Talent and intelligence: nature or nurture?

Wednesday, 08 January 2014

Written by Andy Fenwick

Recent statements from Boris Johnson regarding “Cornflakes“ rising to the top of the packet with regard to natural intelligence are as stupid as claiming that you have a “Divine Right” to rule over the lower orders. This is from a man who failed three simple IQ questions on radio, but who wants to segregate children at birth on the basis of natural ability.

We’ve all heard people say, ‘Oh, he’s just naturally good at sport,’ or ‘Oh, she’s always been musical’; and without doubt the best of these young prodigies was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who at the age of five was competent on keyboard and violin, as well as composing music.

Matthew Syed, a sports journalist for The Times, and has recently written a book called “Bounce: How Champions Are Made”, which explores what leads people to being the absolute best in their chosen field. Under attack is the idea that some of us have a natural affinity to excel. The nub of his argument is this: anyone can obtain the talent to reach the very top if they practice enough, practice in a productive way, and are prepared to learn. Nothing we are born with counts for anything when set against what we can learn.

The argument is very much based on the Marxist dialectical concept of quantity into quality, as what we are born with is the ability to absorb not an underlying talent. If we look at Mozart, we can see that his father was a minor composer and an experienced teacher; so what was the basis of Mozart’s abilities: his father’s genes or the 10 hours a day from the age of three in practicing on various musical instruments?

Syed was a sensational table tennis player and he still is by any of our standards. He was British number one, and took gold three times in the men’s singles at the Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships. His book demonstrates that it is the time spent practicing, not any inherited attributes, that make the difference.

A real example of this is the London Taxi driver who has to pass the “The Knowledge” – a memory of 320 routes within a six mile radius of Charing Cross, which covers a mind-boggling 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks and places of interest. No one is born with a genetic A – Z of London profile. In fact, what happens is that, over the three years it takes to memorise the routes, a physical change happens to the brain.

Dozens of trainee drivers had MRI scans before and after they acquired «The Knowledge». The University College London team, found brain parts linked to memory grew bigger. They scanned a total of 79 trainees, just before they started to learn. Compared with similar scans from non-taxi drivers, those who had attempted The Knowledge had increased the size of the posterior hippocampus – the rear section of the hippocampus which lies at the front of the brain.

The study claims that the brain is “plastic” and is able to adapt to new tasks, even in adulthood, which offers encouragement for adults who want to learn new skills later in life.

Another element that the environment is much more dominant than genes is the case of Prof James Fallon, a neurologist in the US, who discovered his brain had the traits of psychopathy when he studied his own brain scans. His research was to study the brain MRI scans and gene profile of hundreds of psychopaths. As a control population Prof Fallon scanned friends, family and included his own scan.

When he examined these control scans he thought a mix up had occurred as he was looking at the perfect example of a psychopathic brain with the location in the brain that controls empathy reduced in size. Checking the patient coding he found that he was the subject; on checking his own gene profile it had the marker gene traits prone in psychopaths. Yet, so far at the age of 66, he had not murdered anybody. As Prof Fallon put it, “It was thanks to his mother, not her genes but the environment she had provided to him as a child.”

It is the environment that determines our potential. A chart used by child health workers could accurately predict the adult height of a child at two if a good nourishment was maintained and no childhood illness occurred, but these external environmental factors have a greater influence as each childhood illness can reduce the potential height of males by 25mm.

More recent gene research has indicated that not only do you have to have a specific gene, but that gene has to be “switched on” for a particular trait to come through. We can see this in certain congenital diseases even though both parents may carry the gene and it is passed on, for some it has a 1:4 chance of becoming dominant.

What we see with the argument that some people have a natural ability or inborn talent is the provision for an elite – and therefore by contrast an underclass – must exist.

We have a vast array of environmental controls put in place by the ruling class to keep us in our place: the church, the royalty and culture. We do not need to add to this.

We can see this in the philosophy of the ruling class that some are ‘born to lead’ with access to top schools and universities restricted to this natural elite. It is one of the tools of the bosses that ‘natural elites’ exist to govern us ‘paternalistically’, the argument put forward by Disraeli in Sybil. No one would argue that wealth is inherited because of genes so why should we do it for talent or ability.

Of course, we are all bound by certain unresolvable physical limits of one sort or another. We know that we cannot all be great musicians or sports players but the potential is there to free us from the constraints of capitalism, which just seeks to see us as factory fodder and nothing more.

Boris Johnson and the rest of the reactionary establishment have no interest in the development of the masses just the rich few. Socialism will be a time when millions of children will reach a potential that will bypass the current elite.

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