The terms "talent" "giftedness" and "genius" have been deeply ingrained into our culture for centuries. These words can be traced back as far as the parable of the talents in the book of Matthew and have evolved to become synonymous with "natural ability or skill”. However, many studies have suggested that genetic inheritance is not the sole determinant of an individual's intelligence or talent. While genes do play a significant role in shaping an individual's potential abilities, environmental factors such as education, upbringing, and access to resources can also have a profound impact.
We generally say “It’s in the genes”
Our culture views talent as a rare genetic trait that some people possess while others do not. This idea is reinforced by phrases like "innate ability" and "natural-born", as well as IQ and other "ability" tests. Schools and the media perpetuate this view based on the assumption that genes are the blueprints that determine our abilities.
About a century ago, intelligence was the first studied behavioral trait using newly emerging quantitative genetic designs such as twin and adoption studies. These studies consistently show that genetic influence on individual differences in intelligence is substantial, and now, molecular genetic studies are targeting intelligence to identify responsible genes for it.  Moreover, there is an association between genetic factors and intelligence as well as creativity, which is believed to be linked to exceptional individuals commonly referred to as "geniuses.”
A study published in the journal Nature found that up to 52% of intelligence can be attributed to genetic factors. Similarly, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that creativity is highly heritable, with genetic factors accounting for up to 60% of variance in creative abilities.
Furthermore, research has identified specific genes that are associated with intelligence and creativity. The CHRM2 gene, for instance, is involved in memory and cognitive processing and has been shown to be linked to intelligence. Other genes, such as those that regulate dopamine levels in the brain, have been linked to creativity and divergent thinking.
In addition to genetic studies, there are numerous examples of genius running in families. The famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart came from a family of musicians. His father, Leopold Mozart, was also a highly skilled composer and violinist. Similarly, the Bronte sisters - Emily, Charlotte, and Anne - all achieved literary genius, as did their brother, Branwell.
The end of “Giftedness”?
“No one is genetically designed into greatness and few are biologically restricted from retaining it” as stated by Shenk. This statement also aligns with the view that genes interact with the environment to continually shape an individual over time.
The Relationship Between Genes and Intelligence
While the association between genes and intelligence has been well established, it has been difficult to pinpoint specific genetic variations that influence intelligence. Previous research has focused primarily on genes that have negative effects on intelligence, such as those that cause mental retardation. However, recent research conducted by psychiatric geneticists at Washington University in St. Louis has identified a gene called CHRM2, which activates signaling pathways in the brain that influence a specific type of intelligence known as performance IQ. This gene has been found to be associated with slight differences in performance IQ scores, which measure visual-motor coordination, logical and sequential reasoning, spatial perception, and abstract problem-solving skills. However, the research team has cautioned that the gene is not solely responsible for intelligence and that environmental factors can also play a role.
Moreover, recent research has suggested that the genetic variations that influence intelligence are not limited to a single gene. Instead, intelligence is likely influenced by the accumulation of many genetic variants, as well as environmental factors. In other words, an individual's intelligence level is shaped by a complex interplay between their genes and environmental factors.
The Flaws in the Gene-Gift Paradigm
The idea that talent is an inherent genetic trait can oversimplify the complexity of human nature. While genes do set certain limits on our potential abilities, it is the environment that determines whether an individual reaches that potential.
One of the primary arguments against the idea that geniuses are genetically inherited is the concept of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain's ability to change and adapt based on experience and learning. This means that individuals can improve their cognitive abilities through effort and practice and that the brain is not fixed at birth. Moreover, research has shown that certain environmental factors, such as education, can have a significant impact on an individual's cognitive abilities.
Furthermore, there are facts showing that many individuals who are considered geniuses come from humble backgrounds and do not have access to the same resources as their more privileged counterparts. For example, Albert Einstein, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, came from a modest background and struggled in school as a child. However, he was able to develop his cognitive abilities through his own curiosity and dedication to learning. One of his famous sayings was "It's not that I'm so smart. It's just that I stay with problems longer." Einstein's simple statement is a call to action for those seeking greatness, whether for themselves or their children. Ultimately, persistence is what separates mediocrity from enormous success.
While genes are widely accepted to play a crucial role in determining potential abilities, they alone do not dictate an individual's development and ultimate abilities. Environmental factors, such as education, upbringing, and access to resources, can also significantly impact intelligence levels. The association between genes and intelligence is well established, but the extent to which genes alone determine intelligence remains a topic of debate.
- Shenk, D. (2011). The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ. Anchor.
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