“We Can’t All Be Mozart”? Why Not?

Some thoughtful comments, and some attempted answers.

The comments on my last posting, “We Can’t All Be Mozart,” were so thoughtful and interesting that I decided to post another blog on this. To my general claim that innate talent matters, I opposed a fact close to home that seems to contradict it: I have two grown daughters, one a slightly-older stepdaughter (Logan) with no genetic relationship to her sister (Sarah), who have both been  successful in contemporary dance. None of their four parents or eight grandparents showed any noteworthy talent in dance.

Ann Cale Kruger, a developmental psychologist and Logan’s mom, pointed out that they both, “had the same inspiring and demanding teacher,” who “guided, cajoled, dared, and challenged” them to develop their talents, and that the interplay of guidance and gifts is uniquely human. I completely agree, but that teacher, gifted and no doubt once well-guided herself, did the same for many other young people. Some of them—an improbably high proportion, I would guess—became successful dancers, but the great majority did not.

Travis wrote very cogently that evolution left us with a variety of skills and inclinations in the human population, and that “Every so often…people like Mozart or Einstein are put in precisely the appropriate environment for their genes to flourish…Meanwhile, the vast majority of us are stuck trying to fit our squares into circles.” I agree with these points, and with his conclusion that each of us just has to keep trying to find that match.

Freda praised her parents, who “poured their energies and resources into providing the widest possible range of opportunities (thus environments?)…that we would one day find our unique ways of succeeding. Like your daughter, my sister and my chosen paths of terrestrial ecologist and physician/musician, respectively, were not quite expected paths following the shoes of a businessman and statistician/linguist-turned-housewife. Nonetheless, it makes me wonder if subtle characteristics that drive our approach to life and share with our parents – whether genetically determined or taught through environment/circumstance – led us down our chosen paths.”

My answer would be that those subtle characteristics are passed down through both genes and environment. I would add that tossing up the genes of a businessman and a statistician/linguist-turned-housewife and seeing them fall out into a future terrestrial ecologist and a future physician/musician is not very surprising. Consider the talents, skills, inclinations and temperaments Freda and her sister must have shared with their parents to have the careers they do, and you’ll see what I mean.

But I am very far from belittling the power of the environment. It’s surprising to see the unrelated daughters of two professors become professional dancers, and less surprising to see an ecologist and a physician come from Freda’s parents, but in none of those cases would the results be remotely possible without enormous environmental input.

Not surprisingly, this is what the research shows.

A 2009 study by Anna Vinkhuyzen and her colleagues at VU Amsterdam (the Free University of Amsterdam), looking at 1,685 twin pairs, found substantial genetic contributions to both superior ability and exceptional talent. For example, their Table 6 shows much higher correlations for exceptional talent between identical (MZ, monozygotic) and non-identical (DZ, dizogotic) twins.


Yet these authors conclude “that practice is indispensable…high heritability does not mean environmental influences to be unimportant. To reach exceptional levels of ability, deliberate practice is indispensable even for people with a genetic predisposition to develop a talent.” Other studies show that practice—on a musical instrument, for example—changes the brain in proportion to the number of hours practiced.

So I agree with Freda’s idea that “’impressionable’ neural circuits in a child” will be subject to environmental shaping, but I don’t see why they should be “random.” Genes guide brain wiring to some extent before birth, and if they didn’t we wouldn’t be born with working brains at all. This applies to universal core features of the brain, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t also apply to some individual differences—independently of and prior to different experiences and training.

Clearly these two kinds of factors work best when added to and interacting with each other. It will still be a long time before we understand exactly how this happens, but in the meantime it will be best to keep our minds open to both of them. Open-mindedness, we know, is partly innate, but fortunately we also know it can be cultivated and taught.


  1. Clare says:

    From a contemporary vantage point, there is indeed something absurd about denying the existence of any natural variation in ability, but the reality of talent is far easier to accept when we know that we have made significant, if not yet wholly satisfactory progress in casting the net for that talent into ethnic and gender pools that no-one thought to trawl a few generations ago. However, the notion that dreams and hard work are enough to overcome any obstacle is today routinely combated by, not evolutionary biologists, but American Idol, whose opening rounds not only confirm that some people can sing and others can’t, but that there is something faintly immoral about the presumption of talent among people whose goals so massively outstrip their abilities. The implicit message of a cultural phenomenon like American Idol, that those without raw ability ought to pack up, go home and shut up, goes to the lingering worries of many people who are reluctant to embrace the notion of “talent” for fear of its broader social consequences. For example, it is hard for me to think of a single ethnography about art or music or dance in a small, traditional community where there isn’t someone who is particularly appreciated for their outstanding skill. The key point is that the existence of a few spectacular talents doesn’t lead everyone else to throw their hands up and decide their own efforts aren’t worth the candle. In India — in villages at least — singers and dancers and storytellers exist in boundless amounts. The great myths don’t exist only in people’s minds, they are said to exist “in the throat” because ordinary people tell and retell them. In fact, one may ask whether art can exist without not just a community of listeners and viewers, but a community of doers. Inevitably, it seems, our scholarly attention is drawn to the extremes of human achievement – be this breathtaking genius or nails-on-the-blackboard (I remember blackboards too!) awfulness – and not to the middle. Is it too much to speculate whether Mozart could have been Mozart absent the accumulated activities and achievements not just of the odd geniuses but the merely competent?

  2. Mel Konner says:

    Thanks Clare, a thoughtful and thought-provoking comment as always. I agree with you completely about the ethnic and gender pools we never “trawled in” (great phrase) until recently, and I’m on record as saying affirmative action should go on for centuries (for instance, “The Long View,”


    I also agree that American Idol shows that talent is real (as does every sports event–no one thinks that every tall man can be LeBron James). But I think you are a bit harsh on the hopes of the contestants, who after all are merely reflecting what our culture has told them growing up: You can be anything you want to be. It’s harder for me to see them as immoral than the people who consistently misled them.

    My experience among the Bushmen was like yours in India. Some men were known as exceptional hunters, some people of both sexes known for their extraordinary articulation of ideas and stories around the fire at night, some (mostly men, but not exclusively) for their power as healers, largely because they could convincingly enter deep trances fairly easily. One woman and one man were known for their musical ability, and they would often sit up late at night at their own fires playing a thumb piano and singing, quite alone yet heard by everyone.

    FInally, your last sentence is no speculation, it’s a certainty in my view. Neither Mozart nor any other genius could have existed in isolation, but invariably benefits from a stream of culture history as well as a team of competent, if not superior, companions.

    Thanks again for writing, Mel

  3. diana says:

    I’m a little late to this discussion, having just discovered it.

    I make a distinction between being a talented dancer (interpretive) and being a composer (creative). Being a composer of Western symphonic music, let alone a singular genius such as Mozart, requires an array of abilities, plus a high load of “g.” The chances of all of those abilities coming together in one person is low. No one denies that you need to be trained in a tradition – but you need the innate qualities to begin with. Mozart had a sister who was a talented musician. She never wrote music.

    Not to diss dancing, but it strikes me that most young, attractive, fit women have some degree of dance trainability, esp. in modern dance. Since you say that both step and bio-daughters are successful “contemporary” dancers I assume they are not ballerinas, which requires a whole different set of genetic gifts. Ballet is a prime example in which a great prima ballerina requires top-notch training (why so many greats from Russia? the training!), but also a distinct body type.

  4. In many cases a reasonable distinction can be made between creative and interpretive artists. There is ample evidence that each type of work requires a unique combination of abilities, and I would not characterize one as more intelligent or requiring more talent than another. The interpretive artist must take a work and enrich it with his/her own artistry to bring it to life. However, in collaborative art forms today, the distinction between playwright and actor or between choreographer and dancer is vanishing. Collective creativity and multidisciplinary performance are frequent features of the work of emerging artists, reflecting changing social/cultural values (e.g., some new companies refer to “dance artists” rather than choreographers versus dancers.) Conservatory training requires students in all art forms to become proficient creators as well as interpreters.

    The Education Life supplement of yesterday’s New York Times reported the current acceptance rates of major public and private colleges and universities. The most exclusive institutions included Harvard (7% acceptance), Yale (8% acceptance), and……Juilliard (8% acceptance). Out of thousands of hopefuls, the dance division of Juilliard accepts 12 female students and 12 male students each year. Having a good brain or a certain body type alone does not merit admission to the most elite institutions. They are necessary, perhaps, but definitely not sufficient for intellectual or artistic excellence.

  5. diana says:

    Do you really dispute that….

    Bach was more intelligent than Heifetz?
    Beethoven was more intelligent than Horowitz?
    Shakespeare more intelligent than Burbage?


    Not to mention having a variety of other abilities than “g”.

  6. Matt Kuykendall says:

    Mr. Konner, thank you for your research and thoughtfulness on the subject. It’s an incredibly intriguing topic. Would you be able to comment on the research by Ellis and Boyce regarding the phenomenon of so called, “orchid children”?

    As a high school teacher who interacts with so many parents and children, more than most psychologists, I see up close the degree to which the apple can fall far from the tree. Additionally, having taught siblings, there are often stark differences in personality and achievement. One would presume in both aforementioned cases, genetics are at work to a large degree.

    You also mentioned Judit Rich Harris’ work on the Nurture Assumption, perhaps socialization would be a retort to my presumption in the above paragraph that genetics explains gender differences?

    thank you

  7. Mel Konner says:

    Dear Matt,

    Sorry I missed this until now. I believe Judith Harris would say that sibling differences come partly from genes and partly from what is called their non-shared environment. Clearly the shared environment (the things that their parents and others do to give them the same treatment) would tend to make them the same, not different. However, as I think Harris would emphasize, many studies now show that the impact of the shared environment is modest compared to the other two forces. In the case of my daughters, however, they shared a brilliant dance teacher, similar summer dance intensives, etc., as well as a mom/stepmom hugely supportive of dance and their dancing in particular. So I have to say that shared environment played a big role in making them both devoted to and good at dance.

    According to Harris, the most important part of the non-shared environment is peers, and she believes that both genes and peers have more influence than parental nurturance or training.

    Thanks for writing,


Leave a Reply