Debate Magazine

Rats (from the Archives)

By Stevemiranda

I just started reading a fascinating book by David Shenk called, The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Taught About Genetics, Talent, and IQ is Wrong. I suspect I’ll be sharing more excerpts and thoughts on this in the coming weeks.

The field of genetics has long been the center of the nature vs. nurture debate, but new research is reframing that conversation. Scientists are no longer convinced that genes provide the foundation, and the environment merely adds on to that foundation. Instead, the process is apparently much more dynamic.

Here’s an example. Research scientists from the University of Manitoba conducted an experiment on rat intelligence. They selected two groups of rats they called “Maze-bright” and “Maze-dull,” so named because of their performance in mazes over the course of several generations. They then raised both of these different genetic groups in three types of environments: “enriched” (with lots of stimulating toys), “normal” (with a modest exercise and a few toys), and “restricted” (nothing but food and water).

The scientists predicted the “Maze-bright” rats raised in the enriched environment would make fewer mistakes than those raised in the restricted environment. And they expected the same of the “Maze-dull” rats. This was confirmed, but the data revealed something much more interesting.

Both the “Maze-bright” and the “Maze-dull” rats raised in the enriched environment made very few mistakes. Not only that, but they made essentially the same number of mistakes. And the same was true for the restricted environment. Both groups made a lot more mistakes, and both groups made essentially the same number of mistakes. Shenk writes, “Their genetic differences disappeared.”

“The truth is these ‘genetic’ differences hadn’t ever been truly genetic,” he continues. One’s genetic makeup is constantly interacting with the environment, day after day, week after week, year after year. In the words of CUNY evolutionary ecologist Massimo Pugliucci, “The trick then is not partitioning the causes between nature and nurture, but in [examining] the way genes and environments interact dialectically to generate an organism’s appearance and behavior.”

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I used to teach high school students who had grown up in the Seattle School District’s “Accelerated Progress Program,” in which bright students are identified as early as Kindergarten and placed in a special program that pushes them two grade levels ahead. One high-achieving student dryly explained to me her philosophy of the program: “I’m not in APP because I’m smart. I’m smart because I’m in APP.”


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