David Shenk’s Favorite Geniuses

Question: What interests you about genius as a subject?


David Shenk:  Yeah.  I’ve always been interested in this question of what is the difference between people who are mediocre at something and the people who are great at something, and I think a lot of us are and it’s my good fortune as a writer to be able to follow my curiosities and I’ve done a lot of science writing, so I read a lot of science and I try to be the guy who is going to explain a scientific concept to the general public, so that’s just what I do in a lot of my work.  What got me on the road to this book is that I noticed that there were a lot of different pieces of science kind of pointing in this certain direction, but no one had ever really put it together.  There is this…  You know there are all these people saying, well, blank slate is dead.  We’re not all born the same and that’s obviously true, and then there’s all these people pointing out all these… all the power of genes, which is also obviously true, and there’s all this neat stuff about intelligence, which we’re learning more and more about, so I saw that all these different pieces of science could be woven together and tell a story that in newspapers and magazines and so far other books wasn’t being told.  I think partly because they were from so many different eras of science and different arenas as well.


Question: Do you have any “heroes” whose gifts you find particularly admirable or fascinating?


David Shenk:  Great question.  My mind goes in a lot of different directions there.  My writer heroes are people like John McPhee who and Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe and E.B. White who are able to… were able to take nonfiction to a whole new art, particularly John McPhee, who does a lot of science writing and does that trick of taking things that scientists understand, but aren’t quite able to articulate for the general public, and just thinks about them and pushes them in all these different metaphorical ways and comes up with stories so that he can put the stuff into a format that people would enjoy reading and find a way for non scientists to kind of put this knowledge in their own brains and then of course apply it to their own lives. 


Other heroes, I mean there are heroes in the book.  Alfred Binet who came up, who invented the concept of IQ and developed the first IQ test before it was basically stolen by Lewis Terman and not really stolen, but adapted it in this kind of manipulative way so that by the time it got to America it was thought to be this test that revealed this innate intelligence whereas Alfred Binet actually invented the test to expose weaknesses in learning that were going on in young children and say, “Hey, what can we do about this?”  This is before all the science that came out.  This is more than a hundred years ago.  His whole concept of intelligence was this set of skills and that if we come up with a good test to divine what people… what kids aren’t learning well we see their weaknesses, we can show that to the teachers and say, all right, let’s figure out how to build up these other skills as opposed to this school which then, dominated unfortunately intelligence for many decades, which is this idea of this innate endowment, which we now know to be false.

Recorded on January 19, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen


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