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  • David Shenk is the national bestselling author of five previous books, including The Forgetting ("remarkable" - Los Angeles Times), Data Smog ("indispensable" - New York Times), and The Immortal Game ("superb" - Wall Street Journal). He is a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com, and has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, NPR, and PBS.

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March 09, 2007

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Jarrin

The true fact? Beethoven was the great composer. Book ASAP please.

Seriously, glad that you exposed the lies. Keep up the good work.

Ashely

i think the harder we try to make Beethovens the less of a chance we will get one because when you beat a kid you usually beat the creativity out of it and end up getting a trained monkey

I think we should relax and try to help our kids play the piano sit down with them and help them read the notes but we should never force our kids

Its a waste of time to force them to play if they have no natural ability i mean let them be a kid! let them color/ run outside in the sun!

to all the people forcing your kids to the piano, to all those people that believe geniouses are made/half made- you will never beat beethoven. you can try all you want but it will never ever happen
unless God decides to send another genious like that down we will not have a beethoven for another 250 years

FOR GODS SAKE VAN GOUGH DID NOT PICK UP THE BRUSH UNTIL HE WAS 26 THAT IS OUR PROOF RIGHT THERE HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN THAT

I have been drawing and painting my entire life even staying in on friday nights to paint/draw but I still cant paint something like starry night!!

Whether he had mental illness or not he was a GENIOUS!! and he didnt start until he was 26!! 26 YEARS OLD that is so late in the game! Think of how annoying that is to me

And what about Jesus Christ? Isnt he a big philosopher? Its not like HE WAS PUSHED BY JOSEPH TO READ THE BIBLE! but he was quoting things from his head as a little boy- like beethoven he was sent by god! THE CHOSEN ONES they are the chosen ones

lizzy

i think beating your kid doesnt help i think it hindered beethovens talent it made practicing harder for him

be honest with yourself he was a genious anyway we could all beat our kids to practice but we wont get a beethoven now will we? we will just get a trained monkey

i recently watched a college course on him and i heard he rarely practiced but he was still making up beautiful music anyway

isnt he a drunk also? like youve got to realize he has some natural ability i mean its like the kids that never study and get straight A'S
how do you explain that then?!? USE YOUR COMMON SENSE

Ray Cheng

David,

Yes, I understand the difficulties in interpreting "heritability" - hence my above recommendation to Austin that he look up the technical definition when evaluating the conclusions. I do like the number-of-fingers example; it is much cleaner than anything else I've come across.

On the Beethoven "trope". "You've killed Dan Rather!" seems to have the same rhetorical force (assuming the preamble were suitably dramatic), even though news anchors (unlike composers) are fungible. Or how about "You've killed the Pastor!" who is not even a celebrity, but merely known to the speaker and listener. Anyway, this is hardly a critical point. I'm going to resist trying debate abortion itself, which is appropriately left for other channels, perhaps your next blog/book.

The paper by Fox et al. led me to the following thought experiment. Suppose that we take a genuinely random sample of 10,000 people. We give them a training program (piano, chess, whatever), consisting of 5 hours a day of guided, deliberate practice. This program is carried on for 10 years. Would you agree that the results will fall on something like a bell curve, from zero ability to (near-) genius? If not, then I think we have identified the locus of our disagreement.

If you'll accept the bell curve outcome, then my point is that apart from the most extreme cases (death, disability, abuse, etc.), the 10,000 subjects experienced largely the same environment - the biggest environmental factor affecting their perfomance is the 10 year regimen they had in common. So the variation in outcome is due almost entirely to genetic factors. Now take a big step back, and consider a(n only slightly) less idealized scenario in which (a) almost everybody gets exposure to different fields of endeavor; (b) there is enough political freedom for people to freely choose their vocation/avocations; (c) there is enough economic prosperity to assure access to training and education for people who want it. Isn't the same experiment, repeated over countless disciplines, being carried out in the daily lives of the members of this society? The guy who had a chance to take up piano, but quit after 6 months has his counterpart in the original 10,000 subject: he's the one who spent the last 9.5 years of his piano lessons fixing motorcycles in the practice room.

David Shenk

Thanks for lots of good comments, Ray. I'm not ignoring them -- just have fallen behind on all sorts of stuff.

One quick comment: do you know how problematic use of the term "heritable" is in this context? See Ridley, Nature via Nurture, p. 76ish. It doesn't mean than a trait is inherited, as a non-scientist like me would assume. It refers to how much of the variation rate in a given population can be attributed to genetics. It really cannot be applied to individuals, and does not speak to genetic expression at all. So that leads to this strange notion of height being 90% heritable but is also subject to dramatic influence of environment. Ridley also points out the bizarre but true notion that the number of fingers actually has a very low "heritability" because there is almost no variation due to genetics. I'm frankly still trying to understand it, but I do fear it is being widely misinterpreted by non-scientists.

Ray Cheng

Have a look at

Paul W. Fox, Scott L. Hershberger and Thomas J. Bouchard Jr., "Genetic and environmental contributions to the acquisition of a motor skill," Nature 384, 356 - 358 (1996).

Another example of the following phenomenon: initial variation in performance is largely heritable; rate of response to training is largely heritable. They make an interesting statement: (I paraphrase) the effect of practice is to bring forward genetic differences. I want to develop this notion further; will ponder during lunch and get back with you.

Ray Cheng

David,

You wrote (referring to me) "and if you are still arguing after all this evidence that geniuses are simply born,..." in a post above. I don't believe I have ever argued that geniuses are simply born; that just isn't my position. Most of the time I agree with what you're writing, and when I don't you've heard from me. Taking into account all of the evidence, you're swayed by certain of the arguments and I'm not (and vice-versa, of course), to the effect that I think there is a much greater genetic component than you do. Is that a fair summary?

I've read up on some of the posts I missed last month. Here are a couple thoughts.

* I'll grant that the kind of sustained "deliberate practice" that leads to elite performance is not usually "fun." Yet, in Person A, who is a gifted individual in this discipline, the practice regimen does yield results over time, and so Person A feels a deep sense of satisfaction along the way. (In a similar way, writing a book probably isn't fun most of the time either, but seeing it published must have its profound rewards.) Person B is not so gifted in this area, and so when he hits a long frustrating plateau in his skill acquisition, he decides to lower his sights, and eventually attains a lower level of proficiency than Person A. Person C is less gifted still, and after a couple years of going nowhere with his lessons, decides to hang it up and try something else. (1) Ericsson seems to have overlooked this mechanism by which his subjects have self screened by the time gets to them. (2) Ericsson doesn't seem to acknowledge that although practice might not be fun, it does have its rewards.

* I've mentioned this before, but why don't you look at http://physiolgenomics.physiology.org/cgi/content/full/16/2/256. The subject is cardiovascular fitness, and the studies showed (and I'm paraphrasing) (1) about 50% of the variation in the subjects' cardiovascular fitness was genetic; (2) about 50% of the variation of the subjects' response to subsequent training is also genetic. There are interesting wrinkles to this story (e.g., there are such things as late bloomers).

* I must have read this in a newspaper article, but at present the nutritional deficits pervading North Korea are such that the average adult height is greatly suppressed. They struggle to find soldiers of sufficiently impressive height to guard their borders.

* Really good chessplayers (let's say, USCF Expert and above) nearly all have the ability to play a decent game without sight of the board. World class players can even do so without loss of quality in their play. Some players (Shirov and Morozevich, for example) are often seen closing their eyes while pondering a move, since their mental picture of the game position is sharper than their visual one. But playing "blindfold" is not something that they specifically practice. Talking to some of these chess masters, I have found that it's just an ability they pick up after playing chess for a couple years. Ordinary players such as I have no talent blindfold play, even after many years of tournament participation. My belief is that some people just have brains that are wired to handle that kind of processing (or rather they are predisposed for their brains to wire up that way under diligent practice of chess). That is one sign of innate chess talent that should be explored further.

Ray

JD

Well, height is a good example. Yes, environment and nutrition can obviously affect height. But if your genes say that you personally max out at 5'8" -- even with the best possible nutrition and conditions growing up -- you're probably not going to be a professional basketball player, no matter how much you practice.

Or take running -- if your genes gave you legs that have few fast-twitch muscle fibers, then sure, you can get faster with practice, but you're never going to be a world-class sprinter.

Conversely, if you have the genes to be 6'8" and 250 pounds, you're never going to be a champion marathoner, no matter what. Guys that big just can't run 26.2 miles at the same speed as someone who is carrying around a lot less bone/muscle weight.

David Shenk

Hi JD,

I do have two kids, and of course you're correct that every child has his/her own particular mix of qualities and apparent aptitudes. I have no doubt that certain genetic variants make some people more likely to have more of some personality traits and less of others. Matt Ridley has written about this in his book Nature via Nurture.

What Ridley also carefully explains, though, is that every gene is subject to differing degrees of expression depending on external stimuli. DNA is not, as we were all taught years ago, a blueprint dictating a precise outcome, but a collection of thermostats that get turned on and off according to various stimuli -- temperature, nutrition, physical activity, moods, etc. So while there are obvious genetic variations, I don't believe it is correct to assume that any of the qualities you mention are fixed from birth.

A rather startling example of this phenomenon is how height -- which we all think of as being something we simply inherit -- is actually quite susceptible to environmental stimuli. A 1957 study showed that American-reared sons of Japanese fathers were five inches taller than they would have been if they had been raised in Japan. A 1962 study shows American and British teenagers were 6 inches taller than a century earlier, and a 1988 study showed Japanese height had increased by 3.5 inches since the end of WWII.

(This is all summarized and cited in Ceci, p. 304: http://books.google.com/books?id=BMXVZzvLXz8C&dq=sternberg+intelligence+heredity+and+environment&pg=PP1&ots=KYoPhI-XsC&sig=IASu75KMiHTvgrV4lM4NZdzo4Lg&prev=http://www.google.com/search%3Fq%3Dsternberg%2Bintelligence%2Bheredity%2Band%2Benvironment%26start%3D0%26ie%3Dutf-8%26oe%3Dutf-8%26client%3Dfirefox-a%26rls%3Dorg.mozilla:en-US:official&sa=X&oi=print&ct=result&cd=1)

I completely agree with you that a training regimen is necessary but not sufficient. And I don't think that these things are under our complete control. But I also think that when you combine the Ridley's explanation of genetic expression, Ericsson's work on expertise, Dweck's work on praise, Fields' work on myelin, and a few other things, you end up with a strong case that the fixed genetic limits we were told existed in each of us really are not there.

I think most people assume that our early proclivities are synonymous with a genetic blueprint, and that those proclivities are a pretty clear marker at how much "talent" we each have for certain abilities. This new science
disputes those assumptions. Our early proclivities *are* influenced by genes but are not determined by them, and are only a start. None of us will know our limits until we push toward them. We each begin in a different place, and have a wide variety of advantages and disadvantages. But few of us are biologically held back from great achievements.

Ray Cheng

David,

I had overlooked a couple of your questions from January, and I regret the delay in my response. David Lykken wrote a book titled "Happiness," in which he suggests ways to overcome what he has called the set point. But it is not a very good book - rather self-indulgent in tone, rather light on anything practicable. Set point theory is not dead, but it has been refined and extended (or rather, its scope more clearly defined), as a simple google search will show. With respect to author Sharon Begley, my main beefs with her book (as it concerns the subject of your blog) is that (1) she thinks she has "smashed" genetic determinism, when in fact nobody seriously believes in it; (2) she doesn't seem to realize that genetics will play a role in how the brain responds to training. It's also embarrassing how surprised she seems to be that the brain experiences physical changes in response to "nonphysical" interventions.

Austin,

You might be interested in studies of identical twins reared apart, which show that a wide variety of personality traits are heritable in the range 30% to 80%. (But be sure to look up the technical meaning of "heritable," so as not to overstate the conclusion.)

Ray

Ray Cheng

David,

Just to be perfectly clear where I stand on all this: I believe that geniuses have to be born, and then made. They have to be born with the genetic "it," and then devote themselves to that hard work of bringing "it" out. No one is pre-destined to greatness. Ericsson and Co. have not disproved this position: their conclusions are actually much weaker. Based on their work, I'd be willing to believe something like "If you're bright enough to get a college degree, then you have the potential to achieve expert level performance at just about any discipline you choose, provided that you train hard and train the right way." And here, they take pains to state that "expert" level falls well short of what we consider "genius." I find their dismissals of the role of talent are unconvincing.

Go ahead and be as gruff as you'd like. But actually, I haven't noticed gruffness on your part.

Ray

JD

Do you have kids? If you do, have you noticed that kids from the youngest of ages will have different personalities in a wide variety of ways -- levels of inquisitiveness, fussiness, shyness, openness to new experiences, etc. Do you really think it impossible that qualities such as persistence, perceptiveness, memory, intelligence, let alone creativity, could be inborn to some extent? Or put another way, do you really think that any kid put through a rigid regimen of practicing the piano from a young age will (or could) grow up to have a level of creativity that allows him to write the 9th Symphony or the late string quartets?


Yes, diligence and training are a sine qua non; Beethoven likely wouldn't have written any music at all if his father had put him to work digging ditches for 12 hours a day. But that doesn't mean that diligence and training are sufficient, which is what you constantly seem to be suggesting.

Austin Cartwright

I have no hard feelings towards you David. Thanks for your blog and good luck on your book.

David Shenk

Austin,

I apologize to you and anyone else out there who is pro-life. I'm sometimes a little gruff with Ray due to some exchanges we've had in the past. I shouldn't be and, much more importantly, I certainly don't mean to condescend to the pro-life community. I'm pro-choice, but I respect any pro-life position so long as it doesn't advocate violence towards doctors, clinics, etc.

Abortion kills, stops a heart beat, no question about it. I think nearly everyone on the pro-choice side endorses the Clinton position that it should be safe, legal and rare. That said, you and I disagree about the humanity inherent in a several-week-old embryo. I don't think that embryo is remotely like you and me, or even close to the humanity in a one-day old infant.

What I see in a young embryo is a collection of living cells on their way to becoming a true person. To be sure, the potential there is spectacular. In a welcoming environment, that embryo will emerge not only as a life, but a life-giving and meaningful force. But in other circumstances, that embryo is very likely to develop into an infant that will needlessly suffer, and will live in an environment deprived of love and nurturing. I suspect that you, like me, had plenty of nurturing. I think every child should.

From any angle, I think this is a extremely difficult issue. Being pro-choice has some terrible implications. And I think the pro-life position does too. To reiterate, I respect your differing viewpoint.

Austin Cartwright

David, I really enjoy your blog and I have learned a lot in the past couple of months reading your posts. That being said, in this current post you seem to have a condescending tone towards people who are pro-life. I just didn’t expect this reading your former posts.

The Beethoven argument is not the best argument for reasons you have mentioned. But I think the argument works on another level. The heart has its reasons that reason does not know and I think th Beethoven argument fits into this category. I believe that all human life has intrinsic value. Abortion kills people just like you and me with the only difference being the stage of development.

Question, why is it not ok for a parent to decide to terminate a one day old if the baby is not “welcome”? This is where I see the pro-choice side being inconsistent.

David Shenk

Sean:

Thanks for your comment. Let's drill down on this much further, if you don't mind. What do you suppose the stand-out kids have a "genetic predisposition" for? Is it reaction time? Eye-hand coordination? Memory? Aggressiveness? Self-discipline? Resilience? Intuition? Perceptiveness? Motivation? Persistence? Humility? Willingness to take risks? Ability to learn from failure? Ability to accurately predict success? Ability to accurately gauge quality of just-completed effort? Academic intelligence? Emotional intelligence?

That's a partial list of the distinct qualities that have emerged from studies of high-ability. As I understand it, no scientist has been able to come up with a good explanation as to how someone can simply inherit a preponderance of those qualities, or even a pre-disposition to them. On the other hand, virtually all of us inherit the potential to develop each one of those qualities. Then it becomes a question of what will help convert that potential to reality. Genes play a vital and active role in that conversion, as do parents, siblings, teachers, peers, food, light, books, music, oxygen, and accidents -- anything that helps shape you as a complete person.

It would be absurd to suggest that genetics has no role. But it is equally wrong to suggest that some people are born with a certain genetic switch for a certain type of greatness that will flip on if they are worked hard enough in a camp. The role of genetics is much more complex than that.

Put some people in the exact same training same program and obviously some will do better than others -- but is that because of genes? That is part of what makes them different. But these kids also have different parents, siblings, home lives, nutrition, communities. They've had different influences from the moment they were conceived.

The accumulation of research suggests overwhelmingly that:

1. Greatness is built from of a wide array of materials and influences. There's no one gene or contained set of genes that will get you there.

2. Greatness, as it is expressed, is highly specific, in a way that would make it impossible to inherit. Great chess players do not, it turns out, have any particular special ability at anything else -- even in the realm of memory and strategic thinking. Same with tennis players, violinists, physicists, etc.

3. Motivation is absolutely central. Greatness comes easily to no one (even though it looks easy after they get there). It requires hard work but also a powerful internal desire.

4. There's no genetic gateway, or ceiling. Genes make all life possible, and genetic variations certainly give certain people advantages in various domains. Anyone with two or more kids can see that some things seem to come more naturally to one child than to others, and obviously some of that is genetic (though not nearly all -- I'll post on sibling differences another time). But we need to be very careful not to equate these advantages with destiny. Experience and evidence demonstrates that there's no genetic gateway through which only a select few people pass, and there's no genetic ceiling keeping most people down despite their best intentions. People with entirely normal function -- selected at random -- can be trained to display extraordinary skills over time. At the same time, kids who show astounding abilities early on are very often not the ones who turn out to be high achieving adults.

Sean S.

David, I'm a bit confused as to whether you believe that genetics play no role in the making of a genius, or instead whether genetics play a role which if combined with hard work can lead to genius. From earlier posts, I'd think your position was the latter, in which case Ray's comment about the Chinese Camp is in line with your views. Work a bunch of kids hard every day, and a few of them (those with the genetic predisposition) will stand out from all others.

However, if your view is that genetics play no role at all, I personally would have to disagree. I'd be willing to listen to your arguments of course, but I can't see why genetics should be discounted.

David Shenk

Actually, Ray, think the Beethoven trope is pretty clearly designed to argue that we pro-choicers are playing roulette with the future geniuses of the world. One you clean up the inaccurate details, you have a rhetorical premise that no one would use -- to prove this, I challenge you to find an accurate version anywhere online or in print of the Beethoven-abortion argument.

In a narrow way, you are right about the logical extension of my argument: everyone born with a functioning brain has the potential to make it to greatness, and that includes about-to-be-aborted fetuses. But we'd also have to say that every fetus also has the potential to become a Hitler or a much more common criminal. These things are not predetermined, and I would never advocate the termination of a pregnancy based on a guess of what sort of person the fetus would develop into. I simply want to leave the choice with the mother (or parents) who have the best sense by far of whether that chid is actually going to welcomed into the world and given the love and support he/she needs to develop into a decent human being.

Human beings are born, and the precise person they become is dependent on their genetics, their environment, and the second-by-second interactions between those two forces. No scientist in the world would argue against that statement, and if you are still arguing after all this evidence that geniuses are simply born, I don't quite know what to say about that.

I don't know much about the Chinese camps, so I'll have to pass on that argument for now. If you want to send me something to read about them, I'll be happy to look at it.

I didn't state that professional golfers don't train hard. I think I was pretty clearly contrasting Tiger's regimen with casual golfers. I do intend to get into what separates Tiger from other pro golfers, and Michael Jordan from other pro basketball players, and Roger Federer from other pro tennis players. But that's not what I as doing in my comment above about the skill fantasies of casual players.

ray cheng

The anti-abortion position is an honorable and principled one, and deserves more respect than conveyed in the tone of your post. The "you've just killed ___" argument is an attempt to remind the reader that an aborted fetus would have grown up to be human being, adding rhetorical force by making it a specific, well-known human being. The inaccurate details in the example above can be cleaned up, so that is hardly a serious issue. In fact, as a conservative, I rather object to the story's implication that a person's dignity and worth derives from his life's accomplishments, rather than from the simple fact of his humanity. Now David, I'm afraid if we accept your (in my view, incorrect) position that geniuses are made, rather than born, then every aborted fetus was not only a Mozart, but also a Tiger Woods, and a Mahatma Gandhi, and a Mother Teresa. Hardly a defense of abortion.

As for the "science," the example of the Chinese camps proves my point, not yours: it's all a numbers game - they cast a wide net among the youngsters, train the heck out of them, and few greats emerge. They're the ones with the genetic advantages.

You're dead wrong about Tiger Woods. Nearly all the professional golfers train as hard has he does. Some train harder. Jack Nicklaus, the greatest of the champions, never dreamed of playing as well as Tiger does.

conchis

I have no evidence at all that his mother had tuberculosis when he was born (and I guess it's pretty unlikely she'd have survived with it for 17 years). Happy to take the book though!

David Shenk

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think the mother had tuberculosis when Beethoven was born. She died of it many years afterwards. Still, either way, you win the book Conchis -- her second child did die before Ludwig was born, even though, as you say, it wasn't "theirs," that was the one true fact I was alluding to.

David Shenk

You've nailed it, Markus. It's all about the tradeoffs -- the extreme, even forced, sacrifices you're alluding to, and also the less severe sacrifices that kids and parents make all along the spectrum. I really think we need to completely reframe the discussion about talent and giftedness: it's not about who has it and who doesn't, but about what it takes to get it and whether the trade-offs are worth it. Anyone would love to play golf like Tiger, but who would honestly want to live his strict training lifestyle from a very young age? I think many people fantasize that they could live the casual lives they lead and once a week step onto a golf course and shoot a 7 under par.

conchis

His mother died of tuberculosis, so I'm going with that as the true one. It's true that her second child died, but that was her first child with Beethoven's father (she'd had a child to a previous husband), so I'm assuming that doesn't count.

Markus

Reminds me of the camps where chinese children get 'trained' to be the next world champions of Everything ... no freedom, beating, constant training, etc. The results will be astonishing of course but will it be worth it? Maybe. Will it bring back the kids' stolen childhood? No. Will it lead them to wealth and fortune? For some this will be true, for others not.

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