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.
Though it wasn’t pretty, Minaj was really teaching a lesson in civility.
Nicki Minaj didn’t, in the end, say much to Miley Cyrus at all. If you only read the comments that lit up the Internet at last night’s MTV Video Music Awards, you might think she was kidding, or got cut off, when she “called out” the former Disney star who was hosting: “And now, back to this bitch that had a lot to say about me the other day in the press. Miley, what’s good?”
To summarize: When Minaj’s “Anaconda” won the award for Best Hip-Hop Video, she took to the stage in a slow shuffle, shook her booty with presenter Rebel Wilson, and then gave an acceptance speech in which she switched vocal personas as amusingly as she does in her best raps—street-preacher-like when telling women “don’t you be out here depending on these little snotty-nosed boys”; sweetness and light when thanking her fans and pastor. Then a wave of nausea seemed to come over her, and she turned her gaze toward Cyrus. To me, the look on her face, not the words that she said, was the news of the night:
After calling his intellectual opponents treasonous, and allegedly exaggerating his credentials, a controversial law professor resigns from the United States Military Academy.
On Monday, West Point law professor William C. Bradford resigned after The Guardianreported that he had allegedly inflated his academic credentials. Bradford made headlines last week, when the editors of the National Security Law Journaldenounced a controversial article by him in their own summer issue:
As the incoming Editorial Board, we want to address concerns regarding Mr. Bradford’s contention that some scholars in legal academia could be considered as constituting a fifth column in the war against terror; his interpretation is that those scholars could be targeted as unlawful combatants. The substance of Mr. Bradford’s article cannot fairly be considered apart from the egregious breach of professional decorum that it exhibits. We cannot “unpublish” it, of course, but we can and do acknowledge that the article was not presentable for publication when we published it, and that we therefore repudiate it with sincere apologies to our readers.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
The neurologist leaves behind a body of work that reveals a lifetime of asking difficult questions with empathy.
Oliver Sacks always seemed propelled by joyful curiosity. The neurologist’s writing is infused with this quality—equal parts buoyancy and diligence, the exuberant asking of difficult questions.
More specifically, Sacks had a fascination with ways of seeing and hearing and thinking. Which is another way of exploring experiences of living. He focused on modes of perception that are delightful not only because they are subjective, but precisely because they are very often faulty.
To say Sacks had a gift for this method of exploration is an understatement. He was a master at connecting curiosity to observation, and observation to emotion. Sacks died on Sunday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. He was 82.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
In renaming a peak that honored a Republican hero, President Obama stepped into the center of a fray over political correctness, American culture, and partisanship.
There are many disorienting things about traveling to Alaska in the summer; the long daylight hours are only the most obvious. But during a vacation to the land of the midnight sun, I also found myself perplexed: Why did people keep pointing at Mount McKinley and calling it “Denali”? Wasn’t that just the name of the national park where it was located?
As of today, the name of the mountain and of the park will be the same. For all the ruckus aroused by President Obama’s decision to rename the nation’s tallest peak, the name change may mean the least for Alaskans, the people who most frequently discuss it. The greatest outcry against the name change, as my colleague Krishandev Calamur notes, is coming from two groups: Ohioans and Republicans, William McKinley’s two leading constituencies. Ohio Republicans, members of both groups, are particularly apoplectic. Here’s Speaker John Boehner:
Residents of Newtok, Alaska, voted to relocate as erosion destroyed their land. That was the easy part.
NEWTOK, Alaska—Two decades ago, the people of this tiny village came to terms with what had become increasingly obvious: They could no longer fight back the rising waters.
Their homes perched on a low-lying, treeless tuft of land between two rivers on Alaska’s west coast, residents saw the water creeping closer every year, gobbling up fields where they used to pick berries and hunt moose. Paul and Teresa Charles watched from their blue home on stilts on Newtok’s southern side as the Ninglick River inched closer and closer, bringing with it the salt waters of the Bering Sea.
“Sometimes, we lose 100 feet a year,” Paul Charles told me, over a bowl of moose soup.
Many communities across the world are trying to stay put as the climate changes, installing expensive levees and dikes and pumps, but not Newtok, a settlement of about 350 members of the Yupik people. In 1996, the village decided that fighting Mother Nature was fruitless, and they voted to move to a new piece of land nine miles away, elevated on bedrock.
Can the sleek F-35 match the rugged dependability of the aging A-10? The Pentagon plans to find out.
If you’re the Pentagon, how do you choose between an aging, but dependable, fighter jet and a brand new aircraft that you’re not quite sure is up to the job? You have them fight it out, naturally.
That’s essentially what the Air Force said it would do when it announced that starting in 2018, it would pit the A-10 “Warthog” against the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in a series of tests to see if the new F-35s can adequately replace the A-10s, which the military wants to retire. A 40-year-old platform, the A-10 has been described by Martin Dempsey, the joint chiefs chairman, as “the ugliest, most beautiful aircraft on the planet.” It may be old, but as a certain Irish actor would say, it has a very particular set of skills: The A-10 excels at providing what’s known as “close-air support,” flying low and slow to provide ideal cover protection for U.S. troops fighting in ground combat. That capability is prized not only by the military, but also by a pair of key Republican lawmakers who oversee its budget, Senators John McCain and Kelly Ayotte.
Many educators are introducing meditation into the classroom as a means of improving kids’ attention and emotional regulation.
A five-minute walk from the rickety, raised track that carries the 5 train through the Bronx, the English teacher Argos Gonzalez balanced a rounded metal bowl on an outstretched palm. His class—a mix of black and Hispanic students in their late teens, most of whom live in one of the poorest districts in New York City—by now were used to the sight of this unusual object: a Tibetan meditation bell.
“Today we’re going to talk about mindfulness of emotion,” Gonzalez said with a hint of a Venezuelan accent. “You guys remember what mindfulness is?” Met with quiet stares, Gonzalez gestured to one of the posters pasted at the back of the classroom, where the students a few weeks earlier had brainstormed terms describing the meaning of “mindfulness.” There were some tentative mumblings: “being focused,” “being aware of our surroundings.”