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Can You Outsmart Your Genes? An Interview with Author Richard Nisbett

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 NisbettRichard 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 the rest of this entry »

Improving the world, and one’s brain, at the same time

My wife and I just came back from an inspir­ing Gold­man Prize Award cer­e­mo­ny, where sev­en grass­roots envi­ron­men­tal change­mak­ers were rec­og­nized for their work and resilien­cy, and shared their pas­sion and pur­pose with every­one attend­ing the event. We did hear too from Al Gore, Tra­cy Chap­man, Robert Red­ford, and the founder of the awards 20 years ago, Richard Gold­man.

The BBC recent­ly pub­lished an Op-Ed by Mr. Gold­man on the sto­ry behind the Awards them­selves: arti­cle Here. He explains how…

  • - “One morn­ing in 1989, as I sat with my dai­ly break­fast and news­pa­per, I read about the most recent Nobel lau­re­ates and won­dered if there was a com­pa­ra­ble award for envi­ron­men­tal work.”
  • - “We asked a staff mem­ber at our foun­da­tion to do some research and he found that noth­ing yet exist­ed to recog­nise envi­ron­men­tal work on an inter­na­tion­al stage, thus the Gold­man Prize was born.”
  • - “Our choice to focus specif­i­cal­ly on grass­roots envi­ron­men­tal lead­ers was unique at the time.”

Mr. Gold­man, and the sev­en win­ners, are clear­ly help­ing improve the state of the world.

Now, the “state of the world” does include their very own brains — you may have seen this recent paper on how Vol­un­teer Pro­gram Pro­vides Health Ben­e­fits To Old­er Women

  • - “She and her col­leagues found that EC vol­un­teers showed greater improve­ments in mem­o­ry and exec­u­tive func­tion than those who did not par­tic­i­pate in the pro­gram. In fact, the old­er adults with the low­est base­line per­for­mance in these areas — those most at risk for health dis­par­i­ties — demon­strat­ed the most sig­nif­i­cant gains.”
  • - “Both stud­ies high­light­ed above show that every­day activ­i­ty inter­ven­tions (e.g., EC) can appeal to old­er adults’ desires to remain social­ly engaged and pro­duc­tive in their post-retire­ment years. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, these activ­i­ties pro­vide mea­sur­able phys­i­cal and cog­ni­tive health ben­e­fits.”

Of course, those ben­e­fits do not accrue only for old­er adults (or just for women), but may help all of us grad­u­al­ly build Cog­ni­tive Reserves through the added nov­el­ty, vari­ety and chal­lenge.

Talk about win/ win!

Relat­ed arti­cles on social entre­pre­neur­ship:

Every­one a Change­mak­er”, Ashoka and Google

Richard Dawkins and Alfred Nobel: beyond nature and nur­ture

Learning about Learning: an Interview with Joshua Waitzkin

In 1993, Para­mount Pic­tures released Search­ing for Bob­by Fis­ch­er, which depicts Joshua Wait­zk­in’s ear­ly chess suc­cess as he embarks on a jour­ney to win his first Nation­al chessJoshua Waitzkin cham­pi­onship. This movie had the effect of weak­en­ing his love for the game as well as the learn­ing process. His pas­sion for learn­ing was reju­ve­nat­ed, how­ev­er, after years of med­i­ta­tion, and read­ing phi­los­o­phy and psy­chol­o­gy. With this rekin­dling of the learn­ing process, Wait­zkin took up the mar­tial art Tai Chi Chuan at the age of 21 and made rapid progress, win­ning the 2004 push hands world cham­pi­onship at the age of 27.

After read­ing Joshua’s most recent book The Art of Learn­ing, I thought of a mil­lion top­ics The Art of LearningI want­ed to dis­cuss with him–topics such as being labelled a “child prodi­gy”, bloom­ing, cre­ativ­i­ty, and the learn­ing process. Thank­ful­ly, since I was pro­fil­ing Wait­zkin for an arti­cle I was for­tu­nate enough to get a chance to have such a con­ver­sa­tion with him. I hope you find this dis­cus­sion just as provoca­tive and illu­mi­nat­ing as I did.

The Child Prodi­gy

S. Why did you leave chess at the top of your game?

J. This is a com­pli­cat­ed ques­tion that I wrote about very open­ly in my book. In short, I had lost the love. My rela­tion­ship to the game had become exter­nal­ized-by pres­sures from the film about my life, by los­ing touch with my nat­ur­al voice as an artist, by mis­takes I made in the growth process. At the very core of my rela­tion­ship to learn­ing is the idea that we should be as organ­ic as pos­si­ble. We need to cul­ti­vate a deeply refined intro­spec­tive sense, and build our rela­tion­ship to learn­ing around our nuance of char­ac­ter. I stopped doing this and fell into cri­sis from a sense of alien­ation from an art I had loved so deeply. This is when I left chess behind, start­ed med­i­tat­ing, study­ing phi­los­o­phy and psy­chol­o­gy, and ulti­mate­ly moved towards Tai Chi Chuan.

S. Do you think being a child prodi­gy hurt your chess career in any way?

J. I have nev­er con­sid­ered myself a prodi­gy. Oth­ers have used that term, but I nev­er bought in to it. From a young age it was always about embrac­ing the bat­tle, lov­ing the game, and over­com­ing adver­si­ty. Grow­ing up as Read the rest of this entry »

Epigenetics: Nature vs. Nurture?

In yes­ter­day’s inter­view with Michael Pos­ner, he says:

- “There is a grow­ing num­ber of stud­ies that show the impor­tance of inter­ac­tion between our genes and each of our envi­ron­ments. Epi­ge­net­ics is going to help us under­stand that ques­tion bet­ter, but let me share a very inter­est­ing piece of research from my lab where we found an unusu­al inter­ac­tion between genet­ics and par­ent­ing.”

- “Good par­ent­ing, as mea­sured by dif­fer­ent research-based scales, has been shown to build good effort­ful con­trol which, as we saw ear­li­er, is so impor­tant. Now, what we found is that some spe­cif­ic genes reduced, even elim­i­nat­ed, the influ­ence of the qual­i­ty of par­ent­ing. In oth­er words, some chil­dren’s devel­op­ment real­ly depends on how their par­ents bring them up, where­as oth­ers do not — or do to a much small­er extent.”

Now check out this fas­ci­nat­ing arti­cle in the Econ­o­mist:Domes­ti­ca­tion and intel­li­gence in dogs and wolves | Not so dumb ani­mals

- “Monique Udell of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da … won­dered whether learn­ing rather than evo­lu­tion explained his obser­va­tions. Her team there­fore worked with a mix­ture of pet dogs, dogs from ani­mal shel­ters that had had min­i­mal inter­ac­tion with peo­ple, and wolves raised by humans.”

- “As they report in Ani­mal Behav­iour, the wolves out­per­formed both shel­ter dogs and pets. Indeed, Read the rest of this entry »

Is Intelligence Innate and Fixed?

iq test, intelligenceGiv­en the recent James Wat­son “race and IQ” con­tro­ver­sy, I took on to read Stephan Jay Gould’s clas­sic book The Mis­mea­sure of Man, in which he debunks IQ (and the under­ly­ing “g”) as mea­sure of defined, innate, “intel­li­gence”. Fas­ci­nat­ing read­ing overall, very tech­ni­cal in some areas.

The key take-away? In the last chap­ter, A Pos­i­tive Con­clu­sion, he writes that

- “Flex­i­bil­i­ty is the hall­mark of human evolution…In oth­er mam­mals, explo­ration, play and flex­i­bil­i­ty of behav­ior are qual­i­ties of juve­niles, only rarely of adults. We retain not only the anatom­i­cal stamp stamp of child­hood, but its men­tal flex­i­bil­i­ty as well…Humans are learn­ing ani­mals”

He then relates this sto­ry from T.H. White’s nov­el The Once and Future King

- God, he recounts, cre­at­ed all ani­mals as embryos and called each before his throne, offer­ing them what­ev­er addi­tions to their anato­my they desired. All opt­ed for spe­cial­ized adult fea­tures-the lion for claws and sharp teeth, the deer for antlers and hoofs. The human embryo stepped forth last and said: Please God, I think that you made me in the shape which I now have for rea­sons best known to Your­selves and that it would be rude to change. If I am to have my choice, I will stay as I am. I will not alter any of the parts which you gave me…I will stay a defence­less embryo all my life, doing my best to make myself a few fee­ble imple­ments out of the wood, iron, and the oth­er mate­ri­als which You have seen fit to put before me..” “Well done”, exclaimed the Cre­ator in delight­ed tone. “Here all you embryos, come here with Read the rest of this entry »

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