Our Cult of Achievement Is Crushing the Genius Out of People

Humans worship at the altar of excellence, but is our complete obsession with this "quality controlled" mode of intellect holding us back?

Eric Weinstein: I think that very few people see the words 'excellence' or 'consensus' as anything other than the most positive of words. These are the habits that most people seek to cultivate. They wish to be part of the consensus. They wish to be excellent in both their behavior and hope for excellent outcomes. I think the problem is that, we didn’t realize that excellence so far as it goes is fine but it’s involved in a trade-off. And that trade-off has to do with the fact that excellence is really about quality control. It’s about the fact that if I’m going to go for, let’s say, a classical music concert, I want to assume that the piece will be played flawlessly and I will concentrate only on the interpretive aspects of the piece above that. But, in fact, quality control can be deadly. For example, if in a jazz date where an improviser takes few risks the music may be pleasant enough as background music but it’s scarcely the sort of thing that would have animated the bebop generation who played live dates under open-mic conditions never knowing what would happen next. Perhaps the most famous jazz album of all time was Miles Davis’ 'Kind of Blue', and if you look at the sheet music for that date almost nothing was written down. It was just a question of bringing the most amazing minds together. And you can even hear a few flaws on that album which make it so exciting.

So I think that the problem is that, we have to realize that excellence is about hill climbing. It’s about the fabled 10,000 hours. It’s about practice making perfect. And this is something that, to the credit of excellence, it’s something we do know how to teach. Perhaps we don’t know how to teach everyone how to achieve it but there’s always a class of people who through dedicated repetition will be able to bring their variance under extraordinary pressure so that they are reliable members of our society. We want this in our surgeons, often. We want this in our classical music performers. But the question is: do we want it everywhere? And because we do know how to teach excellence we’ve blinded ourselves to the role that a different thought process is involved in, which I would associate with genius. The key question is: who are these high-variance individuals? Why are our schools filled with dyslexics? Why are there so many kids diagnosed with ADHD? My claim is these are giant underserved populations who are not meant for the excellence model. They are meant to be the innovators, the people who bring us new forms of music that others will seek to perfect and hone in their performance.

But these are the sorts of people who bring us new scientific vistas, who explore new terrain, and what we’ve done is we’ve created a system which effectively demonizes these different patterns. We even call these things learning disabilities when, in fact, if you look at the learning disabled population they very often are the most intellectual, accomplished members of society. But we put them through a torture chamber of K through 12 education where we attempt to convince the teachers, who have no idea how to serve this population—we try to make sure that there’s no indication that there are teaching disabilities by pushing the responsibility onto the students.

These are the learning disabled but in no real terms is this population learning disabled. It’s a different and a somewhat alien population that we have tried to machine to a point where they look as close to the excellent population as possible. So it’s not really that I’m against excellence. What I’m really against is the idea that we’ve absorbed the concept of excellence into the very fabric of our society so that all those who don’t function within that idiom feel that they are somehow abhorrent and less than, when, in fact, these are the people who are going to cure our cancers. These are the people who are going to create new multi-billion dollar industries.

And, in fact, the problem is, is that we don’t realize that genius is really about adaptive valley crossing. It’s about taking on risk, taking on cost, doing things that make almost no sense to anyone else and can only be shown to have been sensible after the fact because, in fact, and I think, you know, Jim Watson said this beautifully, he said if you’re really going to do anything big you are by definition unqualified to do it. So the entire culture of credentialism, of professionalism, is really a culture of excellence. But, in fact, society is run by power laws. The very thick tails of these distributions suggest that life isn’t normally distributed but distributed by power laws. And we need a special class of people to play those tails, to get us the returns, to power us forward and advance society. And so what I’m really interested in is not being blinded by excellence to the prospects for other modalities, in particular genius.

We want our surgeons to be excellent. We wants our classical music performers to be excellent. But do we really want excellence everywhere? This is the provocative line of thought economist and mathematician Eric Weinstein is currently chasing. We've figured out how to reliably teach excellence, which is useful — but there is a trade-off. Individuals and education institutions become hyper-focused on cutting variant individuals to a certain shape, pushing them into a mold so they can passably imitate the "excellent" population, but not really perform. "The key question is: who are these high-variance individuals? Why are our schools filled with dyslexics? Why are there so many kids diagnosed with ADHD? My claim is these are giant underserved populations who are not meant for the excellence model." To that end, Weinstein suggests that the label of 'learning disabled' is severely misguided. Perhaps we should call this phenomenon what it more accurately is: a teaching disability. How much genius is squandered by muting the strengths of these populations?

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Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time. — DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't. — DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

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