new paradigm that gel nicely with a liberal sensibility; but there are also some very uncomfortable moral implications to come to terms with. Every writer has biases to be sure, but self-respecting journalists don't ignore or cherry-pick information because they like its political ramifications. I didn't write Data Smog because I wanted to bring down the Internet; I didn't offer some sanguine views on new surveillance technologies because I desire a police state, and I haven't been picking and choosing genetics and intelligence studies to prop up the Obama administration.
** These John Spencer quotes are taken from an University of Iowa press release about the journal article.
Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz are suggesting there might be ways for states and cities to nullify the justices’ ruling. They’re wrong.
The Supreme Court’s decision last week did make gay marriage legal around the nation. Unfortunately for social conservatives, it did not, however, make nullification legal around the nation.
Nullification is the historical idea that states can ignore federal laws, or pass laws that supercede them. This concept has a long but not especially honorable pedigree in U.S. history. Its origins date back to antebellum America, where Southern states tried to nullify tariffs and Northern states tried to nullify fugitive-slave laws. In the 1950s, after Brown v. Board of Education, some Southern states tried to pass laws to avoid integrating schools. It didn’t work, because nullification is not constitutional.
I spent a year in Tromsø, Norway, where the “Polar Night” lasts all winter—and where rates of seasonal depression are remarkably low. Here’s what I learned about happiness and the wintertime blues.
Located over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Tromsø, Norway, is home to extreme light variation between seasons. During the Polar Night, which lasts from November to January, the sun doesn’t rise at all. Then the days get progressively longer until the Midnight Sun period, from May to July, when it never sets. After the midnight sun, the days get shorter and shorter again until the Polar Night, and the yearly cycle repeats.
So, perhaps understandably, many people had a hard time relating when I told them I was moving there.
“I could never live there,” was the most common response I heard. “That winter would make me so depressed,” many added, or “I just get so tired when it’s dark out.”
But the Polar Night was what drew me to Tromsø in the first place.
As he prepares for a presidential run, the governor’s labor legacy deserves inspection. Are his state’s “hardworking taxpayers” any better off?
This past February, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) outside Washington, D.C., Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker rolled up his sleeves, clipped on a lavalier microphone, and without the aid of a teleprompter gave the speech of his life. He emerged from that early GOP cattle call as a front-runner for his party’s nomination for president. Numerous polls this spring placed him several points ahead of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the preferred candidate of the Republican establishment, in Iowa and New Hampshire. Those same polls showed him with an even more substantial lead over movement conservative favorites such as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Huckabee. In late April, the Koch brothers hinted that Walker would be the likely recipient of the nearly $900 million they plan to spend on the 2016 election cycle.
People labeled “smart” at a young age don’t deal well with being wrong. Life grows stagnant.
At whatever agesmart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I'm smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.
In 1908, photographer Lewis Hine traveled across the U.S. to document child laborers and their workplaces. His portraits were used by reformers to drive legislation that would protect young workers or prohibit their employment.
At the start of the 20th century, labor in America was in short supply, and laws concerning the employment of children were rarely enforced or nonexistent. While Americans at the time supported the role of children working on family farms, there was little awareness of the other forms of labor being undertaken by young hands. In 1908, photographer Lewis Hine was employed by the newly-founded National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) to document child laborers and their workplaces nationwide. His well-made portraits of young miners, mill workers, cotton pickers, cigar rollers, newsboys, pin boys, oyster shuckers, and factory workers put faces on the issue, and were used by reformers to raise awareness and drive legislation that would protect young workers or prohibit their employment. After several stalled attempts in congress, the NCLC-backed Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938 with child labor provisions that remain the law of the land today, barring the employment of anyone under the age of 16.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
The untold story of the improbable campaign that finally tipped the U.S. Supreme Court.
On May 18, 1970, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell walked into a courthouse in Minneapolis, paid $10, and applied for a marriage license. The county clerk, Gerald Nelson, refused to give it to them. Obviously, he told them, marriage was for people of the opposite sex; it was silly to think otherwise.
Baker, a law student, didn’t agree. He and McConnell, a librarian, had met at a Halloween party in Oklahoma in 1966, shortly after Baker was pushed out of the Air Force for his sexuality. From the beginning, the men were committed to one another. In 1967, Baker proposed that they move in together. McConnell replied that he wanted to get married—really, legally married. The idea struck even Baker as odd at first, but he promised to find a way and decided to go to law school to figure it out.
This week, there were fires in at least six predominantly African American churches. Arson at religious institutions has decreased significantly over the past two decades, but the symbolism remains haunting.
Updated on July 1, 11:50 a.m. ET
On Wednesday, July 1, a fire was reported at the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina. The AP reports that an anonymous federal official said the fire did not appear to be intentionally set, but Winfred Pressley, a division operations officer at the regional Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco division, said that the investigation is still ongoing, as did other local investigators. Shanna Daniels, a spokesperson for the FBI, declined to comment on the case, but said that church arson “has been a hot topic over the past few days.”
“What's the church doing on fire?”
Jeanette Dudley, the associate pastor of God's Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia, got a call a little after 5 a.m. on Wednesday, June 24, she told a local TV news station. Her tiny church of about a dozen members had been burned, probably beyond repair. The Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco got called in, which has been the standard procedure for church fires since the late 1960s. Investigators say they’ve ruled out possible causes like an electrical malfunction; most likely, this was arson.
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
Many authors have been tempted into writing revisionist histories of the 37th U.S. president, but these counterintuitive takes often do not hold up under closer scrutiny.
Every once in a while someone writes a book arguing that Richard Nixon has been misunderstood. These authors tend to focus on some particular aspect of his presidency that, the argument goes, is more important than that Watergate business. They’ve focused on his domestic policy or his foreign policy as achievements that override his flaws and his presidency’s denouement. Nixon’s highly complex persona also has led to books that probe his psyche—a hazardous and widely debunked practice, though that hasn’t discouraged further attempts.
And, as with other major figures, but all the more so given the drama of his time on the national stage, Nixon’s complexity and essentially low repute tempts some authors to offer revisionist approaches to his place in history. Such approaches have to be assessed on their own merits, not accepted merely because they’re counterintuitive or receive a lot of attention, as new assessments of the controversial and fascinating Nixon tend to do. Two major revisionist books about Nixon argued that his domestic policy was so expansive, humane, and innovative that it overrides his unfortunate behavior; their accounts relegate Watergate to a far less important role. The problem with these books is that they don’t stand up to close scrutiny.