Sports, Spelling, and Genes
I walked into the spelling bee just as my daughter was at the microphone for her first word of the day. She saw me coming in, and for a moment I panicked, thinking that I would distract her and she’d miss an easy one.
Fortunately, the word was “exclusive,” and I suspect Meredith could spell the word before she could pronounce it. As a seventh grader, it was no challenge whatsoever.
That’s the way it is in our family. Kimberly and I are journalists, and we’re all avid readers. Spelling comes as naturally to us as breathing. I wasn’t surprised to learn that spelling and reading proficiency have a very strong genetic component:
According to John Stein, Professor of Neuroscience at Oxford University Medical School, both reading and spelling require a phenomenal amount of brain power. Deciphering a sentence and all forms of the written word is the most complex tasks your brain faces. The reason behind this is that the written word is a pretty recent invention.
Stein says, “It was invented only 5,000 years ago. It is piggybacked on to our linguistic ability, which was invented 30,000-40,000 years ago. The consequence is that many people fail to read or spell.”
“Around 60 percent of the variation in the ability to spell lies in our genes,” says Tony Monaco, a scientist at the Wellcome Centre Trust for Human Genetics at Oxford University. Monaco also says that genes dictate how our brains develop.
My son and older daughter have competed in the spelling bee at their middle school every year. Last year, when Harrison was in eighth grade and Meredith in sixth, they were both selected. We were delighted, but not completely surprised. True, only 50 kids make it to the bee each year, out of 1,130 students. (The entire student body takes a written test to determine the contestants.) Harrison was one of five kids to make it to the final round last year, on his third try, while Meredith went out in the second round.
I’ve been thinking a lot about genes this week, for reasons having nothing to do with my kids. As someone who writes about health and fitness for a living, I have to at least consider nature-vs.-nurture questions for just about every major project. It even arises on the minor ones.
Take my post about Jack LaLanne, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 96. He’s held up as a fitness icon, and deservedly so. No one worked longer or harder to make himself the embodiment of the benefits of exercise and good nutrition. He even refused to eat cake at his own birthday party.
But I didn’t know until after he’d died that his older brother had lived to 97. Norman LaLanne was an athlete in college — he played football and rugby at UC Berkeley — and was described in his obituary as an “avid golfer,” but he didn’t work out two hours a day or turn down a slice of his own birthday cake.
Here’s how Jack LaLanne’s son described his dad:
“The whole family gene is a very obsessive-compulsive one, and he applies that to health,” said Jon Allen LaLanne. “He practices what he preaches and you can’t dispute what he says.”
Which brings me back to the spelling bee, and my 12-year-old ringer.
She got “caterpillar” in the second round and “advantageous” in the third. Out of 50, she was one of just eight entering the fourth round, where she caught a break. While other kids tried and failed to spell “acculturation,” “surveillance,” “autonomous,” and “hallucinogen,” she got “carbohydrates.” I wouldn’t literally have put her up for adoption if she’d missed that one, but the thought would’ve crossed my mind.
There were four kids left for round five. To my surprise, the words were easier. But the pressure must’ve been enormous. Meredith rushed herself and missed “electrocution.” One kid missed “journalism” (we would’ve known the fix as in if my daughter had gotten “journalism” and “carbohydrates” in the same contest). Another missed “burgundy.” The winner, an eighth grader, spelled “residue” correctly.
Meredith tried her hardest not to break down, and almost succeeded. You could feel her pain from the other side of the auditorium. We made all the usual parental noises about how proud we were, but nothing could console her. She knew how close she’d come. She could spell every word in the fifth round, including the one she messed up. And, at some level, she probably realized, as I did when I was her age, that this is the one type of contest in which she has a genetic advantage over the competition.
Interestingly, I don’t think I’ve ever met an athlete or extraordinarily fit individual who didn’t attribute his success to his own hard work and fortitude. I remember having a long, painful conversation with an author who was both a pro athlete and a physique icon with an extraordinarily successful modeling career. He believed his success came from working out hours a day. I explained how rare it was to be able to work that long and that hard. Most of us would break down within weeks, if not days.
So I’ll throw the question out there: Where do you think the line is that divides nature and nurture? When you look at your successes and failures, do you see a familial pattern?