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Geniuses are made, not born

"Ted Williams sees more of the ball than any man alive," said Ty Cobb to explain what seemed to be Williams' superhuman ability to thwack the bejabbers out of a baseball. Nor was Cobb alone. Ballplayers and writers practically lined up around the globe to offer their explanations for Williams' astounding abilities.

"A lot of bull," said Williams himself about them all.

And David Shenk agrees. The story he tells is of a Williams boyhood where almost every waking minute was so devoted to becoming the greatest hitter who ever lived that it was almost freakish. And that's why Williams virtually became what he set out to become.

It isn't that Shenk has other ideas, it's that, as he tells it, contemporary science does. And Shenk wants us to know about it in his new book "The Genius in All of Us" (Doubleday, 303 pages, $26.95) whose subtitle is "Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ Is Wrong." (He admitted on the phone the title is nothing if not provocative.)

We see the occasional "everything you know is wrong" book from year to year and it seems to me they're irresistible, especially when they're as lavishly documented as Shenk's.

Shenk, whose latest book was officially published a week ago, is in Buffalo today speaking to Buffalo real estate mogul Sheldon Berlow's ongoing class in interdiscipline creativity at the University at Buffalo (Shenk is a friend of Berlow's son). He was previously the author of "Data Smog" and "The Forgetting" and is a correspondent for The Atlantic.com.

What Shenk urgently wants to tell us in "The Genius in All of Us" is that the latest scientific thinking is that genes don't begin to operate in the simplistic way most of us think they do -- especially not in the areas of talent, "gifts" and intelligence.

Obviously, it helped Michael Jordan no small bit that he grew up to be 6-foot-6, but the world is full of 6-foot-6 basketball players who never began to have the competitive drive, the passion to learn and the discipline of the adult Michael Jordan.

And that's what Shenk is telling us about genes and "gifts" -- that the Williamses and Jordans, and yes the Mozarts of the world are not created by freakish genetic endowments but the interaction of genes and environment, training. That little cherub, then, burbling in his bassinet probably has as much of a chance to grow up to be the next Yo-Yo Ma as Yo-Yo Ma did.

According to scientific "interactionists," says Shenk, genes aren't blueprints, they're more like the adjustable knobs on the keyboard of a recording studio.

Intelligence isn't a given to be measured; it's not a lump to be molded. It is, instead, a developmental and changing process.

He tells us that physiological brain studies of cab drivers in London -- one of the most massive and complex of all world cities -- uniformly reveal abnormal brain developments that were acquired along with the requisite knowledge of London's gigantic geography.

To parents, then, Shenk comes from a study of contemporary science with a message: with the obvious exceptions (due to damage), intelligence and talents are processes open to all.

Geniuses don't fear failure and mistakes, he says, they practically eat them for nourishment. They're the food of excellence. (A good thing, say those of us, who've been known to falter occasionally under the strains of productive quantity and velocity.)

Extraordinary potential, he's saying, isn't rare, it's commonplace and can be fulfilled with uncommon persistence and discipline.

In one sense, "The Genius in Us All" is merely democratic common sense. But it isn't every day that you get someone marshaling platoons of scientists to agree with Ted Williams on all "the bull" we tell ourselves about talents and gifts in life.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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