the Composition
for Honours Class,
Howard University,

  Authors & Artists


Faces & Voices 4
Faces & Voices 5

Are Geniuses Born of Made?
Regan Deonanan

        The term “genius” is a highly subjective term due to its socio-cultural underpinnings. However, it is largely accepted that a genius is one with extraordinary talent and ability in one or more of the six components of intelligence – linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily kinesthetic and personal.
Delving further into what constitutes genius, Professor Michael Howe of Exeter University describes some of the distinguishing characteristics of the geniuses he has studied. He identifies that what makes geniuses special is their long-term commitment. He continues that they struggle very hard and keep on persisting, they enjoy their work, they excel at concentrating and persevering, their efforts are focused and they all have a firm sense of direction. The question then arises whether or not these characteristics are determined by “nature or nurture.”
        There is no doubt in my mind that a gene can contribute significantly towards an individual becoming a genius. Certainly genes leave some people predisposed to becoming, for example, better athletes by endowing them with physical advantages such as greater height. In the same way, a particular gene may be able to endow an individual with greater memory function, a property vital to becoming a genius. However, what I am doubtful of is whether such a gene exists. The claims made by those advocating a genetic basis for genius seem, by scientific standards, mere speculation when one takes into account variations in environment and methods of upbringing.
        What seems more plausible to me however, is the nurture view of genius. I believe that the environment and experiences to which a person is subjected to will determine the principles, ideals, standards and levels that person will aspire towards. In examining professor Howe’s characteristics of a genius, experience and environmental factors alone can account for the heightened differences observed.
        From a psychological point of view, babies come into the world with no knowledge of what they are going to experience. They possess however, innate mental structures that facilitate learning and adapting to their environment. Their perception of reality then becomes what they are exposed to. What is right or wrong, what is gratifying and what is not, what is good or bad – all these notions are shaped by the baby’s primary caregivers and the process starts even while the baby is still in the fetal stage.
        Through this psychological window, the special characteristics of geniuses can be interpreted in terms of environment and experience. Perseverance, long-term commitment, concentration, enjoyment of subject matter, focus and direction are all products of exceptional parenting and schooling. Genetic make-up and biology, common to all normal infants, would ensure that adaptation occurs but would not be responsible for attitude and outlook. Lending credence to this view is the fact that Albert Einstein came from a family with strong scientific background. Indeed, his family would have shaped his interest in science.
        Learning and adapting to environment and experiences is not isolated to babies alone. These are ongoing processes that occur throughout a human’s lifetime. Subjected to new forms of stimulation, the human body will adapt to compensate for the changes occurring.
        This biological fact can be used to explain Dr. Ericsson’s charge of powerful memories for storing information possessed by geniuses. The article “Who wants to be a genius” revealed that Dr. Ericsson was able to train ordinary laboratory volunteers to increase their “digit-span” from seven to eighty and a hundred in two cases. When these subjects were exposed to rigorous training, they adapted mentally to the increased memory demands. Such evidence directly connotes that prodigy-level performance can be attained by anyone under the right circumstances.
        Fortifying this stance is the fact that Laszlo Polgar was able to create grandmasters of his three daughters through intensive training. History has it that Charles Dickens, a literary genius, spent hours everyday reading at the British Museum. Without diligent practice, the geniuses we know of today would never have risen to such lofty levels of intelligence.
        In light of the viewpoint I have adopted, could I then apply myself to higher achievement? My answer is no. From my perspective and understanding of reality, my interest and gratification reach only to the point of attaining the top rung of the corporate ladder and the corresponding level of education necessary for such a position. They do not extend to breaking the academic boundaries of knowledge already set. However, it is my firm belief that I, like any other normal human being, under the environment and set of experiences necessary to fostering genius ability, would have been able to become a prodigy.
        From all that has been said, it can be seen that I believe there is no substantial evidence to refute a genetic basis for genius. I believe genius to be a manifestation of an environment so-oriented and under the right circumstances, any individual can aspire towards prodigy-level performance.

© 2002 Howard University
(First Published in limited print edition, An Anthology of Verse, Prose & Art, by the Composition for Honours Class, Howard University, Spring 2002. Professor E.R. Braithwaite)
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