Outliers

A Squandered Opportunity?
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 13 2008 1:48 PM

Outliers

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Dear Ed,

My reaction to The Tipping Point eight years ago was not quite as mild as you recall. That book, which sought to transform the truism that little causes can have big effects into an all-empowering revelation, irked me. I called Gladwell a "clever idea packager" whose "engaging case histories … cannot conceal the fatuousness of his core conclusions." In fact, my review was so nasty, even for me, that I was determined to give Gladwell's new book every benefit of the doubt.

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As you note, Ed, Outliers features the same "combination of storytelling and academic social science" that animated The Tipping Point and Gladwell's second book, Blink, which is a tribute to snap judgment. Like you, I found Outliers entertaining and even fascinating at times. It also advances a much more consequential theme than Gladwell's previous books. Nurture, Gladwell argues, contributes at least as much as nature to our success or lack thereof. Delve into the history of "men and women who do things out of the ordinary," and you will find that their success stems from "hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies."

With this insistence on the importance of environmental factors as shapers of our lives, Gladwell is bucking a deplorable recent trend in science. Over the past few decades, fields such as evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics have tipped the scales toward the nature side of the nature-nurture debate, implying that innate factors largely determine our personalities and talents, and hence our destiny. I call this line of reasoning "gene-whiz science."

One notorious example of gene-whiz science is the 1994 best-seller The Bell Curve, in which Harvard scholars Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein asserted that blacks are innately less intelligent than whites. James Watson, the Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the double helix, reiterated this persistent claim a year ago, as did Slate's own William Saletan.

Gladwell has a personal stake in this debate. He concludes his book by telling the tale of his mother, Joyce, a Jamaican descended from African slaves. While attending University College in London, Joyce fell in love with a young mathematician, Graham Gladwell. They soon moved to Canada, where Graham became a math professor and Joyce a writer and therapist. They had three children, including Malcolm.

While acknowledging the ambition and intelligence of his mother and other ancestors, Gladwell repeatedly emphasizes the role that serendipity played in their upward journey. The first lucky break took place in the late 1700s, when a white plantation owner in Jamaica, William Ford, took a fancy to a pretty female slave, "an Igbo tribeswoman from West Africa." Ford bought the woman and made her his mistress, saving her—and, more importantly, her offspring—from a life of brutal servitude. She gave birth to Ford's son, John, who was defined as "colored" rather than black and hence under Jamaican law was free.

John, who became a preacher, was the great-great–great-grandfather of Joyce, Gladwell's mother. She was lucky, too. She received a scholarship to a private school in Jamaica only after another girl who had received two scholarships relinquished one. Without the scholarship, Joyce would probably never have gained admittance to University College, where she met Gladwell's father.

Gladwell's family history engaged and even moved me. But the lessons that he gleans from this and other case histories in his book are oddly anticlimactic, even dispiriting. He concludes that success "is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky." To be fair, Gladwell offers more substantive analysis of the link between race and achievement elsewhere in his book when he analyzes the mathematical performance of Asian-American children and of inner-city New York kids enrolled in a special school called KIPP. Last December, he provided a sharp refutation of the Bell Curve reasoning in the pages of TheNew Yorker—why didn't he incorporate that material into the book, too?

Perhaps now that a man of African descent has been elected president, we have truly transcended race. But I still can't help but feel that Outliers represents a squandered opportunity for Gladwell—himself an outlier, an enormously talented and influential writer and the descendant of an African slave—to make a major contribution to our ongoing discourse about nature, nurture, and race.

Ed, maybe my problem with Gladwell is that I just expect too much of him.

John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology. His next book, The End of War, will be published in November.

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