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Sunshine Superman

The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Ever Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ is Wrong by David Shenk (Anchor, $15.00, 400 pages)

“Greatness was not a thing to Ted Williams.   It was a process.”

Are some people born with more talent and ability than others?   For as long as most of us can recall, the premise of nature vs. nurture has been used to describe the two major components that influence a person’s life.   Best-selling author David Shenk makes it his task to showcase a different, somewhat overlooked alternative concept in The Genius in All of Us.   He believes that hard work and practice are critical to success, not something you either have or not.   As he states, “Talent is not a thing; it’s a process.”

This book is more than what it appears at first glance.   It is not one man’s attempt at coining a new phrase or repackaging old ideas in a new survey-book format.   Rather, Shenk has spent time gathering information and gives credit where credit is due.   He thoughtfully presents the reader with a manageable amount of information geared at unseating the status quo regarding genius, or the lack thereof.   He is direct in his take on what has been fed to the public over the last 100-plus years – personal concepts that have not stood the test of rigorous scientific study, sensationalism and, lastly, letting slackers off easily by claiming that genius is a genetic gift that is passed on to a person.

If you choose to read the book in the original Doubleday hardcover edition, which was this reviewer’s experience, it is worth taking a few moments to examine the book without the dust jacket.   In doing so, please observe the care and deliberate effort that went into the creation of the volume.

The physical proportions, type font, graphics and paper stock (even its slight buff color) lend an air of timelessness.   What better way to present a concept that is meant to be taken seriously?   The text is divided into two main parts followed by “The Evidence” – an equal number of pages devoted to elaboration on the sources and points made in parts one and two, along with comments by the author.   Clearly, Shenk and the team he brought together to produce the book devoted their best efforts to showcasing an alternative to what he calls a wrong-headed approach to genius and success that has been imbedded in the minds of the general populace.

There is one new term, “interactionism,” that is used to characterize the concept of genetics interacting with environment.   An easy-to-remember shorthand for this is G x E.   The reader is advised that plasticity in humans, even as early as during gestation, guarantees that no ability is set or fixed.   Just as Shenk advises that practice and hard work are required to bring about the best results, the reader needs to know that attention and open-minded commitment is required on his or her part to fully realize the value within The Genius in All of Us.

David Shenk is a master at writing and sets a pace that allows the reader to consider the concept of G x E.   His clear voice is consistently authoritative; however, he never casts the reader as a lesser person.   Shenk carefully sets out the premise of G x E using incremental steps to coax the reader’s acceptance of how thought has unfolded over time within the academic community.   Helpful citations referencing prior chapters reinforce the learning process.

There are no great leaps in thinking or pushy theories, just well-documented scientific thought and exploration.   Shenk does his due diligence examining findings from dissenters; he demonstrates where they miss the mark.   The Genius in All of Us is filled with hope and is a call to action that fosters flexibility in thinking and a commitment to growth and success.   This is a book worthy of a reader’s time, attention and contemplation.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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A review of The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Ever Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ is Wrong by David Shenk.

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Forever

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This begins as an excellent biography of a woman who might have remained unknown but for a miracle of medicine.   “At the age of twenty-one, Henrietta stared through the train window at rolling hills and wide-open bodies of water for the first time, heading toward a new life.”   Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 of cervical cancer but her cells are still alive.   To be exact, only her cancer cells continue to live but they may live for up to 100 years if frozen.   They are the so-called HeLa cells that are used by researchers throughout the world to advance the knowledge of how to fight and halt disease.

Author Rebecca Skloot has taken on the challenge of melding a family’s story with a tale of medicine and law.   The personal story is engaging and quite well done.   The reader will come to feel that he or she not only becomes acquainted with Henrietta Lacks, but also her late daughter Deborah, and her other children and grandchildren.   And, as Skloot gracefully notes, they are quite beautiful grandchildren.

This reader felt the telling was less effective when addressing the medico-legal issues.   That’s because the case is made that Henrietta’s cells were, in effect, stolen from her by Johns Hopkins Hospital.   Yet once you’ve read through two-thirds of the book, you learn that Hopkins explicitly met the medical research standards (and the legal requirements) of the day.   Indeed, it was a much different time.   A relation of this reviewer gave consent for a cancer biopsy in 1950 in a northern California hospital.   Only later did the relative learn that her stomach cells were only removed in California; the cell slides were mailed to Johns Hopkins for the medical research and analysis.

There’s also an apparent contradiction in the events.   We’re told repeatedly that Henrietta did not consent to having her cells used for medical research.   Yet, her husband did authorize an autopsy and there’s also a reference to a death-bed conversation during which Henrietta was said to have told a physician that she was pleased that others might benefit from an examination of her cancerous cell tissues.   But even if this conversation never happened, the law at the time was what it was.The author tells us that the rights of research subjects were largely unprotected until 1966.   Yes, and this means that a lot of time is spent reviewing and debating the medical morality of an earlier time.   It is a moot point.

Henrietta’s daughter Deborah is the appealing figure in this account.   She is the family member who argued – passionately and perhaps appropriately – that one cannot hold yesterday’s medical professionals to today’s ethical and moral standards.   Deborah, in fact, jumps off the pages of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as the person who is brought back to life in the writing.

The descendents of Henrietta Lacks have never benefited from the use of her cells, leaving aside the issue of whether they were properly appropriated.   They have not received any money, and although HeLa cells are sold for medical research, the family does not have health care.   This is truly a shame, an injustice, and it is hoped that Skloot’s account will – in highlighting this case – change things.

Henrietta Lacks deserves to be remembered, as does Deborah Lacks.   Rebecca Skloot has provided the tombstone that Henrietta’s family could never afford.   This true account is at its best when paying tribute to a woman whose life, in death, has benefited countless individuals worldwide.

It is encouraging to hope and think (and perhaps pray) that this account will result in a better life for the children, beautiful grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Henrietta and Deborah Lacks.   That would be the greatest tribute of all.

Highly recommended.

Reprinted courtesy of the New York Journal of Books.

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