Genius And Talent

Traditionally, the dominant view of genius has been that it is a product of an innate talent that singles out creative individuals from everyone else (Gardner, 1984; Winner, 1996). The existence of child prodigies appears to support this view. In music, from the age of 6 Mozart was composing and performing in public. Some young children have been shown to possess "perfect" or "absolute" pitch; that is, they can both name and sing specified pitches without being given any reference pitch (Takeuchi & Hulse, 1993). In language skills, Fowler (1981) has reported the case of a boy who was said to have begun speaking at five months, who had developed a 50-word vocabulary by six months and a speaking knowledge of five languages by the age of 3. But, what indeed is the basis for talent and is there a causal dependence between genius and talent?

Howe, Davidson, and Sloboda (1998) have addressed this question in a wide-ranging review of the literature. They begin by attempting to pin down the sometimes slippery notion of talent with a five-point definition:

• It originates in genetically transmitted structures and is, at least partly, innate.

• Although its full effects may not be evident at an early age, there will be advance indications of the talent.

• These early indications provide a predictive basis for deciding who is likely to excel.

• Only a minority of children are talented.

• Talents are relatively domain-specific.

Howe et al. call into question the accuracy of anecdotal and autobiographical reports like those mentioned earlier. In general they argue that, on closer inspection, there is evidence that the parents and child have often put a good deal of work into the exceptional ability. For example, Howe, Davidson, Moore, and Sloboda (1995) studied the type and frequency of early signs of musical ability in 257 children, only a few of whom became superior performing musicians. Parents were asked when the child first sang, moved to music, showed a liking for music, was attentive to and showed a liking for musical activities. Howe et al. found some indication that the most successful musicians displayed a slight tendency to begin singing at an earlier age. However, in most of these cases there were other grounds for the early onset, such as a parent singing to the infant well before the infant began to sing. In many other studies, from mathematics to swimming, there has been little evidence of early innate indicators that reliably predict later success. So, if raw talent does not exist, what does account for exceptional ability? Howe et al. advance all the other cognitive factors that are recognised to be important, such as motivation, persistence, interests, and competitiveness, to name just a few (Howe, 1990).

On a more social note, there are important implications that follow from rejecting the view that genius is based on innate talents. If no such talent exists then the classification of some children as talented and others as untalented is discrimination without foundation. The no-talent view supports an educational system that promotes a more egalitarian approach to the encouragement of excellence.

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