Innovator’s DNA is (fortunately) not about DNA: on the genetics of creativity

by Michal Jasienski, writing from the Center for Innovatics at Nowy Sacz Business School – National-Louis University, Poland

In the 1997 movie “Gattaca”, the entire job interview in a biopunk futuristic corporate world involved only taking a sample of the applicant’s urine for genetic testing. The corporate human resource department knew all there was to know about the applicant from the sequence of nucleotides, i.e. DNA’s building blocks.

However, let us not forget that the way the notion of DNA is used nowadays (outside of biology) is often merely metaphorical (see e.g. Rovira, 2008). We should not allow ourselves to get entangled in metaphors. They are powerful tools of thought, but they may also be traps. They help us see new horizons, but they also create biases in our minds. They may be loaded with underlying meanings which can hamper our ability to be effective managers, leaders or educators.

The popular misunderstanding about the DNA is that it is a “blueprint” of living organisms. Obviously, the blueprint is something defined, drawn and to be rendered, in the form of a final product, whether it be a house or a body. Once the construction process or development has been completed, there is nothing we can do, because the outcome is done. We know that a human being is not ready when its embryonic development has been finished. Now the programming begins in the form of nurture and its impact on the final product is profound.

The authors of the popular recent book “The Innovator’s DNA” (Dyer et al., 2011) do not intend to follow the movie’s lead, but they still felt they should address the issue of genetics. So, they review studies on the genetic basis of creativity and conclude that “two-thirds of our innovation skills still come through learning” (p. 22). Although what they say is technically incorrect and is expressed in a sloppy way (but explaining that would take too much space), their message turns out OK, namely that our creativity and innovativeness are not limited by our genetic legacy.

In short: our skills are totally determined by both nature (genetics) and nurture (upbringing, a.k.a. environment) in such a way that the effects of both factors in you and me are completely intertwined and inseparable (Jasienski & Jasienska, 2014). My personal creativity does not stem one-third from genes and two-thirds from education, but 100% results from gene-environment interaction. Why? Because DNA is not a blueprint, but a recipe, and we are not constructed as buildings but baked as cakes (metaphorically speaking, and following Dawkins, 1986): when baking a cake we cannot say that it tastes great 30% because of oven temperature and 70% because of raisins and flour. It is the interaction of factors that determines its taste. The same with our creativity: it is the outcome of nature interacting with nurture.

Most importantly, even if creativity was 100% “genetic” (precisely speaking: even if all variation among people in creativity was due to genetic differences), creativity would still be perfectly modifiable and improvable by experience and education. Why? Because “geneticness” of a trait does not tell us anything about its potential for modification by training or therapy or better nutrition. These are simply two separate issues. This message comes from the discipline known as quantitative genetics and do not tell me it is not relevant for management. Quantitative genetics teaches us why we differ from each other and what could and should be done about it. It carries such fundamental knowledge that it should become a standard in basic education.

Fortunately, the subtitle of “The Innovator’s DNA” (“Mastering the Five Skills…”) makes it clear that we can work on improving our innovative profile. Each of the skills (observing, associating, questioning, experimenting, and networking), no matter how refined they are and no matter how much they depend on genetics, can be made better and then built into your innovator’s repertoire. Of course, if you have in your DNA what it takes to work hard…

References

Dawkins, R. (1986). The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design. New York: W. W. Norton.

Dyer J, Gregersen H, & Christensen CM (2011) The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Jasienski M  & Jasienska G (2014) Nature-nurture interaction is ubiquitous, essential, but elusive. Current Anthropology 55 (5) (in press)

Rovira SC (2008) Metaphors of DNA: a review of the popularisation processes. Journal of Science Communication 7 (1): 1-8.

2 thoughts on “Innovator’s DNA is (fortunately) not about DNA: on the genetics of creativity

    • Sorry for being soooooo verbose. Here it is: Your DNA is not your fate. You can make yourself smarter, more creative, more successful. You could even run faster than Usain, if you tried harder. Or maybe not. And the cake: 30% of it tastes as well as the other 70%, but is less filling…

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