The lamentable and dangerous myth persists that there is no such thing as innate talent or a gifted child. Whilst we might concede that if you are not born with the genes that will later propel you to brush the 7ft mark, then you will stand no chance of playing in the NBA, we are much less willing to concede that if you are not born with the genes for perfect pitch or the requisite aural skills, you will not replicate Mozart in your lifetime no matter how you try. Sink ten thousand hours into the study of music, and you’re headed for the orchestra, so the hopeful but not entirely disingenuous parent intones. Sink ten thousand hours of practice into mathematics or writing, and you’ll be the next Einstein or Orwell, so the optimistic but not entirely insincere teacher declares. This is quite patently not so.
In the most recent portrayal of this myth, Wendy Berliner in the Guardian outlines how the seemingly ungifted Maryam Mirzakhani became a mathematical genius through hard work, not genetic fortune. Explaining that, compared to those admitted to Mensa at age 5, Mirzakhani did not “excel from babyhood,” she writes:
“Mirzakhani was born in Tehran, one of three siblings in a middle-class family whose father was an engineer. The only part of her childhood that was out of the ordinary was the Iran-Iraq war, which made life hard for the family in her early years. Thankfully it ended around the time she went to secondary school.”
Firstly, the comparison of an extraordinary thinker like Mirzakhani to veritable savants and prodigies is a bit of sleight of hand when the title refers to there being “no such thing as a gifted child” in wholesale terms. Overlooking this, it strikes me that the key thing Berliner is missing here — hiding in plain, prosaic sight — is that Mirzakhani was the daughter of an engineer, no less. A genetic jackpot if ever I heard one overlooked so cursorily.
Further proof that Mirzakhani-like genius is latent in all of us comes courtesy of the revelation that she was initially a bookworm, not a passionate mathematician. However, it has long been known that female math prodigies with strong skills in systematizing and logic are more proficient in verbal expression than their male contemporaries who have asymmetrical cognition. Female would-be mathematicians are more likely to be rounded with language as well as number skills; they make for better public speakers and are emotionally and socially perceptive in ways their single-minded, introverted male colleagues can only aspire to. This might be a generalization, but the research is robust in this area. In any case, the conclusion we must draw is not that gifted children don’t exist because talented females turned their hand to multiple fields at a young age. On the contrary, talented females who turned their hand to multiple fields at a young age are remarkable only in that they are unremarkable compared to other females who have inherited the same polymath competencies. Berliner goes on:
“On top of that, research is clear that brains are malleable, new neural pathways can be forged, and IQ isn’t fixed. Just because you can read Harry Potter at five doesn’t mean you will still be ahead of your contemporaries in your teens.”
Well yes, quite, but this is no more a case for the power of socialization, education and hard work than it is more proof that the genetic lottery — in this case one’s penchant for neural pathway forging — is more consequential than one might imagine. Whilst Berliner is right to point out that the potential for greatness lies in all of us, and that unlocking this demands that “the right attitudes and approaches to learning” are taught, the unwillingness to take the thesis one step further, to reach its logical conclusion, is revealing. For example, the attributes of curiosity, persistence and hard work — termed “high performance learning” — that Berliner hopes educators can instill are attributes that one is, to a greater or lesser extent, amenable to developing based on the same vagaries of the chromosome. In figuring out if innately gifted children exist, one should look less at babyhood precociousness and more at those who, in babyhood still, show the natural motivation, focus and single-mindedness that might one day make them sink ten thousand hours into a discipline before they reach adulthood. The genes for enjoying Berliner’s prescription of “deliberate practice that stretches you every step of the way” should be no more illusory than the genes for an innate skill to begin with.
The penultimate word is with the most famous genius around, Einstein, who wrote,
“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.”
Perseverance and character might well be things we can teach and build, indeed we should try to do so, but they are no less likely to be inheritable than “smartness” or “intellect” themselves. In fact, that there is any distinct line between the two (one is at the very least a precursor to the other) should be questioned from the onset. Drawing on the research of Benjamin Bloom, Berliner emphasizes the role of parenting in shaping a child. Research on high-achieving parents and their offspring show:
“A pattern of parents encouraging and supporting their children, in particular in areas they enjoyed themselves. Bloom’s outstanding adults worked very hard and consistently at something they had become hooked on young, and their parents all emerged as having strong work ethics themselves.”
This brings me to the last word, and my favourite genius around, Steven Pinker, who once wrote a rejoinder to this line of thinking:
“Everyone concludes that to grow the best children, parents must be loving, authoritative, and talkative, and if children don’t turn out well it must be the parents’ fault. But the conclusions depend on the belief that children are Blank Slates. Parents, remember, provide their children with genes, not just a home environment. The correlations between parents and children may be telling us only that the same genes that make adults loving, authoritative, and talkative make their children self-confident, well-behaved, and articulate.”
In light of this, the case for meritocracy might appear to sink into the distance. I can no more take credit for what elegant prose I am, on the occasion, able to construct, than I should feel responsible for the times when I let prolixity get the better of me. My mind, in moments of mysterious effortlessness or tired contrivances, achieves both without my consent. And so what of the conservative worldview that holds the individual and their autonomy as the most important tenets of a fair society? Meritocracy, and by extension fairness, only makes sense when we venerate and reward the talents of the individual, so long as they benefit humanity.
Sadly, far more often talents that contribute to the economy — just one facet of societal progress — are rewarded more handsomely than, say, talents that contribute to culture, knowledge or the arts. Entertainment is monetizable, and celebrity is ubiquitously rewarded. Prowess in financial services is perhaps the most directly monetizable, and Wall Street remains in ascendency despite the 2008 crash having proved the resilient and predictable stock markets (and the human skills supervising them) as fallible as man and his oversight on sub-prime mortgages. Yet still, those who can do with their brains great things — that hours of rote learning, application and toil allow — somehow “deserve” to be rewarded (i.e. paid) more, or so the argument goes. Anyone can do menial physical tasks, but those who — sound of body all the same — have a bright mind should use it to better ends than physical labour.
I will argue, however, that this distinction between the cerebral and the corporeal is one without a difference. Let’s phrase the thesis in reverse. When it comes to athleticism, we say that those who are ungraceful are just born so. Lacking co-ordination in the limbs and being frightfully clumsy is not really your fault; what your body does or does not do happens almost unconsciously. “Sorry, I’m just so clumsy” comes the voice of the person who just fell down a step or two, dragging a friend along for the ride. But this voice comes with no admission of guilt, indeed the subtext is a self-excusing one. Mea innocentia. I blame my maladroit DNA and therein the genes for clumsiness!
Furthermore, comparing oneself to a professional athlete is an exercise in futility that does little damage to one’s self esteem. You were not born a “Usain Bolt in waiting” and so might as well save yourself the hours of drills and training. However, reading a mere page of Steven Pinker — in full, incisive, erudite flow — has a rather detrimental effect on my self-esteem. It leaves me wondering if there are enough hours in the day for me to learn the vast depth and breadth of subjects that Pinker probably learns by osmosis on contact with a textbook. I frame the latter part of the point in this way as, if we are to believe the tediously well-tested theory on the heritability of intelligence, it might as well be the case that Pinker can learn vast swathes of dense, technical prose on haptic contact with the page.
However, the relative clumsiness of my mind — and the way it ceases to measure up to those minds I find elegant and intuitive — should leave no greater dent in my intellectual confidence than a few minutes watching Joe Root in prolific form at Lords might leave in my athletic confidence. Yet, it always does. As sure as I know that the control over my front elbow and the agility with which I am able to bound from the front to the back foot just doesn’t hold a candle to Root, I know my mind is not made of the same stuff as Pinker’s, even if I am quite literally bone and tissue and grey matter all the same.
In the deterministic world we almost certainly inhabit, it is natural that shedding this bright a light on the power of genetic inheritance might lead to a sort of fatalism. However, the emphasis should not be on destiny determined at conception, but the unendingly large gap that is left for self-improvement. Our decisions today are not just a part of the causal change that leads to tomorrow, but more importantly are the things that define how many bifurcations and branches that chain might have. Philosophers such as Daniel Dennett sneak in this notion of free will using the language of opportunity and the prospect of choice.
That meritocratic Weltanschauung, therefore, breads a belief in pedagogy and the insistence that homework and hard work are the only things separating us from intellectual prosperity. Persist and engage and give yourself the luxury of keeping your options open. But it is the corollary argument that can be made about our physical capabilities which starts to breakdown the distinction between mind and body, but this time in service of upholding meritocratic ideals, rather than dismantling them. Whilst you might be told – or tell yourself as I do – that you can be one step closer to Pinker if you read and write voraciously, one is rarely told with such fervour that yoga, exercise and endless practice can send you one step closer to Root’s fluid backfoot punch (A cricket stroke, for American readers). This would be just as true or untrue, depending on if you place as much faith in hard work as Berliner does or as much awe in the machinations of inheritance as I do. Either way, a little hard work never hurt anyone; if I want to write like Pinker, or bat like Root, I better get back to it.
Jonathan Gleadell is a geography student at the University of Leeds. His interests as a writer include environmental issues, feminism, religion and free speech. He is also a music journalist, editor of The Math Rock Blog and a DIY musician. You can follow him on twitter @JGGleadell and read more of his work at jonathangleadell.wordpress.com