Genes are Overrated


Most everybody can roll their tongue in a tube. But have you ever tried the cloverleaf? It’s hard. Super hard, in fact. When you first try it, you flounder around and can’t even come close.

Back when I was in fifth grade and again when I was in college biology class, my teachers informed me that tongue-rolling, like so many other talents, is genetic. They said around 80 percent of people have the gene to roll their tongues in a tube shape. A far smaller percentage — a genetically chosen few — could fold their tongues into the rare cloverleaf.

But a funny thing happened the other day. I was driving my daughter Katie to school and she stuck out her tongue at me and said, “Look! I can do it!”

I look over, and sure enough, she’s folded her tongue into a cloverleaf shape. It’s kinda freaky, but kinda cool too.

I’m not saying our family is weird or anything, but Katie is officially the third Coyle kid to be able to perform this feat. Also, I’m told that several of their friends can do it, too. So what’s up with all these cloverleaf experts? It must be the genes, right?

Thinking about this got me thinking about when I was in 8th grade. One day a new kid arrived in school. His name was Bob Audette, and he had just moved to Anchorage  from far-off New York. To us, he might’ve moved from the moon. Bob Audette was different from anybody any of us kids had ever met. Bob Audette wore cooler clothes than we did. Bob Audette spoke in a thick accent that sounded exactly like Vinnie Barbarino on “Welcome Back Kotter.”  Bob Audette called the water fountain “the bubbler.” Coolest of all, Bob Audette carried a basketball everywhere he went, and he would sometimes flip the ball into the air and spin it on his finger with supreme Vinnie Barbarino casualness, the ball revolving there while he chatted up the girls in the hallway. It was magic.

This had a strange effect on me. After watching Bob Audette for a few days, I found myself taking a basketball and trying to spin it on my finger. I didn’t play basketball — this skill was completely useless — but for whatever reason I got obsessed, spending hours in my basement spinning this ball. Of course, I was terrible at it for a long time. But then, all of a sudden, I wasn’t terrible. In fact, I could do it as well as Bob Audette. (On all other fronts, I remained a lot closer to Horshack than Vinnie Barbarino, but hey, it was something.)

I asked my daughters about the cloverleaf trick, and they reminded me who had started this whole thing: it had been Mitchell Black, from Brooklyn. Mitchell, 11, had visited us in Alaska a few years ago with his parents. He was a city kid, smart and funny and personable, and he’d shown us his trick. Our girls had stared in amazement. They started trying it, mimicking him, competing with each other. Next thing you know, a whole bloom of cloverleaves has started.

Genes are so overrated.

(And the power of Mitchell Black and Bob Audette is so underrated.)

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9 Responses to “Genes are Overrated”

  1. liz garnett says:

    Two things strike me here.

    One is the question raised by your main point: how do people determine when something behavioural is genetic rather than learned? Establishing the heritability of physical characteristics is methodologically easy enough to understand, but the people who came up with the assertion that only 80% of us have the gene to roll our tongues – how did they come to that conclusion?

    The second is how little we question the knowledge we acquire in childhood compared to how much we question knowledge we acquire in adulthood. If somebody tells you something like your tongue-rolling factoid in the pub, you immediately say, ‘Oh yeah? What’s your evidence?’ But stuff that your primary school teacher told you with just as little substantiation, you just carry on believing until something in adulthood makes you stop and, think, ‘Hang on, what exactly did she know about that anyway?’ And it’s a real shock to the system when you realise stuff you’ve always assumed was true might be nonsense.

  2. djcoyle says:

    Great points. The original studies (which date back to the fifties) used surveys. They basically walked up to people and checked if they could do it. In retrospect, it seems sort of crazy — like surveying people for playing violin and concluding, therefore, that a certain percentage of people have violin gene. Which speaks to your second point: the set of cultural assumptions we’ve had about talent is incredibly strong. We get told that story, over and over and over, in books/movies, by parents/teachers, until it’s like this unbreakable habit, built into our language and our ways of thinking about ourselves. The question is, what are the best ways to break that habit?

  3. Carol says:

    So much of what you say in your book, “The Talent Code” rings true. I’m a trained biologist, a retired teacher of biology, and for the last 9 years I have been working to learn the cello. I want to thank you for summarizing so succinctly how motivation, effective practice, and master teaching are involved in the learning process. You inspired me to write about the process on my blog about learning the cello. I’ve highly recommended your book to my teacher (my coach) and to my friends who are learning instruments like the cello as adults.

  4. djcoyle says:

    Hi Carol,
    Well, that completely makes my day! Thanks for the kind words — and good luck with the cello. I’ll check out the blog. What else are you reading/finding that’s useful? Best, Dan

  5. Carol says:

    (What else am I reading?)
    There is an interesting new book about how the human nervous system responds to music, written by the daughter of the founder of the Mannes School of Music. One chapter talks about the surprising fact that music triggers more responses throughout the brain than any other activity. It discusses research about response to music (babies can recognize musical intervals e.g.) and provides a hint of how cultural influences shape one to respond to western or other music forms. I am in the middle of reading the book right now and am finding it to be interesting and provocative.

    “The power of music : pioneering discoveries in the new science of song” / Elena Mannes

  6. marie says:

    i can do it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. jane robertson says:

    I lived in Anchorage 1976 to 1981

    Knew Bob Audette….my son and he played basketball at Wendler.
    lost touch with him…My son found this website and forwarded it to me. Do you know what happened to Bob?


  8. djcoyle says:

    Thanks, Jane — and no, unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to Bob. I believe he went to Bartlett High School after Wendler. Good luck finding him! Best, Dan

  9. Crystal says:

    Perhaps the physical ability/anatomy are inherited that allow an individual to perform the function once their muscle learn the motions necessary. Just a thought.

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