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.