Everything you think about genes is probably wrong.
For example, you probably think — because this is what you were told in high school, not to mention what you read in even the most reputable newspapers — that there are genes for certain eye colors. There aren’t. (You may be protesting already, but I promise you this is true.) There are genes that make it very, very likely that you’ll have certain eye colors, assuming those genes are activated by the environment, but genes do not act alone.
We often ask whether nature or nurture is more responsible for a given trait, either physical (eye color) or behavioral (a tendency to shyness, lifelong anxiety, rampant criminality, and so on). The truth, as biologists now firmly understand it, is that both factors are responsible. Genes get “switched on” or “switched off” by their interaction with the environment. We are not the product of nature + nurture; we are the product of nature x nurture, which is a very different thing.
What is still not well understood is whether the nature or nurture component of that multiplication is weightier. Which, in other words, is the larger numeral, the one that affects the other side of the equals sign most powerfully? Of late, as I understand it, there is a movement back toward the favoring of nurture — which may seem counter-intuitive, given everything we’ve been taught about genetics in the last century — though I think the matter is still up for debate among those qualified to debate it. (A number in which, I should emphatically state, I do not include myself.)
The implication of the new nurture emphasis is, essentially, that we are not born a finished product genetically; there are no limits on our ability to develop skills, other than the hard physical limits of, say, height and weight. Any human being with a functioning brain can become, say, a beautiful orator or a confident painter. One only need have the right environment in which to thrive.
I know: it’s hard to swallow. Don’t shoot me, though; I’m only the messenger. And if you’d rather not get the message from me, get it from the horse’s mouth. I suggest you start with David Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us.
What I have been wondering lately is what this means for those of us who would perhaps be more comfortable thinking we actually have, you know, talent. Funny word, talent: the implication is that talent is something one is born with, though etymologically, a talent was a unit of currency — and thus, of course, something one acquired (yes, even if only through inheritance — though not genetic inheritance). But if we’re not literally born with talent… how the heck did we get this way?
The new nurture hypothesis would suggest that I owe any ability I have to the fact that I’ve pretty much done nothing but write for thirty years now; all of that practice hyper-activated the genes for communication and creativity that all of us possess. The new nurture hypothesis might also look at the fact that I grew up in a multi-lingual family and community, which meant I heard both German and Hebrew, in addition to English, all the time; that my grandfather was a linguist, fluent in at least seven languages, who spent hours trying to teach me Latin; and that I grew up in the early days of cable television, which made an immense proliferation of narratives accessible to me at a young age. Anyone encountering all of those environmental influences, plus (I am certain) dozens of others I’m not accounting for, would have become something similar.
In other words, I’m not special. None of us who write plays are special. We weren’t born with anything that anyone else wasn’t born with. We’ve “happened into” what we are.
What are the implications of this? What would happen if we stopped thinking of ourselves as a class privileged by birth, or subject to a “calling” of some kind? What if we believed that our talent was malleable? That we could continue to make ourselves better and better at what we do simply by providing ourselves with the right environments? What would it mean to give up the secret shame that “I could never be as good as Playwright X” because he or she is just inherently more — no, genetically more — gifted? Would it make us work harder and harder?
How much talent might we all develop?