Nature or Nuture: What Contributes to Giftedness

For centuries, theorists have debated what contributes to human behavior, is it how we are born or is it what we learn. John Locke (1632-1704) had a theory called Tabula Rasa or blank slate, which argued that nothing was innate and it was all learned. This perspective influenced social sciences for many years going forward. Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) associated with the development of  genetics as a theory, spawned significant amount of research and theorizing about how genetics influenced human development, however it would be many years before human DNA was sequenced. During the Third Reich, Nazis murdered those with disabilities, those who were different, gay, Jewish, gypsies and communists thanks to beliefs in eugenics. The Nazis thought they were superior and many of the others were inferior racially. This is an example of how science can go terribly wrong.

Twins Studies have been considered the gold standard for considering if traits are genetically predetermined. Monozygotic (MZ) or identical twins share 100% of their DNA as they were from the same egg. Dizygotic (DZ) twins share less common DNA. Comparing identical twins living together and who were raised apart and the differences between MZ and DZ twins, helped develop estimates of heredity. In an article in a professional psychological journal Wendy Johnson, Eric Turkheimer, Irving I. Gottesman, and Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr. authored “Beyond Heritability–Twin Studies in Behavioral Research” in which they suggested that time has come for abandoning twin studies in research into genetic influences. It has become clearer and clearer that environment poses many confounding variables in proving causation. As one would hear in a research class, “Correlation does not mean causation” that just because there is a relationship between two factors, does not mean that one causes the other. There can be many variables that could interfere or confound or cloud research into the relationship. Instead of arguing that A causes B, B could cause A or perhaps they interact. One of the realities that many of us are such a large mixture of various genes and influences that it is hard to know who’s who, and what I got from whom.

After much research, the current state of research suggests estimates of the heredity of Intelligence are in the vicinity of 50 to 80%. Current thinking suggests that genetics interacts with environment in terms of Genes x Environment rather than Genes + Environment. The interaction leads to genetic expression in terms of proteins and amino acids and others, which influence the outcome.

In another example of how science can go wrong (there are many examples), the book published in 1995, the Bell Curve by Harvard Psychologist Richard J. Hernstein and American Enterprise Institute political science researcher Henry Murray suggested that genetics contribute to far more than one would expect. Including African Americans are less intelligent than white people because of genetic differences. This smells a lot like Eugenics to me. This generated a lot of controversy and seems rather questionable. Another book from other scientists was published to refute those findings “Intelligence, Genes, and Success: Scientists Respond to THE BELL CURVE (Statistics for Social Science and Public Policy)” Edited By: Bernie Devlin, Stephen E. Fienberg, Daniel P. Resnick, and Kathryn Roeder. The American Psychological Association formed a task force and developed their official statement on the matter arguing that race, gender are  not correlated to intelligence, but intelligence is related to many factors and influences.

Gifted in the Media

There have been more images of gifted in the media, a few examples I will discuss are ABC’s The Middle and Fox’s The Simpsons. I think it’s good to see more gifted people depicted in the media, but it’s hard to conceive of how these characters became who they are in the social milleu and family they grew up in.

The Simpsons: I  would suspect that we all love Lisa Simpson or at least identify with her. It is clear from hearing her character that we are hearing what a gifted person would be thinking and talking about. Who’s genes did she come from, the rest of the family is at best average, perhaps less? I recall hearing that the difference in IQ in families tends to be very small like plus or minus 15 points. Even if you want to argue nurture over nature, the social environment is very poor. We have other characters who could be, but they are portrayed in such a bad light, for instance the mad scientist character, or Martin, the other gifted child, who is unfortunately gets portrayed in a negative light.

The Middle is another example. The gifted example we have is Brick portrayed as a child who at minimum avoids social contact because of anxiety, or might be diagnosed as Asperger’s Syndrome. Who else in this family could be gifted, again who’s genes did he come from?

There are more examples to be found in Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy and American Dad on Fox.

Family Guy: Little Stewie is our gifted character, of course we also have a gifted dog Brian. Stewie is like two but acts older, and talks even older. This is one character, I am not fond of, he is very condescending and insulting and has murderous tendencies. Where the giftedness could come from, not in this family. It is mentioned in episodes the father has borderline intellectual functioning, and the rest of the family at best average. This example is not the best example of giftedness that we have. I could go on about this, I will later.

American Dad: In this show, we see another potentially gifted son, a real nerd, though probably not the most obvious example. The father and mother aren’t very bright in this one either, not as stupid in the Family guy example, but brain dead in different ways. Again a question, where did the son get his brains?

What is the common theme in these stories? The gifted child surrounded by people who are stupid and moronic. I wonder if the creators saw their families like this. My father used to say when we are young, we think our parents are stupid, when we are older we admire them.  This does not seem to be the case. They are people to be ridiculed.