24 January 2008

Nature vs. Nurture – An Intelligent Issue:

Often I have asked the question is Intelligence a genetically inherited trait or one endowed by the environment? Obviously it is a combination of the two, but we must wonder if one of these factors dominates the issue more than the other. Historically it was noted that intelligent people typically had intelligent children and that intelligence seemed to run in families. The early principles of eugenics confirmed this and there is a fair bit of evidence to prove that intelligence runs in families. However this hardly means it is all genetic. Granted there are genetic links here, but we must also accept that substantial evidence shows that environmental influences in life also play a huge role in matters of intellect.

If we take, for simplicities sake, IQ to be an accurate measurement of intelligence (which it isn’t really), then we can see that as per usual neither factor alone determines intelligence. It is interesting to see that “Various tests have shown that there is a socio-economic link to IQ as people who are better off financially score 17 point higher on IQ tests than those financially disadvantaged people who take the same exam.” (http://allpsych.com/journal/iq.html) This certainly stands to prove that a good environment strongly allows one to develop to ones greatest potential. It is also important to note that 17 points on the IQ test is quite a considerable amount.

As I argued in “The Power of Music – The Link Between Musical Ability and Intelligence” it has also been shown that learning a language and learning a musical instrument are the two best ways to increase the brains neuroplasticity (its ability to create and strengthen links). The previously mentioned website (http://allpsych.com/journal/iq.html) also notes that “cognitive development appears to be stimulated by the development of language.” So in many ways it would seem that environmental influences can greatly enhance ones ability to reach a higher IQ (or intelligence). Many of the activities that affect us seem to particularly potent if they are done at a younger age. If you learn a second language and an instrument at a young age it allows your brain to be all the more flexible than if you learnt these things at an older age. Similarly mothers who are pregnant and eat a bit of fish (or other foods containing omega-3) often have children who are ever so slightly smarter. See the “Omega-3: Something Smells Fishy, What’s all the Hype About?”, if you want to learn more about the amazing benefits of omega-3. I also noted in “The Many Benefits of Exercise – Part 3:”, that exercise has great benefits for the brain. There is also scientific evidence that has concluded that lab mice who had the ability to run and did were more intelligent than there counterparts who did not run.

However all of these environmental things seem to be allowing us to fuller realise our potential. I suppose it would thus seem to be the case that it is ultimately genetics which set our potential in the first placel. However this has not been conclusively provien. There was a rather controversial book released in 1994 known as THE BELL CURVE. Ultimately its research into twins who were raised apart or together seemed to suggest that genetics played the biggest role in intelligence. Unfortunately the book then goes on to make some rather racist associations between whites and blacks which are completely unfounded and very naïve. It has spawned a great deal of controversy and several books have been written in response to it, so it is hardly the holy grail of nature vs. nurture in regards to intelligence. None the less the studies within are interesting and do have some scientific validity in associating a strong correlation between genetics and intelligence.

Still, like all of the nature and nurture articles I have written the answer seems to be that ultimately it is a combination of nature and nurture which affects who and what we are. If genetically you are born with no brain obviously you’ll never be a genius. Equally, if you are born a genius and have a serious brain injury then you may well no longer be a genius. Neither category (nature of nurture) should be excluded, and it wasn’t my intent to do so. My research into the area is rather inconclusive and to be honest this doesn’t surprise me.

So what does all this research teach us? What can we learn from this? My advice would be that we must accept that, yes, genetics do play a role in many of our characteristics including how intelligent we are/could potentially be. However, this need not mean we can’t improve ourselves! To think that would be self-defeating. It is a fact of life that the person next to you might be smarter and hence be able to learn twice as fast as you, but is that any reason to give up learning all together? In the end being disciplined and studious seems to pay off more than pure intellect, as I know rather a few smart people who simply don’t care about their academic work and as a result do rather horribly.

Genetics are often viewed as a boundary. However this is often used as an excuse for inaction. Personally I’d rather see genetics as a realistic simple fact of life. If your dumb or short or uncoordinated it needn’t be the end of the world. Just because you are born brilliant doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t become it. Even if your genetics in a certain department aren’t good doesn’t mean you can’t at very least improve somewhat. Typically people can at very least reach an average level of ability in anything despite setbacks. Maybe you don’t have the brains of a natural born scientist, but who the hell says that doesn’t mean you can’t give it your best and try and become one anyway? Why let the fact that you have bellow average genetics for intelligence (which how do you even concretely know anyway, remember the IQ is hardly a good test of intelligence) get in the way of you trying to do your best?

I’ve recently been reading a book about small business (LINK TO BOOK?) in which there is a rather empowering section on not giving up. It essentially gives the outline of an unlucky man’s life, including how this fellow was rejected from parliament on several occasions. However he didn’t give up and in 1860 he eventual managed to become president. That man was Abraham Lincoln, a man who in hindsight people couldn’t imagine as anything but a president. Maybe he wasn’t a born politician, maybe he was but he got unlucky on the way, regardless the point is that he was determined to become something and he didn’t let setbacks or difficulties stop him from trying.

Another interesting fact I can throw in is that a national geographic program called “My brilliant brain” had an episode about Susan Polgar. Essentially her father, a psychologist, believed that the greatest factor to becoming very good at something was simply practice and not natural ability. Susan was then raised to become a champion chess player, and sure enough she did. Her family has no history of great chess players yet her and her two sisters who were brought up similarly, simply played lots of chess and became extremely good through discipline and devotion. It makes one question whats more important, what we start with, or how we use it? In many ways I am inclined to think that the later is more important, as no matter how good we start if we don’t use our talent it is wasted. The later view is also more empowering as it essentially argues that anyone can excel at anything with practice and devotion.

It’s true that genetics limit us, and its important that we take a realistic perspective on how they do. If you’re in your mid-thirties and only one metre tall chances are you’re not going to grow any more. That’s something you can’t change so the only real answer is to try and accept it and move on to change the things we can control. A realistic yet positive outlook would accept various limitations by genetics yet still be optimistic in encouraging positive change and trying to be the best we can. It is unfair to expect anything else and foolish to let genetics provide you with an excuse for never at least trying. All too often genetics become a scapegoat for mediocrity or even worse simply not attempting something. While the limitations placed upon us by gravity, genetics and other limiting things starting with the letter G (maybe guerrillas?), should be accepted and seen as a simple fact of life, we should not get dismayed by these facts. We should simply change our plan of attack to target something we can change, influence and do something about. So look out for killer guerrillas (Jesus, it rhymes!) and other than that enjoy life and live it to its fullest. Change isn’t easy, but its all the easier if you believe you can do it and do think things like “I’d like to do it by genetics won’t let me.” So make a realistic goal that your genetics will allow and shoot, shoot to win, (or slow down rampant guerrillas, the choice is yours)!

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