Why You Don't Believe Me Yet (Here Comes the Cavalry)


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.

Meet some of the sources. Two weeks ago, a group of neuroscientists, psychologists, and cognitive scientists at the University of Iowa published a paper entitled "Short Arms and Talking Eggs: Why We Should No Longer Abide the Nativist-Empiricist Debate" in the journal Child Development Perspectives.

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.