Born to be a genius ?

Everyone has heard it said of somebody or other that he (or she) was born to be a genius. Can such an assertion ever be correct? A simple 'yes or no' answer has to be negative, because sophisticated inborn capabilities simply cannot exist.

Outside mythology, nobody begins life having proclivities that can guarantee the emergence of high abilities.That does not necessarily mean that the idea of being born to be a genius must be entirely false. People are not born identical, and some of the ways in which they differ at birth can have consequences that affect the course of their whole lives. One widely accepted view is that certain individuals begin life possessing innate gifts or talents that predispose a person towards exceptional attainments in a particular area of ability. Another common belief is that a person's intelligence level, which has a major role in determining the likelihood of substantial achievements, is largely fixed at birth.

This chapter examines some of the evidence that has a bearing on the possible involvement of innately-determined influences on variability, among the numerous contributing forces that combine to enable certain individuals to become exceptionally capable.All human individuals are affected in many ways by the particular combination of genetic resources they inherit. That the influences of genetic differences between people can extend to the manner in which lives are experienced is easily verified. Just watch the contrasting ways in which people at a party react to the entrance of a spectacularly beautiful individual and to a man or woman of ordinary appearance. Those differing responses will certainly affect the individuals who elicit them. Indeed, the manner in which others react to people can have an impact on many of their experiences. One beautiful woman has her education enriched as a consequence of influential people being drawn to her company; another fails to make the most of her opportunities because of repeated experiences of getting her wishes without having to make an effort. An ordinary-looking man loses out because the teacher who might have been able to help him prefers to spend time with other pupils.

Another plain man eventually thrives because his failure to gain attention fuels his determination to do well. It is not at all uncommon for the degree of success a young person experiences to be partly decided by genetic characteristics even when the genetically influenced characteristics that are crucial are ones that have no direct effects on the person's capabilities as such. In the performing arts, for example, it is not unknown for stage directors to select the prettiest of a group of equally competent young ballet dancers for a starring role. Those examples illustrate just a few of the many ways in which our lives are affected by the particular genetic material we happen to inherit. Note, however, that the eventual nature of the influences that originate in genetic variability is typically unpredictable and far being from straightforward. It is easy enough to see that people's appearances can affect how others respond to them, but it is not usually possible to predict the long-term consequences of that.

That unpredictability is highly significant, because in order to establish that there was something real in the notion of a person being 'born to be a genius' it would be necessary to go a stage beyond merely confirming that individuals are influenced by their genes, and demonstrate that a consequence of people's differing genetic compositions is to affect their abilities in a clearly predictable manner.Do differing generic materials have predictable influences on individuals' attainments, or not? In the first part of this chapter I examine evidence relating to the frequent claim that such direct influences stemming from people's genes do indeed exist, and take the form of innate talents or gifts.

These, it is often claimed, are possessed by some young people but not others. A common assumption is that a person must possess gifts or talents in order to be capable of reaching the highest levels of expertise. Afterwards, I investigate the related possibility that innate variability in general intelligence makes a big contribution to the likelihood of individuals gaining exceptional capabilities. Finally, I take a broader look at the issues, and reach some conclusions concerning possible genetic influences on the likelihood of someone becoming a genius. In the minds of many people it is a clear and simple fact, not to be questioned, that certain men and women have been born with innate talents that make them capable of high attainments. I call that viewpoint 'the talent account'.

Does it greatly matter whether the talent account is true or false? It matters immensely, not only because efforts to explain creative achievements can never succeed if they depend upon faulty assumptions about the origins of a person's unusual capabilities, but also because important practical issues are involved. The fact that the talent account is widely believed in has consequences that affect the lives of numerous young people. Within certain fields of expertise, such as music, unquestioning acceptance of the talent account is almost invariably accompanied by the belief that excellence is only attainable by those children who are innately talented. A frequent result of teachers and other influential adults having this combination of beliefs is that when scarce educational resources or opportunities are being allocated they are likely to be directed exclusively towards those young people who are thought to possess a special talent. Young children who are believed to lack innate talents are denied resources that are vital in order for a child to gain any chance of succeeding.

If the talent account was shown to be correct, it might be argued that a selection process that is based upon it makes sense, because it directs limited resources towards those individuals who are most capable oftaking advantage of them. But if the talent account is wrong, and innate talents are fictional rather than real, a policy of denying facilities to young people because they are deemed not to possess such talents is clearly wasteful and unjust. It could still be argued that those children who are selected as being talented are the ones who are most likely to succeed anyway, since their above-average early progress still may be a good predictor of eventual success even if the inference that such progress points to an innate talent being present is wrong. It makes sense, in other words, to have a selection policy that favours young people who have already done well.

Even so, a policy of totally denying learning facilities to any child who (because he or she has not yet made unusual progress) is thought to lack a vital innate talent can hardly be justified unless there are convincing reasons for assuming that such talents do indeed exist.
There is no item of evidence that single-handedly confirms or refutes the talent account, but various kinds of information have a bearing on the issue. A number of findings have been seen as offering support. First, for instance, there is some evidence that appears to show that skills appear inexplicably early in a few children. Second, some other findings seem to point to the possible existence of special inborn capacities in a smallnumber of individuals. Third, various scientific results appear to indicate the involvement of biologically transmitted mechanisms in exceptional skills.

A number of reports of extraordinarily precocious development in early childhood have appeared. These accounts are certainly consistent with the possibility that some children are born possessing special qualities that raise the likelihood of their becoming exceptionally capable. Of course, the sheer fact that a particular child turns out to be a prodigy does not in itself demonstrate that there must have been anything unusual about that child at the time of birth. However, if unusual capabilities were seen to emerge in the very earliest months of life, it would be hard to see how the child could possibly have acquired them through the kinds of learning that ordinary children are capable of. In that event the conclusion that some special innate causes were involved would seem unavoidable.

The published reports include some accounts of quite remarkable development in the first year of a child's life. One boy is reported to have begun speaking at five months of age and to have gained a fifty-word vocabulary by six months and the capacity to speak in three languages by the age of three years. Another child is said to have begun to speak in sentences at three months, hold conversations at six months, and read simple books by his first birthday.
However, the reliability of these accounts as sources of evidence is doubtful, because they are all retrospective and anecdotal. In the case of the boy who was reported to speak in sentences at three months, he was not actually seen by the psychologist who wrote about him, David Feldman, until reaching the age of three.

The parents told Feldman that they had been amazed by their son's progress in his first year, and yet Feldman himself confessed to being just as astounded by the parents' absolute dedication to accelerating the child's development and their unending quest for ways to stimulate him. In all likelihood the child's early achievements were indeed exceptional, but strong doubts about the likelihood of their emerging spontaneously and without any parental prompting are raised by the fact that all that we know about the actual circumstances comes from the testimony of parents who were extraordinarily committed to stimulating their child's progress.
Reference : "Genius Explained" De Michael J. A. Howe


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