Can Genius Be Taught?

Adam Kirby spent most of this summer playing with blocks, being spoon fed, and taking naps. It was only his second year on this planet, so he was just beginning to walk, toddling along and occasionally falling, as two-year-olds tend to do. Although Adam sounds like your average tot from South London, he also did something extraordinary this summer: he scored a 141 IQ. Considered a “genius” based on this result, Adam can already spell 100 words, add and subtract, count to 1,000 in English, to twenty in Spanish and Japanese, and to ten in French. As a two-year-old, he is the second-youngest person to be invited to join Mensa, a prestigious organization for geniuses, and his IQ score puts him in the top two percent of the global population.

At such a young age, it seems almost mind-numbingly obvious that Adam is genetically gifted. Although some might claim that intelligence is a combination of nature and nurture, as a two-year-old, it could only be the case that Adam’s genius comes from nature. He hasn’t even be alive long enough to learn how to properly walk, so it’s pretty much impossible that he has had the time to learn his way to being a genius. Needless to say, Adam is exceptional. What many academics need hear though is that he is also a scientific exception.

Scientists have recently contented themselves with the notion that intelligent people have intelligent children because they pass down strong genetics. Nurture doesn’t really play into the equation.
“I think there is very little disagreement in the scientific community,” Robert Plomin, professor of behavioral genetics at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, told Vice. “No one even does studies anymore to look at whether intelligence is heritable.”

But what happens when wealth shows up as a wild card? A family can “nurture” with wealth, fostering their child’s intelligence by paying for prestigious private schools, using their knowledge of the college admissions process, and implicitly pressuring their children to reach the same level of success as they have.

The “nature” idea is that if your father is a lawyer with a 142 IQ and your mother is a professor with a 146 IQ, you’re very likely to be a smart child. However, this logic should hold up whether your parents are rich or not. Your dad could have ended up a farmer and your mom a dental hygienist, but as long as they have high IQs, you will be born smart. This, however, is not usually the case, and it is where the current logic is flawed.

Stanford professor Sean F. Reardon found that since the 1960s, the difference in exam scores between rich and poor students has grown by 40%. As far as college completion rates, the difference between rich and poor students has grown by 50% over the last 30 years. Smart and wealthy people are having smart and wealthy children, which would make it seem like they’re passing down their genetics. In reality, these children are not so much being born intelligent as much as they are being born into an environment in which they can become intelligent – sometimes geniuses.

In a study published in Nature, Ian Brady, a professor of Differential Psychology at the University of Edinburgh, and his team, added an important facet to this debate, finding that only about 24% percent of cognitive ability is determined by genes. That leaves a huge majority of cognitive ability that can be “filled,” so to speak, by money and education. Thus “nurture,” in the form of money and high-quality education, plays the biggest role in cultivating intelligence.

Understandably, you’re probably skeptical whether academic achievement is the same as intelligence. Just because rich kids score better and go to college more often than low-income students, does not necessarily mean they are smarter, right? After all, are the affluent actually “nurturing” their children to become geniuses, or are they merely tapping into a modern educational system that tends to give the best education to the wealthiest people?

These questions come down to whether you believe that higher tests scores and higher IQs translate into intelligence, or, in some cases, genius. We tend to despise the idea that someone’s mental capacity can be judged by a set of questions, and IQ tests have therefore become somewhat controversial.

IQ tests appraise not what one knows (as with the ACTs, APs, or A-levels), rather they test what one is capable of understanding (like the SAT). They also do not account for creativity or interpersonal aptitudes, and it’s clear that people can be smart in different, unmeasurable ways. But even so, an IQ test is an incredibly strong way to judge intelligence.

“There is nothing else that we have that predicts more things better than IQ,” says Plomin. “It predicts educational ability, occupation status, and even health and longevity. IQ predicts more socially important outcomes in society than anything else.”

So if genius indeed can be taught and measured, then the only thing left to ask is, why does genius even matter? After all, there’s no known correlation between intelligence and happiness, and plenty of people have led successful lives with not so clever minds.

Just this past week, London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, took an IQ test on live radio. He failed miserably. One of the questions that particularly troubled him went like this: “Take two apples from three apples and what do you have?” He answered, with audible frustration, “loads of apples.” The answer is actually very simple: “two apples.” Then he was asked: “A man builds a house with four sides of rectangular construction each side with southern exposure. A big bear comes along. What is the color of the bear?” He hemmed and hawed, initially guessing that it would be brown then admitting he actually had no clue. The answer is that the bear would be white because it must be a polar bear in the North Pole.

This was a particularly tough question, but it’s one that Johnson probably should have been able to figure out, considering he was educated at Eton and Oxford. I suppose it just goes to show though that neither nurture nor nature can entirely explain genius (or a lack thereof). Nature/genetics can help and nurture/family money can set these “smart genes” in motion; but, in the end, there is no foolproof predictor of intelligence. As we learn more about the brain, we may stumble upon new findings. For now though, a serendipitous combination of genetics, money, and environment seems like the surest sign of future intelligence, which means that genius can indeed be taught, but only under the perfect circumstances.

More importantly, Mr. Mayor, you will really have to score higher on your IQ test next time. After all, even a two-year-old could have done better. TC mark

image – Wistful Mactavish

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