While the debate over intelligence rages on many fronts, the battle over the importance of heredity rages loudest. It’s easy to see why. If the camp that argues intelligence is 75 to 85 percent genetically determined is correct, then we’re faced with some tough questions about the role of education. If intelligence is improved very little by schools, and if the IQ of the majority of the population will remain relatively unchanged no matter how well schools perform, then should school reform really be a priority?
More to the point, if our genes largely determine our IQ, which in turn underlies our performance throughout our lives, then what is the role of school? For some in this debate the answer to that question is simply, “to be the best you can be.” But that seems little comfort for those who aspire to “be” more than what their IQ category predicts they will.
Those on the other side of this debate question whether heredity plays as big a role as the strong hereditarians claim. And for the role it does play, they question whether hereditability implies immutability. Heredity of height, for example, is about 90 percent, and yet average height in several populations around the world has been steadily increasing due to non-genetic influences, like nutrition. If such a strong hereditary trait can be radically altered by environmental factors–and height is but one example of this–then why is intelligence different?
It is not, argues the camp that might best be described as intelligence optimists. For them, the pessimism that colors the strong hereditarian position isn’t only discouraging, it’s dangerous. Too much is hanging in the balance for pessimism about the potential of our children to prevail.
Richard Nisbett is a champion of the intelligence optimist camp, and with his latest book, Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count, he has emerged as the most persuasive voice marshalling evidence to disprove the heredity-is-destiny argument. Intellectual advancement, Nisbett argues, is not the result of hardwired genetic codes, but the province of controllable factors like schools and social environments–and as such, improving these factors is crucially important. [Read more…] about Can You Outsmart Your Genes? An Interview with Author Richard Nisbett