What Makes People Intelligent? (page 3)

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Dec 31, 2010

Now, notice what has happened. These are identical twins, raised apart. So if a researcher tracked down each twin and administered a test of basketball skills, she would find that both are quite good, and because they were raised apart, the researcher would conclude that this was a genetic effect, that skill in basketball is largely determined by one's genes. But the researcher would be mistaken. What actually happened was that their genes made them tall, and being tall nudged them toward environments that included a lot of basketball practice. Practice—an environmental effect—made them good at basketball, not their genes. Genetic effects can make you seek out or select different environments.

What Makes People Intelligent?

Now think of how that perspective might apply to intelligence. Maybe genetics has had some small effect on your intelligence. Maybe it has made you a little quicker to understand things, or made your memory a little bit better, or made you more persistent on cognitive tasks, or simply made you more curious. Your parents noticed this and encouraged your interest. They may not even have been aware that they were encouraging you. They might have talked to you about more sophisticated subjects and used a broader vocabulary than they otherwise would have. As you got older, you saw yourself more and more as one of the "smart kids." You made friends with other smart kids, and entered into friendly but quite real competition for the highest grades. Then too, maybe genetics subtly pushed you away from other endeavors. You may be quicker cognitively, but you're a little slower and clumsier physically than others. That has made you avoid situations that might develop your athletic skills (such as pickup basketball games) and instead stay inside and read.

The key idea here is that genetics and the environment interact. Small differences in genetic inheritance can steer people to seek different experiences in their environments, and it is differences in these environmental experiences, especially over the long term, that have large cognitive consequences. For that reason, we shouldn't assume that twins have experienced different environments even though they were raised in different households. The fact that their genes are the same may well have encouraged them to seek out similar environments.

Now, why did I take you through this long story about intelligence? Because what we will consider doing for students who seem unintelligent differs depending on the nature of intelligence. If intelligence were all a matter of one's genetic inheritance, then there wouldn't be much point in trying to make kids smarter. Instead, we'd try to get students to do the best they could given the genetically determined intelligence they have. We'd also think seriously about trying to steer the not-so-smart kids toward intellectually undemanding tracks in schools, figuring that they are destined for low-level jobs anyway. But that's not the way things are. Intelligence is malleable. It can be improved.

Great! So how do we improve intelligence? The first step is to convince our students that intelligence can be improved.

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