In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Katherine Tam chats with Dr. Rina Bliss, genetics expert, sociologist, and associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University, about her new book, Rethinking Intelligence: A Radical New Understanding of Our Human Potential (HarperCollins, Spring 2023). Bliss’s research reveals that environments, not genetics, are the source of human intelligence. She points to the infinite potential in each person that can be realized only when toxic stress and inequality are addressed. An edited version of the conversation follows.
Why did you write this book?
Rethinking Intelligence looks at the latest in genetics and neuroscience to give us a new way of thinking about, understanding, assessing, and really living with our intelligence. I grew up in an immigrant community in Los Angeles. My mom is an immigrant. In my community, parents worked all hours, many jobs. We didn’t have any kind of help with our homework or preparation for tests. Yet we were tested all the time.
For our parents, education was everything. Test scores were everything. Education was a possible way for us to get to better circumstances, to gain access to social mobility, and to really come into being an American.
Yet we weren’t prepared. We didn’t have the vocabulary. We didn’t always have the cultural know-how to take, let alone ace, tests. I actually took my first intelligence or aptitude test when I was five years old. It was to test out of my local elementary school and to test into a magnet school for gifted and talented students.
I failed the test. It was the first time I ever saw my mom cry. It was heartbreaking. I took another test only a couple years later. That time, even though I was the same Rina Bliss, maybe just with a little more cultural know-how, I passed.
I was tracked for academic excellence and college preparatory education, yet my friends were not. They didn’t have that experience, so I was very lucky. At the time, society was telling us that our test scores were our intelligence and that we were whatever our genetics programmed.
Intelligence was something you were born with. It was really based in your DNA. Actually, we’ve been sold this lie. We still track students; we still make hiring preferences based on intelligence and aptitude test scores. We still group people according to whether they’re so-called winners or losers of some kind of genetic lottery. But intelligence isn’t genetic.
We still track students; we still make hiring preferences based on intelligence and aptitude test scores. We still group people according to whether they’re so-called winners or losers of some kind of genetic lottery. But intelligence isn’t genetic.
What surprised you in researching and writing this book?
Up until the early 2000s, we believed that genetics predicted our intelligence and our IQ. We thought that genetics was telling us everything and that it could actually predict how well we would do on a particular test. Science since then has advanced greatly.
We’re lucky to have research now that shows us that what genetics gives us is our brain architecture, our basic brain architecture, like the structures of our brain. And it doesn’t give us the quality of our thinking, the quality of our thoughts.
It doesn’t tell us where we’re going to end up. Also, neuroscience has taught us that our brains are plastic; we are neuroplastic. That means we can change, and we do change. We are inherently developing and growing all the time, not just in our early childhood, but throughout our lives.
Though intelligence is multifaceted, why do some still believe in genetic intelligence, or in IQ testing?
Sadly, some scientists, not many, still tell us that genetics is responsible for our intelligence. They tell us that intelligence is just plain DNA science. They tell us that it’s the part of our bodies that we have no control over, and that there are genetic IQ tests.
There are apps, and there are even some companies, that want to help you select embryos that supposedly have higher intelligence so your children can have high IQs. I think the reason we keep investing in this lie is because we want a cheap and easy, no-fix solution. By no-fix, I mean we don’t have to fix anything. DNA is the best scapegoat. It’s like saying, “We can’t help this. This is just what we’re born with.” We can say we don’t have any responsibility to change our environments.
Yet our environments are everything. Whether we grow up in an environment that is giving us all that we need or one in which there is great scarcity, it’s going to determine how well we do on those tests, in school, and in life. So there is no responsibility if you say that’s just how somebody was born. And we don’t have to fix the unequal circumstances. It’s expensive to change the healthcare system. It’s expensive to change the education system. It’s expensive to equalize neighborhoods. Where do we begin with that? The allure of DNA is that it absolves us of responsibility.
Whether we grow up in an environment that is giving us all that we need or one in which there is great scarcity, it’s going to determine how well we do on those tests, in school, and in life.
How do environments and cultures help shape our intelligence and how we perceive it?
Our environments are everything to our intelligence. I actually define intelligence as learning from our environments. We actually do this naturally. It’s our human heritage. It’s what we all do best. I like to think of intelligence as the awareness of the learning opportunities in our environments.
There are always these different moments where we can learn from our environments. Based on where we happen to be and what our cultures are prioritizing for us, we’re going to focus on those things and not on other things. So instead of seeing intelligence as a score or a number, it’s important for us to see that environments are everything.
There’s another aspect to the environment, which is that our environments, and the quality of those learning environments, are crucial as well. One of the hardest things to know about our brains and our bodies is that there is a toxin in our environments, in almost all of our environments.
That is stress. Stress is so toxic to us. Yet we live and work in stressful environments. Many schools are stressful environments, especially the schools that are the most underresourced. They are very stressful environments.
We have to look at the quality of the environments. One thing that most people don’t realize is that stress is so toxic to us that it can change our DNA. It can modify our DNA. We actually pass those modifications down to our children. Our children pass them onto their children, and so on. We must focus our attention, our research, and our resources on fixing the environments if we want to have people thrive.
How can we best value, respect, and embrace the many different types of intelligence?
The first thing I want us to do is shift our mindset from seeing people as their test score or some kind of quantity or number or fixed score. Shift from seeing people as being better than, worse than, lesser, smarter, dumb, dumber, failures—and shift from seeing ourselves that way—to seeing the infinite ability of all humans.
We have infinite ability, and we have infinite potential. We have the potential to seize the learning moment in our environments. No matter how neurotypical or neurodivergent we seem, we are doing that. That’s the natural ability we learn from our environments.
We improve our circumstances. We move forward. I want people to start to see that it’s about seizing those learning opportunities and empowering other people to do that. I’m not saying that we’re going to learn every single second of our waking life, because actually, learning is done best in small stints. Learn a little, rest a lot. Learn a little more, rest a lot more, and so on. It’s just about seeing that it’s our job to empower ourselves and empower others by seeing that infinite potential.
We also need to lower stress. That is tricky, because we don’t have control over everything in our environments. We can’t control our workplace culture all by ourselves. We can’t control the structure of our jobs. We can’t control the most intense stressors that exist in just about every environment we find ourselves in, [such as] racism, sexism, homophobia. These are things we have to chip away at over time. We really need to start to think of the things that we can control and do something about those.
We can’t control the most intense stressors that exist in just about every environment we find ourselves in, [such as] racism, sexism, homophobia. These are things we have to chip away at over time. We really need to start to think of the things that we can control and do something about those.
Personally, I have a few things that I do in terms of work to lower my stress. One is that I think about what I love the most about my work.
That’s true for me in daily life as well. I think about what I love the most that I have to do today. Then I tackle that when I am most productive. So I use my brightest time, which for me happens to be in the morning. For other people, it’s going to be at other times of the day or night.
I take all of the things I love, and I work on them when I’m at my best. Then I tackle the rest as the day goes on. Also, I limit how much I email and when I email because it’s very taxing for me.
Additionally, I don’t “doomscroll.” I know that a lot of people can’t help it, because social media is so addictive. But I have it in my mind that it’s just something I won’t do because it really harms me.
Those are three things that I do to lower my stress. The final thing I want us to do differently and think about, and this relates to your question about the environment, is I really want us to go easy on ourselves and see intelligence as a process.
Take it day by day. Really see that this is the most beautiful thing about being a human being. We are naturally growing and developing. We are naturally learning from our environments. This is something that we do without even trying. We have to think, “Okay, this is a process that is going to go on my whole life.
“I don’t need to worry that I messed up this time,” or “I didn’t score high this time,” or “somebody told me something negative.” At the same time, I want us to think about how we can empower others so that others can see that this is a lifelong process, and that we’re doing a great job at it, and that we are infinitely intelligent.
Is there anything else you want to add?
I want to come back to this one issue of equalizing environments. We put so much effort in trying to self-help our way through our intelligence, to boost our own intelligence. Sometimes we think about our kids and the people who are closest to us in our families.
But we don’t think about how our environments—our broader educational environments, school environments, and work environments—are toxic to us as well and are really setting people back. I look at my own childhood and my experiences.
I was set back in a lot of ways. Yet I wasn’t set back as much as some of my peers in my community or my closest friends. I also look at my own children. I have kindergartners, and I have a pre-K child right now. I’m seeing how they enter into the school systems, how they are treated, and how they are lifted up by their education—while other students are not being lifted up by their education. The quality of our environments is something we have to think of in a systemic way, and not just in the way of trying to improve our own circumstances, but really equalizing the environment for all.