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The Genius in All of Us – David Shenk **

I have to be totally up front and say I don’t like this book. From the very beginning, its attitude is negative. It keeps telling you over and over again, ‘This is what you thought – well, you were WRONG!’ What was I wrong about? Well, I thought, apparently that genius was hereditary. I thought that what we are is produced by either our genes or our environment. But I was WRONG! In fact, amazingly revealed for the first time, genes and environment work together. Environment influences the way the genes are expressed. Wow, I never knew that. Or rather, I did.
I suppose I ought to have a little sympathy for David Shenk, because you do still see books and articles blaming things uniquely on genes or environment, but I really don’t think it’s as much a fundamental shock as Shenk suggests. Or rather YELLS AT US.
He uses the expression GxE to indicate that it’s genes and environment operating on each other, rather than G+E – genes plus environment, operating separately. I don’t think this is his expression, but I found this irritating too. It implies a level of science that really isn’t there. There is nothing to multiply by something else – the formula is meaningless.
The other problem I have with the book is that most of the examples are sporting. He leads with a big story about a baseball player. Now frankly, outside the US, not many people are interested in baseball, so that turned me off straight away. In fact, rather a lot of the people who read about science don’t care at all about sport, me included, so it was all a big so what.
In fact this highlights the weakest parts of Shenk’s argument. He says all genius works in a certain way. But almost all his examples (apart from passing references to Einstein with no justification whatsoever) are from sport or the performance of music. Here his thesis that vast amounts of practice are the answer to almost anyone becoming great make sense. They are performance activities, not thought activities. Yet for me, genius is mostly about creativity and thought – and he really doesn’t properly address this.
So if you want to know how almost anyone can become a great sportsperson on performance musician, provided they are prepared to give up a normal life, then this is a great book. Otherwise I’m not impressed.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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