Outlie This: Breaking Research Reveals Talent Gene?

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In his critically acclaimed book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell shared how a growing lineage of research on greatness largely debunked the myth of talent or a God-given gift, in favor of what’s come to be known as the “10-year rule.”

What really makes people world class great, said the data, was not some genetic anomaly, talent or gift, but rather the accumulation of 10,000 hours (approximately 10 years) of intensive, deliberate, focused practice.

But, new research into the genetics of learning may have just obliterated that claim.

In the May issue of Scientific American Mind, neurologist Janine Reis, who led a study at the National Institutes of Health revealed the following stunning bit of information:

Now researchers are starting to show a direct, quantifiable effect on learning traceable to…genetic influences: single-nucleotide polymorphisms. A difference in just one amino acid in a protein might explain why some people learn new motor skills faster and reach higher levels of performance.

This is revolutionary on two levels.

One, it demonstrates the potential existence of a genetic basis for a “gift…”

It presents a strong argument that greatness is not just about deliberate practice, as suggested by the research shared in Outliers. DNA, it seems, may well play a very real role in just how good you can get at a particular pursuit and how quickly it’ll take to get great.

But, there’s a second, huge potential implication…

Which is that, if a gene for greatness can actually be isolated…

It may be possible to eventually develop a gene-therapy that could literally install or turn-on genetic talent, where none existed before.

Does that excite you? Does that scare you?

For me, the answer is both.

Sure, it could be used for good, accelerating recovery of muscle strength, agility and coordination after injury or illness. But, it could also be used to literally inject an unfair advantage in many other battlefields, driven by the quest for substantial ego and commercial gains.

Granted the research is still in it’s very early stages, but…think of the potential.

So…what do you think?

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23 responses

23 responses to “Outlie This: Breaking Research Reveals Talent Gene?”

  1. Jason says:

    I think an interesting question would be…if you didn’t have it, and you wanted it, how much would you pay for it?

  2. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Jason – That’s another interesting question, especially in light of the fact that parents now have the option, under certain circumstances in the U.S., to give their kids HGH or human growth hormone to make them taller.

    And, some are doing it precisely because they want their kids to have economic advantages associated with height. On a personal level, I find that really disturbing, but a generation from now, who knows…

  3. Dee Wilcox says:

    Wow, that’s some craziness! I think we’ve all tended to believe in a genetic predisposition where talent is concerned – scientific or not, we expect talented parents to produce talented children. The expectation exists because of a positive trend over time. However, the possibility that the gene might be tapped and converted into a commodity (like HGH) is scary to me. It’s like promoting the development of a super race. Unfortunately, like many advances in genetic engineering, the potential for harm is very great.

  4. The ability to achieve greatness/talent is definitely genetic IMO. I’m an extremely gifted stained glass artist…and much to my surprise found out my great great great grandfather was too. It must have passed thru to my genes.

    Data points, Barbara

  5. Duff says:

    My intuition has always been that the greats in any field are great both because they’ve found what they are naturally (genetically/culturally/etc.) good at, and then also practiced or played at it for 10 or more years. That said, it’s no surprise to me that some people are more genetically gifted than others for certain abilities. If you’ve ever seen fraternal twins, you know what I’m talking about.

    That said, I hope gene therapy for talent never gets developed.

  6. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ everyone – yeah, I always had trouble completely buying into the 10 year rule data. In fact, my dad’s been researching human cognition (learning) for more than 40 years and he leans strongly toward the idea that most of what’s talent can be taught.

    No doubt, it will be interesting to to see how this research unfolds from here.

  7. Brandon W says:

    I don’t believe this inherently debunks the idea in Outliers. Even if a “talent gene” exists, talent still needs development. Perhaps those with a talent gene can achieve greatness with 5000 hours of practice instead of 10000? I don’t think Outliers really claims that no inherent capability is necessary, but I do think it argues that all things being equal (including all subjects having a “talent gene”) that those who have more opportunities to hone their skill will have a better chance of being “great”. Not all the hockey players had the same chance, but clearly, those born into situations that gave them higher level skill development were at an advantage over the long term. The two arguments don’t have to clash; they can work together.

  8. LeMelon says:

    It’s weird to think that such a small difference in a single protein could make such a big difference to a person’s future!
    If I found out I had that gene, I would probably be against the therapy – and vice versa 😛

  9. Fascinating article Jonathan,

    Given all the above, a reasonable approach might be: take whatever talent or gift we have, apply intensive, deliberate, focused practice, and hope that our effort stimulates our latent genetic talent. That way, even if our DNA does not contain that special amino acid we are still covered .

  10. Bob Collier says:

    I’m pretty sure myself that greatness is not just about hours and hours of deliberate practice, it’s probably a lot more complex than that (Malcolm Gladwell left some inconvenient complications out of his book ‘Blink’ too). This latest “gene theory” seems to me to be equally simplistic . Especially since scientific studies elsewhere, apparently, have suggested that our genes are not fixed in their influence as once thought but are amenable to change, for example, by chronic emotional states (Bruce Lipton et al).

    What, I wonder, does this latest research say specifically about what would have happened to Mozart if his parents had lived in the middle of the African jungle, or other scenarios such as that?

    Perhaps there’s more to this than meets the eye. In my experience, it’s often the case that what we’re told about the results of scientific research in the media is not the whole story, and, if my experience is anything to go by, the whole story is very often considerably more subjective than the public is led to believe.

    “A difference in just one amino acid in a protein MIGHT explain why SOME people …” and “It may be possible to eventually develop …”, for example, are phrases that are spot on typical of these things.

  11. Chef Keem says:

    A talent gene (therapy) for the highest bidders! Scary…again. Even at an affordable price – “Generic T-Gene Shots from 4-6 at Porky’s Cheapo FoodMart! Only $29.99 a pop!” – we’d become a world of record chasers, competitors and – enemies. If we can screw it up – we will.

    I like to envision a true scientific breakthrough giving us “Love & Compassion” pills. The worst-case scenario would find us bored to death from everyone telling us how beautiful and great we are. 😀

    Seriously, we need to stop “playing God” and focus on being brothers and sisters. There’s enough scientific evidence of the healing power of helping each other through compassionate thinking (and doing), affordable health care, education, and on and on…

    One good example: Alcoholics Anonymous. The power of community with a single purpose renders powerless a horrific gene that has killed generations before us and destroyed countless family lives. No pills, no shots, no implants – only ego deflation and love in action. (Free!)

  12. Yura says:

    It doesn’t dismiss Malcom’s claim at all.

    Even if he’s wrong in the gene part, doesn’t mean you don’t have to practice for 10 years before you actually become good enough.

    Talent without practice accomplishes nothing.

  13. I’ve got to admit, my first thought is to be freaked out. I hate the idea that hard work doesn’t trump all. In the end, though, I think a lot of us are looking for not just talent, but success, and that requires a pretty serious dose of passion in addition to natural skills.

    And am I the only one who immediately flashed on Harrison Bergeron?

  14. My first reaction to the idea was “Idiots” – because nothing happens in isolation – it’s all interrelated and we ignore that at our peril. Look at the environment – we add frogs to Australia and they create an environmental catastrophe. We can’t change just one thing and expect nothing else to change.

    The idea mainly scares me because with the way our culture is so success-driven (in that the only “winners” are the people who make bazillions of dollars) people are going to shoot up their unborn kids with this gene therapy without knowing the true side effects or consequences. Same with HGH – what side effects are there? We can’t know.

  15. I think the potential for abusing this would likely come in the sports arena. If we’re worried now about athletes on steroids, imagine would they could possibly do with these genes. I think this area involves probing into things that probably should not be probed. Just let nature take its course.

  16. Jeff Flowers says:

    Wow. This would truly be something. It does freak me out a little bit, but once you take a step back and realize that there are pro’s and con’s to everything… Then it starts to excite me.

    It could bring very good things into many different areas of life, but on the flipside, it would be something that could be abused.

    Either way… it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.

  17. Jennifer says:

    If it’s an amino acid in a protein this implies that it can be impacted through diet. If so this makes for interesting implications…

  18. I only think gene therapy should be used to fix inheritable diseases, which are truly devastating. Going beyond that is going too far in my opinion.

  19. I’m under the impression that genes play a varying role in talents. They might account for 80% of some talents and only 50% of others. I think how much they contribute to a talent must be studied on a case by case basis.

  20. Elizabeth Rogers says:

    Young Mozart composed symphonies by the time he was eight years old. Try to chalk this up to ‘hard work’…

    The main problem is that of envy, our refusal to accept that some people can be effortlessly excellent at something the rest of us cannot be merely adequate in with countless hours of practice, the problem not of a Mozart but of a Salieri (watch ‘Amadeus’ for details).

    As far as I know, however, no ‘gene therapy’ is on offer, so far, to exterminate envy…

  21. Let’s say talent is genetic. Does that imply a person sitting on the couch watching television is going to become a success? Probably not.

    Talent might make success easier, but it’s not a guarantee. If you watch football, there are plenty of extremely physically-gifted players who wash out and moderately physically-gifted players who’ve made the Hall of Fame.

    Genetics has to give you a headstart, that’s just the way evolution works. But you have to put in the effort.

  22. I can’t believe that a gene could make you talented. Although your genetics can make stuff happen easyer but the impact from the surroundings is as important.