Neuron Culture

Mozart 1 1.jpg

W.A. Mozart — just another hard-working genius


A few hours ago I received this email:

your article in “new scientist” sept 16-22 06
is pure B S . you should dedicate it to the
extreme liberal intelligensia.

The writer, one Kenneth Rubin (nice meeting you, Mr. Rubin) refers to a New Scientist feature I wrote about genius, talent, and expertise (subscription required — though you can get a 4-week one for $4.95), which was just published today. Mr. Rubin didn’t elaborate, so I can’t say what his particular complaint is. (As a critique, Mr. Rubin’s “B S,” though compact, seems ill-formed.) I got a hint, however, when I read the New Scientist editorial that accompanied my story. For the editorial (penned by someone else, and new to me today) saw in the findings my story discussed some educational policy implications that might strike some people as (to quote Mr. Rubin) “extreme” and “liberal.”

The key finding discussed in my story (somewhat as in Jonah Lehrer’s Seed feature a few weeks back) is that most research on great expertise and accomplishment shows that supreme skill rises more from work than from innate ability, and that metrics claiming to measure innate intelligence or talent neither predict nor account for extraordinary accomplishment. For example (from the story):

No accepted measure of innate or basic intelligence, whether IQ or other metrics, reliably predicts that a person will develop extraordinary ability. In other words, the IQs of the great would not predict their level of accomplishments, nor would their accomplishments predict their IQs. Studies of chess masters and highly successful artists, scientists and musicians usually find their IQs to be above average, typically in the 115 to 130 range, where some 14 per cent of the population reside – impressive enough, but hardly as rarefied as their achievements and abilities.

The converse – that high IQ does not ensure greatness – holds as well. This was shown in a study of adult graduates of New York City’s Hunter College Elementary School, where an admission criterion was an IQ of at least 130 (achieved by a little over 1 per cent of the general population) and the mean IQ was 157 – “genius” territory by any scaling of IQ scores, and a level reached by perhaps 1 in 5000 people. Though the Hunter graduates were successful and reasonably content with their lives, they had not reached the heights of accomplishment, either individually or as a group, that their IQs might have suggested.

In the words of study leader Rena Subotnik, a research psychologist formerly at the City University of New York and now with the American Psychological Association: “There were no superstars, no Pulitzer Prize or MacArthur Award winners, and only one or two familiar names.” The genius these elite students showed in their IQs remained on paper.

I didn’t get into educational policy implications of this. (I was more interested in the loop between nature (genes) and nurture (environment) this dynamic expresses, and how it bears out much of what we’ve learned about gene expression; please read the feature before you write complaining that I’m a nurturist.) But the editorial did:

[I]f the aim is to nurture successful adults, creating elite schools for highly intelligent pupils, or elite classes that receive the lion’s share of a school’s resources and the best teaching, is a waste of resources because it doesn’t work. More importantly, it gives the wrong message to those children who are not selected, at a crucial stage in their development. It tells them that however hard they try, they will never break the mould their genes have cast for them. Unless these children are highly motivated and confident, the chances are they will carry this message with them forever.

More surprisingly, this form of streaming can be disruptive for brilliant children as well, because it makes it harder for them to deal with failure. Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University in California who has spent a lifetime studying motivation in children, has found that telling students they are one of the elite discourages them from trying things that may challenge them and potentially make them look less smart. They tend to develop an inflexible mindset and stick to things they know they’ll succeed at, she says.

Was it this that infuriated Mr. Rubin? Or was it some other implication of the idea that work, rather than innate qualities, determines our level of accomplishment and skill? I can see dismal implications of this idea, such as the necessity to work hard to master something. But I find it strange that anyone finds the idea wildly lefty. The primacy of work over natural gift is hardly an “extreme liberal” notion. Rather it’s quintessentially democratic, American, even, the stuff of Horatio Alger, Abe Lincoln, and, for that matter, Tiger Woods: With enough work, almost anyone can become great, and even splendid genetic inheritances won’t get up past someone who busts ass.

So I remain puzzled at Mr. Rubin’s pique. Perhaps it’s the educational policy implications he objects to; perhaps he likes programs for the gifted. But if steering extra resources to the most promising students (“promising,” that is, because they test well) shortchanges both the promising and the … um, not so promising, why would even a conservative object to doing otherwise?

Perhaps Mr. Rubin knows; perhaps he’ll tell us.


  1. #1 MikeM
    September 16, 2006

    Discussion thread started on the implications of this at St James Ethics Forum.

  2. #2 Andrew Hill
    September 16, 2006

    David, I found your article: “How to be a genius” (New Scientist, 12 Sep 2006) of great interest. It struck a chord with what I understand about learning, and seems to sit well with learning theories that emphasise the impact of culture and environment. I am an educator and am particularly interested in the relationship between learned knowledge and skills on the one hand, and a student’s investigative, creative and collaborative focus on the other.

  3. #3 Richard Carter, FCD
    September 17, 2006

    Just found your weblog via your New Scientist piece.

    I agree with the general thrust of your article, but why is it that everyone who writes about intelligence (whatever the word means) invariably takes it as read that the concept of an IQ score is valid? How can people possibly sum up the product of the most complex mechanism in the known universe with a single number?

    (Oh, and at the risk of also being branded a member of the liberal intelligensia by Mr Rubin, I should like to point out that the word intelligentsia usually contains a t.)

  4. #4 Alan Collins
    October 2, 2006

    I found your article on genius really interesting. I’ve been banging on for years that “natural talent” makes little or no difference but I don’t think I’ve ever had one person agree with me. Someone did suggest that the ability to work hard is a natural talent which is difficult to argue with. It strikes me from your article that as long as you are already in the top 15%, i.e. seem to be reasonably good at something, that with a lot of hard work over a long period you should be able to rise to world class. I’m sure there are many examples of people who have excelled in more than one discipline, do they have many natural talents? One example would be Jackie Stewart, three times world motor racing champion. In his youth he was a top class clay pigeon shot and only gave up because he wasnt selected for the Olympics. I think he was likely to excel at most things he tried due to his approach, dedication and hard work.

  5. #5 David Dobbs
    October 3, 2006

    Interesting story about Stewart. Makes me wonder if controlling a fast vehicle goes well with shooting. My uncle was a fighter pilot, a very good one, and also an ace trap shooter. My dad hunted with him often when they were kids and then every year for 30 years through adulthood, and he says he can’t remember him missing a shot after he was 15 or so. He had great eyesight too.

    Is there a ‘natural talent’ for hard work? Seems likely that one can receive a genetic inclination or gift for concentration and sustained effort, just as some of us are born distractible. Likewise, experience and environment (nurture) can do much to maximize either a modest or a substantial gift in that department. I imagine research over the coming decade will do a lot to answer these questions.

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